Have you ever wondered why people hold onto their beliefs despite statistical proof that they are wrong?
- Is it that we don’t understand what the numbers are telling us?
- Or is it that we just chose to ignore them?
Dan Kahan is the professor of Law and Politics at Yale University. This question perplexed him. So he ran an experiment with a thousand students, and this is what he found out…
Some of us aren’t very good at maths all of the time
In his first experiment the students were given data from a skin care cream trial and asked if the cream worked. Not all the students could work out the answer. Professor Kahan proved that maths is complicated.
and some of us aren’t very good at maths some of the time
The second experiment involved the same people and the same data but this time the subject was a gun control experiment (a highly charged political issue in the States).
Unsurprisingly the students who couldn’t figure out the skin care problem failed again. But this time a large proportion of the people who had proved they could do the maths got it wrong as well.
Politics makes us stupid
- The data was rigged so it was pro gun control
- The data was rigged so it was anti gun control
Left or right, it didn’t matter, the drop in mathematical ability was the same.
Professor Kahan showed that if the data is counter to our political leanings then we are far more likely to jump to a conclusion that supports our view of the world and come up with the wrong answer.
We see what we want to see
Our businesses are rife with politics, bias and beliefs, it is part of the human condition.
So the next time your analysis suggest something contentious it is worth spending the time to make sure your presentation of the numbers is absolutely clear and unambiguous.
- Both for those who can’t do the maths
- And also those who can, but just might not like the answer
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Image by the World Bank Photo Collection