Decision-making with big numbers we can’t really see

Sep 20, 2016

In a 2005 paper “If I look at the mass I will never act”: Psychic numbing and genocide, Paul Slovic discusses big numbers, how we perceive them as they increase, and the importance of designing for our emotional and analytical systems.

[W]e are incapable of feeling the humanity behind the number 1,198,500,000. The circuitry in our brain is not up to this task. This same incapacity is echoed by Nobel prize winning biochemist Albert Szent Gyorgi as he struggles to comprehend the possible consequences of nuclear war: “I am deeply moved if I see one man suffering and would risk my life for him. Then I talk impersonally about the possible pulverization of our big cities, with a hundred million dead. I am unable to multiply one man’s suffering by a hundred million.”

Chris Jordan’s work immediately comes to mind.

This of course is in the context of individual numbers. What does 100 look like? What does a billion look like? It soon gets more complicated when you try to compare a lot of big numbers or small numbers against big numbers. Our brains are weird things, and we must accommodate.

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