Weighty Data - SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities

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Can abstract properties of an object influence its weight estimate? An international group of researchers, including psychologists from SWPS University in Sopot, studied what properties influence weight estimates with respect to virtual data. They showed that we tend to estimate the weight of an object according to importance of data it contains.

In general, are we able to objectively gauge the weight of an object in grams or are we influenced by our perception of the object? Sometimes it is difficult to assess the weight of an object. It is even more difficult if we are dealing with abstract concepts, such as information, which do not have physical weight. Information can be recorded on paper, on a USB drive or a hard disk. Although, transferring information to a USB drive or a hard disk does not change the physical weight of the storage device, we tend to estimate the weight of the drive based on the type of information recorded there.

Previous studies have shown that while estimating the weight of books, we tend to assign heavier weight to those that we deem more important. The recent study conducted by researchers from Poland, the Netherlands and the United States has shown that we display the same tendency with respect to electronic data. “People participating in the study estimated a typical 10 gram USB drive as heavier, even up to 100 grams, if data on the drive was deemed important. We know where it comes from”, says Michał Parzuchowski, Ph.D., psychologists at SWPS University.

People participating in the study estimated a typical 10 gram USB drive as heavier, even up to 100 grams, if data on the drive was deemed important.

Assessing the weight of the drive based on the importance of the information it contains shows how we think about invisible and abstract notions. “Our research indicates that the estimated weight of the information carrier depends on our assessment of the importance of data it contains. Digital data recorded on USB drives is rather abstract. And information about the type of data contained on the drive influences our weight estimate. As the result two things are significant: one that we think about digital data as having a physical dimension, and two, that data perceived as important seems heavier”, explains Michał Parzuchowski.

The researchers claim that the results of the study might be significant for the makers of information storage devices. “Manufacturers should take into consideration the intended use of the product. A portable disk or a USB drive may be deemed not sturdy enough to carry important financial information, doctoral thesis or family archives. Therefore, data storage devices meant for these purposes should be heavier”, claims Parzuchowski. The weight of the device itself may also influence the importance of the data stored on the data carrier.

During one of the experiments, the participants were informed that the device contains a company’s tax data from the last two years or expired information or that there was no data on the disk at all. The majority of 128 people participating in the study estimated that the USB drive containing tax data was twice as heavy as the drive with expired data or the empty device. Similar results were obtained when participants (students of psychology) were presented with a hard drive. The weight of the hard drive was significantly overestimated when the students thought it contained information important to them (i.e. notes from a lecture on psychology versus notes from a lecture on economy).

The team of researchers included: Iris Schneider, Ph.D. and Professor Norbert Schwarz from University of Southern California, Michał Parzuchowski, Ph.D., University of Friburg, Professor Bogdan Wojciszke, SWPS University in Sopot, and Sander Koole, Ph.D., VU University of Amsterdam. The results of the study were published in Frontiers in Psychology in January 2015.