Do you ever feel like your life is dictated by the numbers—from the numbers in your bank account to counting the steps in keeping your fitness?
You are not alone.
We are surrounded by numbers like never before.
The human race now generates more numbers per day than all the numbers generated between the first clay tablet in Uruk 5,000 years ago – and the year 2020.
This number has an epidemic effect on us, say economics professor Micael Dahlen from the Stockholm School of Economics and professor of commerce Helge Thorbjornsen at the NHH Norwegian School of Economics.
Counting numbers can make us more greedy, stressed, less emotional, and even lead to depression, the authors warn in a new book, “More Numbers Every Day: How Figures Take Over Our Lives – And Why It’s Time to Free Ourselves.” (Hachette).
“The pedometer counts the steps for you,” they write.
“Facebook counts your friends for you. Today they count everything you do during the day. And at night too for that matter.
Numbers affect us physically and mentally, they warn – and we risk becoming “number capitalists”, exchanging numbers in life for cheaper deals from a large corporation feeding our personal data to artificial intelligence.
The authors recommend taking a “number vaccine” to reduce your dependence on numbers in your life – and free yourself from thinking about all the numbers.
“Maybe you will decide that some parts of your life can actually be quantified. Or at least, you could do a temporary detox, they write.
“In any case, we think that it would be better for everyone to get vaccinated against the numbers, so that they can choose to control themselves.”
How do numbers shape your feelings?
How many numbers affect us? Numbers motivate us physically, including how much weight people can deadlift, with experiments showing that American bodybuilders hit their wall at 225 pounds because it’s a healthy number.
Researchers say the effect is known SNARC (spatial-numerical association response codes) means that you look down as you count down, and turn more to the left if you are shown a low number.
On “milestone” birthdays (that’s 30, 40, 50) you don’t feel a year older — you feel 2.4 years older on average, researchers say.
What is your favorite number? Most people pick the number seven, according to research of 44,000 people by British author and mathematician Alex Bellos (hence perhaps the seven deadly sins, the seven seas, the seven days of the week — and the seven dwarfs.
So what are we going to do about this?
“We are number animals and we are influenced by numbers whether we know it or not,” Dahlen and Thorbjornsen write.
“Be careful with them both yours and others.”
The numbers hurt your self-image
Numbers also affect the way we feel about ourselves, especially numbers related to money and social happiness.
Focusing on money or thinking makes us stronger and more self-confident, scientific studies show — but it also makes us more self-centered. People who collect money are less afraid of death.
An experiment by the authors showed that people who monitor economic data are more focused on working, more contentious, and even more xenophobic.
People also become more insensitive to the needs of others, less considerate and less social.
Social media can have similar effects.
Researchers have done their own experiments with social media and found that people who get lots of likes in pictures have increased life satisfaction, self-confidence, and stress levels.
“One of the reasons the number of likes has such a direct and immediate effect on self-confidence is that they make social comparison so incredibly simple,” the authors write.
“It’s very easy to compare two numbers. Two pictures of a vacation or two pictures of a plate of food are not.”
Numbers like BMI and confidence ratings give us ways to compare things with other people — and by looking at people, they compare us up rather than down, looking at people who are “doing better” than us. We would regret this.
Numbers, especially on social media, can be addictive, the authors write.
“Do a detox now and then.”
Numbers can save you from your motivation
The movement of self-quantity predicts that measuring numbers such as heart rhythm and blood sugar can make it superhuman, according to the movement from Timothy Ferriss’s book “Body Hour 4”, with promising results including increasing fat loss by 300% and allowing 15-minute orgasms for women.
But is technology and measuring numbers all that actually makes people healthier?
Americans believe this, with more than 40% believing that self-esteem increases athletic ability and reduces fat.
However, there is really little evidence that using machines for performance mode has any significant positive effect.
“Several of the (few) controlled studies that look at the effect of glasses, step counters, and various forms of health logging find significant but relatively weak positive effects on personal health and performance,” write the authors.
“We run a little faster, lose a little more weight, or perform a little better. But little.”
The researchers say that Jordan Etkin’s study at Duke University shows that measuring performance actually hurts motivation, and over time, people drop out of the activity they do and enjoy it less.
By setting a standard, it takes a person’s mind away from the activity itself – so people who enjoyed jogging in the fresh air and the ability to listen to music, are more invested in the numbers.
“Measurement can lead to reduced motivation and self-deception,” the authors write. “Be honest with yourself.”
The number of vaccines: Measuring yourself leads to deception
We have all become ‘number capitalists’
In 2018, insurer John Hancock Insurance announced that it would sell interactive lifestyle devices that collect data through fitness wearables such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit.
People who don’t use inventions pay higher premiums.
We use large companies to collect geolocation information, health data, number of followers, and how hot our living rooms are. In return, we receive more personalized services, more detailed information and cheaper services.
These algorithms are all “self-correcting” through artificial intelligence and deep learning, – neural networks used to “learn” from large amounts of human data in a way that mimics the human brain.
Some of these models are “black boxes” where there is little insight into how the AI makes its predictions.
One Nordic bank developed an advanced learning model that could predict when people would default on loans – but was forced to withdraw it when it couldn’t explain how it would work. What else happens to our private data inside these ‘black boxes’?
“Think carefully before exchanging numbers for money,” write the authors.
“Are you sure you want Google, Lake, and the rest of them to know everything about you, your family, your health?”