The 60,000 Times Question Remains Unanswered


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by woodleywonderworks

I’m trying to be the relentless dog who will not drop the bone. Believe it, you cannot find everything on the web, and in this case, what I find on the web is something repeated so much, that people accept it as truth.

I am calling agents of information literacy to help me find the grail.

Back in May I wrote about trying to locate the source of a statement that is repeated so much, I had heard it, and accepted it as something that somewhere had a research basis- it is some variation of:

Research at 3M Corporation concluded that we process visuals 60000 times faster than text.

Go ahead, google jockeys, see if you can get anything beyond this:

google search results for 'process visuals 60000 times faster than text'

I traced this back to a PDF published at 3M (on a web page that exists now only in the internet archive, everyone stop and bow in honor towards the archive), where the only citation reference reads:

Did you know that visual aids have been found to improve learning by up to 400 percent? Did you realize that we can process visuals 60,000 times faster than text? Would you guess that the average person only remembers about a fifth of what they hear?

These findings from behavioral research confirm our daily experience: we rely on all our senses to bring ideas and concepts to life.

(my emphasis added) That is it- the basis for this oft repeated assertion is usually cited as 3M, and the reference there is the vague, “These findings from behavioral research” — Where is this research? Where? Where?

I’ve asked a few librarians, who dug, but found no bone. I contacted 3M through their contact form, and very nice lady named Mary responded and we went back and forth. She wrote a month later and said there was someone in the office that had the answer in a document, and she would send it when this person returned from vacation.

I thought I was close!

The document she sent me?

It was that same PDF I found on the web myself.


cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by timekin

I cannot let this go. There is a lesson to be learned here about what is fact and what appears to be fact by sheer repetition. I fully believe there is a research paper somewhere that supports this assertion, though I actually seriously doubt the hard fact of the 60,000 times number.

So how do I make this happen? I am going to post it to Snopes.com. I will tweet it out. I will email some more librarians. I will try the strength of my weak ties. Maybe I will offer money?

I cannot let go of this.

I won’t.

Help me?

Here’s the deal. I don’t have 60,000 bones in the bank- but I will put fur in the game– I will pay the first person to send me the source of this research $60.00! I am asking not only for the citation, but the research paper itself or at least the content.

How many more cute dog pictures will it take?


cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by timofeic

UPDATE: July 7, 2012 A great flurry activity of response to this post and a round of direct emails to colleagues. The $60 prize awaits.

A number of people sent me the link for the Polishing Presentations document (2001) that is usually cited in publications. As I have blogged about the frist time around – this is not a credible reference since it only parrots the assertion and mentions it as “findings from behavioral research”.

Several people pointed me to what looks like related research from the University of Minnesota published in 1986 as Persuasion and the Role of Visual Presentation Support: The UM/3M Study maybe the first was a tweet from Karla Cross who later suggested tracking down the lead author, Doug Vogel

And Doug did respond to my email request and replied:


The research that I did as a PhD student at the U. of Minnesota was involved with persuasion and the working paper that you found is actually the most complete description of the work (even beyond that which was ultimatedly reported in my thesis). I have not seen the 2001 3M publication but my research had nothing to do with visual processing speed.

cheers,

doug

This paper alone opens another worm hole to explore, its often repeated conclusion:

Presentations using visual aids were found to be 43% MORE PERSUASIVE than unaided presentations.

Can the original research, which was tightly bound around a study of graduate students responding to a pitch for a seminar presented to them in VHS and overhead transparencies and measuring how many of them signed up, really be this globally extended as a “fact”? I dont question the original work, but again, once something gets repeated… well, there you go, again.

If anyone is close to the prize, it is Darren Kuropatwa who went to the extremes in his research (and introduced me to the interesting search tool http://millionshort.com/ which performs searches after stripping out the most popular sources so you can zero in on the obscure…

Darren unearths notes form a presentation by Jenn Manalo, Sr. Product Specialist, 3M Corp. (31 August 1998) where she repeats the magic chorus:

So good visuals benefit not only the audience but the organization and presenter as well. This is because of increased productivity and effectiveness, enhanced professional image of the presenter, and a generally more attentive audience.

