We Prefer Stories To Stats—The Dark Side of Stories

We love stories.

They connect on a personal and emotional level. We trust them more than statistical evidence.

Unfortunately, we tend to overgeneralize from others’ stories, from anecdotal information and from small sampling sizes. We tend to confuse now with “what always is” as if our immediate situation consistently represents the entire universe of similar situations. As conference organizers this leads us to bad decisions when selecting speakers and programming where we promote sharing success stories over asking questions, verifying validity and understanding context.

Wonderful World Of Stories

We have become natural storytellers.

Humans have evolved into storytelling creatures. We pass down generations of family history as we sit around the dinner table sharing stories of our lives. We are social creatures. We are interested in what others did, how they succeeded and their personal problem solving solutions.

It’s only been since the printing press that we started recording and mass producing our stories for others to access. For that reason, we have a fondness for personal narratives. Our brains are inclined to any information that comes in the form of the story. (See Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic magazine, The Belief Module, Skeptic 5, no. 4, p. 24.)

Our Misguided Trust In Stories

We are storytellers, not statisticians says author Thomas Kida in Don’t Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make In Thinking. He says our partiality for stories over statistics is one of the six-pack of problem thinking.

Our natural bent toward stories gets us into trouble.

We rely on anecdotal evidence to form our beliefs. We defer to circumstantial proof. We trust our misguided thinking of, “If it worked for them, it will work for me.”

We don’t ask, “Show me the evidence.” Instead we ask, “Well, how did you do it?” We should be saying, “If you have a claim, show me the proof.”

The Risk Of Trusting Stories As Anecdotal Evidence

Relying on anecdotal evidence to form the steps and pathways to solve our problems is fraught with errors.

Why? Because it means we ignore relevant information. Even though we know that figures and numbers—the hard data—gives us the best and most reliable information for our decisions, we let personal stories affect us more. Since we don’t verify and ask questions, we trip up and are easily manipulated.

We fall victim to a common, widespread bias—generalizing. We shape our behavior based on incomplete or inadequate data. We use generalizations coming from our interpretations of another person’s stories to make critical decisions. That bias guides our governing and managing process.

It is very risky to make decisions based on another person’s quick quips, their anecdotes, their it-worked-for-me-and-it-will-work-for-you-too success stories. Why? Because you could be planning for a problem that doesn’t exist. Or you could be investing in opportunities that are not there. Or it may be a problem from a bygone era.

The Great Gold Rush

Kida sites the 1800s Great Gold Rush which you may recall from your U.S. history class. It is a perfect example of trusting stories and anecdotal information where thousands of miners moved across the states in hopes of finding gold. They trusted hearsay over the evidence. In using this story, Kida gives both anecdotal and empirical evidence as he models how to thoughtfully use a story.

So how often have you promoted conference round table discussions for attendees to share stories and take advice from peers? How often have you secured industry professionals as expert-speakers to share their success story over the stats of what worked?

Be careful of promoting stories over facts because it will lead to demise. We should promote asking questions, stats and verifying validity!

How can we make round table story sharing more effective by promoting empirical data over anecdotes? What should we ask conference presenters to do when listening to peer success stories?

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