The main idea of this book is to present results of author’s extensive, decades long research of human learning process and resulting method of learning that author called Deliberate Practice. This method pretty much substitutes studying with doing, with continuing increase in complexity of tasks so they would be challenging, but not frustrating, controlled by experienced trainer who understands both tasks and student, consequently assuring maintenance of the golden point in process. Author also refutes idea of innate talent that allows some prodigy to achieve perfection without really trying. His research quite convincingly demonstrated that beyond generic intellectual ability and some specific hard work of Deliberate Practice there is no need for superb genetic abilities to achieve real success in just about any field.
Introduction: The Gift
This starts with the perfect pitch – probably one of the most widely known ability commonly linked to genetic endowment. After retelling story of Mozart as typical genius author present an amazing experiment of Sakakibara who managed train a group of regular children to have a perfect pitch. Then author discusses overall objectives of the book and its main lesson:“The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else.”The sort of practice author refers to – the “Deliberate Practice”, which is qualitatively different from practice as a repetitive exercise of some function. It is different in use of planning, modelling, and feedback processes that are consciously developed and then consistently applied in order to achieve expertise in some area.
The Power of Purposeful Practice
This is retelling of author’s work on using deliberate practice with a subject called Steve to develop meaningless, but difficult skill of remembering large numbers of random numbers. The regular person, Steve included has ability to remember about 7 numbers at most. After about a year of deliberate practice Steve achieved 82 digits capacity. After that author moves from individual achievement to cumulative achievement in sports when year after year generations of competitors develop new technics and methods leading to continuing increase in performance, so contemporary middle level sportsmen easily do staff that 20 years ago would be Olympic level achievement. After that author discusses usual method of obtaining a new skill when progress, initially slows down and then stops when some acceptable level of performance had been achieved. Here author introduces notion of purposeful practice when objective to achieve is constantly moving, but at the pace consistent with achieved level. This would necessarily include barriers when improvement stops. This does not mean that more progress is not possible. It most often just means that new method to proceed should be discovered and applied. At the end of chapter author reviews limitation inherent to purposeful practice and states that deliberate practice allows overcome these limitations.
This starts with discussion of human adaptability, including brain adaptability as demonstrated by famous London taxi drivers, which author discusses in detail. After that author moves to pushups and other physical examples. In short there is no qualitative difference between adaptability of brain and other parts of body. A very interesting point author makes here is that adaptability is directly caused by the need for homeostasis because it would not be possible without constant adjustment to changing environment. The important point is to move just beyond existing level – a bit more would lead to the crash and a bit less would be not enough to move.
This chapter starts with reference to blind chess playing when master can keep in mind a number of active games simultaneously as example of human capability to have mental representation of many complex systems. The key point here is that information if highly organized and easily compressed so it could be effectively managed. Author points out that it is not chess only, but practically all known human abilities, both mental and physical, depend on mental representation. For example, in addition to chess it also includes words, like dog or ability to walk or anything else conceivable. And since the main point of deliberate practice is to obtain expertise, here is how author defines what it is: “The main thing that sets experts apart from the rest of us is that their years of practice have changed the neural circuitry in their brains to produce highly specialized mental representations, which in turn make possible the incredible memory, pattern recognition, problem solving, and other sorts of advanced abilities needed to excel in their particular specialties.”. After that author proceeds to review use of mental representation in planning, learning, and so on.
The Gold Standard
The gold standard for deliberate practice could be found in musical training, which is highly developed from technical side and generally conducted by professional trainers with high levels of expertise. Author conducted research of what makes a great musician and found that what differentiate good from better and from best. The research included time study and concluded: That nobody likes practice per se, but the crucial finding was that: there was only one major difference among the three groups. This was the total number of hours that the students had devoted to solitary practice. Specifically, the music-education students had practiced an average of 3,420 hours on the violin by the time they were eighteen, the better violin students had practiced an average of 5,301 hours, and the best violin students had practiced an average of 7,410 hours.
Principles of Deliberate Practice on the Job
This chapter starts with well-known example from Vietnam War when Navy started training program for its pilots imitating as close as possible real life combat. The trainers remained constant while pilots changed with every new group, allowing trainers accumulate expansive experience and provide specific instruction. Author describes it as an example of Deliberate Practice. The next step is going beyond practice as an activity separate from work to practice while doing the work. After discussing examples and methods, author moves to definition of difference between knowledge and skills, stressing superiority of the latter providing as example a medical practice of surgeons when after some 500 surgeries they usually stop killing patients.
Principles of Deliberate Practice in Everyday Life
Here author moves to practical application of process of deliberate practice, which starts with finding a good teacher. Author provides some advice on how to do this. The next important thing is to be engaged as much as possible. The formal approach would not cut it. Author also discusses the problem of teacher unavailability. Here is his advice: “To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, it helps to keep in mind three Fs: Focus. Feedback. Fix it. Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them.”
