Researcher addresses why big numbers boggle the mind

By Michael R. Malone

Researcher addresses why big numbers boggle the mind

By Michael R. Malone
Linguist Caleb Everett reminds us that the mind has yet to grasp the modern world’s explosion of massive numbers and that it’s natural that we’re numbed by references to millions and billions.

As the numbers—for COVID-19, populations, net worth, jobless claims, people living in poverty—creep past five, then 10, and into the hundreds, thousands, millions, and billions, our 21st-century hearts and minds begin to cloud, befuddled by quantities with a meaning that seems almost to diminish to us as the numbers increase. 

It’s a nature thing, an inherent bias at play, explained Caleb Everett, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences. 

Caleb Everett
Everett

“We encounter the distinctions of one vs. two vs. three frequently in nature, yet the distinction of seven to eight not that often,” said Everett. “Lots of languages make the singular vs. plural distinction, but languages don’t make any distinction say between six vs. seven, other than with number words.

“It makes sense that we as a species would evolve capacities that are naturally good at discriminating small quantities and naturally poor at discriminating large quantities,” he said.   

Everett pointed to research of young children in Western societies indicating that numbers are perceived in a logarithmic fashion. When prompted to place markers on a 1 to 100 number line, young children will generally misjudge the accurate distance. 

“Before they’re well trained in school, children will always have the one far apart from the two far apart from the three, and then it gradually declines,” Everett said. “Fifty and 100 could be almost as far apart on the line as one and two, since higher number differences are naturally compressed in our minds.’’ 

Everett noted that the usage of a single word for “million” didn’t exist—because there was no need for it—until the 14th century, when it appeared, translated from the French in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Until then the sum was expressed, if it was at all, by combining existing word numbers, such as “pusend pusend”—or a thousand thousand from Old English. 

Yet our modern world is increasingly inundated with astronomically large numbers—numbers that, despite the human tragedy they might tell, often leave us unfazed. 

The best we can do, Everett suggested, is to contextualize the numbers, i.e. break them down so that they make sense for our own experience. 

“Numbers don’t make sense in a vacuum—if we say 10,000 have died that’s massive for some things,” he said. “Yet about 155,000 people die every day in the world under normal circumstances. We’ve seen more of people talking about the figures compared to death on a normal day. If you just throw out the numbers, the numbers are massive, but there’s a massive amount of people.” 

Everett was careful to not trivialize the number of deaths related to COVID-19 and said the tendency to associate and compare—to contextualize—is an attempt to enhance meaning. 

“How do we make sense of those numbers of victims in the big scheme of things, in a world with seven and a half billion people?” he questioned. “We’re just not good at that, and it makes sense that we’re not good at that because these are very recent distinctions that we’ve had to make—distinctions that were not imminently relevant to our survival over the bulk our our species’ history.” 

In his most recent book, “Numbers and the Making of Us,” Everett proposed that “numbers shape our perceptions of the world” and documented that numbers systems are learned and not inherent—not all cultures even have number systems. He used the concept of a “cultural ratchet” to explain how we pass learning from generation to generation.

But the scale of numbers we use today—millions and billions—has yet to be ratcheted into our understanding. 

He noted other primal and natural tendencies in the polarized reactions we are seeing currently to the COVID-19 scenario. 

“The tribalized camps in society and the way the culture gets transmitted in certain groups [but not in others], such as in social media, reflect the primal tendencies of our species,” he said.

Faced with the persistent challenges of the pandemic landscape, he noted the “natural bias” that causes many to gravitate toward fearful and negative news. 

“Being attuned to negative things is more important for survival,” Everett said. “Paying a lot of attention to negative or harmful things from a survival standpoint and the reproduction of your genes makes sense.” 

He referenced research showing that humankind has progressed during the past few decades in areas such as medicines to cure disease, life expectancy, global wealth, new technologies, among others—prosperity which creates a new challenge for the human species. 

“In terms of revolutionary biases, focusing on positive things doesn’t necessarily help the odds of reproduction,” Everett said. “The person who is fearful to some extent is going to avoid dangers and is likely to survive and reproduce.’’ 

As numbers continue to increase and if humankind does manage to generate more sustained prosperity, our natural biases will also have to adapt, he suggested. 

“In the same way that numbers as a cultural technology gives us the ability to be more precise with larger quantities, cultural practices of educating ourselves in the way that things are positive can help us address the natural bias that causes us to focus on negative things. If we’re using our biases in a constructive way,” Everett said, “maybe that’s great.”