Mile Two

The Power of the Viral Meme

Jeff Graley // Jan 18,

The past two weeks have been pretty fascinating with the Powerball craze and we have all seen the breakdown of the odds where you have a higher probability of being hit by lightning while drowning than you do of winning the Powerball. That being said I want to focus on the meme in the header that went viral this week and was shared over 1 million times despite the fact that the math behind it is so flawed that my second grader wouldn’t make that kind of mistake.

How does a meme, that is so obviously wrong in hindsight, get shared over 1 million times in a week?

Humans are wired to confirm their beliefs when interacting with the world because evaluating every “simple” decision thoroughly would bring your life to a grinding halt. It would likely take you all the way into lunch to simply decide what to have for breakfast if you thoroughly evaluated your options only along the axes of convenience and nutritional impact. The arithmetic in the meme is a similar case. Throughout our lifetime we have seen countless simple math equations on chalkboards, white boards, and now even on iPad apps. When you see the meme you recognize a simple division equation and skip to the conclusion “Poverty Solved”. That would be great right! Let’s solve poverty. Just to be sure, most people will go back and look at the numbers and say 1.3B divided by 300M is roughly 4 so the math checks out. I still want poverty to be solved! Let’s share this! but in reality we ignored the label “millions” in the equations answer. If I would have given you the equation in a different form you would have never made that mistake.

Positive Test Strategy is one of the many cognitive phenomena that lead to these types of mistakes. It’s premise is that to be efficient humans are biased to look for evidence that confirms their hypothesis. While it is a powerful mechanism for allowing us to efficiently get through the millions of decisions that we make everyday it also can have a powerful negative effect in fields like intelligence analysis and accounting where these types of errors can compound quickly.

Below is another example of the power of representation.

From the lowest value to the largest is approx .01% difference but the figure on the left would lead you to believe that the value has grown significantly.The figure on the right is the same data represented with a different Y axis and gives the reader the impression that no significant changes have occurred over the 5 year period.

Representing information in ways that allow users to evaluate the data in a non-biased fashion can be the difference between quality work and successful business decisions and disaster. At Mile Two, we use cognitive systems engineering techniques to focus on the intersection of humans, technology, and their work and purposefully design our customer’s tools and products to avoid these cognitive “traps”.