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Volume 14, Issue 53;   December 31, 2014: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part I

The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part I

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Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion, but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners.
An egg sandwich

An egg sandwich. The story of the invention of the sandwich is widely known. As the story goes, it was named after an English aristocrat, John Montagu (1718-1792), the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who ordered his valet to bring him meat between two slices of bread. The Earl was supposedly playing cards, and wanted to avoid both greasy fingers and using a fork. Whether or not the anecdote is true, it is certainly memorable.

One powerful tool of persuasion is the anecdote. Anecdotes are stories about specific incidents, or descriptions of specific situations. We use anecdotes to persuade because they represent a more general class of incidents or situations. For example, we might say, "One customer tried to follow those installation instructions, and it destroyed all her data files." That's an anecdote that suggests problems with the installation procedure.

Anecdotes derive their power from their repeatability and their passion.

Repeatability
Anecdotes confer leverage upon their tellers because those who hear the anecdotes can easily repeat the anecdotes to others. This enables the teller of the anecdote to persuade people who aren't actually present for the telling. Anecdotes can thus go viral without computers or networks. And the people persuaded by anecdotes can clearly explain why they were persuaded, because anecdotes are memorable.
Passion
Some anecdotes are compelling because they convey emotion or passion. They can elicit empathy from those who hear them, as does the anecdote about the lost data files from anyone who has ever lost data. Telling a compelling anecdote can persuade powerfully.

Although anecdotes are powerful, they can also be hazardous to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners. As we listen to anecdotes we're subject to a variety of so-called cognitive biases. The biases can distort our thinking as we interpret and evaluate the persuader's message. Listeners can find themselves adopting views that aren't in their interests. Similarly, if listeners make interpretations not intended by anecdote tellers, they might adopt views that aren't consistent with the teller's intentions.

Here is Part I of a catalog of cognitive biases that create these hazards.

Availability Heuristic
We tend to estimate the probability of events based on how easy it is to imagine those events occurring, Although anecdotes are powerful
tools of persuasion, they can also
be hazardous to both anecdote
tellers and anecdote listeners
rather than on serious estimates of likelihoods. Likewise, we gauge the plausibility of an assertion based on how easy it is to imagine the conditions that would make it valid. Anecdotes illustrating assertions can thus lead listeners to feel that the assertions are more likely to be true than they actually are. That's one way in which the Availability Heuristic makes false rumors — which are often in the form of anecdotes — credible.
Focusing Illusion
The Focusing Illusion is our tendency to overvalue one aspect of a situation relative to its importance. For example, in the anecdote about the lost data files, the listener focuses on the fact that the loss occurred at the time of installing the new software. The anecdote says nothing about what else might have been happening at the time. Did another user have access to the files on the server? Did someone or something else delete the files? The anecdote's form actually suppresses any thought of possible causes other than the installation.

We'll continue next time exploring additional sources of distorted thinking associated with anecdotes used for persuasion. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part II  Next Issue

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