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Summary: What’s Our Problem? A Self-Help Book for Societies by Tim Urban

Key Takeaways

  • Human society is a complicated and messy thing. It is full of problems and conflicts, but also full of opportunities and solutions. How can we make sense of it all? And how can we make it better? In this article, we will review the book What’s Our Problem? A Self-Help Book for Societies by Tim Urban, a popular blogger and the creator of Wait But Why. The book is a fun and fascinating deep dive into the science and history of human society, and how we can improve our thinking skills and create a more rational and harmonious society.
  • If you want to learn more about human society, and how to improve your thinking skills and solve your problems, you should read this book. It will give you a new and unique perspective on the complex world in which we live, and help you become a better thinker and a better citizen.

What’s Our Problem (2023) offers a fun and unique perspective on the strange state of the modern world in which we live. Using the author’s iconic comedic style, it draws on observations from political theory, psychology, history, and modern-day events to explain what is going on in our society, and what we can potentially do to fix it.

Get a grasp on what’s going on in this crazy world, and help steer society to a brighter future.

Imagine a book, 1,000 pages long. This book contains all 200,000 or so years of human history – about 250 years per page. The vast majority of the book covers our hunter-gatherer years. The agricultural revolution – the start of what we normally talk about as ancient history – doesn’t begin until page 950. Page 1,000 covers all of US history, from the 1770s until now.

You may notice that the book gets a lot busier towards the end. This is exciting and scary for several reasons. First, technology is increasing exponentially – the jump from page 999 to 1,000 is way greater than between any of the other pages. Second, this new technology is raising the stakes – page 1,001 could be a technological utopia – or a devastating nightmare.

Book Summary: What’s Our Problem? - A Self-Help Book for Societies

The problem is, we’re not just reading this book – we’re writing it. And at the moment, it’s being written by a bunch of spoiled, immature toddlers. You see, society isn’t maturing in the way that we’d like. Tribalism, false news, floundering institutions, and political division are just some of the problems that define the tumultuous times we live in.

In this summary, you’ll find out what’s actually going on with society – from the way that we think to the divisive political system and the recent social justice trends. And hopefully, you’ll find a new way to look at the world and help write a good page 1,001.

So, what’s our problem? Let’s find out.

The Ladder of Thinking

Have you ever seen a moth flying uselessly into a light? Stupid moth, right? Well, what’s causing the moth to do that is its primitive instincts – an urge to fly toward the light of the moon. Unfortunately for the moth, its instincts haven’t caught up with changes in the world – the relatively recent introduction of many nonmoon lights.

In a way, we’re all not much different from a moth. We all have a primitive mind, concerned with our primitive and immediate urges – eating, reproducing, and surviving. This mind has always been there, and it’s done a pretty good job of keeping us alive up until now.

But due to the evolutionarily recent explosion of literacy and technology, we’ve created a world that this primitive mind isn’t really made for. This is where the higher mind comes in. Our higher minds control our ability to think objectively, analyze the world, and learn from experience.

Your primitive mind wants you to eat the whole bag of Skittles. Your higher mind tells you that it’s probably a bad idea.

These two minds are constantly in conflict, and whichever is winning out decides the way that you think; how you make your decisions and form your beliefs. Think of it as a four-runged ladder.

When you’re on the top rung, your higher mind is in complete control. Here, you logically observe evidence and reach conclusions with a clear emotional detachment and a desire to find the truth –no matter what it is. Let’s call this “thinking like a scientist.”

Go down to the next rung on the ladder and your higher mind is still in control but your primitive mind is having a bit more of a say. Let’s think of this as “thinking like a sports fan” – you know and respect the rules of the game, but you really want your team to win. You’re no longer impartial and you’re subject to the confirmation biases that a first-rung thinker would avoid.

The third rung is where problems start. Here your primitive mind has a much greater influence. Now you’re “thinking like an attorney.” You’ll argue or defend a point no matter how truthful or logical it is. You’re not just motivated to be right, you’re obligated. On this rung, you’ll see people claiming that the earth is flat or the CIA is after them, with no amount of evidence changing their minds.

Finally, on the fourth and bottom rung, your primitive mind is in full control and you’re “thinking like a zealot.” Your ideas and beliefs are your baby and no one can tell you that they’re not perfect. You don’t need to do any research to prove that you’re right, you just know you are. Any agreement is accepted unconditionally, and any challenge is seen as a personal attack.

When you apply this ladder to the world, you can start looking at divisive problems in terms of how people think, instead of what they think. Whether the issue is climate change, abortion, or whatever drama is going on in politics, if you look at it in terms of what rung the person is operating on, things start to make a lot more sense.

And here we see the start of our problem as a society. Recently there’s been a huge rise in people working from the bottom two rungs – what Tim Urban calls “low-rung thinkers.”

Keep this ladder in mind; we’ll refer to it in the next sections as we look at the causes and implications of this troubling trend.

