The size instinct is a cognitive bias that affects our ability to accurately perceive the world around us. It is the tendency to assume that the size of something is directly proportional to its importance, significance, or impact. This instinct can lead to incorrect conclusions and poor decision-making, particularly when it comes to understanding global trends and issues. Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician and statistician, explores the size instinct in his book “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” Rosling argues that the size instinct is one of the biggest obstacles to accurate thinking and that it is particularly prevalent when it comes to our perceptions of the developing world.
Case – Economic Development
One example Rosling provides is our tendency to assume that all countries in the developing world are impoverished and struggling. He notes that this is not the case and that there is significant variation in economic growth and development across different countries. For instance, China has experienced significant economic growth over the past few decades and is now one of the world’s largest economies. Similarly, India is also experiencing rapid economic growth and has a thriving tech industry. Despite this, many people still view the developing world as homogenous and assume that all countries within it are impoverished and struggling. This is an example of the size instinct, as it is based on the assumption that the size of the developing world is directly proportional to its level of poverty.
Case – Epidemic
Another example of the size instinct is our tendency to focus on large, dramatic events while ignoring smaller, more gradual changes. For instance, when it comes to global health, we tend to focus on large-scale epidemics like Ebola or Zika while ignoring the fact that child mortality rates have been steadily declining for decades. This is another example of the size instinct, as it assumes that the size and scale of an event are directly proportional to its importance or significance.
Case – Population
Similarly, we often perceive larger organizations, countries or populations to be more important or significant than smaller ones, regardless of their impact or influence. For instance, some may assume that the United States is the most important country in the world because of its large population and military might, while ignoring the fact that other smaller countries may have a greater impact on certain issues, such as climate change or global health.
The size instinct can lead us to overlook important developments or changes and can cause us to misunderstand the true state of the world. It can also result in poor decision-making, such as developing ineffective interventions for global issues based on inaccurate assumptions. Rosling argues that this instinct is particularly problematic when it comes to understanding global trends and issues. It can lead us to overlook important developments or changes and can cause us to misunderstand the true state of the world.
The size instinct can have some advantages in certain situations. For example, it can help us to quickly assess situations and prioritize our attention and resources. When faced with a crisis, our instinct may be to focus on the larger and more immediate threats, rather than smaller and more gradual ones. This can be an efficient way to allocate resources and address pressing issues.
For example, if we see a large fire, we can quickly assess that it is a significant event that requires immediate attention, regardless of the cause or specific details of the fire. Similarly, if we see a large organization or institution, we may assume that it has a greater impact or influence than a smaller one, which can be helpful in certain contexts, such as business or politics.
Furthermore, the size instinct can help us simplify complex information and make it more accessible to a broader audience. By focusing on larger-scale events or phenomena, we can communicate important ideas or trends in a way that is easy for others to understand and relate to. This can be particularly useful in situations where complex data or information needs to be communicated to the general public or non-experts.
Additionally, the size instinct can be helpful in situations where larger groups or organizations are more effective or efficient than smaller ones. For instance, larger companies may have more resources and be able to invest in research and development or innovate at a greater scale than smaller companies. Similarly, larger countries may have more resources and be better equipped to address certain global issues, such as climate change or pandemics.
The Size Instinct can have significant negative consequences by causing us to misunderstand the world around us, oversimplify complex issues, and underestimate the impact of smaller actors. To avoid these disadvantages, it is important to focus on understanding the true scale of a problem, using data and statistics to guide our thinking, and avoiding assumptions based solely on size or scale. The Size Instinct can lead to several disadvantages and negative outcomes. Here are some of the most significant disadvantages of the Size Instinct:
- Misinterpretation of global trends: The Size Instinct can cause us to misunderstand global trends and events by assuming that the size of an event is directly proportional to its importance or significance. This can lead to incorrect conclusions and poor decision-making, particularly when it comes to understanding complex issues like poverty, health, and climate change
- Oversimplification of complex issues: The Size Instinct can lead to an oversimplification of complex issues, such as poverty or global health. Assuming that the size of an issue is directly proportional to its impact can result in developing ineffective solutions and interventions
- Disregard for small changes: The Size Instinct can cause us to overlook small but significant changes that occur over time. This can lead to a failure to recognize progress or improvements in areas like education, health, and economic development
- Underestimation of smaller actors: The Size Instinct can lead us to underestimate the impact and influence of smaller actors, organizations, or countries. This can result in ignoring their contributions to global issues or failing to recognize their potential to effect change
- Ignorance of context: The Size Instinct can cause us to ignore the context and nuances of a situation, such as cultural differences or historical factors, by assuming that the size of a problem is the only relevant factor
- Resistance to change: The Size Instinct can lead to a resistance to change or new ideas, particularly if they come from smaller actors or less influential organizations or countries.
- Poor Decision-Making: The Size Instinct can lead to poor decision-making, particularly if we rely solely on our own perceptions and assumptions about the world. This can result in developing ineffective interventions or policies that do not address the true nature of the problem, or missing important opportunities for change
Overcoming This Instinct
To overcome the size instinct, Rosling suggests that we need to focus on understanding the true scale of a problem and its relative importance. He suggests that we should use data and statistics to gain a better understanding of global trends and to avoid relying on our own perceptions and assumptions.
For instance, when it comes to poverty in the developing world, we should look at the data to understand the true scale of the problem and to identify the countries or regions that are most affected. This can help us to develop targeted interventions that are more likely to be effective.
Similarly, when it comes to global health, we should look at the data to understand the true scale of the problem and to identify the most effective interventions. This can help us to focus on the most pressing health issues and to develop interventions that are most likely to have an impact.
Ultimately, the size instinct is a cognitive bias that affects our ability to accurately perceive the world around us. It is particularly prevalent when it comes to our perceptions of the developing world and can lead to incorrect conclusions and poor decision-making. To overcome this instinct, we need to focus on understanding the true scale of a problem and its relative importance, and to use data and statistics to guide our thinking and decision-making.