. The next important issue is inevitable achievement of plateau in development when it seems to be no progress occurs. The key here is to keep trying, analyzing, and diversifying approaches until breakthrough to the next level of performance occur. Final point here is the need to maintain motivation without which success is not achievable.
The Road to Extraordinary
Here author provides a number of success stories for deliberate practice such as female chess players raised by father psychologist specifically to be grandmasters. In such situation when somebody start training a child to achieve top levels of some activity, the important part is achieve child’s commitment to the process without which nothing is achievable.
But What About Natural Talent?
In this chapter author reviewing a number of well known example of prodigies and concludes: “The bottom line is that every time you look closely into such a case you find that the extraordinary abilities are the product of much practice and training. Prodigies and savants don’t give us any reason to believe that some people are born with natural abilities in one field or another.
“ However, author does not stop here and does give some credit to innate characteristics, but more as a necessary initial condition for achievement, rather than as sufficient condition. Here is the point he makes about IQ:“A number of researchers have suggested that there are, in general, minimum requirements for performing capably in various areas. For instance, it has been suggested that scientists in at least some fields need an IQ score of around 110 to 120 to be successful, but that a higher score doesn’t confer any additional benefit. However, it is not clear whether that IQ score of 110 is necessary to actually perform the duties of a scientist or simply to get to the point where you can be hired as a scientist. In many scientific fields you need to hold a Ph.D. to be able to get research grants and conduct research, and getting a Ph.D. requires four to six years of successful postgraduate academic performance with a high level of writing skills and a large vocabulary— which are essentially attributes measured by verbal intelligence tests. Furthermore, most science Ph.D. programs demand mathematical and logical thinking, which are measured by other components of intelligence tests”
Where Do We Go from Here?
This chapter starts with description of experiment with students when group trained using deliberate practice method learned more than twice as much as regular class. Basically in came down to switching from feeding information to students to make them practice under direction of instructor and rather then receiving and reproducing information they where compelled to acquire skills. At the end author suggests that it is the way humans were developed evolutionary and that correct name for our species should be not Homo Sapience, but rather Homo Exercens.
MY TAKE ON IT:
It is a great book for anybody who needs or wants to achieve something in any area of human activities. I experienced this in my own live some 45 years ago when I was a student in University. Our professor of mathematical analysis for some reason liked to call me up not regurgitate some previously presented theme, but to start a new part of our curriculum. I guess she knew that I am a lazy person and, while I am pretty good problem solver, I was not smart or diligent enough to read the next chapter of curriculum. In short she would present a new problem and call me upfront to try solving this problem without real clue of how to do it. So I would come up with various suggestions, some of which she would immediately shut down, some she would allow to move on for a while until dead end arrived, and some would lead to solution, often clumsy, but correct. After that she would present real solution demonstrating the beauty of mathematical analysis that was developed by much more intelligent people than we lowly students, hinting at the same time that not all lost and if we work hard enough and smart enough we eventually be able achieve something in the range of this perfection. I enjoyed this process tremendously and I think anybody who is lucky enough to become part of such process of Deliberate Practice would enjoy both the process and final result.
Author explicitly expresses the main idea of this book as such: “Consensus narrows, while dissent opens the mind. Both affect the quality of our decisions. The take-home message of the research presented in this book is that there are perils in consensus and there is value in dissent.” The dissent is often detrimental to the well being of dissenters and requires courage of conviction, but without dissent, the price paid by the group that suppresses it is often very high indeed.
INTRODUCTION: FEAR CONSENSUS, LOVE DISSENT
Here author defines objective of the book as improvement in decision-making process. Interestingly enough, author defines dissent as necessary condition for good decision-making: “When we are exposed to dissent, our thinking does not narrow as it does when we are exposed to consensus. In fact, dissent broadens our thinking. Relative to what we would do on our own if we had not been exposed to dissent, we think in more open ways and in multiple directions. We consider more information and more options, and we use multiple strategies in problem solving. We think more divergently, more creatively. The implications of dissent are important for the quality of our decision-making. On balance, consensus impairs the quality of our decisions while dissent benefits it.” Author provides quite striking real live examples of necessity for dissent and stresses that correctness of it is pretty much irrelevant. Its value not in it, but in its ability to make people think beyond the consensus, resulting in evaluation of wider range of option an increase in possibility of better solution.
At the end of introduction author points out a number of books and ideas that are widely accepted, like “The Wisdom of Crowds”, but in reality, are of very little application due to the very constrained character of their effectiveness.
PART I MAJORITIES VERSUS TROUBLEMAKERS: THE ART OF PERSUASION
This part is about persuasion and how majority and minority use different tools to achieve it.
