People, not numbers

Statistics blind us to the importance of individuals.

We live in a big world―a world of 7.8 billion people, as of mid-2020. As a result, we hear statistics about enormous groups: median incomes, average lifespans, and more. But our brains aren’t built to think about groups of people at this scale. We’re evolutionarily designed to deal with smaller groups―according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the maximum group size we’re equipped to handle is around 150 people.[[1]]

When faced with statistics about millions or billions of humans, we struggle to intuitively relate the numbers we see to the people they represent. Consciously thinking about the unique individuals that make up large groups, instead of only considering the groups in their entirety, will impact how you think about both the positive and negative aspects of our world. Let’s start with the positive.

Think of your work as improving individual lives

What you make doesn’t have to help millions of people to be worth making. The business end of this idea has been written about at length (see Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans), but let’s focus on the personal side.

Think about the things you use every day. Most of us have at least one or two products we really love, and that we’re fairly price-insensitive towards.[[2]] It’s wild that a single (often small) thing can have such a large positive impact on your life!

Imagine being the creator of a product you love. Maybe the product has 100 users/buyers, or 1,000, or 10,000. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? After all, 10,000 people is only 0.003% of the population of the US. Creating something that’s used by so few people hardly sounds worthwhile from an impact perspective, at least at first blush. If you want to have a big impact, well, you’ve missed out on 99.997% of the country (and 99.9999% of the world)!

But if instead of 0.003%, you think of 10,000 distinct individuals, making something all those individuals need takes on a new meaning. Your life means so much to you, and while it’s easy to forget it, other people’s lives mean just as much to them. With that in mind, having a major impact on even one person’s life is meaningful…and multiplying that impact by 10,000 turns you into a source of real change. Thinking of users as distinct individuals makes your work more personal and compelling.

Numbers are cold, individuals evoke empathy

At the other end of the spectrum, we use numbers to avoid having to think about the suffering of others.

In 2010, the infectious bacterial disease diphtheria caused 0.005% of all deaths worldwide.[[3]] It’s hard to imagine that figure alone garnering broad support to help find a cure. As cruel as it sounds, 2,900 deaths isn’t many in a year where almost 53 million people died.

Let’s bring that 2,900 closer to home, though: between the NFL, NBA, and MLB, there are 2,896 players. If every player in all three of those leagues died, we’d still be 4 people short of the 2010 diphtheria death toll. It would be national news if just one player from each league died, nevermind all of them. And yet, I’d never even heard of diphtheria before I started doing research for this piece.

By replacing the 2,900 anonymous and abstract victims with specific individuals that we have some connection to, it suddenly starts to feel like a much bigger deal.

More generally, becoming conscious of how we abstract away large groups of people opens our eyes to the pressing problems all around us. These are problems we can help with, and by thinking of the people affected as people ―fathers and mothers, sons and daughters―instead of numbers, we’re much more likely to take action.

We inevitably look at groups of people we’re not familiar with as numbers instead of humans, if only to prevent overwhelm. I’m not suggesting you always think of the individuals, and never of the group as a whole. But the next time you notice yourself dismissing a group of people as too small to be significant, imagine each person in that group as an individual with hopes, dreams, and desires…and watch your perspective change.


[[2]]: A personal example: sriracha. As silly as that sounds, I put it on everything, and would pay $75 a bottle if I had to.