Change Conversations blog

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Changing Minds: Social math, stories and framing

By Pat Heffernan on 8/10/17 4:45 PM

Image of numerous coffee beans to illustrate Social Math 1920 × 920

While officially this is the second in a series of posts about changing minds and message framing, you may be interested because it can also be considered either a confessional about numbers, a bias for whole-brain thinking, or a how-to use social math to illustrate the need for change.

Yes, Data Can Tell Stories Too

You see, I’ve never quite understood the Berlin wall between numbers and words. Perhaps, like me, as a word lover you learned at an early age you were supposed to hate numerical figures and anything connected to prime numbers. Whether or not math anxiety is culturally induced, there is no doubt that it is real for many people.

Neuroimaging studies, [they] pointed out, have revealed the powerful brain response a geometry quiz can trigger. The anticipation of a math problem "is neurally equivalent to the anticipation of physical harm in adults.” -- Researchers from the University of Missouri, the University of California at Irvine and the University of Glasgow, Journal PLOS One

Thankfully, numbers seem to be simply another language to me, a different way of communicating. So early in my career, when asked to prepare a budget for a nonprofit employer, I approached the numbers as a story about our annual goals simply stated in numerical terms.

More recently, I’ve been thrilled by the increased prevalence of infographics and data-driven visuals, because when well done, they demonstrate that numbers can tell stories too. Yet many people continue to have difficulty assimilating data, especially large numbers, or numbers in an unfamiliar unit of measurement.

Large raw numbers may prove a point to statisticians, but others need more context to understand the meaning of the information. That's where social math comes in.

Large board full of numbers

What is Social Math?

Social math is a simple way to make data that includes large numbers easier to grasp by relating it to things that we already understand. It is an analogy based on numbers. It is a tool to combine the emotional impact of stories with the power of data. It is a way of presenting numbers in a real-life, familiar context to help people see the story behind them.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the reality that “facts are not what change peoples’ minds.” The same is true for facts expressed as numbers or data. This may explain why many change agents have moved to telling stories. Stories work because their narrative helps people connect new information to what they already know.

By relating the unfamiliar to the familiar, we can figure out the relevance and meaning of the new information that bombards us every day. Yet stories can also trigger dominant frames, or mental shortcuts, that let us avoid dealing with the need for change. Social math is a tool that can help people connect new information to what they already know, without triggering the status quo or dominant frame.

Social Math Examples

In a post on social math on her blog, ImpactMax, Gayle Thorsen offered a number of examples, some taken from Making Numbers Count by Sightline Institute, known for its use of social math on the climate change issue.

  • One less coal plant is like cutting 40% of Washington’s vehicle emissions. That amounts to all the cars and trucks in Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane plus the 25 next largest cities in the state, combined.
  • Community residents near a gasoline refinery noted that the plant emits 6 tons of pollutants per day—that’s 25 balloons full of toxic pollution for each school child in town.
  • Most people in Africa support their entire families on the equivalent of what Americans spend on pet food.
  • In 1991, enough alcohol was consumed by college students to fill 3,500 Olympic-size swimming pools, about one on every campus in the United States. The overall amount spent on alcohol per student exceeded the dollars spent on books and was far greater than the combined amount of fellowships and scholarships provided to students.
  • The tobacco industry spends more money promoting smoking in a week than the entire federal government spends on preventing smoking in a year. (Sometimes you can skip the number altogether.)

The Berkley Media Studies Group offers a number of examples of social math used well in text alone or with graphics, as well as five tips on "Using social math to support public health policy." My favorite example is the one on gun violence.


Here's an excerpt from how BMSG describes the story this graphic tells:

... from advocates concerned about gun violence, who, in 1996, found that there were more than 11,000 gun dealers in the state of California. In a creative use of social math that remains relevant today, they put the issue into context by creating a chart showing the number of gun dealers in comparison to the state's McDonald's (850), high schools (2,170), and libraries (1,024). This brought the issue of gun availability to life: McDonald's restaurants seemed to be everywhere, but there were more than 10 times as many firearms dealers.

Closer to home, here is the first draft of a social math image eventually used to help explain the high cost of early child care in Vermont. (Sponsor and call-to-action yet to be added.)

Social Math Illustration Showing the Cost of Heating a Home versus the Cost of Child Care: Marketing Partners

Finding these kinds of analogies for your statistics takes some time, but it makes your messaging much more effective. Think creatively about how you can capture the scale of things by comparing them to things of a more familiar size.

Resources and Cautions>

This kind of research is much easier in the internet age. Two sites I find helpful are: WolframAlpha for comparisons of units of measure, and the EarthClock for global energy and environmental issues.

Two important points. First, use social math carefully. You have to be able to defend the way you’re using any data, so make sure all your numbers and comparisons are accurate. You don’t want to make overstatements or repeat crisis images. Second, don’t overuse this tool. Less is more. Often, one piece of data conveyed through social math is more memorable and persuasive than six pieces of data.

Learning More About Social Math

For those of you interested in learning more about the subtleties of using social math, read Frameworks Institute’s Wide Angle Lens, a free online learning module available at A short course on Framing with Numbers is also available.

And for those of you interested in continuing to explore how message framing and social change interact, subscribe above by email or stay connected below.


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Photo credit: Numbers, Creative Commons license 2.0 

Editor's note: This post was originally published in October of 2010 and has been updated to include new information recent examples.

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