Where It All Went Wrong

Human nature is constant – and mostly consistent. It’s when human nature is put through different environments that people’s behavior starts to change.

So, what has changed in our environment to enable the rise of the low-rung thinking outlined in the previous section?

In the US, at least, there have been two major changes over the past couple of decades.

First, there’s been a shift toward concentrated tribalism. What do we mean by that? Well, throughout American history, there’s been plenty of internal political conflict – the civil war for example – and external conflict – like when the country was mostly unified during and following World War II.

Low-rung thinkers always need to have an enemy to fight – a “them” to their “us.” When the wars of the twentieth century ended, the big scary “them” of other countries were no longer a threat, so people started looking to their neighbors for a fight. It’s like how you defended your sibling from bullies in the schoolyard but still fought with them at home.

So, with no consistent external threat, Americans have a tendency for political infighting. This has led to the ideological purification of political parties as individuals fill their need to band together against a common threat. It’s here we find the concentrated tribal divide between the American left and right.

The second environmental shift is that this concentrated tribalism has turned into hypercharged tribalism. The past generation has become more mobile – people are more likely to travel and live somewhere else after graduating college. The thing is, when given an option, people generally choose to live near those who are similar to them. As political parties have become more polarizing, an individual’s political affiliation has become more of a part of their identity. In turn, this has led to a tendency – however subtle – for people to live in communities that share their political views.

So now we have echo chambers – the breeding ground of the low-rung thinker who doesn’t want to have their sacred views challenged. And this homogeneity leads to people becoming more extreme in their views – the hypercharged tribalism we see today.

The massive technological rise has added fuel to this fire through the ease at which we can now find and consume media. When news is designed to entertain a specific group or push a political agenda, it’s easy for people to tune into the relevant media outlet for their echo chamber.

Thanks to internet algorithms, media consumers don’t even need to try to find news tailored to their beliefs – it’s funneled right into their feed.

We live in a world where two main competing tribes are essentially living in separate realities. This isn’t a good environment for high-rung thinkers who thrive on open debate and freedom of speech.

And so downward we spiral, with tribal divides reaching the intensity of religious war. The idea of going against your party is blasphemy.

In the next section, we’ll examine some of the real implications this has on today’s social landscape.

Republican and Social Justice Fundamentalism

Let’s apply our ladder metaphor to extreme political views. It’s easy to look at fundamentalist attitudes and talk about the far right or far left, but a better way is to think of them as lower left, or lower right on the ladder – it’s how they think, not what they think.

Now, this can be a touchy subject, so Urban asks that you approach it with an open mind. In the interest of upsetting everyone equally, let’s look at modern lower-rung thinking from both sides of the political spectrum.

First, let’s talk about what Urban calls Republican Fundamentalists. They’re characterized by rigid but simplistic thinking and a black or white worldview. This started with vague and fear-mongering responses to the cold war but reached a head with the demagogic rise of Trump, and his supporters storming the Capitol building. Hardly the actions of high-rung thinkers who are “thinking like a scientist.”

Now let’s have a look at the political left. It’s hard to argue with the basics of the liberal social justice movement – striving to right the wrongs of an unequal system has to be a good thing. The problem comes with what Urban calls Social Justice Fundamentalists. These thinkers see society as run by a fundamental social force – patriarchy or heteronormativity, for example – that’s as present and undeniable as gravity. A Social Justice Fundamentalist wouldn’t ask, Did racism happen here? They’d ask the loaded question, How did racism happen here?

Now, both of these fundamentalist movements are examples of lower-rung thinking. This kind of thinking is unscientific – there’s no room to test hypotheses or welcome alternative ideas. It also encourages echo chambers. Members who don’t accept the core beliefs are shunned from the group. Finally, it’s morally inconsistent. Discrimination is given different weight for individuals from different social or racial groups.

But remember, these are all complex topics with much more nuance than we can go into here. The point that Urban is making is that there are a great number of people thinking on the lower rungs of the ladder, and they seem to have a substantial influence.

In the final section, you’ll learn about some things you can do to help counter this and make society just a little bit better.

Making the World a Better Place

There’s a saying that sums up the merry-go-round of society: wise people create good times, good times create foolish people, foolish people create bad times, and these bad times, in turn, create wise people. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just jump from foolish people to wise people, skipping the bad times altogether?

Despite all the problems we’ve looked at, Urban is optimistic. The majority of people, from all walks of life, are growing more exhausted with how things are. Old and young, Black and white, conservative and progressive – a lot of people want this nonsense to end.

And the internet, despite being somewhat responsible for this mess, still has the capacity to keep the flame of free speech alive. America and other liberal democracies have always suffered rough patches, and the problems we’ve looked at are relatively recent. There’s no reason to think that the tide won’t turn.

So, what will it take to start setting things right?

