“Did you know that we can process visuals 60,000 times faster than text?” -3M Visual Systems Division

This “statistic” is used all the time in promoting the value of data visualizations, marketing, and quality presentations. Hubspot has used it (multiple times) as have the folks at presentation design firm Ethos3. It shows up in blog posts and news articles and infographicsMore recently, Visually used it. It’s a sexy number, right? We process visuals 60,000 times faster than text? That’s crazy! That’s great! Let’s make infographics and visualizations and graphs! Let’s get rid of text altogether because pictures are the only way to communicate!

The problem is that the number appears to be completely unfounded. Thus, I’m begging you, Internet, please stop using it. Please.

Let’s go to the original source, which appears to be a two-page report in 1997 from the 3M Corporation. Entitled, Polishing Your Presentation, the offending numbers shows up in the second sentence, prominently displayed.

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In any good research paper, we find the references at the bottom, right? Not here though. Nothing. Along the side of page 2, we find a banner labeled “Related Reading.” It’s unclear whether these are citations for the various numbers used throughout the document or are provided as additional resources.

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I haven’t been able to hunt down all of these citations, but a few things turned up.

  1. My guess is that the first on the list is also from 3M and makes no mention of the 60,000 number.
  2. A Quiz for the First-Time Presenter” is a dead link and is no longer supported. It appears to be a simple quiz about giving good presentations and probably not about how our brains work.
  3. I believe the Kushner reference is a “Presentations for Dummies” book, since updated. I found no reference to the 60,000 number in there either.
  4. I haven’t been able to locate the Meilach article. I did, however, find the following (somewhat comical) citation to the article in a post about presentations on ULearnOffice.

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 5.21.37 PMIf this was indeed stolen from an in-flight magazine, I’m not optimistic I’ll be able find it, and I certainly doubt it includes a serious study about how our brains interpret text and images.

All of my work here is probably unnecessary. Back in 2012, Alan Levine over at the cogdog blog did an exhaustive search for the original document, even offering a $60 reward for the original source! He explored all the usual suspects, scoured libraries, and even called 3M, all with no success. It is worth your time to read through his post. To date, the $60 remains unclaimed.

I don’t believe that we, as readers, need to factcheck every single statistic that’s published in every article that’s ever been written. That responsibility should be on writers, researchers, and publishers. But, when you see a number that just sounds so good, that looks so good, and especially when it perfectly suits your claim or argument–but is completely unreferenced in the source document–it is incumbent upon you to be skeptical! It is your responsibility to dig a little deeper and find where it comes from. And you should be critical when you do find the original source, because sometimes these numbers are based on faulty logic, data, or methodologies.

This 60,000 statistic and a few others (I’ll write about another interesting one found a few months ago if you’re interested; use the comment box below) repeatedly pop up and are used by people and firms that I usually follow and trust. But every time an author uses numbers like these, I pause when I read their work. As writers and bloggers, researchers, analysts, whatever, we must be more careful with the numbers we use and reuse because 82% of people make important decisions with those numbers 63% of the time. But don’t cite me on it.