Big numbers blur policy ambitions

Carnegie Mellon University

Government policies often are presented with hefty price tags, but people often zone out as more zeros are added to the total cost. A new study from Carnegie Mellon University suggests that rescaling the cost of programs can increase a person’s understanding of funding choices, which may improve how people participate in the policy debate. The results are available in the July issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“When President Trump wanted to spend $10 billion on the border wall, conservatives were saying it was a great idea while liberals were saying why spend that much money on a wall,” said Gretchen Chapman, department head and professor of Social and Decision Sciences at CMU. Chapman is the senior author on the study. “This got our team thinking, and we began by asking how big is $10 billion, and how do people really think about such a really big number?”

Understanding numbers is one of the cornerstones of good decision making, but humans are not particularly adept at this task. According to basic psychology research, humans evolved to think in terms of smaller clusters – how many berries are on the bush, and how many will be available the next day? Most people fall short when they try to conceptualize numbers that scale beyond their tangible experience. This may, in part, explain why people shut down when conversations turn to the price tag of large government programs.

To dig into this concept further, Chapman and her colleagues conducted four studies. They wanted to understand how rescaling information can improve our understanding of large numbers.

In the first study, 392 participants evaluated four statements about possible U.S. COVID-19 relief packages. The participants evaluated content presented on a total price-per-program ($100 billion versus $2 trillion) or as price-per-person ($1,200 versus $24,000). Both pairs of statements were scaled to a 20:1 ratio. The researchers found the participants had an easier time differentiating between high and low cost when it was presented with the price-per-person option.

“With a simple manipulation rescaling big numbers into smaller numbers, people can understand this information better,” said Christina Boyce-Jacino, a postdoctoral fellow with the Consortium of Universities of Washington Metropolitan Area and the U.S. Army Research Institute for Behavioral and Social Sciences. Boyce-Jacino is the first author on the study. “Understanding numerical information can play a critical role in citizenship.”

/Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).View in full here.