We should care about inequality, not the fact that people have trouble comprehending large numbers and percentages!
This video visualizing research by Michael Norton has been making the rounds on my corner of the internet. While I think this is very interesting research, and I completely agree that levels of inequality are REALLY REALLY worse than we imagine, I can’t help but want to point out that we should care about the effects of inequality, not the fact that human beings have trouble comprehending large numbers or thinking in terms of percentages.
In some ways, the video is trying to put a more intuitive, visual spin on this concept, and that is good. But I am confused by the premise of this research agenda which seems to be that it is terrible that Americans don’t intuitively comprehend just how unequally wealth is distributed in the US. I think this is a flawed premise because I don’t think Americans will EVER comprehend this. Not because we’re stupid, but because human beings have trouble with large numbers and small percentages. So I ask, what would it REALLY mean for Americans to comprehend wealth inequality? (And note, it’s wealth inequality--a somewhat nebulous concept--not the slightly more concrete income inequality we are more used to thinking about.)  I think that Norton has set us up because we, as humans, are just not wired to do the computational task that Norton is asking us to do! The fact that we can’t make a graph that accurately shows wealth inequality has less to do with how un-equal the US is more to do with the fact that humans suffer from number numbness (for good biological reasons!).
I keep returning to two things I read in high school. First, an essay by the inimitable Douglas Hofstader called “Number Numbness” and, second, a book by K.C. Cole called “The Universe in a Teacup.”  If these authors are to be believed, we should stop being shocked that people don’t understand the magnitude of inequality. And, more than simply an innocuous finding, I think that presenting the debate over wealth inequality in these terms actually makes the problem worse because it distracts from the real issue--Does it really matter just how wrong the average person gets the percentages if they would clearly prefer a world with less inequality?
Maybe instead of freaking out over the well-known fact that people aren’t wired to comprehend large numbers, we should talk about the effects of wealth and income inequality, like that fact that it is getting harder and harder for individuals to move to a higher socioeconomic class than their parents or that these levels of inequality may be slowing the financial recovery.
Thursday, March 7, 2013