The Professor's Notes

Where my thoughts and your eyes (and now ears!) collide

Perhaps you have seen the Prudential advertisement that shows people placing dots on a chart showing the oldest person they know.  Prudential uses this, in comparison to the line drawn on the chart with the retirement age, to show a large difference between the that mark (when people retire) and the large number of people that know old people.  The intent of the message seems to get people to realize that there is a large difference from when you retire and when you will die.

A Psychology professor, Daniel Gilbert, is behind the study and, according to Prudential’s comments on their YouTube posting, are saying that t”Our real-life experiment revealed a real-life challenge: Helping Americans prepare for a longer retirement.”

What does the “average” show?

Take a look at the graphic.  Visually you can see what implies a “normal” or “bell curve” distribution. The average here seems to be in the mid-90s. So what does the ‘average’ value here show?  What are you led to see is that the average age when people die is far beyond the age of retirement.  But that isn’t the question that was asked.  The curve is showing the average of the OLDEST PERSON these people say they know.  Obviously, if someone dies at a young age, then they are eliminated from consideration for the “oldest person” we know.

So what is the average life-expectancy?  Is it somewhere in the 90s?  We all would like to think so. We all tend to think and act as if we won’t die.  In fact, more often than not we fail to plan for death–not life.  (When was the last time you checked to see if you have enough life insurance to protect your family in the unlikely event you die unexpectedly?)

According to the Social Security Administration (the agency with the best data, I would think) the average life expectancy for men is 83 and for women is 85.  Certainly greater than the expected age of retirement at 65 (or 67 1/2).  but far from the numbers we see on this chart.

So–do you think this use of “active graphics” is useful?  Is it misleading?  Is it unethical behavior on the part of Prudential?  And what, if any, responsibility does the Professor have for what can be seen as a misleading use of graphs and charts?

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