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A Question Of Size

Posted by Viktoria Michaelis on November 26, 2013 in News & Opinion |

I am currently reading, amongst other books, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and came across this interesting paragraph:

To appreciate the norms in communication, consider the sentence ‘The large mouse climbed over the trunk of the very small elephant.’ I can count on you having norms for the size of mice and elephants that are not too far from mine. The norms specify a typical or average size for these animals, and they also contain information about the range or variability within the category. It is very unlikely that either of us got the image in our mind’s eye of a mouse larger than an elephant striding over an elephant smaller than a mouse. Instead, we each separately but jointly visualized a mouse smaller than a shoe clambering over an elephant larger than a sofa.

Sorry, Professor Kahneman, but I disagree.

Let us take the first part of my disagreement:

The large mouse climbed over the trunk of the very small elephant.

This does not suggest that the mouse is larger than the elephant. It may well be that the elephant is a baby and the mouse full-grown, there is nothing to suggest, in this sentence, that their sizes are anything other than normal.

It is very unlikely that any of us got the image in our mind’s eye…

There is no specification of age or origin for your viewers. A child in Germany, for example, would see this sentence differently to a child in the United States, or to an adult. We are constantly surrounded, in our youthful years, with images brought to us through the medium of television which, as we all know, do not necessarily conform to real life. So, a child in Germany may well have a completely different image in their mind’s eye of a mouse and an elephant, brought about by what they have seen and experienced through the television screen.

Viktoria Michaelis: Sendung mit der Maus

Image Source: McDaniel College. Original Characters: Westdeutscher Rundfunk

Such impressions remain in our minds for many years until, eventually, we learn otherwise. In much the same way as a person asked to consider how many murders are committed in Michigan, but forgets to include a high crime city such as Detroit, we work on the information we have and the automatic connections made through that information.

Whilst the comparison may well work for those who are constantly aware of both elephants and mice through their daily experiences, or those who have grown up with the correct knowledge, but overlook the possibility that it is a large mouse which is still smaller than a small elephant, it is not faultless. Interpretation (System 1) is intuitive, as you clearly explain, but intuition is based upon what we already know and what we can, without extra or deeper thought, accept. It is very unlikely that anyone would really consider this comparison any deeper (System 2) simply because, as I explain above, it still makes sense and can still be considered correct.

  • Viktoria Michaelis.

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