When it comes to your health, don’t bet on long shots …

… unless you’re out of options.

In my Business Analytics course, I had students read a couple of excerpts from a book called Think Twice: The Power of Counter-intuition by Michael Mauboussin.

In a chapter called “The Outside View” the author reports findings from a medical study that investigated the relative importance of hard data and anecdotal evidence when patients select from among treatment options for serious health conditions.

Patients were given the hard scientific data about a treatment‘s success rates and an anecdote about a case history.

Some anecdotes were positive (the treatment was a success), some were negative (the treatment failed or had complications), and some were neutral (neither a clear success nor a dramatic failure).

Below is an extract of the study’s results summarizing the percentage of respondents selecting a treatment given the hard data on its success rate and a related anecdote of a specific case’s outcome.


Let’s drill down …


When a  treatment with a high success rate was paired with a positive case study, it won hands down.

Similarly, when a treatment with a low success rate was paired with a negative case study, it lost by a mile.

So, good so far.

But, when when a treatment with a low success rate was paired with a positive case study it was selected at about the same rate as a treatment with a high proven success rate.

Said differently, a positive case study – even if it was an unlikely outlier – had the power to swamp the hard scientific data.

That’s not so good.

It’s like betting on the long-shot because you like jockey’s colors.

That’s ok if your downside is a 2-buck bet.

It’s not ok when you’re betting your life.

Bottom line:

Keep in mind the old adage: The plural of anecdote is not data.

When you hear a story – even a compelling one – stop and ask yourself: “Is this the rule or is it just an interesting outlier?’

If there’s any doubt, trust the science and the hard data !

Follow on Twitter @KenHoma

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