1 NUMBERS RULE
This is about human nature that in majority of cases makes people to comply with majority; whatever strange and/or weird is majority’s behavior or decisions. Author starts with example of “Face to the Rear in elevator” and proceeds to discuss ease with which majority persuades people to join. As real live example she refers to her jury consulting practice that demonstrated 90% certainly that initial majority will prevail. After that author describes conditions when majority has advantage – for example when individuals in crowd has diverse opinions that give better produce better average result than any individual’s opinion. Author also refers to Solomon Ash study demonstrating power of the group and then discusses mount of conformity and its dependence on multiple variables. The level of conformity with obvious error is usually around 75% with only 25% consistently non-conformist individuals. It is very interesting that even these individuals admitted that they majority probably correct but could and would not overcome their own perception of the truth. Autor also provides multiple examples when business and/or ideologues use this propensity to conform. At the end of chapter author discusses anonymity provided by computer networks as a tool to reduce conformity comparatively to face to face communications.
2 EVEN ONE DISSENTER MAKES A DIFFERENCE
This is an interesting chapter on break of unanimity when even one dissenter can unshackle people from conformity at any cost and dramatically change dynamic of the group. She describes a few experiments that demonstrated this point. One interesting experiment was with writing opinion on the paper vs. on the erasable board before learning majority opinion, which clearly increases commitment to one’s point. After that author discusses courage that is required to express dissent and experiment that demonstrates change of attitude of majority to dissenter, which could become quite harsh. Interesting thing here is that after rejecting dissenter, majority internalizes this behavior, resulting in quite dramatic decrease in conformity in the next setting of experiment – all the way down from 70% to 14% of conformity with clearly wrong opinion of majority.
3 DISSENTS AS AN ART IN CHANGING HEARTS AND MINDS
This is about technics that dissenter can use to change hearts and minds. It starts with Galileo and Sigmund Freud, then looks at Snowden, and eventually ends with recommendations if dissenter really wants to achieve results (could be posthumously). These are: be consistent; compromise sparingly – negotiate deal, but do not change attitude, compromise late: “It was the “late compromise” condition that had it both ways—both public and private attitude change. When a dissenter compromised at the last minute, he did two things. He appeared consistent and, at the same time, flexible enough to achieve an agreement. He did not change his position. He simply offered a concession. As a result, he achieved both outcomes. This was the “sweet spot.” He got the other participants to make public concessions and he changed their private attitudes.”. Finally, keep in mind that dissenter, even if losing, typically creates doubt in the minds of majority, and, if it is developed consciously and consistently, could turn things around. As example author discusses in detail “12 angry men”.
PART II CONSENSUS VERSUS DISSENT: CLOSED MINDS VERSUS OPEN MINDS
This part is about how different approach to persuasion by majority and minority stimulate different modes of thinking and deciding. The key difference between majority opinion and dissenter opinion is that majority opinion changes thinking in ways that are narrow and closed with main objective to comply with existing opinion, while dissent opinion opens range of thinking because objective if not to squeeze into existing mold, but rathe find the new one that would attract support.
4 CONSENSUS NARROWS THINKING—AND KILLS RATIONALITY
The starting point here is that consensus makes the majority formidable forcing people to seek ways to join it even if there is very little they agree with. Then author proceeds to review real life events and research supporting this point. She starts with the story of suicidal cult of the Peoples Temple, analyzing how it happened that people voluntary committed mass suicide and concluding that it was result of strict maintenance of consensus. After that she reviews results of Berkley study that illustrated how majority opinion prompts people unconsciously seek confirmation information and reject contrarian. This has negative impact on problem solving because it limits the range of possible solutions under consideration. Author discusses multiple lab experiments like anagram solution demonstrating this dynamic. Similarly, majority opinion narrows focus, which become a liability when looking for solution of non-trivial problems. Author discusses experiment that vividly demonstrate this feature and then returning to the story of flight 173 that crushed due to the super narrow focus of the crew.
5 DISSENT DIVERSIFIES—AND STRENGTHENS THINKING
Here author moves to the necessity of dissent for effective problem solution and decision-making. It comes from the nature of dissent, which by definition means to go against majority opinion and therefore forces dissenter to look widely and deeply at the problem at hand in order to find convincing reasons to support dissenting opinion. The author refers to a number experiments when sole dissenting opinion suddenly dramatically changed levels of conformity, even if this opinion was obviously incorrect. One point that an author stress often and strongly is that correctness of dissent opinion is generally irrelevant. Its value is in its propensity to liberate people from conformity and prompt them to look outside the box of their biases. Also, very important insights author obtained watching jury deliberations. It was not that much opinion change that dissenters caused – they usually failed to cause any, but rather quality of deliberations that improved significantly by the presence of dissenter and need to respond to dissent opinion. Then author discusses a few of real life cases: about Snowden, drones, surveillance, and such. Finally, author looks in details at technic of brainstorming and critics its core rule of not criticizing new ideas.
PART III GROUPTHINK VERSUS GROUPS OF THINKERS
The final part is about groups, their complexity, how they obtain consensus, and how unsuppressed dissent increases the quality of decision-making process.
