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Measuring Perceptions of Uncertainty

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What is the difference between an event that is probable and one that is highly likely?

The two terms seem mostly interchangeable, but each individual’s interpretation is actually highly subjective. That means that when stakes are high, such as for the intelligence community or for high-ranking government officials, a slight misinterpretation in the meaning of these phrases could be a matter of life and death.

Sherman Kent and the CIA

Sherman Kent, often described as the “father of intelligence analysis”, was a CIA analyst that recognized the problem of using imprecise statements of uncertainty. Particularly, Kent was jolted by how policymakers interpreted the phrase “serious possibility” in a national estimate about the odds of a Soviet attack on Yugoslavia in 1951. After asking around, he found that some thought this meant a 20% chance of attack, while others ascribed an 80% chance to the phrase. Most people were somewhere in the middle.

Inspired by Kent’s work, a later study asked 23 NATO officers to assign actual numbers to terms like “probably”, “almost certain”, “little chance”, “unlikely”, and other words of estimated probability.

The results were fascinating:

NATO Officer study

Interpretations are all over the map. The words are not precise to begin with, but it’s also worth keeping in mind that people attribute meaning to these phrases based on their personalities, backgrounds, and prior experiences. Context also matters.

How Do We Interpret These Terms?

Although the consequences are less severe for us civilians, we are stuck in the same quandary today.

We’re almost certain a deal will go through, or there’s little chance a candidate will win the presidency. People interpret these terms differently, and these small differences still impact our lives.

Reddit user zonination set out to recreate the poll to see if perceptions of words today matched up with data from the study inspired by Sherman Kent. The results below are very similar, and can help us communicate more clearly, particularly when the stakes are high.

Perceptions of Uncertainty Words

The same idea was also taken a step further, to look at potential misunderstandings that can occur when we use phrases instead of hard numbers.

For example, one person’s a few is another person’s several:

Perceptions of Numbers

If you want to communicate with precision, it’s best to use numbers or specific odds.

Otherwise, be aware that a term like “improbable” can have a considerable range of interpretations – from 0% to 50% – depending on who you are talking to!

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Data Visualization

Visualizing the Decline of Confidence in American Institutions

Americans rely on several institutions for their services and safety—but how has their confidence in institutions changed since 1975?

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Every day, the public relies on a number of major institutions for services and safety. From banks and governments, to media and the military—these institutions play an important role in shaping life as we know it.

Yet, today’s interactive data visualization from Overflow Data shows that America’s confidence in institutions has drastically waned. The data relies on the General Social Survey (GSS) to provide a 40-year overview of how sentiment has changed with respect to 13 different institutions.

Select an institution from the drop-down menu below to see how confidence has changed over time

The Erosion of Confidence

Overall, confidence in most institutions has eroded. Americans find it especially hard to trust their government: the “great deal of confidence” metrics for Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Executive Branch were low to begin with, and have declined further since 1975.

That said, the biggest overall drop belongs to the press, which saw 50% of surveyed Americans saying they have “hardly any confidence” in it in 2016. This is nearly a three-fold increase from 1975, when that number was just 19%. Of course, with the rise of fake news in more recent years, the erosion of confidence in media doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

Here’s a look at the two extremes of sentiment regarding the studied institutions, showing how the opposite measures of “hardly any confidence” and a “great deal of confidence” have changed since 1975:

InstitutionConfidence level19752016Change
🏦 Banks & Financial Institutions Hardly any10.9%31.2%+20.3 p.p.
Great deal32.3%14.1%-18.2 p.p.
🗳️ CongressHardly any26.2%52.6%+26.4 p.p.
Great deal13.6%5.9%-7.7 p.p.
🏫 EducationHardly any13.0%17.5%+4.5 p.p.
Great deal31.5%25.6%-5.9 p.p.
🏛️ Executive BranchHardly any29.7%42.4%+12.7 p.p.
Great deal13.4%12.8%-0.6 p.p.
🏬 Major CompaniesHardly any22.9%17.3%-5.6 p.p.
Great deal20.5%18.3%-2.2 p.p.
🏥 MedicineHardly any17.8%13.4%-4.4 p.p.
Great deal51.8%50.6%-1.2 p.p.
🎖️ MilitaryHardly any14.8%7.6%-7.2 p.p.
Great deal36.3%53.4%+17.1 p.p.
💪 Organized LaborHardly any31.5%22.6%-8.9 p.p.
Great deal10.2%13.9%+3.7 p.p.
🙏 ReligionHardly any23.0%26.4%+3.4 p.p.
Great deal25.8%20.0%-5.8 p.p.
📰 PressHardly any19.0%50.0%+31 p.p.
Great deal24.5%7.6%-16.9 p.p.
🥼 Scientific CommunityHardly any7.4%6.1%-1.3 p.p.
Great deal41.7%42.1%+0.4 p.p.
📺 TelevisionHardly any23.4%43.1%+19.7 p.p.
Great deal18.4%9.8%-8.6 p.p.
⚖️ U.S. Supreme CourtHardly any19.2%17.4%-1.8 p.p.
Great deal31.8%26.3%-5.5 p.p.

