An ongoing battle: anecdotes vs. data

An ongoing battle: anecdotes vs. data


Monday, April 23rd, 2012 at 9:32 am

David Bartel

David Bartel, PhD, is a Senior User Experience Analyst at Piehead

Many famed columnists, pundits and commentators have made brilliant careers of using anecdotes to draw insights and conclusions and even predict the future.

“I was in a taxi cab in Karachi and the driver told me… therefore…”

I am jealous, I admit.

I wish my job were as easy as traveling the world, talking to people, drawing conclusions and making recommendations on which basis my clients would comfortably invest hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But as a researcher, I’m on the hook for my recommendations. I need more than opinions; I need data to support my conclusions.

Yet, as for political predictions, pundits, armed with stories and anecdotes, intelligence and intuition, may well be close to getting it right 50% of the time.

If so, what is wrong with anecdotal evidence? It’s definitely cheaper and a lot easier to gather than serious data!

Here’s what’s wrong: in our business, recommendations are a zero-sum game. You have to get it right for your clients to win — win money, brand equity, market share, customer loyalty or employee motivation.  A 50% hit rate just won’t do.

To illustrate, here’s an anecdote about anecdotes:  On a recent assignment, a colleague offered evidence for the validity of an assumption, saying essentially; “Well definitely x is a huge issue, it makes sense, the other day even my wife said x.”

Taken at face value, this seemingly logical and reasonable assumption underscored by a compelling quote from my colleague’s spouse could have been the death of actual research.  Yet, I persisted. I conducted the research and discovered that the assumption was indeed statistically dead wrong.  Actual system users, when tested directly contradicted the opinion of my colleague’s spouse.  By an enormous margin they rejected the assumption.

Why do we trust anecdotes when they can be so faulty? The paradox lies in the fact that we rely on anecdotes and sound bites to make sense of our world and make everyday decisions: what to buy, what to think, who to vote for (or against). Both mass media and the Internet encourage us to operate that way.

It is a profound human trait, well known to marketers: we respond to emotions a lot more than… well, pretty much anything else.  A good story or anecdote stirs us in a way pure analytical reasoning doesn’t.  We gravitate towards it and are rarely able to step back and analyze the issue critically (or marketing would be a very different business).

In fact, I use anecdotes and quotes all the time just because I know how powerful they can be to persuade and bring across key points to my clients.  But anecdotes should illustrate a point of research; they should not be the research.  The data proves, the anecdotes illustrate, or, to put it another way: if your research surfaces enough same-anecdotes (data points as anecdotes) then you have a real story to tell.

In business, try remembering to go against your natural and media-reinforced instinct.  Be critical and remain a skeptic until you know what the research says. And if there is no research – demand it.

A great story does not make research, but it sure will make data a lot more fun!