Data vs. the narrative

While looking through some of my favorite business books of 2015, I re-read the chapter from Matthew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking on “Scared Straight” programs. Syed’s book is on why most people don’t learn from their mistakes. The airline industry does; experts retrieve the “black box” after every crash and figure out what went wrong. But most of us don’t take advantage of the information mistakes proffer because, well, that’s how human nature works. We really don’t like to be wrong. And we don’t like to be wrong in certain ways.

One particular problem of human nature is that we are suckers for narrative. Give us a story that fits a certain format and we will believe it is true. We can be shown evidence that it isn’t true, or misses the larger point, and we just don’t care. It feels true. Narrative trumps data.

Syed spends a chapter addressing this issue through the example of the “scared straight” programs that proliferated in the criminal justice world for a while. The idea is that you take troubled youngsters to prisons and have them hear from the hardened criminals living there. The kids see what awaits them, the brutality of prison life, and they realize that they need to turn their lives around.

Originally conceived by prison inmates themselves, it’s a beautiful narrative, built around the turning point, as all good narratives are. We can picture the young tough swaggering into prison, where what he sees breaks him down. In the best versions of this story, it’s a particular hardened perp who gives him his epiphany. Something needs to change. He goes straight, graduates from high school, and credits that moment as one that changed his life.

Since many young people went through such programs, anyone wanting to promote them could find a young person to deliver just such testimony. In a world of 7 billion people, you can find anecdotes of anything! Seeing a young man in front of you speaking about how a scared-straight program changed his life is very compelling; it makes legislatures want more such programs.

There’s just one problem. These programs don’t work. In fact, the evidence from rigorous randomly controlled trials is pretty clear that juvenile offenders who went through “scared straight” programs were more likely to commit crimes than those who hadn’t. The exact reason isn’t clear; one researcher postulated that “The experience of being shouted at seemed to be brutalizing the youngsters. Many seemed to be going out and committing crime just to prove to themselves and their peers that they weren’t really scared.” But whatever the reason, the results were statistically significant. That’s not anecdote, it’s data. So you’d think that when such results were published, people would stop funding these programs, right?

Not so fast. It took decades. Eventually the federal government withdrew funding from programs that used a scared-straight methodology, but Syed notes that similar programs keep popping up. In the human mind, narrative trumps data, and people will simply disbelieve the data because look at this young man telling me this great story!

This quirk of human nature would be funny, except there are real consequences. The victims of crimes committed by young people who went through scared straight programs could rightly be bitter that this data was known and ignored.

Unfortunately, there’s no good way around this very human foible. The best thing to do is to counter stories with more stories.

This isn’t always easy for people who deal in data to do. I remember watching the Oprah show in 2007 when Jenny McCarthy came on. She told the audience the story of her son being diagnosed with autism, and their struggles as a family. Then she said she believed that vaccines were at fault. Oprah’s producers had asked the CDC for a response, and it went something along the lines of there is no credible evidence to believe…. Science-speak doesn’t allow for absolutes like “vaccines do not cause autism.” It was also a bland statement, going up against what appeared to be a young mother courageously telling her story, fighting a medical establishment that didn’t care. It was data vs. narrative again, and I remembering shuddering watching the show as I pondered how many moms would hear McCarthy and think “I shouldn’t vaccinate my baby.”

The better response would be sending out a charismatic family whose child contracted some vaccine-preventable illness to talk of their devastation. Belatedly, some advocates have started doing things like this. It seems crazy that one should have to, but that is the way narrative works.

15 thoughts on “Data vs. the narrative

  1. Oh wow, I LOVE this post. Welcome to the life of a healthcare provider. “No there is no evidence that abc causes xyz. we’ve looked at thousands/millions of data points and the conclusion is overwhelmingly against that theory.” “But my neighbor’s grandmother’s friend’s neice said…” or worse “but I read on the internet about a person that…”

    1. @Ana – yep. I think the McCarthy quote was “My son is my science.”

      Though I’d point out that medicine has some anecdote vs. evidence problems going on too, even on the provider side. There are providers who do something in a certain way because it worked for xyz patient early in his/her career. Every time the US preventive services task force issues a guideline there are people who will say “but that’s not what I know from my practice!”

  2. This is why when patients ask me about vaccines, I don’t give them data. I just say: I vaccinate my own two children by the book, 100%. I think it probably is the narrative that works!

    1. Aren’t we giving in, this way? Sure, fight narrative with narrative but at some point, shortly after, we’ve gotta come in with the real numbers. If we only look for narratives to tout we run the risk of acting the same way as those we now oppose.

      1. @TedR – I agree that this is frustrating to need to fight narrative with narrative. But I think narrative + data is very powerful, as you suggest. Back up stories with real numbers and then you have something convincing.

        Of course, numbers can be abused too 🙂

    2. This totally works! I always ask our pediatrician what she would do if she had to make the choice about a test, therapy, medication etc. when I’m unsure. Since I totally trust her and she has 3 kids older than mine,it works for me, as unscientific as it is.

  3. kahneman won the Nobel prize in economics in 2002 for explaining this problem. Personal stories are easier to remember and evoke more emotion than data, thus are more likely yo be remembered and therefore to influence decision making.

  4. Great post. I must be the exception because I feel like I do learn from my mistakes. Particularly because I don’t want to make them again!

    Overall the data vs. narrative is fascinating. As a marketer, we utilize storytelling as a powerful medium.

    1. @Anne – if you consciously choose to learn from your mistakes you’ll be very far ahead of the game! It’s something that’s there for everyone to learn from, we just generally don’t.

  5. Great post–it seems simple on the exterior, but really it applies to so many parts of life. Story is powerful, and if we can back the story with data, even more so. I’ll be thinking about this post for a while, to see what areas of my thinking I’m basing on narrative!

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