This book introduces a new way of looking at our world and how to understand it. It presents global patterns and trends in poverty, wealth, population growth, births, deaths, education, health, gender, violence, energy and the environment. Many people think that the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless today than in the past, but actually, the world is improving. Our brains evolved to crave drama and it causes misconceptions and an overly dramatic worldview. Instead, we should base our worldview on facts.
In this summary you’ll learn ten human instincts that cause erroneous thinking and how we can learn to separate fact from fiction when forming opinions.
The Gap Instinct
We have an instinct to divide things into two distinct and often conflicting groups with an imagined gap in between, such as good vs. bad or rich vs. poor. We often talk about ‘them’ and ‘us’ or ‘the West’ and ‘the rest.’ It may have been easy to label countries as ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ in the 1960s, but this method is outdated today. The world has changed, but the worldview hasn’t.
Today, most people live in the middle. There is no gap between developed and developing, between rich and poor. We can’t simplify the entire world into two categories. Instead, we should put them on 4 different levels – 1 being the most extreme poverty, and 4 being the most developed.
The gap instinct is strong, but there are three common warning signs that trigger our gap instinct:
- Comparison of averages often show big gaps, when in reality, the groups overlap instead.
- Comparison of extremes does not show the (often) majority of people that are in the middle.
- And when you live on Level 4, everyone looks much further beneath you.
The Negativity Instinct
We also have an instinct to notice the bad more than the good. Most people think that the world is getting worse. This happens for three reasons: the misremembering of the past, selective reporting by journalists and activists and tendency to respond with feelings instead of facts. People generally feel uncomfortable saying that the world is getting better because there are still bad things going on.
The solution to the negativity bias is to hold two truths at the same time – the world can improve and still have problems. Things can be both bad and better. Another thing that helps is to constantly expect bad news. Media and activists rely on drama to grab your attention. Remember that dramatic stories get reported more frequently. Finally, look at the past without rose-colored glasses. The evidence of the past is unpleasant, but we can’t ignore how things really were.
In reality, things often improve gradually, which means it is less noticeable and less noteworthy. You don’t always hear about the improvements.
The Straight Line Instinct
This misconception is that a line will continue in a straight, linear direction without changing. In reality, there are many factors that affect an overall trend. For example, if a baby grows seven inches in its first sixth months of life, you can’t assume that it will continue growing seven inches every sixth months for the rest of its life. Trends don’t just continue along straight lines.
The best way to control the straight line instinct is to remember that curves come in all shapes and sizes. Remember that straight lines are much less common than we think. Any two connected points look like a straight line, but when you add a third point you can draw accurate conclusions.
The Fear Instinct
When we are afraid, we don’t see clearly. We tend to generate worst-case scenarios. Critical thinking is quite difficult when we are afraid. Our fears are hardwired in our brains for evolutionary reasons. Fears of physical harm, captivity and poison once helped our ancestors survive so perceptions of these dangers trigger our fear instinct. This makes us systematically overestimate these risks.
The media knows this and uses it to grab our attention. Although the news often broadcasts the dangers of our world, the truth is that the world has never been less violent and more safe. Natural disasters still occur, but they kill so many fewer people today because people can afford to be prepared. Plane crashes, murders, nuclear leaks and terrorism kill less than 1% of the people who die each year.
40 million commercial passenger flights landed safely in 2016. Only ten ended in fatal accidents, but those were the ones that journalists wrote about – a mere .000025% of the total. Remember that what you hear about has been selected precisely because it is scary. When something scares you, ask yourself how dangerous it actually is and how much you are exposed to it.
The Size Instinct
We tend to get things out of proportion. We overestimate the importance of a single event/person that is visible to us and we overestimate the scale of an issue based on a standalone number. For example, it is easy to assume that doctors and hospitals save children’s’ lives because that is what we see. However, data shows that almost all the increases in child survival rates are achieved through preventative measures outside hospitals. More children now survive because they don’t get ill in the first place.
Like most instincts, the media uses the size instinct to their advantage. They make any given event, fact or number sound more important than it is.
To control the size instinct, you must compare. Never believe that one number on its own can be meaningful. You can use the 80/20 rule to keep things in proportion. Another tool for controlling size instinct is division. Often the best thing we can do to make a large number more meaningful is to divide it by a total, such as total population.
