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Manipulating people's emotions with numbers
18 Nov 2019

Manipulating People’s Emotions With Numbers, Data And Statistics

Numbers trigger people’s need to feel secure. They convey knowledge. The more people know the more secure they feel. Thus, manipulating people’s emotions with numbers will often target this need.

Manipulating People’s Emotions

Manipulating people’s emotions with numbers occurs as a result of two forces:

  1. Numbers give people the feeling that they know something.
  2. Numbers don’t clarify things as much as people feel they do.

For instance, let’s start simple. People feel more certain when they hear 55% of people say “X” than when they hear most people say “X.” Yet, if the 55% were just an educated guess – not the result of a thorough study – then factually there’s no difference between the two.

Manipulating people's emotions with data and statistics is easy because of people's biases towards numbers.

Numbers provide emotional security from the clarity and certainty they seem to provide.

Emotionally, there is though. That’s a basic form of manipulating people’s emotions with numbers. “Most” is vague, “55%” is definite. In the battle to resolve uncertainty, definite wins over vague.

Now, take something far more involved, polls. A poll found 60% would vote for Person A and 40% for Person B. All right, it’s easy. Person A will win. Really? Here are just a few questions that cast doubt on this:

  • Did they ask people who are likely to vote or did they just ask anyone who could vote?
  • How did they figure out who was likely to vote? Did they vote in the last two elections or did they vote in the last three of five elections? Were they strongly committed to their candidate?
  • If they asked just anyone who could vote, were they registered voters or did they just ask anyone who was eligible to vote?

Confusing? Yes, it is. All data and statistics have related questions behind them.

Taking Advantage Of People’s Inability To Handle The Truth About Numbers

The truth about numbers, data and statistics is this: they don’t give the security that people feel they do. Thus, people overweight them. Yet, to dive into this truth is hard. People can’t handle it.

This exposes them to manipulation. Here’s how. First, if they like what the numbers say, they won’t look behind them. Why ruin the good feeling of knowing something certain?

Second, if they don’t like what they say, manipulators will change what they say. They don’t need to change the numbers either, just how they look. It might mean focusing on the good ones and discounting the bad ones. Again, people won’t dive into the truth. It’s too hard. Manipulators know this.

Manipulating people’s emotions with numbers works because at their core, people want to feel good about the feeling of certainty numbers inherently give.

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