Numerology and Psychic Numbing

safety in numbersNumerology is the belief in a mystical relationship between numbers and events. I can remember as a kid being challenged by the coincidence between numbers and events, later learning that the fascination between numbers and proofs dates back to the Early Church Fathers. There is no doubt that people love the fascination with numbers, Cricket is loaded with these fascinating coincidences for example, how many Australian players get out on 87 (13 shy of a century), how many Australian players have hit 100 on their first innings or the famous hat trick. All kinds of illogical and superstitious significance is given to the nature of numbers linked to events. There is a fascinating little book called ‘The Seal of God’ that uses interesting frequencies and numerology in the Bible to ‘demonstrate’ the wonders of creation. Similarly, any study of the Fibonacci sequence , Pi  or Pythagoras .


The latest book by Slovic and Slovic ‘Numbers and Nerves’ explores the nature of psychology and numbers. In some ways the book is an expansion on Slovic’s earlier work on ‘Psychic Numbing’ . This is an excellent study in how humans become ‘’flooded’ by numbers and numerics to the extent that they become numbed to suffering and harm. This is one of the by-products of ‘big data’ .


We learn through the work of Herbert Simon in ‘Administrative Behavior’ that human rationality is bounded. Surprise surprise, human fallibility restricts comprehension, memory and data containment. This is the nature of being ‘flooded’ and the by-product of flooding is ‘tick and flick’, a neat little coping mechanism to manage bounded rationality.


Slovic and Slovic discuss the ways in which humans are desensitized to risk and empathy by numbers. Numbers are not neutral and like words require definition and consensual validation. We read about hundreds of thousands killed in Dafur and of other genocides and yet the world stands by and does nothing. Slovic and Slovic discuss the nature of numbers and apathy showing that diffusion of responsibility is enacted with the constant bombardment of media numbers in our society. We can’t comprehend a million refugees but we can cry for a small dead boy washed up on a beach . The image of that small boy connected with millions of Australians and changed the Government’s response to Syrian refugee problem.


The safety sector dwells in the world of numerology, it tries to define what safety is by numbers when there is indeed no connection between injury data and safety. It makes as much sense as looking at sporting statistics for a definition of sporting brilliance. When Nadia Comanici got a perfect 10, would there be no one better? So much in safety is attributed to coincidence of numbers and events and then when the numbers go pear shaped, the sector looks for reasons and blame rather than question its assumptions about numerics.


The more safety talks in numbers the more it risks the creation of ‘psychic numbing’. Numbers have no efficacy without meaning and empathy.


  • Boy the seduction of numbers can be strong, I like the use of the term ‘numbing’, it sure can numb our thinking. I’ve been seduced so many times by numbers (and know that i will continue to be seduced), they can be so powerful and influence our thinking without us even knowing.

    I was having a conversation with someone recently about house prices and I found myself kind of listening to the conversations as an outsider for a moment or two, and hearing how we were both ‘talking numbers’ abut were anchored to prices that real estate agents had set, rather than developing our own thoughts about the prices.

    Just when we think we are in control of all of our thoughts…..

    Thanks for the share Rob, I’ve just ordered Numbers and Nerves.

    • Hi Rob, yes Slovic is so good on amplification and attenuation of risk and how numerics affect the unconscious. Some good thoughts.

  • Well said Rob!

    • Thanks Alan. The seduction of numerology is an addiction in safety as if such ‘proofs’ exist. Until safety moves away from this addiction it will continue to dream up meaning in numbers and then attribute safety to it.

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