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(image credit: Marco Verch CC BY)

What counts

It’s not because it can be expressed in numbers, that it necessarily matters

Are you concerned about efficiency? I bet you are: you probably don’t go all the way to the supermarket just for one jar of mayonnaise, and the next day for one box of tissues. You probably also don’t put the washing machine on just for one pair of underpants, but wait until the laundry basket is full. It almost goes without saying.

The efficient use of scarce resources like time, space and money is fundamental to human behaviour, and (wait for it) a central economics concept. It’s what has been helping us improve our lives for many centuries. But wait: are you really that efficient with, say, the space in your home? If you are an average Australian, your average house provides a very generous 89 m2 per occupant. An average American or Canadian would have respectively 77 m2 and 72 m2 at their disposal. An average Dutch person can still wander around in 65 m2; an average Belgian should be content with about 45 m2. And that is still three times the with which an average Hongkonger must make do.

More efficiency is possible

Unless you actually live in Hong Kong (even the average Chinese person still has one-third more space), you can see there is plenty of opportunity to utilize your home a lot more efficiently than you do (or to move to a smaller, cheaper place). If you were of course so deeply concerned with the efficient use of space, that is. Yet, the evidence is that most of us do not. We seem to prefer a more spacious, less efficiently used home. Are we crazy to leave so much money lying around, if we could cut our rent or mortgage easily by half or more?

Of course we are not. We may be quite keen to use the space in the kitchen as efficiently as possible, but elsewhere we actually value more room — often as much as we can afford, with a spacious lounge or a separate study. Efficient use of a scarce resource can be a factor, an important factor even, but it rarely is the only factor. We almost always trade it off with other aspects that we also rate.

This is so, not just for space, but also for time. The scenic route to our destination will take us longer, but it is a more pleasant experience. We could prepare our meals as if we were a contestant in the speed cookery show Ready, Steady Cook!, but we don’t because we feel more relaxed when we do it at leisure.

It is true even for money: most of us could have bought perfectly functional furniture, crockery and cutlery at a fraction of the price we actually paid. We could work longer, or take a higher-paid job. But we don’t, because we prefer better looking chairs, fancier plates and more chunky knives, and because we’d rather spend time with our family than in the office, or don’t like too much responsibility at work, or too many business trips.

The perceived discrepancy between homo economicus, the self-interested, rational, optimizing being, and real people can, in part, be explained by a narrow view of what is being optimized. If we adopt the view that homo economicus is not solely concerned with material losses and gains but, just like us, trying to find sensible trade-offs that involve more than what can easily be measured in square metres, minutes and pounds, dollars or euros, that difference shrinks.

The lure of the number

Yet the lure of the number is large: figures carry an irresistible authority.

When, two weeks ago, 31 people were killed in mass shootings in the US, one of the more eccentric comments on the events came from Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist, and a bit of a public intellectual. In a tweet, he pointed out that, over the same 48 hours many more people lost their lives to medical error, illness (like the flu), suicide, car accidents and homicide. Do the numbers, as they say, speak for themselves? That depends what it is you want them to say.

The tweet was not, by any account, a particularly sensitive and tactful thing to say in the circumstances. The reason why it lacked sensitivity and tact is embodied in its last sentence, “Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data”. It is a remarkable illustration of the apparent primacy of (numerical) data, that is also characteristic of homo economicus and of how many people perceive economists (and economics).

This message implies that we should not allow our emotions to be influenced by anything else than quantified facts. It implies that all we care about is whether someone lives or dies, irrespective of the circumstances, or of the causes of death. It completely ignores, dismisses even, the effect of a shocking event on anyone who is not directly and materially affected by it. It reduces the gravity of such an event to a single measure: how many people died. It implies that we should not get too worked up about 31 deaths at the hands of crazed gunmen, because it is pretty insignificant compared to the 200 traffic fatalities or the 500 deaths due to medical error.

It is, in a way, a denial of our humanity. We humans care about much more than the things that can be measured and quantified. We care about physical and psychological suffering, about hope and fear, about pride and despair, and so many more things that cannot be counted.

It would be easy to point the finger at Mr Tyson for making the remark in the first place (and for his half-hearted apology afterwards). But that is not the purpose here. Most of us have been in a similar situation more than once: we looked at a situation and only saw the material aspects. We have trivialized someone’s loss, perhaps unaware of the sentimental value the damaged or stolen item had. We have poked fun at people paying good money for an object or experience that we don’t care for, oblivious to, and dismissive of the joy and pleasure it may offer them. We probably all do this much more often than we realize — because it’s hard to think beyond what can easily be quantified.

If we only look at what we can count, whether it’s fatalities, money, time or even square metres, we don’t really know what really counts.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on August 16, 2019.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every week) here. Thanks!

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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