binary

Numbers are an incredibly inhuman abstract construct. It’s no coincidence that for some primitive tribespeople numbering systems progressed no further than “1, 2, many”.

Whilst pootling through the lanes of west Pembrokeshire this afternoon I heard the broadcaster Paddy O’Connell give a good demonstration of our appalling ability to handle things numeric. Standing in for Jeremy Vine, O’Connell ran an item about how much electricity is being stolen from the grid in the UK by nefarious criminals running cannabis farms. The estimated value of this stolen power is £200m, and a spokesperson for the electricity suppliers said how this equated to £7 every year for every “consumer”.

It wasn’t entirely clear what was meant by this “consumer” but one can imagine it to be the number of personal accounts the electric companies have on their records. The ONS estimates there are 26.4m households in the UK, which works out about right.

In the next link, however, Paddy started talking about how that £200m equated to £7 for every person in the UK. With a population of roughly 63m, a fact that a serious journalist like O’Connell should know well, those numbers are just so obviously wrong. As I say, we are mostly rubbish at numbers.

Which makes it even more contrary that we are in an age where nothing is valid unless it’s supported by figures. I’ve a pet theory as to why this might be…

Unlike numbers, our brains are incredibly adept at processing images. I guess that’s evolution… “Is that pattern in the distance a tiger?” kind of thing (in fact we’re probably a little too adept at recognising visual patterns, which I’d partly why we aren’t great at assessing risk).

What I wonder is whether numbers act as some sort of visual clue within text that, in turn, tricks our brain into thinking something is more believable than it would otherwise seem. In Dan Pink’s recent book “To Sell is Human” he talks about how rhymes trick the brain in such a way (which is why politicians and advertisers use rhymes so often).

Maybe, when it comes to numbers, our brain actually sees a picture (“Ooh, nice percentage”), which in turn makes surrounding prose somehow more believable. This number-picture isn’t processed as any form of logical data, just as some recognisable icon in the midst of a bunch of words (themselves hard work for our brains to process).

As I say, just a pet theory, but one that I ran past a neuroscientist I know a couple of weeks ago. He didn’t dismiss it out of hand, so that’s 100% of my expert focus group supporting the idea, then…

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