How can visualisation fool people?

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Over the years, there are many scientific discussions about which sense is the most important sense in the human body… According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “touch” is thought to be the first sense that humans develop. However, when we consider the complexity of sight or perceiving things through the eyes, the sight can beat the other senses. Of course, everything about the brain is not discovered yet, but even with empirical observation, we can not ignore how sight affects our decision-making process and using it as a cross-check mechanism for our all other senses.

When we consider the learning or decision-making process, humankind is better with visuals than texts or numbers. According to Visual Teaching Alliance, the brain can see images in 13 milliseconds and eyes can send 36,000 visual messages per hour. On top of it, in the brain, visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text. I guess, that’s why advertising companies mostly focus on visuals/animations than texts. Although it is a very powerful way of communicating the message, at the same time, I think it is one of the most dangerous input providers for a decision-making process, which I will come to that point in a minute...

How do visuals make our lives easier and complicated at the same time?

Let’s start with an example: When someone says, “The height of my office building is 300 meters”, does your brain understand what is 300 meters, how much height does it make?

To be honest, I am struggling to understand. For sure, it is quite high but the feeling of height is not very clear in my brain. But if the sentence “The height of my office building is 300 meter which is same as the Eiffel Tower”, then I process this information associate with something visual that maybe I saw before and got the feeling of this height.

Additional to that, it is not easy to compare numbers and take variance and understand the difference as easily as seeing it.

  • The height of the Great Pyramid Giza is 139 meters / The height of the Eiffel Tower is 300 meters / The height of Burj Khalifa 828 meters.
  • Visual representation of this information:
Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tallest_freestanding_structures#/media/File:BurjKhalifaHeight.png)
Some of the Tallest Structure in the world. (Source: Wikipedia)

This visual representation gives more satisfaction and a quick understanding of the information. That’s why also wrong visuals can lead our brain to misunderstand easily too. If I continue with a similar example:

Could you tell me what is the land area of the United Kingdom, Madagascar, Sweden sequentially from biggest to smallest in the world? (The map below indicates Cylindric Projection)

World Map (Source: https://geology.com/world/world-map.shtml)
World Map

If you were born and studied in North Hemisphere, this representation of the map should be very familiar to you.

I guess that your answer from biggest to smallest is as below, but you already know there is something wrong maybe in the answer.

  • Sweden — United Kingdom — Madagascar

In the map, the representation is: ‘‘The UK is as big as Madagascar, while Sweden is almost 2 times bigger than Madagascar.’’

In reality, the information from Wikipedia about the land area of these countries are:

  • The United Kingdom is 242,495 km²
  • Sweden is 450,295 km²
  • Madagascar 587,041 km²

However, these information is represented differently, because of Cylindric projection which gives more space for UK and Sweden than Madagascar.

Therefore, the size of the countries can change on the map according to the parallel & meridian you are looking from, which I also totally agree. However, as we discussed in the first Eiffel Tower example, even though you know that the map is created with cylindric projection, it is very hard for us to understand that the size of Madagascar is bigger than the size of Sweden. It is a very blurry statement in our minds by just looking at this visual. Do you think this projection information is transmitted to your brain easily and allow you to predict how Madagascar is bigger than Sweden when you look on the same map.

This map is the most common representation of the world, unfortunately in many books and many lectures… When you just type the “map” on your search engine, you can see how common it is.

The real representation of this information is in below pictures. The first picture indicates actual size of UK on top of actual size of Madagascar and the second one represents Sweden as a purple color based on Madagascar area with actual sizes.

Country Size Comparison based on Madagascar (Source)

To make this statement more clear, I would like to show below two images regarding the size representation of countries. The first one indicates the map from Mercator (cylindrical) map projection and the second one represents the relative actual size of the countries. Even though you know that Pic1 represents cylindric projection, and therefore countries close to hemispheres will be represented bigger visually, can you imagine the difference with actual relative size? I can bet most of us can not imagine how small Antarctica (14.2 million km²) is compared to Russia (17.1 million km²).

A relation between the Mercator projection and the actual relative size of each country.

And some people know how to use these visual defects of our brains very well. I am not saying that they hide the information, but visuals can hide the information.

Macworld 2008

In Macworld 2008 conference, Steve Jobs represented the market share of Apple in the pie chart. It seems like there is nothing wrong with it, colors, indicators, percentages… However, the controversial thing is in here “The representation of 19.5% area.” Because of the perception point (3D-effect) of this pie chart, the area of 19.5% takes more surface area than a representation of the “Other” segment with 21.2%. Relatively, this gives a feeling that there is a small difference between 19.5% and 39% market share. Every written information is correct, however, the representation is a bit controversial, and as we mentioned that sometimes visuals can play a more important role than texts.

In above images, left side shows the pie chart which was presented in the conference and the right side shows the pie chart without 3D-effect. Both charts include correct information.

The question that we should ask ourselves is “how does your brain process this 19.5% compared to other segments in two different representations of it? “

For me, when I look the left chart, in the first second, it gives me a feeling that 19.5% is the second biggest area and has a very small difference to be the first one. Even though when I check every number and realize that 19.5% is the biggest third segment, the feeling of representation still affects my conclusion.

What do you think?

How do you consider it from your perspective?

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