Turning percentages back into people: personalizing quantification

by sky3 min read12th Sep 2020No comments

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EA MessagingStatistical MethodsCause Prioritization
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Occasionally, I experiment with different ways to grok probabilities and statistics for myself, starting from the basics and making it personal. It involves paying attention to my emotions, and also imagining how different explanations would work for different students. (I'm often a mentor/workshop presenter for college students). If your brain is like mine or you like seeing how other people's brains work, this may be of interest. I'd also love examples in the comments of how you might apply this to your own projects.

The trick that works well for me is turning %s back into people

Example: I think my Project X can solve a problem for more people than it's currently doing. I have a survey (N=1200) which says I'm currently solving a problem for 1% of the people impacted by Issue X. I think I can definitely make that number go up. Also, I really want that number to go up; 1% seems so paltry.

I might start with:Ok, how likely do I think it is that 1% could go up to 5%, 10%, 20%?

But I think this is the wrong question to start with for me. I want to inform my intuitions about what is likely or probable, but this all feels super hypothetical. I know I'm going to want to say 20%, because I have a bunch of ideas and 20% is still low! The %s here feel too fuzzy to ground me in reality.

Alternative: Turn 1% of 1200 back into 12 people

This is 12 people who say they are positively impacted by Project X.

This helps me remember that no one is a statistic. (A post which may have inspired this idea to begin with). So, yay, 12 people!

But going from 1% to 5% still sounds unambitious and unsatisfying. I like ambitious, tenacious, hopeful goals when it comes to people getting the solutions they're looking for. That's the whole point of the project, after all. Sometimes, I can physically feel the stress over this tension. I want this number to be 100%! I want the problem solved-solved, not kinda-solved.

At this point, maybe I could remind myself or a student that "shoulding at the universe" is a recipe for frustration. I love that concept, and sometimes it works. But often, that's just another way of shoulding at myself. The fact remains that I don't want to be less ambitious about solving problems that I know are real problems for real people.

I try the percents-to-people technique again:

  • Turn 5% of 1200 back into 60 people. Oh. That's 48 additional people. Also notice: it's only 60 people if we're talking about 48 additional people, while losing 0.
  • Turn 10% back into 120 people. 108 additional people, while losing 0.
  • Turn 20% back into 240 people. 228 additional people, while losing 0.
  • So, an increase of 5% or 20% is the difference between 48 or 228 additional people reached. I know this program well because I work on it, so I know how much goes into Project X right now to reach 12 people. I'm sure there are things we could do differently, but are they different enough to reach 228+ additional people?

Now this feels different. It's humbling. But it piques my curiosity again instead of my frustration: how would we attempt that? Could we?

  • What else do I need to know, to figure out if 60 or 120 or 240 (...or 1000, or 10000) is anywhere within the realm of possibilities for me?
  • Do I have a clear idea about what my bottlenecks or mistakes are in the status quo, such that I think there are 48 more people to reach (while still reaching the 12)? What processes would need to change, and how much?
  • This immediately brings up the response, "That depends on how long I have." (Woot, now I've just grokked why it's useful to time-bound examples for comparison's sake). We could call it 1 year, or 3, or 10, etc. I personally think 1-3 years is usually easier to conceptualize and operationalize.
  • Whatever I do next, I can see it's obviously going to take notable effort. I also know I can only do so much work in a day. (This is probably the truth of life that I personally hate the most! This is definitely where I remind myself not to should at the universe). Now I wonder, is this program definitely the place where I want to focus my effort for a while? Why? What if there are problems upstream of this one and I could put this effort there instead? ...aha, the value of cause prioritization just got deeper and more personally intuitive.

To return to percentages, here's one more example. Percentages can also feel daunting instead of unambitious:

  • Going from 12 to 60 people is a 400% increase. (Right? I haven't miscalculated something basic? Yes, that's right; thank you, online calculators). 400%! Is that madness?
  • Turn '400% increase' back into 4 additional people reached, for every 1 person reached now.

That may still be daunting. But it may be easier to make estimates or compare my intuitions about different action plans this way.

If you (or your students) are like me, this is a useful approach. It gets me into the headspace of imagining creative possibilities to solve problem X, while still grounding myself within some concrete parameters rather than losing myself to shoulding.

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