Receive regular updates via email

How to use graphics to explain complex economic relationships

The world of business and finance are filled with numbers, and often filled with fairly complex mathematical concepts in probability, statistics, game theory, and operations research. This is true in just about any enterprise, and is especially true in those kinds of large-scale activities that support basic services in large metropolitan areas.

Dealing with garbage and recycling are one of those kinds of activities that every community has to deal with, and for larger communities it often involves many issues ranging policy making, taxation, electoral politics, and long term planning. Because of the policy and political aspects of these kinds of endeavors, it is vital that every stakeholder in the affected communities have at least a basic understanding of the scale and scope of what that community faces.

When it comes to these kinds of ongoing issues, anyone who is interested in affecting the outcome of the decisions that have to be made should embrace any tool that will help stakeholders and decisions makers agree to their point of view.

One example is the following graphic called the Secret Life of Garbage. A colorful and well-designed graphic like this may not immediately change hearts and minds about how to deal with garbage, but it would almost certainly encourage people to learn something about the issue.

Life of Garbage
Created by:

Decoy marketing

This intriguing article discusses decoy marketing, a tactic marketers use to make their products look better by comparing them to inferior ones offered for a similar price. The author, Roger Dooley, discusses falling prey to this when shopping for shaving cream. First he stares at the shelf, trying to decide between dizzying numbers of options; then he sees that one variety has in its midst taller cans of the same product, but with 20% more for the same price. Instantly he buys, not one, but two of the bigger can, and goes on his way.

What happened? Essentially, his brain was tricked into redefining the situation. Instead of comparing several different products, his mind zeroed in on the very simple decision between products A and B, where they were identical except for the amount of product. This made the decision quick and easy: “B is the much better value!” and once the decision had been made, the other competitors had been eliminated without really considering their merits.

The key element here is that products A and B–the “real” product and the decoy–are almost identical except for the key difference that clinches the sale, in this case amount of product. Gentner and Markman (2006, Psychological Science) explain this forced easy decision this way:

[Comparing items] involves an alignment of structured representations yielding commonalities, differences related to the commonalities, and differences unrelated to the commonalities. One counterintuitive prediction of this view is that it should be easier to find the differences between pairs of similar items than to find the differences between pairs of dissimilar items. This prediction is particularly strong for differences that are related to the commonalities.

In other words, if two items are identical except for a couple of key points, it’s much easier to compare them (and thereby pick the non-decoy). And our brains are lazy. This laziness–among other things–is ripe for marketers to exploit to get us to buy their product. Decoy marketing works by exploiting one of the many shortcuts our brains like to take.