6 GROUP DECISIONS: OFTEN IN ERROR, NEVER IN DOUBT
Author starts with the statement that groups operate in “a way that “strains” for consensus”, which pretty much means groupthink. In reality it often means just compliance with opinions of group leader, so the lower positioned members of the group strive to accommodate to them, suppressing in process whatever doubts they have. As example author refer to Bay of Pigs story. Then she moves to result of research that demonstrates poor outcomes for direct leadership when leader offers his/her opinion upfront, limiting opportunities for discussion and making dissent costly. Another problem with groupthink is that it promotes search for consensus within at any cost and polarization against groups of others. When groups are generated within wider populations they tend to move in different directions. More risky individuals joined in a group become riskier than any of them while more cautions individual in a group also move to extreme caution. Author also goes through examples of manipulating people into doing something they would not necessary do themselves. Author discusses two theories of polarization: one is persuasive argument theory, and another is “social comparison” theory. She concludes that both have merit. Another interesting finding is that people in groups tend to share information that they have in common and hide information that could undermine consensus, resulting in decrease of quality of opinions and decisions. Author refers to meta-analysis of 65 studies that demonstrated that groups with openly shared information both positive and negative have eight times higher probability to find solution than groups were information is hidden.
7 BETTER DECISIONS: DISSENT, DIVERSITY, AND DEVILS ADVOCATES
This is about decision-making and how dissent or lack thereof impact quality of decisions. It starts with rejection of false diversity when instead of diversity of opinion people promote diversity of skin color or sexual orientation. As example author uses two trials of O.J Simpson – one, criminal, intentionally moved to locality where neither victims nor accused lives and far away from the place of crime occurred. The intention of move was to find sympathetic jury and it succeeded in acquitting OJ and another civil trial at actual location found him guilty. The point author makes that both decisions were poorly made, and both were based on tribal affiliation. This point is confirmed by the multitude of experiments demonstrating how easy it is to create competing groups even by randomly allocating similar people to teams and then observe in-group favoritism that starts immediately. Author discusses in details different types of diversity and different value of it for organizations and decision making, which is sometimes positive, but sometimes not. However regardless of whatever levels of type of diversity exists nothing could substitute value of dissent in decision making that would amplify positives of diversity and suppress negatives.
Another very interesting point author makes is that often used formal technic of “devil advocate” does not produce expected results mainly because in order to have impact the dissent should be real and passionate, formal moves just wouldn’t do that. Author discusses history of this technic and reviews a number of experiments analyzing its impact on quality of decisions.
In this chapter author summarizes massage of this book as twofold: danger of consensus for quality of decisions and necessity of real dissent for increase this quality. She also points out that it is not about anger, suppression of dissent, arguing, or contrivances. It is about authenticity and conviction, speaking up, protecting different views, and encouraging debates. Finally, it is all not for the sake of harmony or moral imperatives that people and organization should protect and even nourish dissent, but as indispensable tool for achieving high quality of decisions and better solutions for all kinds of problems.
MY TAKE ON IT:
It is nice to encounter book that provides lots of scientific and experimental support to the way one lives his live. Somehow, I often find myself in the state of non-agreement with whatever is discussed or whatever conventional wisdom is. This contrarian view at just about everything served me well because it forced me to compare different attitudes and approaches before making decision and prevented me from automatically accepting somebody else’s opinion. It has downside of complicating matters, slowing down process of about anything, and delaying action. Therefore, I can wholeheartedly agree with author of this book about value of dissent and danger of suppressing it. Such suppressing is especially dangerous at the level of society as whole because it leads to disappearance of dissent and consequently to dramatic degradation of quality of decisions and eventually quality of live. One can look not only at psychological experiments, but at huge real life experiment with Russian Empire in XX century when decades of suppressing dissent and killing or pushing out of country dissenters turned quite prosperous country of early XX century with world class writers, musicians, scientists, and intellectuals into miserable shadow of itself by the end of XX century.
The main idea of this book is to review history of economic measurements – specifically GDP, discuss its multiple problems, and review new developments such as Internet that makes it more and more meaningless to use old methods of calculating economic activities designed mainly for material production. Author also has an idea to propose a few different methods for measuring economic activities that would be more meaningful than GDP.
The Cult of Growth
The book starts with overall discussion of GDP, how it was created in 1930s and how it became the most important indicator of economic conditions of society. It is also critic of very notion of necessity of growth for prosperity, stressing that infinite growth just plain impossible. At the end author states a contrarian point of view that growth and prosperity are two different things referring to Japan, which is not really growing for decades, but is a very prosperous country anyway.
Part One: The Problems with Growth
Chapter 1: Kuznets’s Monster
This chapter, after brief discussion of economic history, moves to Simon Kuznets and his invention of GDP, which come around during the WWII as necessary tool to estimate American capacity for production of war material and consequently to build effective military strategy. Author discusses Kuznets’ attempt to leave government out of economic calculation and how it failed under the pressure of Keynesians who believed that government activity should be important part of economy. Author also discusses another failed attempt to include only “productive activities”, while excluding things like advertisement, gambling, and such.
Chapter 2: The Wages of Sin
Here author jumps directly to our time discussing well-publicized economic case of counting input into British economy by prostitutes. It caused all kind of funny staff related to various calculations of duties, debts, and so on, defined as a share of GDP. Foe example increase of GDP by counting prostitutes’ income would increase Britain duties to NATO defined as 2% of GDP. Similarly changes to GDP formula caused other countries to report quite ridiculous numbers. From here author goes to discuss meaning of GDP vs. GNP and how complex it really is because of multitude of intermediate products and services. Another big issue is that even this numbers are not hard numbers, but rather result of questionnaires, samples, and statistical manipulation.
Chapter 3: The Good, The Bad. And the Invisible
Here author moves to the topic of impact on GDP from various idiosyncrasies of different countries, looking at American Medicare, which inflated payments clearly overstate the numbers. Another important topic is calculation of input from government expenditures. It is quite easy to calculate, for example, inputs into free education such as teacher wages and school building. But is this a real input into economy if government schools produce illiterate graduates? Yet another, somewhat opposite problem, is very valuable input that is not included. As an example, author discusses production of mothers’ milk for baby, which is not counted, but could add billions to economy. These counted/ uncounted / wasted economic artifacts could be discovered in many areas, opening huge opportunities for manipulation.
Chapter 4: Too Much of a Good Thing
This starts with the story of Iceland financial industry prosperity that was followed by crisis. Author makes the point that financial industry could not bring prosperity and at some point, its input into economy becomes illusory because it is just play of numbers. The new financial instruments that used to generate paper profits do not really serve its main economic purpose of efficient allocation of capital because they based on correct assumption of government intervention that would socialize any losses from failure, while keeping private benefits of success.
Chapter 5: The Internet Stole My GDP
This is an interesting discussion of Internet impact on real economy and on GDP. Basically, for real economy it is great. People get information from home they used to be spending lots of time and effort to obtain. Business thrives on low transaction costs, and improved analytics. However, all this decreases GDP. From this point of view driving in a car to Movie Theater and sitting there watching movie adds a lot to GDP from cost of gas to cost of building to salary of people running Movie Theater. Watching the same movie in comfort of one’s home subtracts all these from GDP, which shows decreased economic activity even if entertainment consumption improved dramatically. Then author compares Internet with multiple inventions of XIX and XX centuries that brought electricity, multitude of machines from home, telecommunications, utilities, and transportation that change lives a lot more then Internet ever could. At the end of chapter author reviews difficulties of calculating and taxing services comparatively with manufacturing.
Chapter 6: What’s Wrong with the Average Joe
This starts with discussion of deterioration of health and life expectancy of average western lower middle class, which has difficulty to handle loss of semi-qualified manufacturing and service jobs and resorts to suicides and opioids despite safety net that provides relatively high level of consumption with plentiful food, merchandising, and practically unlimited entertainment. The most impressive statistics for this is a gap in live expectancy between educated / high income and uneducated / low income Americans, which grew from 5 years in 1970s to 15 years now. From here author moves to the growing inequality, which he blames for many of presented ills.
Part Two: Growth and the Developing World
Chapter 7: Elephants and Rhubarb
This chapter is about alternative evaluation of economic activity. It starts with estimates of artificial lights intensity at night. Then author discusses difficulties of estimating it in poor and corrupt countries where lots of economic activity is hidden. Detailed studies estimating economic output of one product, for example milk demonstrate huge variance from official data up to 20 times. Author discusses details of this in several African countries.
Chapter 8: Growthmanship
Here author moves to discuss countries that made significant progress such as South Korea and India. Author makes the point that even if this book is about GDP and growth being often misleading and poor indicator of wellbeing, the poor countries are really benefiting from growth and should be evaluated differently from the rich ones. Author also discusses ideological struggle about economy in India and work of Hans Rosling.
Chapter 9: Black Power, Green Power
This starts with discussion of environmental impact of growth on China. He states that China embraced GDP growth as main objective and directed main efforts to it, all other considerations pushed aside. Here there is an interesting discussion of how Chinese economists calculate its GDP, making it into whatever if should be according to party decisions. However, a lot of this growth is real and environmental and human costs are real as well, causing increasing resistance to single minded industrial development.
Part Three: Beyond Growth
Chapter 10: Wealth
This starts with discussion about wealth, its misleading averages, and difference between income statement and balance sheet each of which give only approximate idea of the wealth of any entity because a lot of wealth comes from knowledge and skills, which not easily converted into monetary units. Similar difficulties occur in calculation of environmental costs.
Chapter 11: A Modern Domesday
This starts with reference to Doomsday book – an attempt to count all wealth in Britain in 1086. The author discusses contemporary, even more ridiculous attempt to monetary estimates like 33 trillion for value of the Earth. Author analyses these attempts, but more importantly he presents idea of qualitative rule that “The aggregate level of natural capital should not decline”.
Chapter 12: The Lord of Happiness
This chapter starts with anecdote about stolen head of Jeremy Bentham that was returned for ten pounds in 1975. Author uses it just to move to evaluation of economic value of human happiness and he starts it with Easterlin’s research, linking it with Bentham’s utilitarism. Moving to contemporary time author briefly discusses happiness by country with usual Scandinavians at the top and Burundi at the bottom then moving to more interesting estimate of events on happiness. The table below demonstrates this approach:
Finally, he refers to Bhutan with its Gross National Happiness, which somehow does not attract people for moving to Bhutan.
