Why is it my wife will always come home with a lottery ticket in a jackpot week? Statistically speaking, she is more likely to die in the car on the way to the shop than she is to win the $30 million draw.
She knows this. I tell her often enough.
Deep down, most people know that the odds are stacked so far against us that a lottery ticket could never be considered a sound investment. But we fickle humans don’t think or behave like logical, objective and dispassionate computers. Our decisions are far more subjective, relying on a different kind of evidence – experience.
And when we lack the personal experience to make a decision, stories and anecdotes allow us to imagine and internalise the second-hand experiences of other people.
You don’t think in statistics, you think in examples, in stories. You decide the likelihood of a future event on how easily you can imagine it.
David McRaney: You Are Not So Smart
And so adverts depict happy lottery winners on a world cruise, or happy parents paying off their daughter’s mortgage – just to help us imagine that statistically unlikely lottery win.
Each is a subjective view of one person (or family), because that is how we see the world — not as a statistical whole but as an entirely unstatistical personal experience.
These fictional tales are then given credibility by regular newspaper stories of surprised jackpot winners talking about what they plan to do with the money. And so the weight of anecdotal evidence begins to outweigh the cold reality of statistics.
Never mind how improbable it is. Our imagination says winning is entirely possible. Gimme another Maxi-Pick and what was your brother’s birthday again?
This power of imagination over statistics isn’t always negative, tricking us to ignore the facts. Most of the time, storytelling can help us to understand otherwise abstract concepts with far greater ease.
The Evolution of Story
Storytelling has been at the centre of how our brains work since the first time someone told a tale around a campfire. Telling tales was a way of transferring personal experience to a wider group. This is how I hunted the mammoth. This is how I escaped the cave bear. This is how your ancestors lived.
Teaching by example. Sharing history. Communicating information in a way others can imagine within their own subjective view of the world.
Telling another member of the tribe how to make a fire still required a beginning, middle and an end of cause and effect. You do this, then that and the result is warmth and light. But if you do that, then this, the result is burned hair and lots of pain. Information and experience conveyed as story.
What do these facts mean to me?
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but an example is worth a thousand stats. [Tweet this]
Consider the recent debate in Australia over the two competing policies for the National Broadband Network (NBN). When the coalition announced their policy, almost all the reporting was confined to stats, numbers and details.
All of that discussion about upload/download speeds remained very abstract for most average consumers. My mum wouldn’t have a clue how those numbers would affect her daily usage of the internet. Therefore, many people latch onto the only numbers they do understand; one party’s plan will cost taxpayers less to implement across the country cheaper than the other. The reasons why it won’t work nearly as well are harder to grasp for most.
(2020 update: Not only didn’t this “cheaper” approach not work as well, it ended up costing more, not less, because of the new complexities it introduced.)
So I was extremely happy when James Brotchie — a Queensland university student – launched a website called How Fast is the NBN this week.
The site tells a number of stories in the form of common scenarios internet users may relate to, such as uploading wedding photos to Facebook. Each scenario is followed by a clever visualisation of how the different proposed upload/download speeds transform the experience for you, me, your mum and my neighbour.
Stories + examples > stats. Beautiful.
Yes, the politicians are arguing over whether the facts are misrepresented. The point I’m making isn’t about which NBN plan is better, but how James conveyed the numbers in such a way that this visualisation has become the most viral piece of NBN-related content in the controversial program’s history – one that people could understand, imagine and share.
So, next time you’re releasing that white paper on recent trends and statistical results, consider whether there may be a better way.
Is your headline a statistic or is it a story? Help your valuable information to resonate with more people by using examples.
We may be smart enough to understand your facts and figures. But you need to feed our imaginations as well.
Alan Stransman says
Would you really want to be married to a woman who calculates the odds of getting killed in an accident vs. winning a lottery before buying a ticket. That doesn`t sound like a fun gal to me.
Jonathan Crossfield says
Of course I am married to the best woman in the entire world. That’s a fact. 😉 And should her lottery ticket ever come up, it’s not as if I would reject the winnings out of loyalty to a statistical unlikelihood. We’re all just as prone to imagining the possibility of winning over the far greater chance of disappointment as we check our numbers.
