Is the Cup Half-Full or Half-Empty?
If you have the wrong worldview, you will make the wrong decisions. This is the premise of Factfulness, a social psychology book written by Hans Rosling and his son and daughter-in-law. After years of attempting to teach a fact-based worldview to his students, Rosling found that despite the stats before them, many intelligent and well-rounded individuals scored worse than chimpanzees on a brief “fact questionnaire” Rosling created.
As a physician who loves the particulars of statistics and informative data, Rosling claims that the way we use statistics is problematic in shaping how we view the world. Realizing this misuse of statistics, Rosling writes,
Aha! I had it! What I was dealing with here – or so I thought, for many years – was an upgrade problem: my global health students, and all the other people who took my tests over the years, did have knowledge, but it was outdated, often several decades old.
Despite the facts, much like Argawal’s Sway and Lieberman’s The Molecule of More, biases and dopaminergic drive have imprinted our brains to perceive the world in a particular way. Rosling writes, “The human brain is a product of millions of years of evolution, and we are hard-wired with instincts that help our ancestors to survive in small groups of hunters and gathers.” Making further connections to Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, we need to learn to “control our drama intake. Uncontrolled, our appetite for the dramatic goes too far, prevents us from seeing the world as it is, and leads us terribly astray.” Hence, this book aims to challenge how we have failed to see the world for how it is.
Broken down into eleven chapters, Rosling provides an excellent summary of his “Factfulness Rule of Thumb,” which serves as a guide to help analyze data more critically and ensure a proper worldview. The ten rules, or instincts, are:
Gap – Look for the majority
Negativity – Expect bad news
Straight Line – Lines might bend
Fear – Calculate the risks
Size – Get things in proportion
Generalization – Question your categories
Destiny – Slow change is still change
Single – Get a tool box
Blame – Resist pointing your finger
Urgency – Take small steps
I found the following chapters and points of particular interest:
Chapter 1 – The Gap Instinct. How we have utilized statistics has led to what Rosling calls mega-misconceptions. Diving the world into two groups – the rich and poor – “completely distorts all the global proportions in a people’s minds.” The reality is that the poor are far better off than they have been historically. Rosling writes,
income countries are much more developed that most people think. And vastly fewer people live in them. The idea of a divided world with a majority stuck in misery and deprivation is an illusion. A complete misconception. Simply wrong.
Chapter 2 – The Negativity Instinct. Is the cup half-full or half-empty? According to Rosling, “our tendency is to notice the bad more than the good.” However, the reality of analyzing statistical evidence is that many good things are happening in the world. Rosling highlights 16 bad things that are decreasing and 16 good things that are increasing. A few notable bad things that are decreasing are the rates of legal slavery, child labor, ozone depletion, and hunger. Notable good things are that literacy rates have risen, more girls are in school worldwide, more people are immunized than ever before, and more children are surviving cancer. The “proper” view of data allows us to have a more hope-filled perspective; I argue a kingdom perspective. Rosling writes,
I’m not an optimist. That makes me sound naïve. I’m a very serious ‘possibilitist’… As a possibilitist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.
Chapter 10 – The Urgency Instinct. Rosling provides a great perspective on the proper use of data in shaping our worldview. He writes,
I don’t tell you to not worry. I tell you to worry about the right things. I don’t tell you to look away from the news or to ignore the activists’ calls to action. I tell you to ignore the noise, but to keep an eye on the big global risks. I don’t tell you not to be afraid. I tell you to stay coolheaded and support the global collaborations we need to reduce these risks. Control your urgency instinct. Control all your dramatic instincts. Be less stressed by the imaginary problems of an overdramatic world, and more alert to the real problems and how to solve them.
While there were many more gems to pull from this book, I will conclude Rosling’s charge as to the way forward:
we should be teaching our children humility and curiosity…. Being humble, here, means being aware of how difficult your instincts can make it to get the facts right. It means being realistic about the extent of your knowledge. It means being happy to say “I don’t know.” It also means, when you do have opinions, being prepared to change it when you discover new facts. It is quite relaxing being humble, because it means you can stop feeling pressured to have a view about everything, and stop feeling you must be ready to defend your views all the time.
I believe that if we all lived with this perspective, our world (and relationships) would be SO MUCH better!
 Hans ; Rnnlund Rosling and Ola Anna Rosling ; Rosling, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. (Flatiron Books, 2020), 13.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 256.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 30–31.
 Ibid., 48.
 Ibid., 60–63.
 Ibid., 68.
 Ibid., 241.
 Ibid., 249.
7 responses to “Is the Cup Half-Full or Half-Empty?”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
I agree Eric. Humility and curiosity would take us a long way in life.
Checking email notifications
Replying to test.
Got the test reply comment!
Hi Eric…thank you for your post and active engagement with Rosling’s book. I love how you picked up on his playful humor as he grappled with his frustration over our human determination to go negative…chimpanzees are more hopeful, it would seem :). I also appreciated how he zeroed in on humility and curiosity in his closing chapter. I’m interested to hear from you–how have you cultivated capacity for curiosity in your self and those with whom you have worked in your current organization?
Eric: Given the organization you’re currently in discussions with about the future and a location that is often perceived as more negative and media depict it as somewhere to be fearful of , were there any nuggets from this reading that you could foresee directly applying to that vocation if you do move forward?