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Critical Thinking series: Anecdotal Evidence

Stories are one of the most important technologies in the history of the human race. Consider that at one point, before the internet, telegraph, and written word, stories were the only way that information spread between people. Even though this is very different from today, for centuries people exchanged news, discoveries, religious inclinations, and updates on friends, family, and enemies through nothing but the spoken word of a story.

It is only in modern times that we might scoff at considering something as trivial as a story a fundamental technology, but that is because we have since replaced stories with an even newer technology to explain phenomena with more reliability: science.

In scientific discussions, we consider stories ‘anecdotal evidence,’ or would describe the use of a story as evidence committing the ‘narrative fallacy.’ This is because stories, or anecdotes, are replete with the biases of the speaker, and only represent a sample size of one. For making crucial decisions, we can’t trust findings that don’t have a reliable statistical base, much less the notably biased sample of a single person’s story.

This doesn’t make stories entirely useless in market research, and it most certainly doesn’t make stories any less powerful. There’s a good reason why we’re so often tempted to use anecdotal evidence in research, and that is because stories are deeply ingrained in our evolution. They’re colorful, interesting, often entertaining, and easy to understand. In the context of research, stories can lend much-needed flavor to valid statistical findings, and make them easier to remember and tell to others without requiring them to sift through reams and reams of data.

While using anecdotal evidence is a fallacy in quantitative research, stories have a place in qualitative research to bolster valid statistical findings, and to lend color to research in a personal, relatable way. Strong marketing messages and great products ultimately rely on people and their personal experiences, and so there is certainly a place for the age-old technology of story in research. However, it is important to understand the limitations of stories in statistics, and to try and catch yourself when relying too heavily on your personal sample size of one in deciphering complex data.

Advantage Research has been offering both quantitative and qualitative market research since 1992, and whether your firm is large or small, we can help in determining what approach is best for you and your business goals. Contact us today to start the conversation!

These explorations are inspired by School of Thought's Critical Thinking card decks - check out their website for more information.


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