Why the human brain prefers meaningless stand-alone numbers to context-rich information

Image credit: ResearchGate

We’re going to begin with a simple illustration of a universal fact: the human brain has evolved to rely on anecdote and is utterly useless when it comes to attempting to reason from context-rich information. Take a look at the two statements below, each of which says precisely the same thing but in different ways:

Eating bacon increases your risk of cancer by 39%.

Eating 100g of fried bacon every day raises your lifetime risk of bowel cancer from 0.031% to 0.043%.

Which is more immediately compelling and scary? Obviously the first presentation. Yet they are in fact using identical data. The reason the first presentation scares us is because our brains aren’t evolved to deal with numbers or mathematical contextualization. We’re hardwired to respond to simple ideas, and the first presentation is a simple idea.

That’s why the mass media always gives us context-free numbers instead of useful data. You think you’re getting news, but what you’re actually getting is sensationalism. Media organizations all know that our brains have very little interest in reality; conversely, we’re absolutely addicted to sensation.

Therefore the media, both traditional and social, relies entirely on generating endless sensation in order to pull in eyeballs that can be translated into revenue. Sensation is easy with context-free information and we’re all suckers for it. But context-free information is almost always wildly misleading and causes us to make all manner of stupid blunders, many of which can have fatal consequences.

Here’s another example of the impact of presentation choice:

Covid-19 death toll reaches 250,000!

versus:

The death toll from covid-19 to date, more than four months into the pandemic, is barely 50% of the annual death toll from regular flu, only 8% of the annual death toll from obesity-related diseases, only 3.6% of the annual death toll from smoking-related diseases, and only 0.36% of the normal annual number of deaths around the globe.

We know which presentation will sell more newspapers, result in more retweets, and ensure more terrified eyeballs gawping helplessly at every news broadcast.

So that’s what we get: context-free sensationalism guaranteed to stampede us into mindless hysteria and result in policies that cripple the world and send more than a billion people (and counting) into abject poverty from which many will starve to death and many more will never recover.

Our inability to understand data is also the reason for our insouciance when faced with highly significant facts. As of March 2020, US national debt stood at $22 trillion. Nobody much cares. But if we present the facts in a more anecdotal manner, things change:

US National Debt means every single family in the USA owes the government $275,000.

If the national debt were presented in this way, instead of just as a context-free number, it’s possible that ordinary voters would have fractionally less tolerance for the grotesque pork-barrel spending and huge debt expansion created by every Republican Administration since the end of World War II (for those who can’t be bothered to keep track of facts, the last US Administration to balance the budget was the Clinton Administration, which bequeathed George W Bush a surplus of $400 billion per year).

It’s not our fault that our brains don’t work well when confronted with data. For 95% of our evolutionary history we lived in small hunter-gatherer groups. No one could read, because writing hadn’t been invented; no one could count past the number of fingers on their hands because arithmetic hadn’t been invented. Even today, there are some tribes living in remote parts of the world whose number system runs “one, two, more than two.” And, famously, the current President of the United States has a personal number system that runs “one, two, yuge.” We are still for the most part a pre-numerate species.

This means that unless we’re vigilant, we’ll always fall prey to those who present data in such a way as to secure a particular emotional response (most often, fear).

So the next time you see some number quoted somewhere, remember to ask: “What’s the context for this information? What is this information really telling me?”

Chances are, the reality behind the number is very, very different from how it’s being presented.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store