To put that in perspective: Generating analogies that make numbers easier to understand

Abstract

Laypeople are frequently exposed to unfamiliar numbers published by journalists, social media users, and algorithms. These figures can be difficult for readers to comprehend, especially when they are extreme in magnitude or contain unfamiliar units. Prior work has shown that adding “perspective sentences” that employ ratios, ranks, and unit changes to such measurements can improve people's ability to understand unfamiliar numbers (e.g., “695,000 square kilometers is about the size of Texas”). However, there are many ways to provide context for a measurement. In this paper we systematically test what factors influence the quality of perspective sentences through randomized experiments involving over 1,000 participants. We develop a statistical model for generating perspectives and test it against several alternatives, finding beneficial effects of perspectives on comprehension that persist for six weeks. We conclude by discussing future work in deploying and testing perspectives at scale.