Do we really understand the numbers we receive?

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Marketing and branding departments spend millions on research and focus groups to determine the best way to sell their products to consumers. Governments, organisations and the media are all heavily invested in bringing numbers across to ordinary people. And now, new research by Assistant Professor Christophe Lembregts from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) indicates that the way people process information about numbers might have an important role to play in how they evaluate choices.

When it comes to the products we buy, how much does the information associated with those products influence our decisions? For instance, what lies behind the bold logos and branding of your favourite diet soft drink or low-fat/low sugar product? Often, it is the small-print list of ingredients and the grams of fat or sugar the product contains. But what if people have less understanding of these numbers than these companies assume? And what if the way companies presented numbers made a difference in how we evaluate their products?

If a typical soft drink’s label describes the contents as having 55 grams of sugar, how many people can actually visualize that to really understand what it means? What if, instead, the label said 11 cubes of sugar? What if the size of a mansion was described as 10 rooms instead of 600 square meters? And what if walking distance was described as four blocks instead of 400 metres? Many people would find this much easier to visualize and really see the individual elements. This in turn would help them evaluate their choices in a more informed way.

A recent series of studies we conducted shows that people do process units of measurement differently, depending on their ability to process numbers in general. This has to do with a seemingly arbitrary component of quantitative information – the unit. It works like this: some people are better able to evaluate quantitative information if it is described with what are called discretizing units. A discretizing unit describes something in terms of a number of more easily understood elements. Read more

The paper Making Each Unit Count: artikel 'Making Each Unit Count: The Role of Discretizing Units in Quantity Expressions',  by Christophe Lembregts and Bram Van den Bergh, was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, volume 45. Issue 5.

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Marianne Schouten, Press Officer RSM, T (010) 408 2877, E