Often, we tend to conclude that something (a cosmetic, an appliance, a car) is ‘the best’ or ‘the worst’, without basing our conclusion on any kind of scientific evidence. Our conclusion may be based on word-of-mouth, television, or any other form of influence. This phenomenon is called anecdotal evidence, and PsycholoGenie gives you an explanation and some examples of the same.
Did You Know?
Anecdotal evidence is also used in legal terminology. When a witness testifies without any evidence to support his claim, his testimony is called anecdotal evidence. It does not mean that it is untrue, or false, but it cannot be relied upon as there is no way to prove it.
What are anecdotes? Webster’s Dictionary defines an anecdote as a usually short narrative about an interesting or funny event or occurrence. If anecdotes are stories, or narratives, then what is anecdotal evidence? We’re aware that we’re posing too many questions, and so, let us get into a simplified explanation of the term.
What Is Anecdotal Evidence?
As opposed to scientific evidence, anecdotal evidence is evidence, information, or a conclusion, that is based on anecdotes. However, in this case, anecdotes have a broader meaning than just stories―anecdotal evidence is evidence based upon the experiences or opinions of other people, or the media.
We can spot instances of the same in everyday life, such as asking a friend to recommend a good anti-aging cream (who knows if it’s going to suit your skin like it suited hers?), or asking a neighbor about a good dog-walking service, or anything else. Very rarely is this evidence based on the opinion of someone who is an expert on that matter or on reliable statistical data. Instead, we base it on word-of-mouth, or on what we see and hear around us.
However, this type of evidence cannot be used to logically conclude anything. It is considered unreliable to support generalized claims, as it may be ‘cherry picked’, a kind of fallacy that is committed when basing claims on individual instances while largely ignoring a significant part of the data which may contradict that claim. More than often, anecdotal evidence is defined with a slightly negative connotation, which, more or less, all claim that it cannot be used as a logical support to conclude anything.
Instances of Anecdotal Evidence
Like we said earlier, we form many of our opinions, or tend to base our actions, on anecdotal evidence in our daily lives. While it is true that most of us don’t actually have the time or patience to gather scientific evidence to support any claims, it is also true that we don’t look for reliable or expert advice, but make-do with whatever we see or hear instead. Given below are a few instances of anecdotal evidence.
John is a 22-year old guy inflicted with stubborn acne. No matter what diet he follows, he’s prone to acne every now and then. John is fed up with his problem, when a friend advises him to turn to a certain herbal treatment for help. John’s friend is neither an expert on herbal medicines, and nor does she know anything about alternative therapy. Yet, John concludes that this particular herbal treatment is going to help him get rid of his problem. His opinion is based on hear-say, and not scientific evidence or any reliable statistical data. He does not know that the treatment might not be authentic, or might be unsuitable for him. He just bases his opinion on his friend’s narrative, and goes ahead with considering the therapy.
Lisa wants to go on a vacation to Barbados, but does not know anything about the place. She wants to know what to see there, what to do, where to stay, etc. Lisa asks her colleague whose friend has been there before to recommend a few places in Barbados where she can stay comfortably. Lisa’s colleague confidently gives her a list of places to see, things to do, and where she can stay when in Barbados, and Lisa plans her entire trip based on her colleague’s advice. Lisa’s colleague is not a travel expert, and nor does she have any clue about what Lisa’s idea of a comfortable stay is. Yet, Lisa plans her trip according to her advice, instead of referring to a travel company who is an expert in these matters. Making a conclusion based on the colleague’s advice, “If she has a friend who has been there, she knows what she’s saying. It must be good.” is an example of anecdotal evidence.
Anecdotal evidence is popularly used in advertising and marketing of goods and services, as research suggests that viewers are more likely to remember certain extraordinary examples rather than a generalized example. Hence, advertisers use anecdotal evidence to promote their products. Clubs advertise the time when a celebrity partied there to attract customers, even though that celebrity is probably never going to come there again. Casinos and lotteries promote instances of people who win something, though winning something in both cases is very rare, and losses are almost guaranteed. Diet supplement companies give instances of people who were on the heavier side earlier and who changed dramatically after using their products, even though the people in the promotion are probably just models, and that the supplement is actually a waste of time and money.
A woman looking for a good anti-aging cream comes across a brand that her friend has said is very effective. Her friend is not a beauty expert, but has read a good review about this brand on some website, and has based her claim on this non-concrete evidence. The woman too, bases her conclusion about the effectiveness of this cream and goes ahead and buys it for herself. The woman has no idea whether the cream will suit her skin or not, and if it will even make any difference to her skin or not. There is no scientific claim or evidence to prove the effectiveness of that cream, and nor is there any reliable data claiming its authenticity. Yet, the woman, her friend, and probably, many other people rely on the anecdotal evidence of this particular cream.
There are several more instances of basing actions on anecdotal evidence, such as deciding which doctor to see, which brand of toothpaste to buy, which babysitter to hire, and which gym to join, to name a few. Most people make these decisions based on the recommendations of people who are not experts in that field. Nobody really bothers supporting these claims with proven and reliable data. It is not necessary that anecdotal evidence is incorrect or is wrong, it is just that what might be correct in one case does not necessarily have to be correct in other cases.
Anecdotal evidence may prove to be a harmless base for decision-making in many cases, but it can actually take a turn for the worse in others. Sometimes, hearsay spreads wild rumors about many things, such as a particular food being a cure for a deadly disease. This form of anecdotal evidence might be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and may seriously harm someone who is suffering from an illness and who chooses to use that food as therapy instead of medical help.
Basing actions on anecdotal evidence may or may not make a serious difference in our lives. However, it is very important to focus on what decisions we base on what kind of evidence. It is best to not take any risks when it comes to health, finance, and relationships based on anecdotal evidence, and take decisions solely and completely based upon reliable evidence, be it scientific or by an expert.