Chapter 13: GDP 2.0
This starts with that GDP was turned into a proxy of wellbeing, which it is obviously not. Author discusses the story of Maryland where local authorities come up with “enhanced” Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) that included all king of subjective measurements:
Eventually it completely did not work.
Chapter 14: The Growth Conclusion
The last part starts with the praise to GDP, which somehow manage to squeeze all human activity in one number. However, author highlights its negative side – it become measure of everything and driver of policy. It has significant problem of garbage in – garbage out, and so on and on. Author’s suggestions for better measurement of economy are:
- GDP per capita
- Median Income
- Net Domestic Product
- Well Being
- CO2 Emissions
MY TAKE ON IT:
I think the GDP is an interesting case of invention that begins to live on its own, doing something that its inventors could not possibly anticipate. So GDP instead of tool for resource planning and allocation during wartime became measurement of prosperity or lack thereof, tool for comparison between different countries, benchmark of dues allocation to countries for international organizations, and a lot of other things.
I for one think that it really does not make a lot of sense beyond its original use of allocating material resources to produce war materials. It works for this only because the war is simple – just a few thousands of different types of machines, no need to worry that nobody would buy them no need to think about human tastes and wishes. Even more important, as tool of measurement its necessity implicitly assumes that it would be used by some top managerial authority that can control economy and society overall, which is not a case in free market economy to the extent that it is free and it is market, rather than semi-free and semi-market. As to all other uses, the best comparison between countries would be direction of people’s flow or at least its intentionality. Bhutan well may have 10 times higher levels of “National Happiness” than USA, but somehow people from Bhutan as well as from many other countries trying move to USA, while Americans in their pursuit of happiness do not move in mass to Bhutan. Similarly, payment to international organizations should not be defined by countries GDP, but rather by willingness of citizens of these countries to transfer their earnings to these international organizations. In short, free and market economy does not need the crutches designed for the planned economy of the country at war.
Author uses this book to demonstrate that humans were evolutionary developed to make quick and easy decisions and turn them into actions without careful analysis of underlaying facts, which results in many an error, so such actions should not be taken. However, the main idea is that we are not doomed to keep doing it and that our intellectual and communicative abilities could be used to develop a set of tools to handle a variety of typical “instincts” that become impediment to good decision making. Author presents just such set of tools that he combines into what he calls Factfulness.
This starts with author’s recollection of his fascination with magic, specifically with the sword swallowing and how he learned to do this trick, which is based on human anatomy. He makes a point that even being a doctor did not help him to understand how to do the trick until he learned the specifics. After that he moves to a small quiz, which quite convincingly demonstrates that people, even those interested in politics and economics greatly underestimate progress made in last few decades in many areas so that currently developing (poor) countries have quality of live as good or batter that developed (rich) countries had just a few decades ago. Then author links it to optical and other illusions and fast / slow thinking that was evolutionary beneficent for hunter-gatherers but become somewhat of impediment for understanding the world in our time. The remedy is to develop process of factual confirmation in order to avoid ideas and action based on false understanding of reality.
Chapter One: The Gap Instinct
This chapter starts with misconception of child mortality. It turns out to be a lot smaller than people in western world think. This is result of progress in knowledge and its application that moves a lot faster than people perceive. In reality developing countries catch up with developed in this parameter. Here is picture demonstrating this thesis:
After discussing a few more parameters author presents the real picture of people distribution by 4 levels of income and he defines it in very clear form for all 7 billion people living now:
Author then discusses Gap instinct – human propensity to break any phenomenon, object or group into two qualitatively different objects like rich and poor. It is also often supported by propensity of bringing everything to averages, when in reality there is much more different statistical distribution often overlapping. Here are two examples:
Author also discusses relativity of comparisons and propensity of comparing extreems. For example poverty level in USA is somebody at level 3 of income, so typical reader of this book would have difficulty to understand what real poverty is.
Author presents the the key point of this chapter in such way:
Factfulness is … recognizing when a story talks about a gap, and remembering that this paints a picture of two separate groups, with a gap in between. The reality is often not polarized at all. Usually the majority is right there in the middle, where the gap is supposed to be. To control the gap instinct, look for the majority.
Chapter Two: The Negativity Instinct
Here author starts with recalling his background as child of Dutch family in Egypt and how he nearly drawn in the ditch as toddler because sewage ditches where not walled out. Then he proceeds to discuss that humans generally prefer negative picture of reality because evolution selected out over optimistic individuals. He supports this thesis with multiple examples for live expectancy, mortality, criminality, and others. The final inference:
Factfulness is … recognizing when we get negative news,and remembering that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us. When things are getting better we often don’t hear about them. This gives us a systematically too-negative impression of the world around us, which is very stressful. To control the negativity instinct, expect bad news.
