Providing fake reliability with statistics

Discover two intricate ways statistics can influence the perception of the truth.

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Statistics are truth

Today everything revolves around the truth. Just ask Donald Trump at Statistics are an excellent way to provide proof of the fact.

At least, that is what everybody should believe.

Every presenter should have an intended outcome in mind. We want to inform or influence a decision. Every issue has pro and contra arguments.

Statistics can help us to make the pro points more potent and the contra points weaker. The statistics serve as a quantitative anchor to your position. Read on to learn how you can twist statistics to your cause.

Statistics and the audience’s attention span

Many people assume that a fact is a fact. As such, it does not matter where and when you present your statistics as long as you give them.

That is a gross mistake. You are undoubtedly familiar with the concept of attention span. Long monologues usually overload the listener’s attention and lead nowhere. However, even in a well-structured presentation, there are different levels of attention span.

For complex ideas, our attention span is usually concise. This is related to the concept of cognitive ease and confusion.

But there is also the effect of the structure of the presentation on the attention span. The built-up to the production of facts can lead to a different perception. This is related to the framing effect.

Confusing your audience

In the good old days, the general advice was that it was best not to confuse your audience. However, today many public figures do precisely this. They answer questions that were not asked or change the topic frequently. All this is interwoven with statistics. The audience is usually overwhelmed and will accept any proposal.

If you want to do this, I recommend the following article:

Some tactics are:

  1. Dodge the question: Take any question as a starting point to divert to a topic of your choice.
  2. Attack: Repeat the question and say it is wrong/unfair. Talk about something else.
  3. Repeat the keywords: Talk about unrelated stuff, but mention the keywords. In the business world, also known as bullshit talk.
  4. Joke: provide a joke to get laughter from the audience.
  5. Talk the other down: talk about many, many things to cover up the question.

If you do not want to do that, follow my article on avoiding ego depletion.

Influencing the attention frame

You and the audience

In a presentation, there is always a relationship between the speaker and the audience. They may both be of the same group or not. The speaker may want to influence the audience, or he is a teacher.

The topic and the structure of the speech are important. More important are often the audience’s prior knowledge and their feelings towards the topics. These conditions set the stage.

What do you feel when you read the words:
electric cars, climate crisis, milk, golf ball, abortion?

Do you have the same feelings and constant background thoughts for each word?

Influencing the background thoughts

Attentive listening is a challenging skill. Many people listen and directly think about what they have heard. They start processing and ordering the information. Direct processing allows us to anchor new knowledge with already existing concepts. However, it makes the reception of further information more error-prone. This kind of chatter in your head is hard to silence. The good news? You can assume that many in your audience are not listening. They will not spot minor errors in your reasoning.

There are different approaches to influence this chatter. Among these are your choice of words, the consistency of the information, and providing a sense of reliability.

Activity words lead to activity.

Imagine you want to promote your newest fitness gadget and spread the ideas of a fitness lifestyle.

You face a crowd of average Joes and Janes. They are familiar with the sport but know only a little about metabolism.

How do you set the stage for your pitch? Do you start with a lecture on the negative effect of fatty foods?

First, you must invoke the need for action. Do this by using active words. Talk about how you love to go hiking on the weekend. This reminds the audience of their weekend activities. The audience is waiting for some action and will likely lapse over a statistical mistake.

1 in 10 persons does not have a heart attack if he does sport. 2 in 10 persons of those use fitness gadgets. Fitness gadgets have a benefit.

This seems like a good deal. 2 are better than 1.

Another way to present the information would have been that 8 in 10 people are happy to do sport without gadgets. The data is essentially the same but less activating and does not fit the predisposition of the audience.

Provide a consistent story

A consistent story helps to reinforce any sentiments the audience had before. If you add details that do not fit, the audience becomes distracted. This is why so many scientists have a hard time presenting a good story. They want a complete picture describing any anomaly in the data.

However, it is not the complete picture, but the most consistent that convinces. Almost nobody is interested in the story of Gandalf’s youth in the story of lord of the rings.

A good story follows the concept that “What you see is all there is.” The speaker should reinforce this concept. The listener will automatically apply it. A consistent story is believed to be more accurate. This means consistency will lead to higher confidence in the speaker.

At the same time, a speaker that neglects details can also be more confident in himself. Daniel Kahneman explains this with our desire to see patterns:

“Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little and when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance”.

Providing a sense of (fake) reliability

There are mathematical formulas to express the accuracy of information. Intuitive sampling is often much too small and presents a systematic failure. Nevertheless, many sources only ask a few hundred people. Saying that 70 people asked 14 to use gadgets sounds far less impressive. The relevance is inflated by expressing it relative or in proportion to 10 or 100.

Talking about ten people adds a level of detail to the narrative. 10 out of 100 people is better visualizable than 10 %. Detailed stories are, therefore, more persuasive. The same applies to the question “how many?” vs. “what percentage?”.

From a statistical perspective, the inverse relation is true. More details make an event less likely and less likely to be true.

Much of business success stories and proven business methods rely on this approach. Success stories are cited as proof of a technique. One project’s success does not mean it is a suitable method for all projects. Still, this is an accepted approach in business writing and journalism.