“Humans can process an outstanding amount of visual information. Actually, we can process at 60,000 times faster than text.”

Before you get too excited, she also cites the Vogel et al paper above but includes the faulted re-iteration (emphasized below) of Dale’s Cone of Experienced

In creating effective presentations, we all know visuals can be of great assistance. According to research findings, visual aids help increase persuasiveness of presentations by as much as 43%. People remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, and 50% of what they see and hear. Furthermore, the use of colors can accelerate learning, retention, and recall by 55% to 73%; increase comprehension by up to 73%; and sell (products and ideas) more effectively by 50% to 85%.

UPDATE: July 7 (later in the day!): I’ve been spraying the request everywhere, Google+, LinkedIn, even (ew), Facebook.

Emails have been send to Dennis Profitt as well as speaker/author Lynnell Burmark, who publishes this statement and uses the 60000 statement on her web site.

Just in! A reply from Dennis Proffit at UVA who suggests the processing time of visual and text information should be about the same:


Hum… This seems an odd claim. The minimal time required to identify whether an animal is present in a natural scene is 150ms. See:
http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/089892901564234

This is about the time required to identify a letter or a very familiar word.

I suspect the claim is a deduction from physiology. Text is processed in central vision, and thus, engages fewer photoreceptors than do pictures. One might argue that the recognition process for reading goes a bit deeper into association areas in the temporal lobe than does pattern recognition. But, based upon what I know from behavioral research, the comparison does not make much sense. Both picture and text processing vary with the familiarity with and complexity of the presented material, making direct comparison hard.

I also located vis LinkedIN (first time I used it to locate a contact) Carlos Abler, a research and content strategist at 3M. I was not going to pay for LinkedIn’s internal email thing, but I sent a tweet:

UPDATE (July 27, 2012): No winners. People keep emailing me the link to the 3M PDF brochure on Polishing Your Presentations which I’ve already clearly stated above is not a credible citation since it merely repeats the claim w/o citing the research.

Via a comment on Darren Kuropatawa’s post from Wesley Fryer, I got in touch with Obi Wan Bernie Dodge, who knocked down this claim a few clicks back (and perhaps it was the back of the envelope calculation on nerve transmission speed that produced the 60,000 number?)

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35 Responses to “The 60,000 Times Question Remains Unanswered”

  1. Alan, contact Dennis Proffit at UVa. He’s an incredible cognitive scientist who does work in the areas of perception and virtual reality. He may be able to at least say it’s crap, or point you to possible sources. http://people.virginia.edu/~drp/

  2. I have an earlier reference:

    Meetings & Presentations / Jenn Manalo, Sr. Product Specialist, 3M Corp.

    31 August 1998

    We have discussed the techniques a while back, and as to visuals … let me demonstrate with an exercise. Try to translate a complex, abstract image into words … difficult, isn’t it? That shows the power of visual aids. Visual aids empower the presenter with the capability to transfer an image or idea directly from his mind to the mind of the audience. A very potent tool, indeed, especially for classes which more and more deal with the abstract and the undefined. A class usually only allows an hour to an hour and a half of time and if this time were spent on purely verbal expressions, then the lessons could go on for a very, very long time. Studies have shown that meetings are 28% shorter when visuals are used rather than when they are not. What’s more, good visuals allow a person to grasp subject matter more fully and subjects that are well understood are more likely to be remembered — by up to 50%!

    So good visuals benefit not only the audience but the organization and presenter as well. This is because of increased productivity and effectiveness, enhanced professional image of the presenter, and a generally more attentive audience.

    “Humans can process an outstanding amount of visual information. Actually, we can process at 60,000 times faster than text.”

    So how do we create good visuals?

    and so on… Note that while she is from 3M, she does not identify this as “3M research”.

  3. Gardner says:

    I have no answer yet. But I am reminded of the other statistic (and I have read this one exploded somewhere though I can’t recall where) that says we remember x% of what we see and y% of what we hear, etc. The “research” went back to some kind of PR assertion in the first half of the 20th century, as I recall, and through sheer repetition (very sheer, as this was pre-Internet) it became accepted as fact. If I can dig up that reference, I may be able to help you with this one–if you don’t get there first.

