Translated by Paul Norlen.
Let’s face it, I was always going to find a popular science book written by a pair of Swedish behavioural economists about the psychology of numbers absolutely fascinating!
Back in 2020 I read a book called Numbers Don’t Lie by Vaclav Smil which teased out all kinds of wonderful facts from maths and statistics about our world, giving a good lesson in looking at the quality of the data along the way. Smil’s book gave plenty of food for thought by laying out those facts, such as: every FB or Tweet like uses electricity, that a fully-loaded Boeing 747 has a better weight to payload ratio than a mini with just the driver. His was a purely mathematical way of looking at numbers.
Dahlen & Thorbjørnsen have taken it one step further to explore how all these numbers affect your mind! It’s potentially scary stuff?
Here are my answers:
- I discarded my fitness tracker – I’m not interested in counting steps – but I have just signed up to Noom, although that’s primarily about eating for health rather than making me think I have to do the Couch-to-5k or Parkrun – which are not my goals, although I’m sure that more exercise will be encouraged.
- I do like a like on any social media – who doesn’t? But it’s not the be all and end all for me (who am I kidding?!) I do get disappointed that in general book reviews get fewer likes and comments than list-oriented or non-bookish posts though. My completed jigsaw photos on FB being a case in point!
- I am ruthless with emails. I hate them accumulating, but I need to do another sweep of all the sites I’m signed up to. Unfortunately some of my favourite clothing sites are now sending special offers daily – why not weekly or a longer period? Such profligacy wastes so much electricity!
- Yes, the consequences of these points above though are I spend more time wading through notifications and end up doomscrolling, when I could be doing something meaningful like reading/sleeping/cleaning/going out/or even exercising instead!
I’m digressing from talking about the book though. After an introduction broadly stating the authors’ premise for the book, the first chapter gives us a potted history of numbers – from tally scratches on a bone up to big data. It pauses to take in the ‘mystique’ of numbers along the way, lucky numbers and numerology, Pythagoras, but also introduces us to the concept of odd vs even and gender of numbers in the number wars:
So despite the fact that we think odd numbers feel more uncomfortable and difficult than even ones, we like them better. Why? Perhaps just because the major world religions, inspired by the Pythagoreans, have always favoured the masculine, odd numbers over the female, even ones. A kind of number chauvinism, if you will.
Thus, it’s no surprise that the world’s favourite number (sample size 44k) is 7.
Subsequent chapters take single (although sometimes overlapping) themes to consider Numbers and… the body, self-image, performance, experiences, relationships, currency, the truth, and society before finishing with a concluding Numbers and You.
In Numbers and Performance, I was interested to read about how the process of counting things, e.g. steps – but also (thankfully) pages read – does make us more attentive to it. But taken to extremes ‘self-quantification’ can go wrong leading to motivational failure, as anyone who’s had a severe dose of reader’s block from too many indifferent or samey books to read can attest.
Numbers and Experiences begins with an interesting anecdote from one of the book’s authors, who relates a great IT conference he attended at a super Miami hotel – but when he answered the ‘Please rate your stay with us’ survey, a couple of otherwise inconsequential items dragged his median rating down to an 8, although he had totally enjoyed himself there. Why did this happen?
Because this is what numbers do: they summarise and reduce. They turn everything that’s nuanced and rich into something simple and exact. Experiences are varied, but numbers are precise …
We’ve got so used to looking at the ratings for things, be it on Amazon, TripAdvisor or social media, that we increasingly find it hard to get behind the numbers to the real quality of the experience – and that influences us – ‘in advance and afterward’. If we go to a hotel with a low rating for wifi, that’s what we’ll worry about all trip.
Numbers and the Truth takes on fake news, manipulated statistics in headlines and how the extreme ends of the bell curve shout loudest, which all has an influence on the truth of a number. We learn an important lesson about the difference between ‘verifiable’ and ‘verified’.
I’ve picked out just a few personal highlights from this fascinating book to give you a flavour of some of its themes. It’s not heavy on diagrams, but those that are included are well-discussed. There are over 30 pages of references/index.
The anecdotes from the authors’ own experiences keep what could be a dry topic light-hearted and their writing is clear and breezy, sometimes opinionated on the more moral questions – in a good way. If it weren’t for the authors’ names and a few other hints, I would never have known this was translated from the Swedish, translator Norlen has done an excellent job.
One thing I particularly liked was the ‘Number vaccines’ at the end of each chapter. An odd monicker perhaps, but these are a summary set of 5 or 6 good pointers for each subject discussed that can help you have a positive relationship with numbers – from having social media detoxes when you can, to a plea to not grade your professors and much more – it’s all good advice. I very much enjoyed this different look at how numbers influence us every day and what we can do to free ourselves from their tyranny!
Source: Review copy – thank you! Octopus / Monoray hardback, 263 pages (incl sources/index).
BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)