While talking to a friend the other day, the discussion turned to immigration in Europe. He was against supporting refugees because he had read an article about a refugee family in Germany that had gained legal entry and promptly set about gaming the social welfare system. This family of immigrants was sitting in their apartment making more money than hard working Germans, he said the article he had read stated.
Now, I don’t know where he read this article. I never did find it. But even if there is an article about a family of refugees doing this, I suspect it’s an anomaly. And, indeed, when looking at statistics, most refugees do not receive greater income support from the countries they end up in than regular citizens of those countries.
Yet, my friend’s entire belief of immigration was based on this anecdote, truthful or not. Which is putting a lot on, well, anecdotal evidence. It’s called anecdotal evidence for a reason. Anecdotal evidence may not be accurate but it tends to stick with us better than evidence-based statistics because it’s an anecdote. At the end of the day, it’s a story.
And we love stories.
Our brains are rigged to understand, remember, empathise with stories. There’s actual science to support this. Studies have shown that when we are presented with pure facts and nothing else, only the language processing portion of our brains is activated. Meaning, we are just decoding the meaning of what we’re reading. But when we are told a story, not only does the language processing part of the brain light up but so does the part of our brains we would use if we were experiencing the event.
We relate easier to stories.
We’ve evolved this way. It makes sense. One researcher said “personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our personal conversations”, and wow, for shallow conversations, but this is how we communicate. How we learned to communicate and how we continue to communicate.
So when climate change researchers tell us that the average temperature of the Earth’s surface has risen 0.9°C since the 19th century, and that the loss of ice sheets in Antarctica has tripled in the last 10 years, and that glaciers are retreating everywhere in the world ... but then someone laments about the cold snap in North America right now, and that they sneezed into the cold wind and the mucous in their nostrils froze so maybe global warming isn’t really doing very much – we’re more likely to remember the nostrils-freezing story and the point behind that.
Very unfortunately for facts, which don’t usually get packaged into a nice narrative that we can get behind, our world is governed by stories that get passed along because they’re easily memorized and hit an emotional chord with us.
Vaccines can cause autism. And Jenny McCarthy was so persuasive in telling us that vaccines can cause autism with her “Think of autism like a fart and vaccines are the finger you pull to make it happen” quotes.
Yeah, vaccines are not like that at all.
But McCarthy was so persuasive – ’cause let’s face it, her finger-pulling analogy is pretty memorable even if it’s so tremendously wrong – that she helped spearhead the movement in North America against vaccines.
Yes, people were convinced by an ex-MTV VJ that vaccines were bad because the researchers and doctors and science types that had the facts on vaccines were just oh so boring. That’s a pretty sad reality.
Flash forward about two decades and McCarthy is trying to take back what she said, and a measles outbreak in Washington State has raised concerns over the anti-vaxxer movement because parents not getting their kids vaccinated was leading to epidemics that could easily have been avoided.
If only there was some sort of ... I don’t know ... vaccine the kids could have taken.
Oh yeah, there was. But vaccines are the finger you pull to make – ugh, it’s so stupid, I can’t even repeat it.
The point is, anecdotes and stories are great. And we attach ourselves to them but before you get persuaded by a story, think critically about it, check the facts – the Internet exists and is easily accessible – before going out and telling a hundred people a ridiculous analogy that leads to people actually getting hurt 20 years later.
Jenny McCarthy isn’t responsible for the anti-vaxxer movement, no one person is responsible for spreading an inaccurate anecdote, but we are all responsible when we pass it on without knowing the facts.