Much of this week in the UK has been dominated by the unedifying display of men talking about how big things are. Male politician, after male politician, was lining up on TV and radio to predict the size of the majority of votes their side was likely to get. They were in a kerfuffle about amendments to a bill going through Parliament to enable the deportation of asylum seekers directly to Rwanda. It’s a bill that is highly unlikely to make into law. Even if it does, it will be months away, probably too close to the next General Election to be enacted. Besides all this, the bill itself is only supported by less than a third of Conservative Party members. The majority of the country, including Tories, believe it is a huge unwanted distraction. Yet despite knowing this, the blokes at the top spent all week comparing sizes. My gang is going to be bigger than yours, is what they were saying.
But don’t go thinking this is just the preserve of Tory toffs. While UK parliamentary shenanigans were going on, over in Iowa, USA, the Trump Bandwagon was delighting in how big the vote for The Donald had been. In his victory speech after winning, Donald Trump pointedly talked about how big his majority was, claiming to have tripled the predicted margin. To him, it was all about the size of the vote he had received. Mine is bigger than yours, is what he was saying to the other candidates.
Also this week, a student came to see me to discuss her results from her assignments she completed at the end of last year. She was disappointed with her mark. She had received a very good mark, putting her in First Class Honours territory. But even though I explained this, she was still somewhat upset. “As long as you score over 70%,” I said, “that’s First Class”. But she seemed to want a much higher mark. So I explained in some more detail saying, “even if you scored 100% you still get the same result, which is First Class”. Then it seemed as though that proverbial lightbulb had switched itself on in her brain. She said, “Oh, I get it. The number itself doesn’t matter that much; I don’t need to worry myself about the size of the First Class mark itself.” It is not about the size of the mark itself that matters, as long as it is First Class.
However, if my student’s partner bought her a diamond ring and the gemstone was tiny, I suspect she would feel a little cheated. “I am sure I deserve a bigger diamond,” she might have thought. Enormous diamonds are more valuable than small ones. We give preference to size when it comes to gemstones. The same is true for houses. There are all kinds of shapes and sizes of properties, but the bigger ones are valued more – even though the costs of that extra space are pretty low. We rate the size as important and give it much greater value. In jewellery or property, size matters, as it does in so many other areas too.
Our preference for “bigger is better” was highlighted in recent research from Deakin University, Australia, which showed that men with small online social networks tend to suffer more depression than men who have bigger online groupings. In terms of male mental health, it appears that size matters. Having a larger social network provides men with some kind of comfort, reducing their potential for mental health issues.
Social networks exacerbate this by stimulating competitiveness through publishing how many followers you have, or how many “likes” you have received. This focus on numbers, rather than quality of relationships, triggers the competitive situation of “mine is bigger than yours” – I have more “likes” than you, or I have more “followers” than you. Social networks force size competition to be central to our thinking.
Women on social media tend to be less concerned with the size matters argument. Indeed, women tend to have fewer followers and fewer likes per post than men. It is the quality, rather than the quantity, that appears to matter to them.
Meanwhile, over in the world of Artificial Intelligence, experiments show that bigger is not always better. The assumption is that when an AI machine, like ChatGPT, has voluminous amounts of data to interpret, it is bound to be better. Sounds logical, except that it turns out that when AI has such huge amounts of data, it can make mistakes. It turns out that large language models are not very good at answering simple questions.
However, in productivity, size does matter. The bigger your computer screen, the more productive you become. Going from a 20 inch screen to a 24 inch one will make you work around 15% faster. That’s one reason mobile phones are increasing in size, with manufacturers like Google and Samsung introducing folded phones that provide twice the standard screen size. They are telling us that bigger is better.
Wherever you look, you find plenty of arguments that size matters and that bigger is better. Whether it is a larger phone screen, a greater social network following, or the number of supporters you get in a parliamentary vote, there is a preference for size. Just ask the girl who gets the biggest diamond.
However, our preference for assuming size matters can lead us into difficulty. It can focus us competitively on quantity rather than quality. Or it can cause us to select the wrong form of artificial intelligence. It can also lead you into making the wrong decisions. For instance, a company can put three options for a service on its website, but increase the font size for the option they want you to choose. It’s an old typographical trick fooling your brain into believing that the material in larger type is better than that in a smaller font size. So, whether it is choosing material online, deciding what is important on social media, or determining how many people you need on your board of directors, it is best not to assume that size matters. Sometimes bigger is better; but sometimes it is not.