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Infographics and Heuristics

Another article from EcoNZ@Otago on infographics and heuristics.

Many scientists (including economists) rely heavily on empirical analysis in their research. Overwhelming the public with statistics can be a big turn-off. Journalists and economists have introduced infographics to their writing whcih combine data with visual appeal (via artwork and design).

In doing so, scientists can take advantage of a variety of ‘mental shortcuts’ (or heuristics) used by the general public to identify patterns, to assign meaning to information, and to retain knowledge. This leads into the area of Behavioural Economics.

The basic idea of behavioural economics is that decisions tend to be biased because they are based on heuristics (decision-making shortcuts). The problem isn’t so much that people’s choices don’t reveal their wants and desires, but that their wants and desires are often biased and error prone.

Visualisations contain particular characteristics, known as preattentive attributes, which the human brain can interpret very quickly. Colour, for example, can be used to draw attention or isolate outliers (see Figure 1). Colour can also transmit meaning.Think of the daily weather map as an example: cool regions are coloured blue and warm regions are coloured red. As people associate these colours with cold and hot temperature, viewers can get a sense of what the weather will be like by just looking at the map and not noticing the exact temperatures. Size and placement can be used to establish significance, with larger, central, and forward objects indicating more importance (see Figure 2). Symbols can be used to form visual narratives or metaphors which can give viewers hints as to the meaning behind the images (see Figure 3). By combining visual elements with textual explanations, meaningful and memorable messages can be disseminated faster than with text alone.

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