To change the world you have to understand it

11 May 2018

Blinkered business

Assume that about 50 percent of what you think you know about the world is wrong. Obviously, you don’t get to know which half. If your ambition is to change the world, how would that affect how you proceed?

It’s an important question, because you’re probably lucky if you manage as much as 50 percent correct. All the evidence is that we choose what to believe based on what feels right, and then we notice only the facts that reinforce that belief.

Not only that, but we have certain hard-wired biases that probably served us well when we were in danger of getting eaten by predators, but serve us poorly when we’re trying to work out the state of the world and what we should do about it. In fact, these biases don’t only mean we’re sometimes wrong - but that we’re usually wrong.

Imagine if you saw the world as a frog does. The frog’s eye detects only two things. It detects size and movement. Small moving things are prey to be seized upon. Large moving things are potential predators to be avoided. A frog sees nothing that is stationary. It can starve to death surrounded by food if that food isn’t moving.

Generally, what the frog perceives is just enough to achieve its goal - to eat and to avoid getting eaten. We wouldn’t say that the frog has any kind of complete perception of the outside world. But if you were a frog, you would think it entirely normal. You wouldn’t be aware of the things you couldn’t perceive.

Obviously, we can see more than the frog can - so we can tell ourselves that we see things the way they really are. But we also have tendencies that helped us to make sense of a dangerous world. For one thing, we have a ‘gap’ instinct - we divide the world into ‘us and them’. Secondly, we have a generalisation instinct, we think of ‘them’ as being all the same. These tendencies alone mean that we completely misunderstand what’s really going on most of the time. But, like the frog, we believe in our illusion as though it was indisputably real.

Let’s test the hypothesis. See if you can answer the following multiple choice questions.

1. How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?

  1. 20 percent
  2. 50 percent
  3. 80 percent

2. In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?

  1. 20 percent
  2. 40 percent
  3. 60 percent

3. Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years in school, on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school?

  1. 9 years
  2. 6 years
  3. 3 years

4. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has …

  1. Almost doubled
  2. Stayed about the same
  3. Almost halved

In his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World, the late Hans Rosling reported that people will generally answer these and nine other similar questions worse than would monkeys, who would be assumed to choose evenly at random between the options. If people simply didn’t know, you would expect the same, a 33%, 33%, 33% split. But no, generally we are worse than random. And that’s because we have an inherent negative bias. We believe the world is getting worse. In truth, the factual data shows that on many fronts it is getting better. All of the correct answers to these questions are the best ones- 1(c), 2(c), 3(a) and 4(c).

This is important if you think that you hope to make a positive social impact on the world, either in your life generally or through your business in the field of corporate social responsibility. If your perceptions of what is wrong with the world are so far off, how can you hope to make a genuine, valuable and useful contribution? How can you hope to understand what needs to be done? What are the root causes? What are the approaches and mechanisms that are most likely to work?

This is one of the reasons why creating positive change in the world is hard. We project our own perceptions and biases onto the data, and see only that which conforms to our existing world view. We completely misunderstand people who are different to us, and we group them together in ways that make it easy for us to dismiss them. We go for ‘us versus them’ dynamics because that’s how the world makes the most sense for us.

Really, not much better than the frog.

Any historical General with a good track record in combat would be able to tell you that in order to develop an effective military strategy, you need to understand how your enemy really thinks. Maybe your population is caught up in the propaganda of war and believes all the people on the other side are depraved, or stupid, or whatever it may be. But the people in charge of the war need to know the truth, otherwise how can they predict how the enemy will act on the battlefield?

Likewise, any company that has been successful in the long-term has done so by being able to survey the marketplace and make factually correct observations about what the competition is doing, where consumer sentiment is going, and therefore what they need to do to stay ahead. Those that believe that the competitors are all inferior and stupid may make themselves feel better in the short-term, but they’ll end up wondering what happened when those same competitors eat their lunch.

So we have examples of human-led institutions that make a virtue out of seeing facts clearly - however imperfectly they may perform in actually succeeding in that task (many generals and businesses have failed through history, after all). The ones that get it right are the shining exceptions. The rest are prone to serious misconceptions.

One of the major misconceptions is that the world is divided into two. Rich and poor. Rosling calls it ‘the gap instinct’. And usually the data shows that the factual world does not fit into these common divides. There is a spectrum, and everybody is further along the spectrum than we assume. There is no gap. Today, 75 percent of people live in middle-income countries. Not poor, not rich, but somewhere in the middle. And that is usually the case. When given a narrative that talks about a gap, the key is to look for where is the majority. You can always point to two extremes, but if the majority are somewhere in between, the mere existence of those two extremes doesn’t tell you much.

And yet, even when confronted with indisputable data on the current state of the world, the gap instinct remains strong and many people dismiss what the data tells them. Why? Possibly because we as human beings are drawn to binary thinking. Good and bad. Right and wrong. Left and right. Rich and poor.

The point is this. If you think things are getting worse, then you can feel as though nothing that has been tried to date has worked, and that therefore things are hopeless. And if you think it’s about us versus them, then you’ll probably get distracted by narratives that suggest it’s someone else’s fault and focus on that which may actually make it harder to find solutions. 

In truth, what we have is real progress. The fact that extreme poverty has been halved is a great achievement. The fact that education and health measures have all moved upwards shows what can be achieved - because those things didn’t happen by accident. They happened because good people got involved to make the change.

We have significant challenges still to face, and some of those challenges could result in huge reversals of what we’ve achieved so far. Climate change. New potential pandemics. These are real challenges and they need to be solved on a pretty tight deadline. But we have made progress, and there is everything to fight for.

Every day we see examples of how often we fail to achieve change because we don’t really understand what we’re dealing with. Just this week, there was a story about how retailer Sainsbury’s has given up its programme to help customers to cut food waste because the things they tried just didn’t work well enough. The obvious and intuitive things to encourage people to waste less were obvious and intuitive but wrong. And that is so often the case when we don’t really understand the reality of what we’re dealing with.

Change is hard. To be successful, we have to develop a skillset that makes that success more likely. And the first component of that is to see the world the way it really is, and neither the way we’d like it to be nor the way we feel and fear it to be.


Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world, Hans Rosling.