  4. I came up with a similar result as Mike above. I detailed how I went about it; too long for a comment so I blogged my reply.

    Can’t wait to learn what more you learn. ;-)

  5. Darren — sweet job!

    I found what might be the original paper. It doesn’t mention the “60,000 times faster” piece, but it mentions the 43% more persuasive piece that appears near it a lot. I wonder if this is a case of misattribution — someone put these two facts together, cited one, and people read the citation as covering both.

    In any case, here is the 3M 43% paper.

    http://misrc.umn.edu/workingpapers/fullpapers/1986/8611.pdf

    It’s from 1986, which tells you why 3M cared — it was researched to support the selling of 3M-made transparencies! On an overhead!

    • Thanks Mike, a few folks have sent me different PDFs of that “43%” paper, and I agree there might be some mis-citation. I can bet someone made a presentation on this paper and tossed out the other line??

      I’ve emailed Doug Vogel who is listed as the primary author.

  6. Lots of fun getting responses, no one has earned the $60.

    Just for the record, do not send me a link to the 3M PDF on “Polishing Presentations”, the 2001 doc usually cited as the source. I’ve already described above how I found that, and it is NOT the reference to the actual study (if it exists)

  7. Just did a little more digging. I don’t think anyone will get the prize. I think it’s going to be turtles all the way down, just like the Learning Pyramid.

  8. Going off at a slight tangent – the quote seems to relate to the phrase ‘a picture paints a thousand words’.

    The origin of this phrase is equally murky. Gary Martin seems to have spent some time on a similar quest following up its alleged roots in China or Japan before settling on an earliest date of 1911.

    http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words.html/

    If the 60,000 times figure were true, it would suggest that looking at a picture for one second equates to reading for 1000 minutes, or about 17 hours. This is evidently not the case – if it were, then cultures using pictograms or hieroglyphics would be at a massive advantage when engaged in processing information.

  9. Noel Derecki says:

    Excellent.

    This explains why advertisers like text that “jumps off the page.” If it jumps directly into your eyeballs, it can sneak in front of the pictures and block the brain-tubes, thereby erasing the pictoral advantage.

    I am a neuroscientist, and published in Nature. Therefore, you can trust me on this.

  10. Noel Derecki says:

    Feel free to quote (and misquote) me anytime, bra.

    On a more serious note: as Denny (my undergrad mentor) said, as far as the physiology goes, visual processing is a matter of physiology. there will be a bell curve with speed as the x-axis depending upon higher-order variables like attention, salience, as well as circuit variables like pairing with other stimuli.

    More or less, though, there should be not a lick of difference in real-world time.

    I’d file this under “Humans are largely dumbasses” give the 60 bucks to a wino, and move on.

    • Noel Derecki says:

      * I meant to type “as far as speed goes…”

      (I was having trouble processing the letters on my keys with the vicious distraction of the world around me coming at me 60,000 times faster, forcing me to learn 80% more).

  11. This is a great game, Alan.

    • Speed of processing in the human visual system by Simon Thorpe, Denis Fize & Catherine
      Marlot investigates how long it takes for the human visual system to process a complex natural image. A photograph was flashed up for 20ms, and participants had to decide whether or not it showed an animal. Event-related potentials were used to reveal signs of neural processing, and they concluded the task could be completed in under 150ms.

      If the figure of 60,000 is correct, we can multiply that figure up and deduce it would take an average human 9 million ms, (9000 seconds or 150 minutes or 2.5 hours) to tell whether a random word referred to an animal or not.

      However, it seems that word recognition actually takes around 250ms, and certainly less than 500ms. (See On the Time Course of Visual Word Recognition: An Event-related Potential Investigation using Masked Repetition Priming by Phillip J. Holcomb and Jonathan Grainger).

      This suggests the original quote is out by a factor of about 20,000 to 30,000.

  12. Still scratching away at this. I came across the “Pictorial Superiority Effect.” These are the results of my digging around:

    “Combining pictures with print or audio generally maximizes learning.”

    Still nothing about “60 000 times faster than text”.

