The one sentence summary

Most of the so-called facts that people state about the world are wrong – things are better than you think.


  • The book takes us through ten common instincts that are wrong:
  • The Gap Instinct: when a story talks about gaps, things are rarely as polarized as you might think. Beware comparisons of averages and extremes, and look for the majority in the middle.
  • The Negativity Instinct: expect bad news because good news is not news, and neither is gradual improvement. Things can be both better and bad. More news does not equal more suffering.
  • The Straight Line Instinct: don’t assume straight lines. Just because something is going up doesn’t mean it won’t come down.
  • The Fear Instinct: frightening things get our attention, but before panicking we should calculate the risks. Risk = danger x exposure, so work out how dangerous something is and what your exposure to it is.
  • The Size Instinct: recognise when a lonely number looks impressively large or small. Get things in proportion and look for comparisons.
  • The Generalization Instinct: categories can be misleading when used in an explanation. Look for differences within groups, and similarities across groups. Beware of “the majority”, and of vivid examples.
  • The Destiny Instinct: many things appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly. Keep track of gradual improvements, update your knowledge, and collect examples of cultural change.
  • The Single Perspective Instinct: get a toolbox, not a hammer. Test your ideas, and don’t claim expertise beyond your field.
  • The Blame Instinct: recognise when a scapegoat is being used. Look for causes, not villains. Look for systems, not heroes.
  • The Urgency Instinct: decisions are rarely urgent. Take small steps. Take a breath. Insist on the data, beware fortune-tellers, and be wary of drastic action.


  • There are 13 questions that the author has surveyed all over the world, including those on the number of girls finishing primary school, where the majority of the world’s population live, poverty levels, life expectancy, population growth, vaccinations, access to electricity, and climate change. The majority of people answer these incorrectly, even if they are experts.
  • It is misleading and unhelpful to talk of us and them – an arrogant stance taken by western countries in relation to ‘third world’ countries. We should divide world income into 4 levels: (1) people on up to $2 a day, (2) those on up to $8, (3) those on up to $32, and (4) anyone over that.
  • The author is a possibilist – someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason.
  • Everything you need to survive is lethal is a high dosage.
  • Slow change is not no change. Don’t confuse the two.


  • Sadly the author died just before the book was completed.