Why do people believe anecdotes and stories more than real statistics?

The obvious answer is that anecdotes often touch us more deeply. However, when a statistic touches us deeply, we also tend to identify very much with it. Those statistics that seem far away to us, however, are easily ignorable. And though a statistically-proven fact should have more weight than a well-put-together story, the story usually comes out in front. Why is that?

Another simple answer is that a story is a story, which means that it is meant to get you to listen and become and enthralled by what it has to say, where is a statistic does not do this by itself (unless you are into the statistic from the get-go). But there is more to this: statistics, because of their fixed, factual, conditional nature, can never capture the whole truth.

A statistic often shows us rather little of what we want to know

The power of an anecdote lies in its ability to touch on the finer details of a situation; statistics, because they are such sterilized, logical postulates, often miss this. For example, let’s say that somebody is traveling to X City, with a lower than average murder rate, rather than Y City, with a murder rate significantly higher than average – and yet, stories are out there about how much more dangerous X City is, despite the statistics. Why is that? Because, in a nutshell, murder rates do not tell you everything about how safe a place is:

  • It could be possible that most of the murders in Y City happen in one or two parts of the city, and that the rest of Y City is relatively free of murders – which, gives Y City a better reputation because most people who go there will avoid the places they are most likely to be murdered in.
  • Murder rates are only one measure of safety. There are all kinds of other crimes – robberies, rapes, muggings, petty theft, pickpocketing, bribery, extortion, government corruption, and so on. Perhaps X City, while lower on murders, is significantly higher in some of these other categories. Anecdotes often become useful in order to fill in such knowledge that we may not have statistically.
  • Safety is not just a question of crime, either. Even if a place is relatively crime-free, that is little comfort to a person who is sick or wounded and needs medical care that just isn’t available to them in that place. What if you have children, or a chronic condition that needs the right medications, or are disabled and require that a certain health infrastructure be in place? If Y City is cleaner and has much better medical care than X City, despite Y City’s higher murder rate, folks will count this as a point in Y City’s favor, especially when no stats about such things are readily available.

Additionally, an anecdote or story is not a fixed, like a statistic is. It can change. It can be molded and shaped to fit whatever reality seems to be forming. We often trust anecdotes more than statistics because we know deep down that reality is not a fixed entity. Reality shifts – but statistics cannot shift with it unless new ones are constantly being collected. A statistic is, well … static.

Another key to all this is the fact that human beings cannot live their lives waiting to have the right statistics every time they need to make a decision. That leads to analysis paralysis! We trust our observations [as well as the observations of people around us that we find credible] because of habit – because we’ve been doing it ever since we were kids. We trust these observations so much because we’re acquainted with how they work – which is why beliefs based on anecdotal hearsay can still flourish even when there is plenty of statistical proof to the contrary.

For example, there is a widespread thinking among United Statesers that healthcare in the United States would be worse off if it were government run because it’s “worse in other countries where the government controls healthcare” … even though the statistics show that on most health measures, the overwhelmingly private United States health system is far worse than other developed countries with similar economies plus a government-run health care system. I believe this persists in part because those that travel to other countries often have more money than those that don’t, whereas the biggest difference in the healthcare statistics will be most noted among the less affluent masses that are most affected by difficult/costly access to care; thus, traveling tourists from the U.S. are more often comparing their relatively elite healthcare in the U.S. with standard public healthcare elsewhere, and those that are less affluent are often not doing nearly as much traveling abroad, so they are a more captive audience to the narratives that are woven for them, both by wealthier travelers and by the moneyed interests in the United States whose existence would pretty much end if the government ran things – but, of course, all this is just my own anecdote. :-)

The moral of this blog post…

…is that frankly, “facts” and “measurable statistics” aren’t everything. Sometimes, anecdotes are superior, in fact. And sometimes they are wrong – but even then, they must be acknowledged and not tossed aside if many people believe them. Because sometimes, we do more highly value opinions, rather than statistics, about what dining at a restaurant feels like, or what it’s like to go to a specific venue versus another venue for a show or dancing, or what it’s like to vacation or live somewhere. Statistics won’t always tell us everything we need to know. Statistics have their place, that’s for sure; it’s also for sure that that place is not everywhere. And of course, not every statistic is correct, or used in a correct way.

Some folks have criticized my blog because I often don’t bother to cite “factual sources” to back up what I write. I’m not writing an encyclopedia or diagnostic manual – but if you need some factual verification of what I have to say, you are welcome to Google anything you like. And in addition to this, a lot of these things I write about are not very “factable” – like jealousy, intimacy, how to say you’re sorry, forgiveness, or the reasons people have religious preferences, for example. Or even “what is a fact?” I write about these things precisely because statistical, scientific discourse alone does not cut it, in these and many other areas of life. “Proven facts” don’t make these questions go away. We are human beings – not robots.

Often, I am writing for a particular audience – people that either agree with my starting points or “consent to agree” for the sake of reading a point of view different from their own. Different people have different truths. I’m not writing for the naysayers, and I’m certainly not going to waste my precious time looking for more sources to satisfy those naysayers. I’m all for constructive debate, but I refuse to wallow in naysayer-land.

Folks that make everything a factual, statistical brouhaha are just as ignorant, in many ways, as those for whom everything they know is from a tale they’ve picked up somewhere. As with so many things, the best perspective is a nice middle one that can benefit from both the yin and yang sides of the issue.

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One Response to Why do people believe anecdotes and stories more than real statistics?

  1. Pingback: What the heck does “positive” mean, anyway? Here are 22 ways I’ve come to understand “positivity” | Positive Juice

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