The other morning I was sitting in the McDonald’s across the street from where my car was having its oil changed. I was minding my own business and trying to get some work done while I waited for my car to be done. A few tables over were a pair of older men whose conversation I happened to overhear.
They were talking about smoking. One man said that he had picked up smoking in high school but that a few years later, things had started coming out about how bad it was for you. He’d decided to quit, put his cigarettes down, and never picked them back up. Easy as that. Now, at this point in his story, I had no quibbles. It’s what he said next that irked me.
He told his friend that it annoyed him when he heard people complain that they just couldn’t quit, because he’d just made up his mind and that was that. Why couldn’t they just do the same?
Anecdotal evidence is a person’s account of what happened to them, often unaccompanied by any empirical data. It can be useful when aggregated in certain circumstances but is not typically cited for scientific research. And it can make an otherwise sound argument seem shaky.
A lot of that is because the human mind is insanely powerful. It can alter reality and provide false connections. It rewrites memories and manufactures new ones unbidden. It forms unconscious biases that can be difficult to detect or overcome.
Take the placebo effect. A patient is in terrible pain and is told this pill will make them feel better. An hour later, the doctor checks on them, and the patient is no longer in pain. What was this magical drug? Sugar. Because the patient thought they were getting powerful pain medication, the pain went away.
Confirmation bias is an unconscious habit of believing only things that support our argument and dismiss things that oppose it. The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon where when you learn a new word or discover an old song you like, and suddenly you see and hear it everywhere.
All of these are tricks the mind plays on you, often without you ever realizing. And so we come back to anecdotal evidence. Your mind is unreliable at least as far as scientific studies are concerned. What you think has happened may not be what actually occurred.
For example, think of that friend (we all have one) who swears up and down that they have a gluten intolerance as they are dumping soy sauce over their lo mein noodles. They tell you that whenever they eat bread, they feel bloated and sick and that since they have cut it out, they feel amazing. And yet they are just fine an hour later as you’re walking out of the restaurant, notwithstanding the large amount of gluten in soy sauce. Now, there’s no doubt that they feel better, but it can be deduced that the gluten was probably not the cause of their previous troubles.
Taking this out to a broader context, just because you experience something some way does not mean it was that way for everyone. In my experience, older people tend to fall into this trap when they talk about the past. And nostalgia is another of those mind traps. We tend to remember the past as better than it actually was. But I hear a lot of stories about “in my day” which then lead to judgment about today’s youth or the way people parent.
Where this becomes insidious is when it is used to downplay others’ struggles. Racism, for example. I have from time to time heard someone say that they have never seen anyone be outright racist. And that if in their long life they haven’t seen it, it couldn’t possibly be as extensive or damaging as minority groups say. Discrimination or harassment in the workplace is another. One person states women are paid less than men for working the same job, and another person responds that in their experience, the opposite is true. The implication is that person two doesn’t believe discrimination is an issue in the workplace.
The reality is that the world is much broader and more diverse than we can ever fully imagine. And that just because things haven’t happened to us, doesn’t mean they aren’t happening around us. We, as a society, need to move past using our own experiences as limitations to what we think about the world at large. It can lead to greater empathy and more participation in the mechanisms of change. Isn’t that the kind of world we would all like to see?