Harnessing the Power of Emotion: A Review of Numbers and Nerves

Dr. Anne Kelly recently published an excellent review of the book Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data, by Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic. An excerpt of the review is copied below. Click here to download the entire review. Numbers and Nerves examines psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy, and the prominence effect, and discusses literary and communication strategies that can help journalists, decision makers, and activists overcome these biases in their communication. The book is available to purchase through Amazon.com and other retailers.

In Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data, editors Paul and Scott Slovic, a psychologist and a professor of literature and environment respectively, bring together the work of scientists, journalists, naturalists, activists, and artists, to demonstrate why we have trouble making sense of big numbers, how those big numbers have been presented effectively, and what we can do to overcome our limits and respond to big numbers more appropriately.

The Slovics begin by expertly challenging the fundamental assumption that people’s beliefs are internally consistent. They argue instead that our adherence to rules of logic and our understanding of numerical information used to describe big, and sometimes catastrophic, problems are undermined by a type of thinking that simplifies information processing and eases the burden of cognitive strain by allowing us to ignore or discount important evidence, especially numerical evidence. This habit of mind contributes to inaccurate judgments and bad decisions. As Slovic and Slovic point out, ignoring or disregarding big numbers can have calamitous results when we fail to act in the face of mass atrocities and environmental problems; for example, consider genocide, refugee crises, and global warming. This line of thought raises the question: How can we make sense of big data to minimize less-than-rational decisions and weaken their impact on the sustainable wellbeing of people and the planet? The answer, according to the book, can be found in connecting big data to personal stories and images that appeal to our emotions and strengthen our belief that we can make a difference.

In Part I of the book, the editors set forth to expose the myth that people are entirely rational. A rational decision-making model predicts that people will rely on logic, objectivity, analysis, and numerical data to make good decisions based on an understanding of problems and opportunities. This model assumes that people have full and perfect information about a problem, can identify criteria that will be important to solving it, possess the necessary cognitive skills to understand a problem and its solutions, and have the time and resources required to make the best decision. It also assumes that a problem is unambiguous. If this model and its assumptions are correct, then people should be willing to donate as much money, if not more, to relieve suffering from starvation when they are told about a starving child and also shown statistics about millions of others suffering from starvation than people who are only told about the single starving child; as the author Annie Dillard, in her article “The Wreck of Time,” attributes to an English journalist, “either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account.” But research has shown that this thinking is not the norm: people who are told about a single starving child and are presented with statistics about starvation donate about half as much money as people who are told only about the starving child, begging us to ask why. The answer is that rational decision-making models fail to take into account a type of fast and intuitive thinking that generates feelings and impressions and operates automatically.

Download the entire review.

Dr. Kelly is a professor of behavioral sciences and psychology and chairwoman of the psychology department at Dakota Wesleyan University.

Another review of Numbers and Nerves written by Timothy O'Riordan was recently published in Environment. The review is available to Environment subscribers at tandfonline.com. The citation of Dr. O'Riordan's review is: O'Riordan, T. (2016). Review of Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data. Environment, 58, (5)43-44. doi: 10.1080/00139157.2016.1209017