Why we’re suckers for a simple story

Image credit: Thrifty Fun

The most successful communicators use short simple stories to convey their message. Ronald Reagan successfully distorted US politics for decades with his anecdote about a “welfare queen.” Every low-IQ bigot will claim that “immigrants steal our jobs” because of an anecdote they think they heard somewhere. The news media relies on anecdotes to power its endless sensationalism.

Anecdotes, however, are nearly always misleading. They are usually the edge-case, the exception, or the unverifiable.

So why do totally unrepresentative anecdotes have so much power to shape our perceptions and beliefs?

For nearly all of our evolutionary history, we humans lived in small groups. The range of skills we needed to acquire in order to meet environmental challenges was limited, and all human skills were acquired by copying someone else who could already do it. Until very recently indeed, the concept of innovation was alien to us. We used the same basic flint technology for over two million years; everything since then has happened (from the perspective of evolution) in the blink of an eye. So our brains aren’t adapted to cope with large numbers of people and complex situations in which potentially hundreds of independent variables may be operating.

Our brains are adapted to cope with are very simple ideas.

That’s why, despite it being a totally unreliable way to assess the world around us, we’re irresistibly attracted to anecdote. If Old Uncle Fred says he once saw a UFO then for most of us that’s good enough to indicate that UFOs probably exist. It’s also why we completely ignore the suffering of millions of Syrians trapped in the middle of a lethal conflict but feel a tug on our hearts when we see a picture of the body of a drowned four-year-old boy washed up on a beach. Our little ape-brains can grasp the idea of a single body; we are utterly incapable of grasping the concept of four million suffering people.

This cognitive incapacity leads us into all kinds of errors, many of which can be very profitable for those who exploit our intellectual limitations.

Countless management books have sold very well by using anecdote as their key element. Here’s how it’s done: go out at look at some currently successful companies. By sheer chance alone, these companies will have some common features. Let’s imagine we look at six successful tech companies and we discover they all have green walls, vending machines that stock Burpee-Cola, and eco-friendly men’s urinals. Tra-La! We’ve discovered the secret of their success! If you want to be a successful tech company, you need to paint your walls green, shove Burpee-Cola into your vending machines, and install eco-friendly urinals!

But why bother with sampling half a dozen things when a single sample is all we really need for our anecdote?

As reliably as the Earth orbits the sun, the mass media regularly trots out “human interest” stories about long-lived individuals. Granny Florence has lived to the age of 117! What’s her secret? Turns out, Granny has drunk a glass of cognac every evening since she was eighteen years old. So, Tra-La! We can all extend our lives by drinking cognac!

Although you may raise an eyebrow at the idea that more than a handful of people would be taken in by this sort of nonsense, you’d be wrong. Our brains really aren’t adapted to perform thinking tasks; we default to believing whatever we’re told and then repeating it under the impression that this is our own opinion. This is why the media so easily manipulates millions every day. We have, as a species, almost zero capacity for reasoning.

Our brains aren’t equipped to understand large data sets, nor to reason from them. It’s no good trying to explain to the average person that by statistical probability alone there will always be outliers in any data set, and that what matters actually lies elsewhere. Yes, Granny Florence did live to be 117 and she did drink cognac every day of her adult life, but the idea that cognac consumption caused her longevity is utterly spurious. Most people who drink a glass of cognac every evening will in fact live slightly shorter than average lives.

Granny Florence is merely a statistical artifact.

We are so atrocious at understanding data that we reliably draw the wrong conclusions about nearly every aspect of our lives. As the media needs to pull in eyeballs in order to generate revenue, it feeds us an endless diet of context-free sensationalist nonsense that totally distorts our perception of reality. Because murder is such a wonderful gift to the mass media, it’s reliably publicized. Evening News: Three Murdered In Camden!!!

As a result, we over-estimate our risk of being attacked, murdered, and mugged simply because we read about and hear about these things all the time. The media has zero interest in providing us with a realistic perspective because it knows we’re bored by uneventful matters and might turn away. The one murder out of 100,000 undisturbed lives is what we get, and that means we imagine murder is far more prevalent than it really is. We become more fearful, we take unnecessary precautions, and we spoil the quality of our lives simply because the mass media feeds us a highly distorted picture of reality and we lap it up uncritically.

In addition, as indicated in the examples above, we also reliably draw the wrong conclusions from data sets. One of my favorite websites (here) features a wide range of utterly spurious correlations that, were they to be popularized by the mass media, would lead people into all manner of silly beliefs.

