Monday, October 8, 2012

Thinking Logarithmically

One of my students recently pointed me to an article about a newly published study on a cognitive trait I had never before considered—the scale we employ to represent and store sense perception data. The article begins thus:
Ask adults from the industrialized world what number is halfway between 1 and 9, and most will say 5. But pose the same question to small children, or people living in some traditional societies, and they're likely to answer 3.

Cognitive scientists theorize that that's because it's actually more natural for humans to think logarithmically than linearly: 30 is 1, and 32 is 9, so logarithmically, the number halfway between them is 31, or 3. Neural circuits seem to bear out that theory. For instance, psychological experiments suggest that multiplying the intensity of some sensory stimuli causes a linear increase in perceived intensity.
The MIT researchers who conducted the study suggest an evolutionary basis for our tendency to employ a logarithmic scale when storing sensory data. I wonder how this study might inform the design of instruments that traditionally rely on arithmetic scales (e.g. scales in social science questionnaires). Should social science instrument designers employ logarithmic scales instead?

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