I love anecdotes. I sprinkle them liberally in my writing. I know, as a voracious reader, that stories make ideas come to life. How can I illustrate the idea that some people do a lot with their time? I can tell a story of a woman who owns a small business and has 6 kids and still creates me-time in the middle of a busy Thursday morning. How can I illustrate the idea that, at least for middle-income people, money is about choices? Profile a young couple that lived modestly for 5 years, then traveled the world for two. The human brain loves coherent stories and hence treats them as saying something broader about the world. This is how we are wired.
The problem is that while this wiring is fine for being entertained around the campfire, and I obviously choose to use it (either to dramatize data or to give a counter-factual that shows a universal statement must not be true), it’s trouble for making serious decisions. Because anecdotes aren’t data. Indeed, stories on their own are pretty much meaningless.
Here’s why: there are 7 billion people on this planet. In a world of 7 billion people, you can find anecdotes of just about anything. You can find people who were raised by saints and became criminals. You can find people who were raised by criminals and became saints. You can find people who exercised daily, never smoked, ate organic kale for breakfast and dropped dead of a heart attack at 35. The fact that you see something in your life, or your neighbor sees something, does not mean that someone else isn’t seeing exactly the opposite, or that if any given person did what you are doing in your life, they’d see the same result. Beyond that, the human brain has a tendency to form narratives, and then look for evidence to support said narratives. So none of the 7 billion people on this planet is dispassionately observing every bit of evidence coming at him or her. We see what we want to see.
To be sure, this doesn’t mean we must be like Pontius Pilate, asking “What is truth?” Many smart people spend their lives trying to study human behavior and human outcomes. Often times these studies try to get data that is not so influenced by perception. You did eat a certain number of calories yesterday. You did sleep for a certain number of hours, drive a certain number of miles, and children at your local school did get certain scores on an internationally benchmarked test. Sometimes data are wrong or misleading. But over time, as the data add up from multiple studies, we can start to know things. Sometimes these things are very different from our stories!
For example, the American Time Use Survey relies on time diaries to draw conclusions on how Americans spend their time. Audits of time diaries find this methodology is more accurate than simply asking people how many hours they spend doing X, Y or Z. According to the 2011 ATUS, the average American sleeps 8.71 hours in a 24-hour period. Whenever I report this number, though, someone invariably tells me “That can’t be right! I don’t sleep 8.71 hours!” This is not an argument. An average means nothing about you. Even if you go on to say that “no one I know sleeps 8.71 hours a night” this is still not an argument. None of us knows a perfect cross-section of Americans. And even if we did, we likely aren’t there watching what time they go to sleep and wake up every night, including weekends and holidays. Instead, we are relying on anecdotes from friends, in a world where things that suck (e.g. sleepless nights) are remembered more vividly than things that don’t.
Unfortunately, this distinction between anecdotes and data doesn’t always show up in journalistic reporting, blog writing, etc. Three stories make a trend! Though I guess it’s better than using fake data, which is an entirely separate issue.
What’s your favorite incidence in which an anecdote has been given more weight than it should have?