In 2012, Time magazine named Hans Rosling one of the world’s most influential people. Millions have seen his TED talks online. He said chimpanzees could beat most educated people in a world knowledge test.
He gave thousands of people, in more than a dozen countries, a 13-question multiple-choice quiz. They included medical students, teachers, university lecturers, scientists, investment bankers, journalists and senior political decision makers. Most of them bombed the test. Each question offered one of three choices. Here’s one of them:
How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last 100 years?
- More than doubled
- Remained about the same
- Decreased to less than half
In his book, Factfulness, which he co-authored with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, he asked readers to imagine a trip to the zoo. You toss handfuls of bananas to a bunch of chimpanzees. Each banana is marked with either A, B, or C. Somebody shouts out Rosling’s questions and multiple-choice options. They then note each chimpanzee’s ‘answer,’ based on the letter on the banana that each chimp eats next. If somebody conducted this experiment hundreds of times, the chimps would score about 33 percent correct on each three-answer question. In other words, their results would be random.
Before reading further, take the test online. See if you can beat the chimps. Don’t feel badly if you don’t. The average person gets fewer than 17 percent correct. Rosling tested a group of Nobel laureates and medical researchers. The chimpanzees would have beaten them too.
Most people fail the test because of their negative world-view. They believe the world is getting worse by almost every measurement. But few people know how much progress we have made. Most Americans, for example, believe the odds of dying in a gun-related homicide are higher today than they were in the 1990s.
Between February 5th and February 11th 2019, The Marist Poll conducted a survey of 880 adults. They asked how the per capita, gun-related murder rate had changed in the United States.
As you can see on the table above, most people say gun-related deaths are increasing. But according to FBI Crime Reports, gun-related homicide rates are lower today than they were in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Rosling wasn’t saying the world is a perfect place. There’s much progress to be made. But he says humans dwell on negative events. And the media doesn’t help. Negative headlines, after all, draw more eyeballs. Increased viewership draws more advertising dollars. That’s why reporting negative news is the media’s central focus. As Roger McNamee notes in his bestselling book, Zucked, we also tend to share negative Facebook news feeds…whether they’re true or not.
But we can’t just blame the media. Consider a typical workday. You leave the house five minutes late. Fortunately, you hit every green light and you arrive at work on time. At noon, your stomach grumbles. You forgot to pack a lunch and there’s no money in your wallet. At 12:01, a colleague comes to your office. She says, “I’ve packed far too much to eat. Can you help me eat my lunch?”
At 3:00 pm, an angry customer calls. He complains about a product and before he hangs up, he calls you an idiot. At 4:30 pm, the office staff celebrates one of the worker’s birthdays. You share a chocolate cake, before leaving work on time.
Most people wouldn’t focus on the day’s cheery points. They would still be fuming about the person who called them an idiot. Unfortunately, that’s how the human mind works. Too often, we ignore the good things and we dwell on the negative. In many cases, it’s as if the good things didn’t happen.
Rosling proves that the world is getting better. We’re living longer. In most countries, income inequality is getting less extreme. Human rights are improving. Gender inequality is decreasing. Murder rates are lower. Education is improving. Far fewer people live in extreme poverty. War-related deaths are near an all-time low. Such statistics don’t get better every single year. But long-term trends show improvement. And we derive power from the good.
Here’s an example that I learned in college (please try this at home). One of my physical education professors asked us to think about the failures we’ve had in life. We each sat for about 3 minutes, contemplating the shameful mistakes we had made. He then asked us to get down on the floor and do as many pushups as we could.
The following week, he changed the experiment. He asked us to recall our successes. He then asked us to see how many pushups we could do. You can probably guess what happened. We did far more pushups after considering our successes. Global challenges might be much the same. We can tackle them with determination, instead of hopelessness, when we can understand the progress that we’ve made so far.
Hans Rosling died of pancreatic cancer in 2017, before his book went to print. That’s why he wrote: “This book is my very last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating global ignorance.” He wanted the world to recognize its improvements, to take pride in that, and keep moving forward. After all, progress is built on hope…realistic hope. We need to recognize global progress. This can strengthen our resolve to make the world even better–and give us one leg up on the average chimpanzee.
For Further Related Reading
- Is Violence Too Widespread To Enjoy An American Road Trip?
- Why Travel, When The World Is Getting Scarier?
- Here’s What The Media Wants To Keep Secret
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacherand Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas