Numbers that mess your head up

Updated: Apr 21, 2020, 07:04 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

Did you know that the first number or word you hear in a description profoundly influences your response to what comes next?

Donald Trump cherry-picked his numbers, as all liars do. Pic/AFP
Donald Trump cherry-picked his numbers, as all liars do. Pic/AFP

C Y GopinathDuring my schooldays in Calcutta, I remember being much taken with a joke about John F Kennedy, US president then, and Nikita Khrushchev, Russian Premier then. The two had played a round of golf together, the story went, and Kennedy had soundly thrashed Khrushchev. The Russian media machine could obviously not honestly report that their great leader had lost a silly game to an American.

The headlines went: Khrushchev placed second, Kennedy came next to last.

It happened again this month, except this time it was Donald Trump playing golf with the Coronavirus. And he wasn't winning. After squandering most of January and all of February telling Americans that there were "just a dozen or so cases" which would "disappear like magic" once spring came, Trump is now mismanaging a train wreck disaster.

The USA today has had 764,265 cases of COVID-19 of which 40,565 have died. The next worst-hit country, Spain, had only a quarter of that: 198,674 cases and a total of 20,453 deaths.

The SARS-Cov-2 virus has gone berserk in the USA, which still doesn't have enough test kits to figure out how many are infected and where the virus is spreading undetected, enough ventilators to keep the critically ill alive, or enough Personal Protective Equipment to keep doctors and medical workers safe.

It is not even a slight exaggeration to say that Trump's monumental incompetence, self-obsession and disinterest in science and facts have directly precipitated this tsunami of a medical and economic disaster.

Yet, the official record emanating from the White House is resplendent. At a press conference, the man who dismissed the pandemic as a hoax found a way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and make himself the hero.

"You're talking about a potential 2.2 million deaths, maybe even beyond that," he said, "and if we can hold that down to a 100,000 — maybe between 100,000 and 240,000 — maybe even less — then we've all done a fantastic job. I'm feeling very good about what I did."

He cherry-picked his numbers, as all liars do. The 2.2 million number was from the UK's so-called Imperial College study, released on March 16, which said that if nothing at all was done then according to their model upto 81% of the US and the UK would be infected, and upto 2.2 million could die in the US.

In cognitive research, as well as in studies of how easy people can be fooled by politicians and statistics, this is called anchoring, in which the first piece of information offered becomes a benchmark. Imagine a friend asks you for a loan of R2 lakh, to which you say an immediate no. He then asks if you could spare at least R5,000. Most people would agree because 5k seems so small compared to the first number, 200k.

Trump anchored the American population to the extreme and improbable figure of 2.2 million deaths and then claimed that his efforts would keep it down to a maximum of 240,000 — and Americans swallowed it, few realising it was 12 times higher than the world's other worst-hit nation, Spain — 240,000 seems small compared to a theoretical 2.2 million.

Anchoring has a verbal equivalent where the way something is first described prejudices and manipulates a person's reaction to it. We learned the trick early in life from the humorist P G Wodehouse.

"So old Oofy Prosser was drunk, Jeeves?" Bertie Wooster asked.

"A tad inebriated, one might say," Jeeves replied circumspectly.

What's the difference between inebriated and drunk? They actually mean exactly the same thing according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, but the Urban Dictionary, which minces no words, says inebriated is a classy way of saying you're drunk. Wastrels and layabouts get drunk, which sounds decrepit, while lords and ladies are inebriated, which sounds like fun.

Similarly, collateral damage does not outrage and anger as much as civilian deaths.

Economically disadvantaged makes the poor sound almost well off.

Sub-standard housing sounds better than slum.

And early retirement opportunity, employee transition, personnel realignment or that great word, rightsizing — all sound sweeter and kinder than plain, simple fired!
How can you avoid getting fooled by numbers and words? Here are some tricks I follow —
1. Look for the numbers and words not being used. If the Citizenship Amendment Act purports to be a compassionate law to let in persecuted peoples, ask who will not be let in?

2. Assume they mean the exact opposite of what they say. The CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), claiming compassion, has a hidden agenda of persecution of Muslims.
3. If an authoritarian claims he is protecting democracy, assume he is directly undermining it.

And if someone tells you they got a little tipsy at a party, assume they were lit up like a Christmas tree.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at Send your feedback to

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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