Statistics, damned statistics, and beliefs. The role of the expert in your marketing decision making.

ExpertCartoon1At what point in a strategic exercise do you decide something is true? Certainly true?

More to the point, how do you decide if something is true?

It’s an interesting question, that should be considered by everyone in strategic decision making, in the field of marketing as much as anywhere else.

Confirmation bias is just the beginning

By now, just about everyone understands that we are all subject to “confirmation bias”. This is when we tend to believe something that meshes well or is supported by our pre-existing world view. Only the most strong-minded can resists the siren call of confirmation bias.

How many times has a marketing director (or agency head) “trusted their gut” on a strategic decision, rather than the pure statistical evidence presented by their staff? It’s usually because there’s a mis-match between the received statistical knowledge and the knowledge (read bias) in place.

However, research into how juries make decisions has shown this isn’t really how decisions work in practice.

Decision making is a complex beast

In a court case, people are reluctant to assign liability when the plaintiff’s evidence is only based on statistical evidence – even if this evidence is apparently compelling mathematically. So for example:

An application for child support has been dismissed despite a blood test showing it is 99.8% probable that the man being sued is the father of a four-year-old girl.

Researchers compared peoples’ willingness to believe so-called “naked” statistical evidence, versus other forms of evidence such as expert testimony.

Even when the probabilities of each being accurate were identical, “jurors” were more than six times more likely to convict when the statistical evidence was presented as being the rationale for an expert decision.

In the above example, the plaintiff’s attorney might have been more successful if the expert had testified “Based on a blood test that is 99.8% accurate, I conclude that the defendant is the father” instead of simply stating “Based on a blood test, there is a 99.8% probability that the defendant is the father”.

The differing factor being that the first is an expert opinion, the second merely a statistic.

To a mathematician or data analyst there is no difference between the two statements, of course. But psychologically, people react more favourably to statements of belief which are based on probability than they do to the probabilities themselves.

This was shown to be especially true in complex or ill-defined court cases in which attorneys are highly unlikely to be able to establish an accurate assessment of the probability of innocence or guilt.

trustIn other words, we do trust experts more. Apparently.

Surprising? Probably not.

After all, in courtroom dramas (and real life) colourful and charismatic attorneys are more likely to win cases.

Perhaps this is why persuasive employees seem to get their way with their bosses more often analytical ones? Why one salesperson succeeds over another where both appear to be offering the same thing. A whole host of other factors are at play, of course, like personal empathy, but the “expert” factor is one that researchers are only now coming to terms with.

The “expert factor” might make all the difference to how you decide.

Now, no-one in their right mind would extrapolate further and suggest “facts don’t matter”.

But what the research shows is that how those facts are presented, and by whom, seems to matter a great deal to the way we make decisions. Which way our vote falls.

Which is something all Boards of Directors need to think about when they view presentations from their staff, and especially when data is a core component of the presentation. Are you judging the data, or who it is presenting it? Do you need to pause more and consider the facts dispassionately?

And it is something all Marketing Managers need to be aware of when reviewing market research from skilled research companies.

And something clients need to be aware of when reviewing opinions from trusted ad agency heads …

And why everyone needs to be healthily sceptical of all the passionate spruiking of the online world as the new marketing nirvana. Many of those spruikers sound very convincing, especially when they appear immersed in a topic too arcane for us mere mortals to understand. But does their data really back up the decisions they are asking you to take, which may run to thousands or even millions of dollars?

MOPWe can think of a hundred examples in our industry, frankly.

And we’re sure you get the point.

So the MOP position is simple: trust your experts, but with a healthy scepticism, and beware of believing them just because they’re experts.

Believe them because the data actually is compelling, not just because they tell you it is.

Author: Stephen Yolland

Director of Creative Strategy and Partner @ Magnum Opus Partners.

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