  13. Sieng says:

    Hope this info will help you.

    http://melsblog.edublogs.org/files/2008/12/vl_ebookp.pdf

    - Look at the end of page 7 and 8
    - Refer to bibliography reference #13 of the document.

  14. [...] to help understanding. The problem is the research, as far as many can tell is not true. Darren and Alan have done great work in trying to find the source but have had no luck. So given that research is [...]

    • You know, your experience parallels mine trying to track down any actual research showing that color communicates more effectively than black & white. It sounds obvious, but try to find scientific proof.

      A couple of years ago I had numerous references from white papers from Xerox, which I tried to track down in Canada’s largest reference library in Toronto. The articles I found were utterly anecdotal or promotional, and quickly entered into a round-robin of quoting one another. Many of the references were impossible to confirm.

      I am disappointed when I find major businesses parroting such empty claims in their marketing materials. By the way, I agree that all claims about “learning styles” and “people remember 10%… etc” are unconfirmed by any rigorous research.

      Good luck,
      Gordon Graham

  15. Nat says:

    Thank you for doing this! I was looking for lots of insightful quotes on the benefit of clear, well thought out text and pictures and this 60,000 statement appeared everywhere but, like you, I wanted to validate the claim and know the source.

    I think I might just use a different quote: 87% of statistics are made up on the spot. It won’t help my quest but it will be more ‘truthy’!

  16. [...] even offered a reward to the first person who could find the source of the research in a follow-up post. The result: nothing definitive. Doug Vogel, the lead author on a 1986 research study by the [...]

  17. Ikumi Kayama says:

    Hi Alan,

    Wow what a great post! I’m so glad I found your passionate journey to find the sources. I’m a medical illustrator and always do my best to fact check with experts and reference materials before we publish the artwork.

    I was wondering why some graphic experts talk about the research results but no one of the medical and scientific illustration community talk about these ‘numbers’. Thank you so much.

    I don’t know if I’ll find the definitive answers for you, but I can look in the web of science and see if I can dig anything up for you.

  18. Ikumi Kayama says:

    Holy cow. I’m reading that paper by Vogel et al that you mentioned. About that 43%…. A Worm hole indeed. I’m writing a detailed review of this paper on my blog.

  19. [...] my expedition in google, I came across some nice investigative bloggers at cogdogblog and enveritasblog about the second bullet point regarding brain processing images 60,000x faster [...]

  20. Jude Schneider says:

    I immediately tried to go find the source of the 60,000x faster #, when I came across it, and I came up with your intensive search and no other answers. I do believe that information like this is now traveling 60,000 times faster than it did pre web, but that is a tangent. I am wondering if you indeed found any sources for any cognitive studies that in any way address “a picture is worth 1000 words” (which, it turns out might already be just as exact as “read 60,000 x faster”)?

    • Hi Jude,

      I might be close to getting an answer as to the [non] source o the claim.

      The picture value equation is just a cliché, trying to define “worth” is so full of squishy context. But if you figure it out, please also find out why killing birds with stones is a good things, whether you can do it with one or more stones.

  21. […] eller tekst, det stridest dei lærde om. På nettet har det versert at hjerna oppfattar eit bilde 60 000 gongar raskare enn tekst. Men så vidt eg veit, har ingen klart å finne forskaren som skal ha kome med det […]

  22. Ian brownlee says:

    Hiya,
    Found these 6 references today. Maybe they are of use to you. Can I have my $60.00 now, please? :-))

    http://www.a2lc.com/blog/bid/58908/6-Studies-That-Support-Litigation-Graphics-in-Courtroom-Presentations.
    Have a great weekend.
    Bye

    • Thanks for sharing the related research links, they circle similar territory but do not support the oft claimed 60,000 times question… Ironically the Weiss-McGrath study you reference sounds like another example of the phenomena (and a 19th century source to boot). BTW the PDF link related to the Petter Hedden report is broken.

      The $60 grand prize is still available.

  23. […] But should anyone be in search of one, I have one I started a while ago, that is free for anyone to run with. It is almost a year since last reporting on the 60,000 Times Question Remains Unanswered: […]

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