Secrets and lies, damn lies and statistics

Human brains are better at working with stories than statistical results. This has long been suggested by research across the world, and found to be common along the spectrum of studies from the so-called serious sciences to more spurious social science. If you want to look into some of this evidence perhaps start with Stanley Milgram, famed for testing obedience to authority – and story – back in the early 1960s. 

Milgram is a contentious character for today’s academics. Recent criticism includes the notion of Milgram being just too aware of storytelling, especially of the dramatic kind so readily used in his methods yet perhaps not visible in the results. Arguments will simmer on, often about the ethics of such research, yet Milgram has been cited for decades among academics, and VenkmanCaptureeven by comedic nods such as when the ‘sciencey’ lead characters of the original Ghostbusters movie (right) ape Milgram’s infamous “electric shock experiment”.

Today in the UK, sat under an overcast sky and incessant summer rainfall, something else of Milgram’s work comes to mind: “the helping experiment”. In it, volunteers were sat in isolated booths and listened to each other share memories for a few minutes, telling stories in turn. What had not been revealed to the study group was that one among them was an actor who proceeded to feign an increasing panic attack/health condition veering towards the life-threatening.

In brief, the bystander effect was shown, whereby only about 30% of the listening audience took any action to help the distressed speaker (actor). A more telling point is that a follow-up study took place…

In the second study, volunteers were shown video clips which apparently showed interviews with subjects from the original experiment. Everyone in the follow up study had been fully briefed on the first study, and informed of the resulting stat – that just 30% of the people had taken action as helpers. The pivotal point here is that these video clips were paused before the end: ‘the reveal’ of whether or not the person speaking in the video had helped or not during the first study.

Voila: at those moments – during the pregnant pauses – each subject of the second study was asked to guess whether or not the person whom they had been viewing in a video clip would reveal themselves to have helped during the original study.

People in this second study overwhelmingly, disingenuously, voted in favour of the people they had been watching speak about memories and tell stories. These decisions were made despite the fact – the stat – that they had been provided just minutes earlier stating that only 30% of people had been helpers during the first experiment.

So people knew, statistically, that the chances were stacked in favour of guessing that the person they were gazing upon had very likely NOT helped. Yet they still relied on the sweeping assumption that, well, nice enough looking folks telling their stories on screen came across, naturally enough, as the kind of good people that would likely help in any scenario where another human was clearly in distress and calling out for help.

Hmm. What might this hint at? For one thing, people in the second study had not been swayed by statistics yet, significantly, they had been swayed by the stories and storytelling.

Any given story can be persuasive in itself – arguably more so in its telling and/or its reception perhaps even its retelling. Most intriguing for me, at least, is that strangeness of a story to hold and wield power despite (or maybe due to?) being allowed to swirl and simmer and spellbind in an imaginary space that somehow lies between storytellers and the eyes, ears, and minds of audiences.


The story of the past few weeks has been woeful…

The UK’s In/Out referendum on EU membership – and the media creation (beyond coverage) of that story – has tossed up an endless stream of fallacious factoids, self-righteous slander and so on. The cynical political campaigning peaked with the Brexit vote: an epochal calamity for the UK which now looks and feels further adrift than ever before from the coast of Europe. What lies beyond a dark horizon when only self-obsessed psychopaths and self-preserving sycophants are at the helm spewing lies, damn lies and statistics? Whatever awaits, we’re all at sea, windless, isolated in a mid-Atlantic mess of nothingness – no compass, no stars, no plan. We face a future where the only certainty is uncertainty. In the numbness of now, and in the knowledge of the blog post above, one irony comes to mind: We have been a nation, a tradition, of many wonderful storytellers – many names beyond Shakespeare – yet now we need a storyteller like never before.


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