Banks and financial institutions have also suffered a bad rep in the public eye. Their “great deal of confidence” metric has dropped sharply from 32.3% to 14.1% in four decades.

One major exception is the military, which emerges as the most trusted institution. Americans’ faith in the military has also shown the most improvement, with a 17.1 p.p increase in a “great deal of confidence” since 1975.

The Split Widens Further

While measuring public confidence in institutions can be subjective, it provides an understanding of where Americans want to see change and reform take place.

For more on how Americans perceive different institutions and the issues that affect them, see how the public is divided based on political affiliation.

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Data Visualization

All the S&P 500 Women CEOs in One Timeline (2000-2019)

Since the turn of the century, only a meager 5.6% of S&P 500-indexed companies have been led by women. Today’s interactive timeline highlights their tenures.

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female ceos s&p 500

All the S&P 500 Women CEOs in One Timeline (2000-2019)

Gender equality has made significant strides since the days of Rosie the Riveter. The iconic wartime image continues to symbolize womens’ empowerment in the present—especially in politics and the workforce.

Yet, the higher and further women get in their careers, it’s clear that barriers still remain. Today’s interactive timeline comes to us from Alex Architektonidis of BoardEx, and it tracks all the women chief executive officers (CEOs) of companies listed in the S&P 500 index since the turn of the century.

The kicker? Across the 500 large-cap companies in the index, only 70 women have ever held the position of CEO or similar titles—and only 28 women currently have this status.

Which Industries Have the Most Women CEOs?

The S&P 500 covers approximately 80% of the U.S. equity market by capitalization. Since the index is fluid and regularly updated, women CEOs were selected based on whether their company was listed in the index during their tenure.

Out of all the sectors represented on the timeline, the top categories are retail with 14 women CEOs, engineering and tech with 10 women CEOs, and finance with 9 women CEOs. Food & beverage and utilities are tied with 7 women CEOs each.

Women Leading in the Corporate World

Topping the list is Marion Osher Sandler, the first and longest-serving woman CEO in the United States. She held the title for nearly 27 years at Golden West Financial Corp (from 1980 to 2006), a company she co-founded and grew to $125 billion in assets.

The next person in line for the longest female-led CEO term is Debra A Cafaro, from the healthcare-focused real estate investment trust Ventas Inc. Cafaro has been CEO of Ventas for 20 years, and generated a cumulative total return of 2,559% since 1999—the S&P average for returns over the same time period was only 215%.

Only two women CEOs show up more than twice on the timeline. The first is Meg Cushing Whitman, who served as President/CEO of Ebay from 1998–2008, Chairman/President/CEO of HP Inc. from 2011–2015, and finally as the CEO of Hewlett Packard from 2015 to 2018. In total, Whitman has spent over 16 years as CEO of these S&P 500 companies.

However, Carol Ann Bartz also has an impressive CV, with nearly 17 years as a CEO under her belt. Bartz was the Chairman/President/CEO of the software corporation Autodesk from 1992–2006, and later on at Yahoo from 2009 to 2011.

The most recent addition to this list is Julie Spellman Sweet, who became the CEO of Accenture on September 1st. She was previously the CEO of Accenture’s North American division, and has been crowned on Fortune’s “Most Powerful Women” list from 2016–2018 consecutively. Sweet’s appointment aligns well with Accenture’s corporate diversity targets—the company is aiming for 25% women in managing director roles globally by 2020.

There’s More Work To Be Done

There’s a growing body of evidence that corporate diversity improves a company’s financial bottom line. A recent CNBC analysis shows that in 2019, over half of female CEOs led their company’s stocks to outperform the S&P 500 index, with some even showing quadruple-digit percentage returns (as previously mentioned with Ventas).

Despite womens’ contributions to nearly half the labor force and consistent success as CEOs, they are disproportionately represented higher up the ladder. Women CEOs still lead a meager 5.6% of S&P 500 companies overall—in fact, women CEO appointments are actually slowing down, averaging less than 6% since 2015.

Such stunted growth is setting back equality at the C-suite level drastically. A joint report between the non-profit Lean In and the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. offers some insight into the reasons underlying this disparity:

Since 2015… corporate America has made almost no progress in improving women’s representation. From the outset, fewer women than men are hired at the entry level. And at every subsequent step, the representation of women further declines.

Women in the Workplace 2018

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