For example, did you know that consumption of margarine is linked to the rate of divorce? The more margarine you eat, the greater your risk of sundering your relationship! It’s a very tight correlation indeed, so surely it must be telling us something important! No doubt some trash newspaper or TV show could terrify lots of people with this information, and no doubt margarine sales would plummet as panicked individuals sought desperately to reduce their risk of divorce.

If as a species we were capable of even rudimentary reasoning, we’d stop and think about the proposition for a moment. We’d likely suspect there was a hidden variable here that was really responsible for the correlation. For example, when times are hard people cut back on expenses. Margarine is cheaper than butter, so it’s an easy substitution. And we know that divorce rates soar during periods of financial difficulty. So the more plausible explanation is that both rate of margarine consumption and rate of divorce are actually caused by economic hardship, and so no one will be able to lessen their risk of divorce by abjuring margarine.

But that’s not the way the average person’s brain works, especially if the nonsense is being presented by a supposed authority figure. And it doesn’t take much to seem like an authority figure: the right costume, a bit of media exposure, and one or two jargon words the ordinary person won’t understand and there we have it: The Credible Expert. As it’s far easier to believe whatever they tell us than to attempt to perform any thinking of our own, most people will swallow whatever they’re told without a moment’s hesitation.

(Unless it’s margarine, because most people don’t want to get divorced….)

Let’s look at two simple examples that demonstrate how poorly we fare when confronted with context-free information.

Fifteen people murdered last month in RightTown!

Twenty-eight people murdered last month in LeftTown!!

Which town would you rather live in?

At this point the average person will snort derisively at such a stupid question and answer, “RightTown, of course!” It makes sense: nearly twice as many people were murdered in LeftTown, so who’d want to live there? Anyone living there must be at twice the risk of being murdered. Stands to reason.

Except of course it doesn’t stand to reason. If we bother to seek out the relevant information, we could discover that RightTown has a population of 100,000 while LeftTown has a population of 1,000,000. This means RightTown has a murder rate of 15 per 100,000 while LeftTown has a murder rate of 2.8 per 100,000. In other words, RightTown is more than five times more dangerous than LeftTown when it comes to murder rate.

Wanting to live in RightTown turns out to be not so smart after all.

Our second example concerns cancer.

Eating Tofu increases your risk of Hakutachi’s Disease by 98%!!!

Seems like we should definitely stop eating tofu, right? I mean, 98% is nearly 100% which means eating tofu will almost certainly give us Hakutachi’s Disease.

Unless, that is, we bother to do a modicum of research, at which point we discover that the lifetime risk of Hakutachi’s Disease among the population is 0.000001%. So even if the claim were true (and it probably isn’t, because we don’t know how much tofu was used in the study, how pure it was, nor for how long people were asked to consume it for the purposes of the study) it would mean that our lifetime risk as a tofu-eater would jump to a terrifying 0.000002%.

In other words, far from ensuring we’d get this awful illness, eating tofu in fact makes no meaningful difference to our risk at all.

Context-free information is always, without exception, misleading.

But, in one of those charming twists of psychology we humans are stuck with, if someone made the assumption that RightTown was the better choice then they will stick to this belief despite what the data is really telling them. They’ll come up with all manner of “reasons” to defend their choice. Once we come to believe something, no matter how wrong it may be, we cling to it tenaciously thereafter and the more that facts prove us wrong the more we reject facts entirely.

We just know we’re right, especially when we’re totally wrong.

Why has evolution left us with this astonishing cognitive deficit? It’s because for nearly all of our evolutionary history it was better to be certain about something than to entertain doubts. We might have been napping flints in a sub-optimal way but it was better than not napping them at all. We may have sacrificed the occasional infant to the Great Water God of the local river but that was better than gazing up at the night sky and suffering crippling existential angst. Our group leader may be pretty stupid and incompetent but following his instructions at a moment of crisis was usually slightly less harmful than freezing in uncertainty.

Today, our world is utterly different from the African savannah and the primordial forests of Eurasia. Unfortunately, our brains remain the same as they were back when our environment was simple.

All we can do is attempt to remember, when we hear or read or see some “news” item, that what’s being presented to us is almost certainly misleading. The “news” is about generating revenues, not about informing us in any meaningful way.

If we could make that small beginning we could possibly learn to be fractionally less easy to manipulate. And then we might be fractionally less inclined to self-harm merely because that’s what we’ve been led to believe is “the right thing to do.”

Of course, it’s not easy to reason. But it could be worth the attempt.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store