42 pages 1 hour read

Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund


Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, written by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, was published by Flatiron Books in 2018. This book examines how people across cultures view the world through a negative lens, which leads them to believe conditions everywhere are declining. Doctor and global health expert Hans Rosling offers research and anecdotes from his medical experience and his lectures to unpack the reasons for this universal mindset. Though the book was published under Hans Rosling’s name, the book comprises the collective thoughts, experiences, and findings of Hans, as well as those of his son Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, his daughter-in-law.

Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor, discovered the trend of global ignorance in the mid 1990’s. After learning that his class of advanced medical students had very wrong misconceptions about the world, he set out to test if the same misconceptions persisted in other groups. Rosling compiled a list of thirteen easy-to-answer, fact-based questions about economic, medical, and environmental progress. No matter his audience (politicians, scientists, or the average person on the street of any country), people, without fail, scored worse on Rosling’s test than chimpanzees picking answers at random. Rosling considered the fact that people often have outdated world views as well as poor access to information, which leads to incorrect hypotheses; finally, Rosling concluded the general population’s systematic ignorance came down to a widespread overdramatic worldview.

Drawing on his research in medicine, statistics, and the social sciences, Rosling identifies ten human instincts, or, the dramatic instincts, that contribute to a general tendency to consistently and unknowingly misinterpret the condition of the world and its people. To discuss these instincts, Rosling first debunks one of the most common myths among today’s people: that global income is divided into two groups: rich countries and poor countries. In reality, global income exists on four levels, and most of the world’s population exists on levels two and three. The oversimplified view of global wealth keeps people ignorant of the improvements, both small and large, occurring across the world; worse, it contributes to the idea that life everywhere is getting worse.

Rosling defines the ten dramatic instincts: gap, negativity, straight line, fear, size, generalization, destiny, single perspective, blame, and urgency. He explains how each comes from a survival instinct hard-wired into the human brain from hunter-gatherer days. Hundreds of years ago, humans cared most about survival, craving sugar and fat because they kept us alive. Those cravings still exist in our animal brains and contribute to today’s problems with obesity. Primitive humans faced threats that required humans to act without thought, which is another quality that influences how we make decisions today.

Rosling identifies a problem: these instincts come from a time when things were very different. The world has changed, but our brains have not. Rosling outlines how these instincts are still useful while explaining why they need to be controlled. His solution to the overdramatic worldview is to retrain our minds while we are simultaneously aware of how our minds work. In addition to explaining the dramatic instincts, Rosling offers ways to keep each instinct in check so we can view the world through a lens of factfulness, rather than emotion.

In closing, Rosling relays the story of how a woman in a remote village of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo saved his life by using factfulness to combat fear. Rosling was in the village in order to take blood samples and conduct research while searching for a vaccine for the deadly konzo epidemic; at one point, Rosling found himself facing down a mob of angry villagers. When his savior stepped forth, she theatrically pointed out the facts behind the eradication of measles and likened the process to Rosling’s efforts against konzo. She defused the tension with facts, and Rosling was able to continue his work with the full cooperation of the villagers. He uses this story a solid example of how a factful understanding of the world leads to progress and calm.

Rosling closes by asserting humility and curiosity are the tools of factfulness. Change is not a matter of updating the government, fixing the media, or taking drastic action to keep conditions from spiraling out of control. The best weapon is the thoughtful assessment of the facts and informed choices about what to believe. In this way, Rosling says, we are able to determine what warrants concern.