Chapter Three: The Straight-Line Instinct
This is about human tendency extrapolate any sequence as straight line into the future, creating typically false expectations. Author starts with panic about Ebola epidemic, and proceeds to other extreme applications like population bomb. He provides a very interesting graphic presentation of the process:
The chapter conclusion:
Factfulness is … recognizing the assumption that a line will just continue straightand remembering that such lines are rare in reality. To control the straight-line instinct, remember that curves come in different shapes.
- Don’t assume straightlines. Many trends do not follow straight lines but are S-bends, slides, humps, or doubling lines. No child ever kept up the rate of growth it achieved in its first six months, and no parents would expect it to.
Chapter Four: The Fear Instinct
The next stop is fear and author recalls his own fit of fear when he mistakenly thought that WWIII started. Then he proceeds to discuss various causes of fear both rational and not so much and role of attention directed at them in huge exaggeration of real dangers. Here is summary:
Factfulness is … recognizing when frightening things get our attentionand remembering that these are not necessarily most risky. Our natural fears of violence, captivity, and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks. To control the fear instinct, calculate the risks.
- The scary world: fear vs. reality.The world seems scarier than it is because what you hear about it has been selected—by your own attention filter or by the media—precisely because it is scary.
- Risk = danger × exposure.The risk something poses to you depends not on how scared it makes you feel, but on a combination of two things. How dangerous is it? And how much are you exposed to it?
- Get calm before you carry on.When you are afraid, you see the world differently. Make as few decisions as possible until the panic has subsided.
Chapter Five: The Size Instinct
This is basically about triangulation and resource allocation. Once again it is based on author’s experience in 1970s as a doctor in Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world where he had to make difficult decisions to stop helping dying child before him in order to provide help to many more that were not directly in his presence. This decision caused protest from outsiders and author points out that decisions could be valid or not only if the proper scale of factors selection is applied. The size instinct that author refer to is the human tendency to overstate importance of everything visible on hand and understate importance of everything note visible, getting things out of proportion. Author also discusses Pareto rule 80/20 and human propensity to forget about ratios. As example he provides graph from the field of energy where popular discussion of sources is way out of proportion with real production:
The final word for the chapter:
Factfulness is … recognizing when a lonely number seems impressive(small or large) and remembering that you could get the opposite impression if it were compared with or divided by some other relevant number. To control the size instinct, get things in proportion.
- Compare.Big numbers always look big. Single numbers on their own are misleading and should make you suspicious. Always look for comparisons. Ideally, divide by something.
- 80/20.Have you been given a long list? Look for the few largest items and deal with those first. They are quite likely more important than all the others put together.
- Divide.Amounts and rates can tell very different stories. Rates are more meaningful, especially when comparing between different-sized groups. In particular, look for rates per person
Chapter Six: The Generalization Instinct
This starts with author experience of eating unusual for him and culturally disgusting food. From here he jumps to why it is so and concludes that it is generalization instinct when people assign new things to familiar group. He uses as example incorrect believe of rich westerners that children in poor countries are not vaccinated. Another non-statistical example is the story of generalization of elevator technology in western world to India, where it could cause bodily damage because elevators in India do not have usual safety features. This effect often leads to situation when people “know” something that just is not so. Then he proposes to correct it by using his 4 levels of income scale and discusses how it is applicable pretty much independently of culture and geography everywhere in the world. Here is author summary:
Factfulness is … recognizing when a category is being used in an explanationand remembering that categories can be misleading. We can’t stop generalization and we shouldn’t even try. What we should try to do is to avoid generalizing incorrectly. To control the generalization instinct, question your categories.
- Look for differences within groups. Especially when the groups are large, look for ways to split them into smaller, more precise categories. And …
- Look for similarities across groups.If you find striking similarities between different groups, consider whether your categories are relevant. But also …
- Look for differences across groups.Do not assume that what applies for one group (e.g., you and other people living on Level 4 or unconscious soldiers) applies for another (e.g., people not living on Level 4 or sleeping babies).
- Beware of “the majority.” Themajority just means more than half. Ask whether it means 51 percent, 99 percent, or something in between.
- Beware of vivid examples. Vivid images are easier to recall but they might be the exception rather than the rule.
- Assume people are not idiots.When something looks strange, be curious and humble, and think, in what way is this a smart solution?
Chapter Seven: The Destiny Instinct
Author defines it this way: “The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures.” The he proceeds to demonstrate that it is not so and neither people nor cultures unchangeable referring to development in Africa, which is, while still being behind the West, nevertheless achieved levels of West in 1970s at least in terms of income levels. The author review fertility rates as one of the clearest examples of how attitudes change with change of income and conditions. So here is his summary:
Factfulness is … recognizing that many things (including people, countries, religions, and cultures) appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly, and remembering that even small, slow changes gradually add up to big changes. To control the destiny instinct, remember slow change is still change.
- Keep track of gradual improvements. A small change every year can translate to a huge change over decades.
