How Information Graphics Reveal Your Brain’s Blind Spots

By ProPublica

Welcome to Visual Evidence, a new regular series about visualization in the real world! We’ll take a look at unexpected datasets, cool design solutions or insightful graphics. We’ll find examples of how visual information can help us solve real-world problems or save us from our own mistakes. And we’ll illustrate all these ideas with charts, sketches, and of course, plenty of gifs.

Chances are, you probably think your mind works pretty well. It might lead you astray now and then, but usually it helps you make good decisions and remember things reliably. At the very least, you’re probably confident that it doesn’t change depending on the time of day or what you had to eat.

But you’d be wrong. Our brains fool us all the time. And we typically have no idea that it’s happening.

Let’s look at some of the wacky things our minds make us think and do. And then we’ll examine how graphics, including charts, interactives and other visual tools, can help show us our mind’s shortcomings.

Our Mind’s Everyday Quirks

We’ll start with a study of Israeli judges done by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and Columbia University. They were looking at what caused judges to rule the way they did. A favorable ruling could mean, for example, granting parole or moving a prisoner to a different prison. You might expect that a judge’s decision would have something to do with how serious the crime was or how much time had been served already, or how many times a prisoner had gone to jail before. But these researchers found something else that had a huge effect on a judge’s ruling: lunch.

Yup. Quite literally, whether or not a prisoner got a favorable ruling depended in part on how long it had been since the judge had something to eat.

As you can see in the chart, the rate of favorable rulings starts at around 65% early in the day, then drops to almost zero, and then spikes back up again after the judges come back from a meal break.

The paper ominously concludes: “Indeed, the caricature that justice is what the judge ate for breakfast might be an appropriate caricature for human decision-making in general.”

Let’s move now to an entirely different part of the world: Texas. The airport in Houston had a problem.

Passengers were complaining about the inordinately long time they had to wait to pick up their …read more