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numbers & feelings don't mix

Imagine you find a 100-euro bill on the street. Naturally, you will feel happy.

Now imagine you find a 200-euro bill. Do you feel twice as happy?



Suppose you hear there is one life at risk after an earthquake at a nearby city.

Naturally, you will feel worried.

Now suppose you hear there’s two lives at risk? Do you feel twice as worried?


A day has passed and the number of lives in danger has risen to 86.

You check the news again and you find out it’s now 87.

How do you feel about that extra life at risk?

Innumerate feelings


Research by Dr. Paul Slovic, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon shows how our feelings are innumerate.


Finding twice as much money won’t make us feel twice as happy.


Similarly, the difference between zero lives at risk and one life at risk is big. But having two people at risk doesn’t feel twice as concerning. Yes, we’re more concerned, but not twice as much.


And as the numbers go up, we won’t feel any different thinking about 86 lives at risk or 87, even though there’s an additional valuable life there.


This is the inability of the feeling system to differentiate quantity as the numbers increase.


In plain words, our feelings are very bad at math. They can’t count correctly.


They do arithmetic but they do it wrong.

1+1 doesn’t add up to two.

It’s something less than two.

And in some cases, it’s less than one. 


Our feelings are completely and utterly innumerate.

Why is that? Based on psychophysics and evolutionary theory, it seems that nature decided it’s better to get us sensitive to the small rather than the large to help us stay adaptive. As with our feelings, the same applies to our physical functions like seeing and hearing. We can hear whispers but are not deafened by loud sounds. We can see glimpses of light but are not blinded by the sunlight.

Innumerate in 3 ways


The full story of how our emotions are innumerate lies on 3 effects:


  1. Psychic numbing. This insensitivity as the numbers increase which we talked about.

  2. Pseudoinefficacy. We help others because they need our help and because we feel good about helping them (we get a warm-glow feeling). But if you have the ability to help someone, but your attention is drawn to others that unfortunately you cannot help, you’re less likely to help that person, because it won’t feel as good. Pseudoinefficacy makes you feel that you’re not effective when you really are.

  3. Prominence effect. Whereas psychic numbing and pseudoinefficacy are problems of thinking fast (automatic), the prominence effect is a problem of slow thinking. It’s about the fact that some parameters of a decision are more prominent and they dominate, which means it’s hard to make trade-offs.


These three effects lead us astray to the point that they are making us pursue unethical policies or decisions without even realizing it.

What to do


Be more analytical. Don’t go with your gut in these situations. Recognize that your gut feelings will get it wrong and de-prioritize them. Try to think slower, be more analytical and careful about what you include in your decision. And build these analytic insights into your final decision.


Choice architecture. Restructure the decision setting in ways that you are prodded or nudged to do the right thing. NGOs and organizations like Kiva do that when they portray and emphasize individual people who need help, instead of a mass cause.


Trust the experts. Outsource certain types of judgments and decisions to experts. For example, in the case of the COVID pandemic, as the numbers of cases and deaths increased, most people were becoming numb to these statistics. Because gut feelings don’t understand exponential growth, we tend to vastly underestimate where things are headed. This is where the experts helped – by relying on the mathematical projections they were in a much better position that the average person to understand when there was a need for a lockdown and when not.

Question for you


What is one thing you felt today that you can correct by thinking more analytically about it?

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