Thirty years ago, 56% of the world’s population lived in low-income countries. What is the share today?

  • 10%
  • 35%
  • 60%

Correct answer

Many low income countries became middle income countries

Thirty years ago 45 countries had average incomes so low they were called “low income countries” by the World Bank. Since then 24 of them have reached middle income level. Back in 1998 their combined population was 2.6 billion people, and today its 3.9 billion people, which are now counted as citizens of “Middle Income countries”, because their average incomes are much higher now.

Of course, not everyone got richer. But looking at the number of people on different incomes a vast majority moved up to much higher living standards. Among those 24 countries the number of people in extreme poverty, below 1.9$/ day was roughly 1.8 billion, 30 years ago. Today they are roughly 0.2 billion. This means 1.6 billion less in extreme poverty: 0.8 less in China, 0.5 less in India, 0.2 in the rest of Asia. But in the African countries that became “middle income” (like Nigeria), the people in extreme poverty actually increased, from a total of 70 million to 100 million, roughly. In some of these countries the rate of extreme poverty still declined, because the total population increased so much.

Data source: World Bank income levels & the UN World Population Prospects 2019

The ignorance we found

Why do people pick the wrong answer?

MISCONCEPTION: Once a “low income country” always… 

The bad habit to put labels (like developing countries or low-income countries) make it seem like their destiny is settled and they will always stay poor. WRONG! Many of the countries that used to be on “low income level” in 1998, had the fastest economic growth in the world and are now on “middle income level”. Like a race track, it’s better to label the different labels, than labelling the countries.

How many people in the world have some access to electricity?

  • A. 80 percent
  • B. 50 percent
  • C. 20 percent

Correct answer

According to data from the World Bank and Tracking SDG7’s Energy Progress Report, at least 89% of the world’s population had some access to electricity by 2015. 

Why the Wrong Answers are VERY Wrong

B) 50 percent, and C) 20%

Of course there was a time when these answers were correct… but it was a long time ago. Reliable data on this topic goes back to 1990, at which point around 71% of the world’s population had at least some access to electricity.

The ignorance we found

Only 22% of our respondents got the answer right. That’s drastically worse than random chance.

In fact, once again, not a single country managed to score better than our chimps for this question. Norway and Sweden had the highest success rates, at 32% and 31% respectively, while Spain and Japan scored worst with just 14% and 15% correct answers.


So were there any positives at all here?

Well, perhaps. One thing we can say is that the least accurate answer—20 percent— was also the least popular. Meanwhile, around 6 out of every 10 of our respondents opted for the middle option of 50%. So, unlike some previous questions, at least our respondents didn’t automatically assume the absolute worst.

Why do people pick the wrong answer?

Once again, we have to point the finger at what we call the “negativity instinct”. This is the idea that the world is bad… and getting worse.

As a result of the media’s obsession with bad news—and our own human tendency to focus on bad things more than good things—the average person in a higher income country naturally assumes that the answer to most questions about the world will be negative.

However, most things aren’t getting worse. In fact, they’re getting a whole lot better, and have been for decades.

Back in 1990, 71% of the world’s population had access to electricity. You can look at that either way—on the one hand, 71% seems pretty good. On the other hand, more than 1.5 billion people have zero access to electricity.

But over the last three decades, that 71% has turned into 89%. As of 2017, despite a substantial rise in global population in the region of 2.2 billion extra people, the number of people lacking any access to electricity had fallen to around 820,000.

Sadly, our survey respondents were totally unaware of this.

What is the life expectancy of the world today?

  • A. 50 years
  • B. 60 years
  • C. 70 years

Correct answer

According to data from more than 100 sources, by 2017 the average life expectancy worldwide was 72.8 years

50 years would have been correct during the mid-1950s and early 1960s, and 60 years was correct in the 1970s and 1980s, and even as recently as the early 1990s in some countries. Thankfully, as a result of reduced poverty, improved nutrition, and better access to healthcare, things have improved substantially over the last six or seven decades.

You can find the full dataset (compiled by Gapminder) here.

The ignorance we found

Out of our 12,000 respondents, 37% answered this question correctly. Finally, our respondents beat the chimps! But let’s not get carried away; 37% is only a lit bit better than random.

Our South Korean respondents scored highest, with 49% choosing the correct answer, while at the other end our Norwegian respondents scored extremely poorly, with just 25% correct answers.

Why do people pick the wrong answer?

Most people suffer from an inaccurate misconception that the world is getting worse. Even in areas where we know things are getting better (like life expectancy) we still cling to the idea that things can’t be too good—that improvements must be very slow, if they happen at all.

In reality, global life expectancy has risen from 50 in the mid-1980s to almost 73 years in 2017. That’s a 35% improvement within a very short timespan – something most people simply wouldn’t be willing to accept without seeing the data for themselves.

In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has…

  • A. Almost halved
  • B. Remained roughly the same
  • C. Almost doubled

Correct answer

The proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has more than halved in the last 20 years.

In fact, rates of extreme poverty have dropped faster than ever before over the last two decades – from 29.5% of the world’s population in 1997 to just 9.1% in 2017.

Data source: World Bank and Gapminder

The ignorance we found

Just 9% of our respondents on average chose the right answer! That’s not even close to the chimps…

Sweden and Norway scored the highest with 25% each, which is still terrible. And Hungary brought up the rear with a shocking 2% of their respondents selecting the right answer.

So, what did people think? While almost a third of respondents thought levels of extreme poverty had stayed more or less the same over the last 20 years, 60% thought it had almost doubled. This couldn’t be further from the truth – in fact, it’s quite literally the opposite of what’s actually happened.

Why do people pick the wrong answer?

There’s a common misconception at play here: The world is divided into the very rich, and the very poor. And since everybody knows there aren’t a whole lot of very rich people, they assume the majority of the world’s population is living in extreme poverty. But that’s completely wrong; the overwhelming majority of people live somewhere in the middle.

Media and charity attention on the world’s poorest have skewed peoples’ view of how the world is. Since everything we hear in the news is negative, we form an unrealistically negative view of the world. Worst of all, we wrongly assume that instead of getting better (as most things do over time) important metrics like rates of poverty (and also crime, illness, etc.) are getting worse.

So instead of having a fact-based perception of the world that becomes more accurate over time, most people have an inaccurate view of the world that gets even worse over time.

Up to 1990, 17 countries in the world had been led by a female head of state or government. What was that number in 2019?

  • A. 29
  • B. 53
  • C. 76

Correct answer

Women have been leaders of more than 70 countries! 

In 1952 no modern state or government had been headed by a woman. But since 1953 more and more women started being elected across the world. First at a low rate – only 17 countries during 38 years. But after 1990 it started increasing much faster. During the last 38 years, 59 new countries had a female leader for the first time in their history.

If this speed of change continues, all countries will have had a female leader by 2080!

The ignorance we found

Why do people pick the wrong answer?

MISCONCEPTION: Women’s power grows slow like before! 

It’s hard to keep track of slow world changing progress. Even if new presidents are reported in the news, the ongoing transformation of traditional gender roles is happening slowly over generations and such changes only show up by looking at long statistical trends. Unless we see data over time, it’s easy to end up thinking that it’s still just men who rule this world. WRONG!