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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 Happiest Country on Every Continent

Where are the happiest, least happy, and fastest improving countries worldwide? We’ve broken down this annual ranking by region to answer that question.

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Visualizing the Happiest Country on Every Continent

The state of our world is shifting beneath our feet — economics alone no longer equate to satisfaction, let alone happiness.

Today’s visualization pulls data from the seventh World Happiness Report 2019, which ranks 156 countries by their happiness levels. We’ve previously shown the variables used to measure happiness in this report, but here, we break down rankings by continent and region for a clearer picture of where each country lies.

happiness north america map

North America

Unhappy Americans have caused the country to tumble in rankings for a third straight year, despite evidence that things are generally looking up. The report attributes much of this erosion to a variety of addictions: opioids, workaholism, gambling, internet, exercise, and even shopping are among them.

Haiti is the least happy country in this region. The country is still struggling to rebuild sanitation infrastructure and other educational and healthcare programs, despite foreign aid.

In brighter news, Nicaragua is seeing great gains in happiness levels, as the country makes a concentrated effort to reduce poverty.

happiness south america map

South America

In South America, the majority of countries cluster around a score of six on the happiness scale.

The one notable exception to this is Venezuela, which is faltering in both happiness rank and regional improvement. The nation’s hyperinflation and humanitarian crisis both show no signs of slowing down.

happiness europe map

Europe

Finland comes out on top of the world for a second consecutive year, and it’s not difficult to see why. The country boasts a stable work-life balance, bolstered by a comprehensive welfare state.

Scandinavian countries appear among the happiest nations for similar very reasons — elevating the region’s score to 16% above the global average.

On the flip side, Ukraine is the unhappiest, likely intensified by the ongoing war in southeastern Donbass. Greece is the least improved, as it continues to heal from the sovereign debt crisis.

happiness middle east map

Middle East and Central Asia

Uzbekistan shows the swiftest regional improvement, as the country has launched an ambitious reform agenda for greater economic, social, and political development and openness.

Unfortunately, Syria’s continued civil war comes with a heavy price for its people and economy, as does the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — although the latter doesn’t seem to impact Israel’s happiness ranking. In fact, Israel finished with the 13th best score, globally.

happiness asia 2019

Rest of Asia and Oceania

In East Asia, the average happiness score is quite close to the global average, with Taiwan standing out as the happiest country.

Singapore out-competes other countries within Southeast Asia, despite only being home to a population of 5.6 million. Its neighbor Malaysia, however, plunged from 35th to 80th place.

Oceania stands alone – Australia and New Zealand are closely matched in their individual happiness scores.

happiness africa map

Africa

The African continent as a whole fares 19.2% below the global average. But there are silver linings, with strong strides towards improvement being made.

Mauritius benefits from good governance and a buoyant tourism sector — with visitor arrivals equal to the island’s 1.3 million population. Meanwhile, Benin has soared in the rankings, and is supported by the World Bank in key structural reforms such as poverty reduction and access to basic services.

What could these rankings look like in another ten years?

Notes: The Africa map was updated to show more country scores. The report only covers 156 countries, so “Oceania” only refers to Australia and New Zealand in this instance.

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Animation: 200 Years of U.S. Immigration As Tree Rings

Since 1830, there have been four major waves of U.S. immigration – and this unique video depicts the influx of immigrants as rings in a tree trunk.

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If you walk down the streets in the United States, the odds are that one in every four people you’ll see is an immigrant, or was born to immigrant parents.

While those odds might seem high, the truth is nearly everyone in the U.S. hails from someplace else if you look far back enough.

Visualizing U.S. Immigration

Today’s intriguing visualization was created by professors Pedro M. Cruz and John Wihbey from Northeastern University, and it depicts U.S. immigration from 1830 until 2015, as rings in a growing tree trunk.

The researchers turned registered U.S. Census data into an estimate for the total number of immigrants arriving each decade, and then the yearly figures in the visualization. One caveat is that it does not account for the populations of slaves, or indigenous communities.

From the Old to the New World

The pattern of U.S. immigration can be explained in four major waves overall:

U.S. Immigration Waves

The origins of U.S. immigrant populations transform from era to era. Which events influenced each wave?

Frontier Expansion: 1830-1880

  • Cheap farmland and the promise of economic growth in the first Industrial Revolution spurred large-scale immigration from Britain, Germany, and other parts of Central Europe.
  • The Irish Potato Famine from 1845 to 1849 drove many immigrants from Ireland over to the U.S.
  • The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe ended the Mexican-American war, and extended U.S. citizenship to over 70,000 Mexican residents.

Industrialization: 1880-1915

  • Immigrant mobility increased with the introduction of large steam-powered ships. The expansion of railroads in Europe also made it easier for people to reach oceanic ports.
  • On the other hand, the Chinese Exclusion act in 1882 prohibited Chinese laborers from entry.
  • In 1892, the famous Ellis Island opened; the first federal immigration station provided a gateway for over 12 million people.

The Great Pause: 1915-1965

  • The Immigration Act of 1924 enacted quotas on immigrant numbers, restricting groups from countries in Southern and Eastern Europe, and virtually all immigrants of Asian origin.
  • The Great Depression, and subsequent World Wars also complicated immigration matters as many came to seek refuge in the United States.

Post-1965 Immigration: 1965-Present

  • The Hart-Cellber (Immigration and Naturalization Act) of 1965 overturned all previous quotas based on national origin. Family unification and an increase in skilled labor were two major aims of this act.
  • This decision significantly impacted the U.S. demographic makeup in the following decades, as more immigrants of Latin, Asian, and African descent entered the country.

E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One)

While others have mapped two centuries of immigration before, few have captured its sheer scale and impact quite as strikingly. The researchers explain their reasoning behind this metaphor of tree rings:

This idea lends itself to the representation of history itself, as it shows a sequence of events that have left a mark and shaped the present. If cells leave a mark in the tree, so can incoming immigrants be seen as natural contributors to the growth of a trunk that is the United States.

It’s no wonder that this animation showing U.S. immigration won Gold for the “People, Language, and Identity” and “Most Beautiful” categories at the 2018 Kantar Information is Beautiful Awards.

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