In your business presentations, you may be tempted to stick to hard, proven facts and statistics to persuade your audience. But a powerful anecdote can trump objective facts.
The power of the anecdote
1. Vaccinations and autismA recent Scientific American article by Michael Shermer “How Anecdotal Evidence can Undermine Scientific Results” discusses the medical controversy over vaccinations and autism. Many parents are convinced that their children developed autistic symptons as a result of a childhood vaccination. There is currently no scientific proof that this is so and many scientific arguments that show that it is highly unlikely. Despite that many parents continue to strongly believe in a causative link. Michael Shermer explains:
The reason for this cognitive disconnect is that we have evolved brains that pay attention to anecdotes because false positives (believing there is a connection between A and B when there is not) are usually harmless, whereas false negatives (believing there is no connection between A and B when there is) may take you out of the gene pool. Our brains are belief engines that employ association learning to seek and find patterns.So our brains naturally make connections from anecdotal evidence -even though there is no scientific proof.
2. Chronic causes and high-profile emergenciesFurther evidence of the strength of anecdotal evidence is the struggle that charities have in funding vital ongoing work such as fighting malaria and AIDS, compared to the deluge of funds that pour in for high profile crises, such as the Asian Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina. Here are the statistics for the estimated number of people who die each month from chronic causes: AIDS 250,000 Famine 150,000 Malaria 80,000 Infectious diarrhea 180,000 TOTAL 660,000 deaths each month By contrast the number of people who died in the Asian Tsunami was 280,000 and Hurricane Katrina, 1,093. When there’s a crisis, the emotional video footage and tragic stories motivate us to donate money. The sobering statistics can’t compete.
Combining statistics and anecdotesYou would think that combining statistics and an emotional anecdote would be even more powerful. However, a fascinating experiment reported in Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick shows that mixing analytical information with an emotional anecdote may nullify the power of the anecdote. In the research at Carnegie Mellon University, George Loewenstein and his co-researchers compared the effect of three different charitable appeals for poor people in Africa:
- Statistical information on the plight of people Gave $1.14
- Story and photo of a 7 year old girl called Rokia Gave $2.38
- Both the statistics and the story Gave $1.43
- Primed to calculate Gave $1.26
- Primed to feel Gave $2.34