Friday, September 4, 2009

Objects In Your Mental Model Are Larger Than They Appear

The cars are actually larger than the fire hydrant. You didn’t need me to tell you that.

The distance from one thousand to ten thousand is much greater than the distance from one to ten. You didn’t need me to tell you that either, but in my own mental model of counting, they’re about the same size. As far as I know, I don’t have any kind of numerical disability. Barbara is quicker at mental arithmetic than I am, but I get along. I think my distorted model is my own version of scientific notation. You know: how you write ten with the little bitty nine in its upper-right corner instead of one comma zero zero zero comma zero zero zero comma zero zero zero. You gotta admit “ten to the ninth” is smaller.

New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg hit on the same thing geographically when he mapped the US as seen from over an anonymous Manhattan street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The Hudson River and New Jersey are a pair of stripes (The Hudson's broader than Jersey's) between New York City and the rest of America, which, in turn, is only a little larger than the distance between Ninth and the River.

There’s a lot of psychological and economic literature about how we’re more generous to “identifiable victims” than we are to “statistical victims,” even if there are more statistical victims, or if the statistical victims suffer more than the identifiable victims. The World Food Program dubbed hunger the “Silent Tsunami,” after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed a quarter million people. A quarter of a million people seem like they must be a statistic -- as are the ten million that were impoverished by the wave -- but they were “identifiable” because of the dramatic event that killed or dispossessed them. The tens of millions of people who are hungry become more like background. As do the species extinguished by the “Sixth Great Extinction.” As does the atmosphere.

Our ability to foreshorten distant, huge, or complex things is probably a permanent way of operating for most of us, but being aware of it, and learning to override it is too.

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