Posted by:Shyam Sundar June 22nd, 2010

I liked listening to stories when I was a kid. My mom still recounts how I used to trouble older kids to narrate movie stories and that I wouldn’t go to bed unless someone read out to me. I guess part of that has survived my transition into the 30’s – I love a good story. Over the course of my professional career, I’ve always tried to frame problems as part of a story: it helps me visualize the context, it allows me to imagine plot twists and it brings a certain element of “oughtness” to the process. However, as I moved up the career ladder, I found myself inundated with numbers and metrics. There seemed to be constant barrage of information that demanded attention at that very moment and context was lost in favour of speed.

Numbers don’t lie

Numbers do what they are supposed to do: represent a particular state of a mathematical model that we have constructed to represent reality. So they never lie. They are our constructs. So when people complain that inflation measures (CPI, for example) lie, they are actually saying that the model that the BLS uses has drifted from its true purpose. “Wrong” numbers are almost always a people problem. Our brain is anchored by the fact that we learnt how to hunt before we learnt how to think. How else will you explain that even when presented with numbers, we tend to ignore negative outcomes? For example, in spelling tests, subjects who mark answers they’re “100% certain” of are only correct 80% of the time.Hindsight bias contributes to a natural pre-disposition towards overconfidence: if you think you predicted past events accurately, you’ll think you can predict future events too.

Putting things in context

One way to protect yourself from this is to wrap numbers within a larger context. Technology allows us to build context from numbers: heat maps, bubble charts, moving averages, oscillators are all meant to add mathematical context to a stream of numbers. Visualizations allow us to compare mathematical outcomes. Mashups are the next step in our quest to add context: by bringing a larger and externaldata-set to the mix, mashups allow us to construct a reality check (or add a plot-twist to the story). And if properly constructed, force us to confront our cognitive biases.

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