Why You Prefer Novels to Statistics
For eighteen years, the American media was prohibited from showing photographs of fallen soldiers’ coffins. In February 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates lifted this ban and images flooded onto the Internet. Officially, family members have to give their approval before anything is published, but such a rule is unenforceable. Why was the ban created in the first place? To conceal the true costs of war. We can easily find out the number of casualties, but statistics leave us cold. People, on the other hand, especially dead people, spark an emotional reaction.
Why is this? For eons, groups have been essential to our survival. Thus, over the past hundred thousand years, we have developed an impressive sense of how others think and feel. Science calls this the “theory of mind.” Here’s an experiment to illustrate it: You are given $100 and must share it with a stranger. You can decide how it is divided up. If the other person is happy with your suggestion, the money will be divided that way. If he or she turns down your offer, you must return the $100 and no one gets anything. How do you split the sum?
It would make sense to offer the stranger very little—maybe just a dollar. After all, it’s better than nothing. However, in the 1980s, when economists began experimenting with such “ultimatum games” (the technical term), the subjects behaved very differently: They offered the other party between 30 percent and 50 percent. Anything below 30 percent was considered “unfair.” The ultimatum game is one of the clearest manifestations of the “theory of mind”: In short, we empathize with the other person.
However, with one tiny change, it is possible to almost eliminate this compassion: Put the players in separate rooms. When people can’t see their counterparts—or, indeed, when they have never seen them—it is more difficult to simulate their feelings. The other person becomes an abstraction, and the share they are offered drops, on average, to below 20 percent.
In another experiment, psychologist Paul Slovic asked people for donations. One group was shown a photo of Rokia from Malawi, an emaciated child with pleading eyes. Afterward, people donated an average of $2.83 to the charity (out of $5 they were given to fill out a short survey). The second group was shown statistics about the famine in Malawi, including the fact that more than three million malnourished children were affected. The average donation dropped by 50 percent. This is illogical: You would think that people’s generosity would grow if they knew the extent of the disaster. But we do not function like that. Statistics don’t stir us; people do.
The media has long known that factual reports and bar charts do not entice readers. Hence the guideline: Give the story a face. If a company features in the news, a picture of the CEO appears alongside (either grinning or grimacing, depending on the market). If a state makes the headlines, the president represents it. If an earthquake takes place, a victim becomes the face of the crisis.
This obsession explains the success of a major cultural invention: the novel. This literary “killer app” projects personal and interpersonal conflicts onto a few individual destinies. A scholar could have written a meaty dissertation about the methods of psychological torture in Puritan New England, but instead, we still read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. And the Great Depression? In statistical form, this is just a long series of numbers. As a family drama, in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, it is unforgettable.
In conclusion: Be careful when you encounter human stories. Ask for the facts and the statistical distribution behind them. You can still be moved by the story, but this way, you can put it into the right context. If, however, you seek to move and motivate people for your own ends, make sure your tale is seasoned with names and faces.