- Update your knowledge.Some knowledge goes out of date quickly. Technology, countries, societies, cultures, and religions are constantly changing.
- Talk to Grandpa.If you want to be reminded of how values have changed, think about your grandparents’ values and how they differ from yours.
- Collect examples of cultural change.Challenge the idea that today’s culture must also have been yesterday’s and will also be tomorrow’s.
Chapter Eight: The Single Perspective Instinct
This is about failure to diversify sources of information that one uses to form opinions. The point here is that ideas are simple and beautiful, and people tend to use them as abstractions always applicable when in reality everything is messy and complex and blind application of abstract ideas is often harmful. Summary:
Factfulness is … recognizing that a single perspective can limit your imaginationand remembering that it is better to look at problems from many angles to get a more accurate understanding and find practical solutions. To control the single perspective instinct, get a toolbox, not a hammer.
- Test your ideas. Don’t only collect examples that show how excellent your favorite ideas are. Have people who disagree with you test your ideas and find their weaknesses.
- Limited expertise.Don’t claim expertise beyond your field: be humble about what you don’t know. Be aware too of the limits of the expertise of others.
- Hammers and nails.If you are good with a tool, you may want to use it too often. If you have analyzed a problem in depth, you can end up exaggerating the importance of that problem or of your solution. Remember that no one tool is good for everything. If your favorite idea is a hammer, look for colleagues with screwdrivers, wrenches, and tape measures. Be open to ideas from other fields.
- Numbers, but not only numbers.The world cannot be understood without numbers, and it cannot be understood with numbers alone. Love numbers for what they tell you about real lives.
- Beware of simple ideas and simple solutions. History is full of visionaries who used simple utopian visions to justify terrible actions. Welcome complexity. Combine ideas. Compromise. Solve problems on a case-by-case basis.
Chapter Nine: The Blame Instinct
This is about human tendency to blame people and groups for whatever bad happens, without even trying to understand real causality of events. Author looks at multitude of examples, but summary is simple:
Factfulness is … recognizing when a scapegoat is being usedand remembering that blaming an individual often steals the focus from other possible explanations and blocks our ability to prevent similar problems in the future. To control the blame instinct, resist finding a scapegoat.
- Look for causes, not villains.When something goes wrong don’t look for an individual or a group to blame. Accept that bad things can happen without anyone intending them to. Instead spend your energy on understanding the multiple interacting causes, or system, that created the situation.
- Look for systems, not heroes.When someone claims to have caused something good, ask whether the outcome might have happened anyway, even if that individual had done nothing. Give the system some credit.
Chapter Ten: The Urgency Instinct
Here author looks at “Now or Never” attitude that impose urgency and prevents careful analysis of options and actions. As usual author brings a few examples from his experiences in third world countries, summarizing it all in such way:
Factfulness is … recognizing when a decision feels urgent andremembering that it rarely is. To control the urgency instinct, take small steps.
- Take a breath. When your urgency instinct is triggered, your other instincts kick in and your analysis shuts down. Ask for more time and more information. It’s rarely now or never and it’s rarely either/or.
- Insist on the data.If something is urgent and important, it should be measured. Beware of data that is relevant but inaccurate, or accurate but irrelevant. Only relevant and accurate data is useful.
- Beware of fortune-tellers. Any prediction about the future is uncertain. Be wary of predictions that fail to acknowledge that. Insist on a full range of scenarios, never just the best or worst case. Ask how often such predictions have been right before.
- Be wary of drastic action. Ask what the side effects will be. Ask how the idea has been tested. Step-by-step practical improvements, and evaluation of their impact, are less dramatic but usually more effective.
Chapter Eleven: Factfulness in Practice Factfulness Rules of Thumb
This starts with the true story when author found himself before enraged mob ready to kill doctors on suspicion in evil magic that was causing harm – not unusual for illiterate people everywhere in the world. He claims that ability to think things through based on facts on the part of one authoritative woman in the mob prevented lynching and saved his life. At the end author provides graphic summary of his ideas:
Author’s daughter in law and son wrote the final part describing his death from cancer that he had been fighting when writing this book.
MY TAKE ON IT:
This book is a wonderful example of relatively clear thinking and very clear presentation of ideas. Ideas themselves are not very new and were researched extensively in the last 50 some years by behavioral economists, psychologists, philosophers and what not. It would be obviously useful if people start taking Factfulness into account, but it is not at all clear how to achieve it. It seems to me that author was missing intentionality in facts misrepresentation, which is actually a very serious factor in great many bureaucrats and politicians’ wellbeing. Either the counterfactual believes in God granted status of a king or similarly counterfactual believes in dangerous global warming, there are always people who are depended on these for their livelihood. Correspondingly these people, and they are usually in control of education and mass media, do all they can to prevent every generation from learning skills necessary for using Factfulness either in their ideological position or in their everyday activities. As result people necessarily develop Factfulness approach in their profession and job, often at the steep price of many failures, but they often fail to develop the same in their philosophical and ideological attitudes, resulting in unnecessary long continuation of awful ideas such as socialism.