Turning percentages back into people: personalizing quantification

post by sky · 2020-09-12T14:30:35.199Z · score: 24 (11 votes) · EA · GW · None comments

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  The trick that works well for me is turning %s back into people
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Occasionally, I experiment with different ways to grok probabilities and statistics for myself, starting from the basics and making it personal. It involves paying attention to my emotions, and also imagining how different explanations would work for different students. (I'm often a mentor/workshop presenter for college students). If your brain is like mine or you like seeing how other people's brains work, this may be of interest. I'd also love examples in the comments of how you might apply this to your own projects.

The trick that works well for me is turning %s back into people

Example: I think my Project X can solve a problem for more people than it's currently doing. I have a survey (N=1200) which says I'm currently solving a problem for 1% of the people impacted by Issue X. I think I can definitely make that number go up. Also, I really want that number to go up; 1% seems so paltry.

I might start with:Ok, how likely do I think it is that 1% could go up to 5%, 10%, 20%?

But I think this is the wrong question to start with for me. I want to inform my intuitions about what is likely or probable, but this all feels super hypothetical. I know I'm going to want to say 20%, because I have a bunch of ideas and 20% is still low! The %s here feel too fuzzy to ground me in reality.

Alternative: Turn 1% of 1200 back into 12 people

This is 12 people who say they are positively impacted by Project X.

This helps me remember that no one is a statistic. (A post which may have inspired this idea to begin with). So, yay, 12 people!

But going from 1% to 5% still sounds unambitious and unsatisfying. I like ambitious, tenacious, hopeful goals when it comes to people getting the solutions they're looking for. That's the whole point of the project, after all. Sometimes, I can physically feel the stress over this tension. I want this number to be 100%! I want the problem solved-solved, not kinda-solved.

At this point, maybe I could remind myself or a student that "shoulding at the universe" is a recipe for frustration. I love that concept, and sometimes it works. But often, that's just another way of shoulding at myself. The fact remains that I don't want to be less ambitious about solving problems that I know are real problems for real people.

I try the percents-to-people technique again:

Now this feels different. It's humbling. But it piques my curiosity again instead of my frustration: how would we attempt that? Could we?

To return to percentages, here's one more example. Percentages can also feel daunting instead of unambitious:

That may still be daunting. But it may be easier to make estimates or compare my intuitions about different action plans this way.

If you (or your students) are like me, this is a useful approach. It gets me into the headspace of imagining creative possibilities to solve problem X, while still grounding myself within some concrete parameters rather than losing myself to shoulding.

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