Saturday, August 7, 2010

525,600 Minutes

In reading Half the Sky recently, I was struck by the impact certain statistics have on me, and I suspect on others as well.  They are statistics that measure events relative to time and for me, that comparison makes the numbers seem more significant.

For example, here are two quotes from Half the Sky:

In India, a “bride burning” takes place approximately once every two hours, to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry ...
Another huge burden for women in poor countries is maternal mortality, with one woman dying in childbirth around the world every minute.
 And here is a quote from today's article by Bob Herbert in the NY Times:
These are gloomy times in the United States. A child drops out of high school every 26 seconds.
Let's translate these time references into numbers.  As we all know from the Rent song, there are 525,600 minutes in a year. The "bride burning"  numbers translate to 4,380 deaths a year-- a disturbing number in and of itself but nowhere near as disturbing as the "every two hours" reference.  However, there are about 1/2 Billion women in India and approximately 70%  are over the age of 15, so that would yield a death rate for marriageable age women of about 0.00000125.  See the difference?

The maternal mortality rate translates to approximately half a million women each year.  I suspect if you take into account the number of women of childbearing age in the world, you would get a less startling statistic. In like vein, based on the statistic Herbert cited, there are approximately 1.2 million high school dropouts a year.  According to US Census figures, in 2008 there were 16.7 million high school students. That would yield a dropout rate of 13.9 percent (I am rounding everything so these numbers may be off by a little).

 My point is not to diminish the size of any of  the problems but to point out the impact of communicating the problem in terms of time rather than whole numbers or rates.  Why is a time reference so much more compelling?  I think our perception of time, even though it is measured in numbers, is much more subjective and personal than our perception of numbers and ratios.  We live in time and a minute can be long (e.g.when you are waiting for something) or short (e.g.when you are enjoying something).  If you associate an event such as high school dropouts with time, you can personalize the event.  "While I was typing this sentence, some child dropped out of high school."  Half the Sky cites some psychology research that showed that personalizing the story of someone in need makes the person hearing the story more likely to give money to help than if the story is not personalized or if just statistics of the need are presented.  Therefore, aid providing charities will do better if they tell us stories of individuals rather than tell us in numbers how big the problem is.  Similarly, when we hear a time reference, the problem is placed in a personal reference for us and thus becomes more compelling.  Whatever the reason, I now am much more sensitive to my gut reaction when I hear a time reference for a problem because of the bias we seem to have for this method of processing information.

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