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He Says She Says

The Dangerous Power of Anecdotes

Given the opportunity to look at one or many, our brains always choose one.

The human mind developed in a smaller, concrete world, where the 300 members of a tribe were the only people worth taking note of.  Our mind evolved to keep track of complex relationships and emotions with all 300 of our friends.  Yet, when confronted with a larger group, that evolution breaks down, and the mind is left to rely on pattern matching and us-vs.-them mindsets to navigate situations.

This isn't always the best approach to making rational, empathy-driven choices.  This is why, in study after study, humans are shown to respond with less charity, kindness, or understanding to groups.  Research hints that it isn't always a failure of ethics and empathy, but rather the sheer mass of humans is discouraging.  When charitable acts are seen as futile, humans won't bother, and when it is easier to see strange groups as other, humans have a hard time caring about those groups' well-being.

Of course, this is why so many calls to arms involve anecdotal evidence.  Singling out the effects of a large systemic problem is significantly easier when it has a human face.  This is where the power of #MeToo movements lies—in the face of statistics, nothing happens, but in the face of hundreds of individuals, change just might happen.

Unfortunately, there is a darker side to anecdotal evidence.  No group is uniform, and neither are experiences.  Nor do all people interpret the exact same experience the same.  This multitude of attitudes around an issue is important—but only when seen together for context.  If taken out of context, those clamoring voices can be used to further literally any agenda.

It is all too easy to look at the voices of one or two members of a group and say: these three group-members all agree with my perspective, and they belong to the community that I am discussing, so that means my perspective is the right one, regardless of how many other voices might be disagreeing (inside or outside the community).  It is easy to see the one POC agreeing with a racist and decide that POC don't care about racist ideals, rather than to see that perhaps they are the only POC interacting with those racist ideals because they are the only one who isn't bothered by it.  We don't see the way that certain topics or situations or even groups by default gear a conversation in one direction, or shut out vital voices to that conversation.

Using anecdotes to back up one's perspective is not problematic.  But using anecdotes to represent a group whole without representing the more complex dialogue only serves to deepen "us-vs.-them" attitudes, and often creates a major fallacy.  The fact that a few billionaires use their money largely to forward humanitarian efforts doesn't negate the social systems that allow others to abuse other humans with their billions of dollars.  Yet, it is easy to use anecdotes to cover up that larger statistic.

Anecdotes are one of the most powerful and persuasive tools that we have to convey ideas.  Yet, along with their power, they present a serious responsibility—to vet the anecdotes, to limit their scope, and to contextualize those anecdotes.  This responsibility lies not with the listener, but with the speaker.

But then, for the listener, the responsibility lies in limiting the extrapolation you make from any one anecdote.  It is important to contextualize the voices that you are hearing, and to look and see if your own bubble is keeping out dissent.

Photo Courtesy of Mike Wilson CC

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