When Numbers Mislead Us Part II: Stupid Chart Tricks

SAGE Advisory Group: Stupid Chart Tricks
SAGE Advisory Group:
Stupid Chart Tricks

In my last blog post, we explored how to discriminate between helpful and misleading financial charts and graphs. Scrutinizing the source of the material and whether it has undergone robust peer review is one of the best ways to determine the likely quality of an illustration without further ado. Beyond that, it helps to understand some of the tricks that can be – and sometimes are – played in presenting data.

Whether conceived in ignorance or deceit, a poorly crafted illustration can seriously skew your view of reality. The most common kind of stupid chart tricks are those that result in misleading scales. Think of it like the ubiquitous “Objects in the mirror may appear closer than they are,” except without the accompanying warning. There are several ways to lay out data so the results appear either larger or smaller than life, including:

Apples and Orange Comparisons
Using two different scales to (mis)compare two different markets, fabricating relationships or expected outcomes that don’t actually exist. Josh Brown provides us with an illustration of this error in action on his Reformed Broker blog post, “Lying with Charts.” (Strong language alert.)

Fruity Scales
A popular mind-game trick is to write a color but depict it in a different color and ask the viewer to state the word itself. Try it: Blue. You probably had to shift gears to avoid saying orange. Likewise, the mind can be all too easily deceived if an author presents a particular visual scale that does not reflect the actual numbers. Here’s a good Forbes article; by graphical display specialist Naomi Robbins, presenting this stupid chart trick. We’ve also illustrated here how it’s possible to deceive by presenting the correct numbers, but playing fast and loose with the scale to deceive (whether innocently or by intention).

Normal Chart
Normal Chart
Improper Chart
Improper Chart

Cherry-picking the Starting Point
An all-too-common confusion occurs when the author alters the starting point from zero to an arbitrary number. In doing so, the resulting illustration can look more dramatically steep than is really the case. Here’s an NPR article featuring data visualization specialists Stephen Few and Nathan Yau analyzing this concern.

To give our own dramatic illustration, say that your sales units increased from 20 to 20.5 in 2012. If you showed this increase on a scale of 0–25, the number would appear modest. Display it on a scale of 20–21 and it would resemble an enormous leap. The best choice of all may be to shift the scale to percentage points or logarithmic data rather than the raw numbers to better communicate the desired message. Trusting that the author has selected the right presentation method without resorting to deceptive or ignorant trickery is where the peer-review and credentialed experience comes in handy.

A Mixed Bag
Sometimes, charts and graphs are accurate enough, but they just don’t tell the story nearly as well as they could. Some concerns that can occur on this count include:

  • Connecting discrete data points along a timeline to imply a false continuum when there is none
  • Failing to properly align a multi-chart series for best comparisons
  • Using pie charts when bar charts would be considerably easier to quickly decipher
  • Using charts at all when a numerical table would likely be a faster read&lt
  • Failing to best showcase the pertinent data with clean design

And so on. You get the (data) point. When it comes to financial charts and graphs, looks can deceive. It’s another reason that a SAGE advisor can help.


Sheri Iannetta Cupo, CFP®, is Founding Principal of SAGE Advisory Group, based in Morristown, NJ, an independent, Fee-Only Registered Investment Advisory firm, specializing in providing busy professionals and their families with well-coordinated financial life planning and money management services. You can find more here: www.sageadvisorygroup.com


  1. With the whole thing which appears to be developing within this subject material, a significant percentage of points of view tend to be relatively refreshing. Having said that, I am sorry, because I can not give credence to your whole plan, all be it exhilarating none the less. It looks to us that your comments are actually not completely rationalized and in reality you are your self not completely certain of your point. In any event I did take pleasure in looking at it.

  2. I simply needed to appreciate you once again. I do not know the things I would’ve done without the actual creative ideas shared by you regarding such a subject matter. Completely was an absolute fearsome dilemma in my position, however , encountering the well-written style you resolved the issue took me to cry with happiness. I’m happy for this assistance and even expect you recognize what a powerful job you have been accomplishing training some other people with the aid of a site. Most probably you have never got to know all of us.

  3. This is very interesting, You are an excessively skilled blogger. I’ve joined your rss feed and sit up for in search of more of your fantastic post. Additionally, I’ve shared your web site in my social networks!

  4. Hi, Neat post. There’s a problem with your website in internet explorer, would check this… IE still is the market leader and a large portion of people will miss your wonderful writing because of this problem.

  5. I have study much about free of charge blogging web sites, except I have no clear idea regarding that, can any one let know me which one is most excellent in support of free blogging and site-building?

  6. Having read this I thought it was really enlightening. I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this short article together. I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

  7. Hey! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my good old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

  8. Thx for your post. I would really like to say that the price of car insurance differs from one insurance policy to another, mainly because there are so many different facets which play a role in the overall cost. For example, the brand name of the automobile will have a huge bearing on the cost. A reliable old family car or truck will have an inexpensive premium compared to a flashy performance car.

  9. obviously like your web site but you need to check the spelling on quite a few of your posts. Many of them are rife with spelling issues and I find it very troublesome to tell the truth nevertheless I will surely come back again.

  10. Hmm is anyone else having problems with the images on this blog loading? I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

  11. Nice read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch as I found it for him smile Therefore let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

  12. Fantastic items from you, man. I have have in mind your stuff previous to and you’re just extremely great. I really like what you have obtained here, really like what you’re stating and the way in which through which you say it. You’re making it entertaining and you still take care of to stay it wise. I can’t wait to learn far more from you. This is really a tremendous website.

  13. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was curious what all is required to get setup? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very web smart so I’m not 100 certain. Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated. Appreciate it

  14. 364682 732720Pretty part of content material. I just stumbled upon your weblog and in accession capital to assert that I get actually loved account your weblog posts. Any way Ill be subscribing on your feeds or even I success you access constantly quick. 25234

  15. great post, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite specialists of this sector don’t understand this. You must proceed your writing. I am sure, you’ve a huge readers’ base already!

  16. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide
    credit and sources back to your webpage? My blog site is in the exact same
    area of interest as yours and my users would certainly
    benefit from a lot of the information you provide here.
    Please let me know if this ok with you. Thank you!

  17. I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. I do not know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already ;) Cheers!

  18. I am curious to find out what blog system you are using? I’m
    experiencing some small security problems with my latest blog and I would like to find something more risk-free.
    Do you have any solutions?

  19. Excellent post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed!
    Very helpful info specially the last part :) I care for such information much.
    I was looking for this particular info for a long time.
    Thank you and best of luck.

  20. I’ve been surfing online greater than three hours as of late, but I by no means found
    any interesting article like yours. It is pretty value sufficient for me.
    In my opinion, if all website owners and bloggers made just right content
    as you did, the web will probably be a lot more useful than ever before.

  21. I have observed that car insurance organizations know the automobiles which are at risk from accidents and other risks. Additionally, these people know what kind of cars are given to higher risk along with the higher risk they’ve got the higher your premium price. Understanding the very simple basics with car insurance will allow you to choose the right types of insurance policy which will take care of your needs in case you happen to be involved in an accident. Thank you for sharing the actual ideas with your blog.

  22. I like the helpful information you provide in your articles.
    I’ll bookmark your blog and check again here frequently.
    I am quite sure I will learn a lot of new stuff right here!
    Best of luck for the next!

  23. Wow, superb blog structure! How lengthy have you ever been blogging for?
    you make blogging look easy. The whole glance of your website is fantastic, let alone the content material!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here