The Generalisation Instinct
People automatically categorise and generalise. It happens unconsciously. We need categories to structure our thoughts. This necessary and useful instinct can alter our worldview:
- It can make us mistakenly group together things, or people, or countries that are actually very different.
- It can make us assume that everything or everyone in one category is similar.
- It can make us jump to conclusions about an entire category based on one unusual example.
The best way to beat this instinct is to travel. Travel to new countries and visit real homes if you can.
Be sure to question your categories. Look for differences within and similarities across groups. Beware of the “majority.” Majority only means more than half, but that could mean merely 51%. Beware of exceptional examples. Don’t let one conclusion make a point about an entire group. Stay open to the possibility that your experience might not be “normal.” Beware of generalising from one group to another.
The Destiny Instinct
The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions or cultures. It’s the idea that things are the way they are for inescapable reasons and that things will never change. It makes us mistakenly believe that any gaps that exist are unchanging and unchangeable. Recognise that many things appear to be constant because the change is happening slowly, but that doesn’t mean change isn’t happening.
The destiny instinct makes sense from an evolution standpoint. Historically, humans lived in surroundings that didn’t change much. And claiming a particular destiny for a group can help in uniting that group around a supposedly never-changing purpose. However, societies, nations, religions and cultures are not like rocks. They move and grow and change.
Societies and cultures are in constant movement, but it often happens so slowly that we cannot notice it. Don’t confuse slow change with no change. Keep track of gradual improvements. Even an annual change of only one percent adds up over time. Stay open to new data and be prepared to keep updating your knowledge. If you are tempted to claim that values are unchanging, try comparing your own values with those of your parents or your grandparents. You will almost certainly see radical change.
The Single Perspective Instinct
We tend to focus on single causes or solutions, which are easier to grasp and make our problems seem easier to solve. However, that leads to a misunderstanding of the world. Instead, recognise that a single perspective can limit your imagination and remember that you will get a more accurate understanding of a problem if you look at it from many angles.
Constantly test your ideas for weakness. Be curious about new information that doesn’t fit. Rather than talking only to people who agree with you, seek out people whose ideas contradict yours and use them as a great resource for understanding the world. Remember that experts are only experts in their own field. A trusted doctor doesn’t necessarily know a lot about worldwide poverty.
Look beyond numbers. Data has its limits. Whenever possible, look for real life proof of concepts. Always beware of simple ideas and simple solutions. The world is a complex place and our problems – and solutions – reflect that.
The Blame Instinct
The blame instinct is the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened. When something goes wrong, it is natural for us to think that it must be because of some bad individual with bad intentions. We like to believe that things happen because someone wanted them to. Otherwise, the world feels unpredictable, confusing and frightening.
The blame instinct makes us exaggerate the importance of individuals or of particular groups. This instinct steals our focus and blocks our learning because we stop looking for explanations elsewhere. It stops us from efficiently being able to solve the problem or prevent it from happening again because we don’t focus our energy in the right places.
It’s almost always more complicated than simply one individual making a mistake. It’s almost always about multiple interacting causes – a system. We should look at systems instead of looking for someone to blame when things go wrong. Resist finding a scapegoat. Look for causes, not villains.
The Urgency Instinct
The urgency instinct makes us want to take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger. This instinct makes us stressed, amplifies our other instincts and makes them harder to control, blocks us from thinking analytically, tempts us to make up our minds too fast, and encourages us to take drastic actions that we haven’t thought through.
Urgency is one of the worst distorters of our worldview and contributes to high levels of stress and anxiety. However, there are five global risks that are worth worrying about: global pandemic, financial collapse, world war, climate change, and extreme poverty. These are problems that we should address collectively.
To control the urgency instinct, take small steps. Ask for more time and more information. Be wary of predictions about the future and drastic actions.
Hopefully now that you know how difficult your instincts can make it to get the facts right, you’ll be able to recognise the truth. You’ll be curious about learning information and open to changing your opinion if you discover new facts. Today, reliable data is easily available for almost every subject. Now that you have a fact-based worldview, you can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and you can see what we have to do to keep making it better.
Hope you enjoyed this summary. As always leave me a comment if you did.
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