First, we need awareness, and this starts with humility. We’re all guilty of lower-rung thinking – seeking out information that confirms our beliefs, or holding onto our ideas like a blind zealot. We’re all biased and hypocritical – because we’re all human.

So acknowledge that. Look at yourself, and realize how you’re thinking. A good activity is to play the why game with yourself. Take a belief that you take for granted, and keep asking why you believe it to see what rung of the metaphorical ladder you’re thinking from. If it doesn’t stand up to this scrutiny, be prepared to change it. Ladders are designed to be climbed – try reaching for a higher rung.

Once you have the necessary internal awareness, you need to start looking outside of yourself, and this takes courage. You’re not going to make an impact if you don’t speak up.

For a start, don’t say things that you don’t believe. Sounds obvious, but speaking out against a group can be scary. If you find yourself conforming because it feels safe, dig a bit deeper for the courage to say what you truly feel.

Eventually, you can start saying what you really think to your inner circle of trusted friends. This will boost your confidence and authenticity and can give you the space to further reflect on your ideas. Just remember to be open to growth and discussion – you don’t want to create an echo chamber.

Finally, go public. Start saying “I disagree” if the opportunity presents itself – at work, at church, at dinner parties. You can go even bigger than that – start a blog, or write a book, saying what you truly believe.

These things can be scary, but this fear is really just a product of your primitive mind. Remember, all this trouble started with the struggle between your primitive mind and your higher mind – which do you want to be in control of your head?

Taking any step is always better than taking none. With a bit of awareness and courage, you can take the problems of modern society and start forming a solution.


We need to change the way we think. We live in a world unsuited to the methods and motivations of the primitive part of our minds, but too many people are letting that part of their brain control their beliefs and actions. This has resulted in extreme tribalism, particularly in US politics, which is delaying, stopping, or reversing any positive progress in society.

If we can learn to approach our beliefs and the information we receive with the objective detachment of a scientist, then we can create a world that will change for the better. But this isn’t easy and will take self-awareness and the courage to act and speak up – even when it feels like it’s hopeless.

So, what’s our problem? Start by making sure that it isn’t you.

About the author

Tim Urban is the writer/illustrator and co-founder of Wait But Why, a long-form, stick-figure-illustrated website with over 600,000 subscribers and a monthly average of half a million visitors. He has produced dozens of viral articles on a wide range of topics, from artificial intelligence to social anxiety to humans becoming a multi-planetary species. Tim’s 2016 TED main stage talk was the first TED video to ever reach 10 million views in its first year and now ranks in the top ten most-watched TED talks.


Nonfiction, Politics, Philosophy, Society, Sociology, Psychology, Self Help, Humor, Education, History


The book What’s Our Problem? is a fun and unique perspective on the strange state of the modern world in which we live. Using the author’s iconic comedic style, it draws on observations from political theory, psychology, history, and modern-day events to explain what is going on in our society, and what we can potentially do to fix it. The author, Tim Urban, is a popular blogger and the creator of Wait But Why, a website that features long-form articles on various topics, such as artificial intelligence, procrastination, and space exploration.

In this book, he tackles the biggest and most complex topic of all: human society. He starts by introducing the concept of the horizontal axis, which represents the spectrum of political opinions, from left to right. He argues that this axis is not very useful for understanding our problems, because it only focuses on what we think, not how we think.

He then introduces the concept of the vertical axis, which represents the spectrum of thinking skills, from low to high. He claims that this axis is more important for solving our problems, because it reflects how well we use our brains, as individuals and as groups. He explains that thinking skills are not fixed, but can be improved with practice and education.

He also explains that thinking skills are influenced by various factors, such as emotions, biases, incentives, and social pressures. He illustrates these concepts with examples from history, science, and current affairs, such as the rise and fall of civilizations, the development of democracy, the evolution of morality, the emergence of fake news, and the polarization of politics.

He also introduces several original and catchy terms, such as the Thinking Ladder, the Baby Adult, the Tribal Brain, the Truth Spectrum, and the Wisdom Cycle. He uses these terms to describe the different levels and types of thinking, and how they affect our behavior and decisions. He also uses diagrams, charts, and drawings to make his points more clear and memorable. He concludes by offering some suggestions and advice on how to improve our thinking skills, and how to create a more rational and harmonious society.

What’s Our Problem? is an entertaining and enlightening book that covers a wide range of topics related to human society. The author writes in a humorous and conversational tone, using anecdotes, analogies, and jokes to make complex ideas more accessible and enjoyable. He also writes in a clear and concise manner, avoiding jargon and technical details, and using simple and vivid language.

The book is well-structured and well-researched, with references, notes, and a glossary at the end. The book is not only a rich and reliable source of information, but also a stimulating and inspiring story of how humans think and act, and how we can do better. The book is suitable for anyone who is interested in learning more about human society, whether they are students, professionals, or curious readers. The book is also a valuable resource for anyone who wants to improve their own thinking skills, and to understand the broader societal issues and challenges related to human society.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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