Have you ever wondered why there are so damned many infographics out there these days? Have you likewise grown tired of hearing the same old reasons rehashed half a hundred times: that our attention spans are shrinking [insert obligatory goldfish joke here], that social media is at fault, that we all just hate reading?
Well you’re in luck. Because the whole “brave new world” narrative we keep hearing about ourselves these days makes me sad. So I’ve decided to explore some alternate theories as to why infographics are so popular—and so effective at communicating information.
Reason #1: Infographics make information tell a story.
The human brain is hardwired for narrative.
In the article, “How narratives can aid memory,” Ed Cooke illustrates how even a complete nonsense narrative is easy for the human brain to apprehend—and how this quirk of the mind can be used to remember things, such as recipes.
So what does this have to do with infographics? Simple. Infographics are bite-sized stories.
According to Social Media Today, it takes, on average, about 50 seconds to read 200-250 words—but only 1/10th of a second to process a visual scene.
The key word in that sentence? It’s “scene”.
See, infographics don’t just present us with information. They shape it. They create scenes—micro-stories—that give us the specific context that our brains have been hard-wired to understand.
Reason #2: Infographics transform fact into truth.
Just because something is known doesn’t mean it’s believed. Technically, millions of people know that they won’t win the lottery. But they still play every year because they believe there’s a chance they might.
And that’s part of why infographics are so successful: they perform the incredible alchemy of turning something that is into something that’s believed.
They can do this because of something called the narrative fallacy. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes:
The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.
In layman’s terms, this means that we have a tendency—as humans—to look at disconnected things that are presented together and try to find or force a connection between them. It goes back to the same basis for the first reason infographics are so successful: our brains have a natural desire for storytelling.
Then, once we’ve found or forced this connection, we tend to firmly believe in the resulting narrative and the facts contained within it. Because it feels true to the storytelling part of our brains.
Infographics—which arrange facts and data in order to tell a story from the outset—therefore tend to be very convincing in their arguments.
Reason #3: Infographics are more of a challenge to read than plain text.
While infographics do present information in a way that’s easy for our brains to understand, they also present it in a way that’s more difficult to read.
Think about it. What’s easier to read: a short paragraph about the history of the internet written in 11-point Times New Roman, or an illustration of that same history that represents major websites as royal houses in Game of Thrones and requires the reader to traverse a map, analyze diagrams, and read descriptions written in the proprietary Game of Thrones font?
The infographic, right? And that’s important. Because in a study of fonts, researchers at Princeton and Indiana University found that reading information in a difficult font helped improve retention afterwards.
They theorize that when the brain has to work harder to figure out what it’s looking at—such as when information is presented in a spiraling loop of bubble letters—it also spends more time figuring out what it’s reading. So, as in the case of infographics, it tends to understand and remember what it’s reading better.
So why are infographics so popular? Quite simply, because they work. They engage the primal part of our brains that prefers pictures to words, and stories to facts. And yes, also because they’re perfect for social media and appeal to our goldfish-like attention spans.
For some great examples of infographics in action, check out the links below: