Our look at the book Factfulness began with three words: data as therapy. Within that idea, we saw a way that data can be persuasive. Not from the standard Logos standpoint of facts, figures, and rational thinking. It does that, of course, but the therapeutic power comes from weaving data into a Pathos argument, eliciting emotional responses. But not just any emotional responses. The heart of Factfulness is its argument that things are much better than we realize. It seeks to tap a special set of emotions: optimism, hope, and momentum. That makes us feel better. I think it also inspires.
That’s the power of information, right?
There’s only one problem: what happens when I stop reading this book?
Bad Thought Habits
Our mind has habits. Some are natural biases, the protective quirks of the hunter-gatherer wiring we’ve developed for ages. Loss aversion, social proof, halo effects, and other heuristics are useful even as they are panned in the behavioral economics literature. There are other thought habits, though. Some are as destructive as the habit of smoking.
Constant pessimism is a fine example. It erodes one’s ability to really assess reality, see the bad and the good. Plus, who likes pessimists? Really? They’re the people with bad breath. In terms of emotional hygiene, they stink up the place and infect others with their contagion.
Naive optimism is another example of destructive thought habits. There are moments where saying “It will all be fine” is just as damaging as saying “Nothing will ever be fine”.
Another thought habit: constant thinking. One of the most powerful tools I’ve gained from Mindfulness practice is the ability to recognize the act of thinking. To catch myself doing it, particularly when I’m in a spiral of the same thoughts, is incredible. Deeply empowering. Prior to a mindfulness practice, I was far more controlled by the deeply-grooved narrow-minded flow of thoughts that my brain would conjure on a steady basis. Now I can let it go.
Good thought habits are legion. Three that immediately come to mind include the ability to be cognitively present in a given moment, the ability to see facts without coloring them with personas, to think in systems, and the ability to hold multiple perspectives at the same time.
How can one regulate the bad thought habits and foster more good habits? Well, step one is to practice mindfulness. That can go a very long way and many (better) writers can help with that. Step two is harder but just as necessary: we have to manage the flow of information.
Information Flows Can Fix Bad Habits
Factfulness has changed my worldview and helped me see where I misinterpret, or outright ignore, the data that tells us all the good occurring in the world. It’s very informative and thus very powerful. But to repeat the previous question, what happens to my worldview when I stop reading this book?
Consider the smoking doctor of the 1970s. In 1972, 19.5% of doctors smoked. No one was more knowledgeable about the human body and yet they maintain one of the more destructive habits known to mankind. Why? Again, information is power but it’s not as powerful as a habit. To borrow from Derek Sivers, “If information was all we needed, we’d all be billionaires with six-pack abs.”
Consider data flows instead, particularly the data flows that appeal to the logos and pathos. The head and the heart. Facebook is a prime example of a data flow that plays on both elements. It is a deeply-sophisticated tool for reinforcing social norms and producing negative stimuli at scale. How? In some ways, it’s mere social proof. People in your network feel this way and so, in a natural desire to conform, you feel that way, too. Some of it is advertising. Some of it might indeed be fake news.
The power is so great that Jaron Lanier makes the strong argument that Facebook and Google shouldn’t be considered social networks. Instead, they should be “behavior-modification empires“.
Not because of the information they provide. Because of the information flow they channel.
Back to the smoking doctor: the bad habit requires far more than a desire to quit. There are surrogating methods to be considered (nicotine gum, coffee, other stimulants), reward/punishment systems, and then there is the simple information flow. What is the information flow, be it thought habits or external data, that reinforce the idea that smoking is worth the cost?
Whatever the case, the power of information flows is evident in the fact that less than 1% of oncologists smoke. These doctors fight cancer on a daily basis and are thus exposed regularly to information that reinforces the harmful effects of carcinogens. And amongst all physicians, only 2% smoke. Double the rate compared to oncologists but still very low now that they have been continually exposed to information flows that remind them of the ills.
What Are The Best Data Flows?
This is a question that I continue to ask myself since reading Factfulness. I need more books like this. Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels Of Our Nature” fits the bill. But it stands alone, too. Unless I read these books daily (not desirable), it doesn’t provide a steady, perpetual flow with a social component. So I look to Medium. Since joining, I’ve been amazed at how this incredible platform provides the positive, edifying data flows we need. Here, it’s up to us all to continue the work that Rosling has shared. I’m not sure where else to go but this plays deeply into the idea of information diets. Three fine articles on the topic point us in the right direction.
As polymaths, didacts, leaders, managers, strategists, marketers, and all-around-decent people, we want to change the bad thought habits, the culture, society as a whole. To do so, we must change the flow of information. What gets measured gets managed, right? Yes, but measurement is but one information flow. What others flows exist? How do those flows manage us?