When Stories Compete with Statistics for Attention, Stories Win

Michael Giberson

Everyone loves a good story, it seems.  Maybe too much.  Three U-Mass researchers have detailed the overwhelming influence of anecdotal information in decision making, even less-than-adequate anecdotes presented alongside directly relevant and authoritative statistical information.  The research also looks at two strategies that mitigate some of the influence of anecdotal bias, priming a more “scientific” outlook and encouraging counterargument.

The paper is “Stories vs. Statistics: The Impact of Anecdotal Data on Accounting Decision Making.” The abstract:

Prior research in psychology and communications suggests that decision makers are biased by anecdotal data, even in the presence of more informative statistical data. A bias for anecdotal data can have significant implications for accounting decision making since judgments are often made when both statistical and anecdotal data are present. We conduct experiments in two different accounting contexts (i.e., managerial accounting and auditing) to investigate whether accounting decision makers are unduly influenced by anecdotal data in the presence of superior, and contradictory, statistical data. Our results suggest that accounting decision makers ignored or underweighted statistical data in favor of anecdotal data, leading to suboptimal decisions. In addition, we investigate whether two decision aids, judgment orientation and counterargument, help to mitigate the effects of this anecdotal bias. The results indicate that both decision aids can reduce the influence of anecdotal data in accounting decision contexts. The implications of these results for decision making in accounting and auditing are discussed.

The one thing that might make the study more persuasive would be if they supplemented their detailed statistical results with a good story or two containing “real world” examples of anecdotal bias.

VIA the Cognitive Social Science eJournal, Vol. 2, No. 24.

3 thoughts on “When Stories Compete with Statistics for Attention, Stories Win

  1. One of my main bug bears has always been those who insist good, solid research that is generally accepted by most must not be true as their experiences have been different. Anecdotal evidence, I would imagine, is more believable as it comes from someone you love/trust or even from seeing things with your own two eyes and is therefore closer to home than science.

    It has become more problematic, to me, since becoming a mother and having encountered many and varied schools of thought on parenting techniques, sparking debate after debate without end and the overwhelming majority citing any one of the following “My mother did X and I’m OK…”, “My Husband’s mother did X and he’s OK” or, the old adage, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. BUT, that’s a different story entirely.

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