I really like how you’ve illustrated this point, Jonathon. We make sense of the world through stories. they help tie the facts together in a way that makes sense.
That NBN site is great – I just signed the petition.
Oh and jackpot weeks are one of the few times when buying a lottery ticket is not so bad of an investment! I frequently have this debate with my wife, except I’m the one buying the ticket 🙂
Nick Fielden says
Only first-time lottery ticket buyers lack the personal experience of the lottery draw. Repeat-buyers have gained plenty of experience. If their decision whether or not to buy a ticket was indeed based on their success to date, only winners would buy tickets.
I am not sure that lottery punters do justify their purchases due to the stories of jackpot winners in the tabloids. Nor would I describe such stories, or the reading of them, as ‘second-hand experience’. Surely experience-by-proxy contains its own contradiction.
You’re right to say the winners’ stories give proof that riches are to be won. But I think most people remain mindful, like your wife, that the odds are long. What I think is more persuasive (and you’ll hear it most often argued by those seeking to make sense to themselves of their lottery ticket purchase) is the absolute certainty that you will never win if you don’t join that queue at the newsagents each Saturday morning.
Jonathan Crossfield says
The point is not that people don’t know winning lotto is a long shot. They do. It’s that a disproportionate exposure to stories of winners outweighs the stats we know to be true. It just feels more likely than it actually is – and our decisions are driven far, far more by how we feel than logical reasoning based on stats and evidence.
This is known as the Affect Heruistic – a mental shortcut that attempts to speed up decision-making by relying on emotion and experience more than information and stats. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affect_heuristic. If we stop ourselves from the impulsive decision and =think it through, we may allow stats and logic to reassert themselves in the decision. But we rely on the Affect Heuristic short cut for most of the decisions we routinely make every day.
Plus the human brain’s ability to comprehend large numbers is far less effective than we like to think. Yes we can count and do math. But what those numbers mean to us on a gut level and how we visualise them is actually very primitive. We know 50 million to one are extreme odds (plucking numbers at random here), but in our psyche it feels no different to us than if it were 10 million to one, or even a thousand to one. Our reaction to each is the same – it’s a long shot. (There’s a term for this inability to conceptualise large numbers except as a simple concept of ‘a lot’, but I’m running out of time to search it out. Penn and Teller did a brilliant Bullshit episode on numbers and our perception of them which covers this).
We don’t like to believe that we’re so mistaken in our psychology, because we prefer to believe we’re reasonable and logical. And we all taught to believe we understand numbers and can calculate them accurately in most daily scenarios. But there are many, many studies that demonstrate that we form opinions and make decisions based on gut, and post-rationalise with information, numbers or excuses afterwards, as David McRaney points out in his book ‘You Are Not So Smart’.
Psychology has little to do with logic, unfortunately. And I have known many, many people who have constantly insisted to me that ‘someone’s got to win, so why not me?’, while pointing to media reports of winners, when justifying their own lotto purchases. In fact – and I need to find the stat again, so consider this a lazy argument until I have the time – pretty sure I’ve seen research that shows lottery sales skyrocket after media reports of a major lottery win. The odds haven’t changed. People’s understanding of those odds can’t have changed. But they’ve been reminded, by a powerful story, of what can happen, so their gut feel about how those odds relate to them has changed.
Your example of the ‘gotta be in it to win it’ mentality actually supports this. In many ways, it’s the same distorted reasoning, encouraged by imagery and stories of winners. The belief is that the weekly investment is actually worth the risk. However anyone who crunches the numbers and the odds knows it makes absolutely no sense to pursue lotto for financial gain. Its the worst financial strategy in human history. You’ve more chance of becoming rich by investing that money in an account each week for the 30 or more years you could be buying lottery tickets without ever winning. That’s the logical reaction to the odds – but it doesn’t feel right when we see others on the news raising a champagne glass.
Finally, yes – storytelling is often about providing ‘second hand experience’, to enable others to imagine or predict a likely outcome if they follow a similar course. Otherwise case studies would be a waste of time.