Understanding large numbers in politics


Brian Guay

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts




Thomas Jefferson’s claim that, “information is the currency of democracy” takes for granted Americans’ ability to understand the information they are provided. Numbers in the millions, billions, and trillions range have become very common in politics, spanning different fields of political science and public life; the 2013 deficit was $680 billion, Russia is currently holding $494 billion in foreign currency reserves, Obama has deported 2 million illegal immigrants since 2008, and the U.S. national debt is $17.5 billion. Unfortunately, American adults are largely incapable of accurately understanding the large numbers that act as the foundation of these issues (Landy et al., 2013). This study explores how Americans’ inability to accurately work with large numbers affects voters’ behavior in politics. Specifically, we seek to understand how voters’ competency with large numbers affects their evaluation of political situations, such as those found in the news media. We test the effect of two learning interventions, which demonstrate the actual magnitude of large numbers, on participants’ performance on a number-line task and evaluations of political situations.


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