In past blog entries I’ve been very critical of Authors using weak anecdotal evidence to support their subversive arguments. It can certainly be dazzling to readers (and may help sell books), but when authors support their arguments by using only stories from their own experience, they usually lack real statistical evidence. A story can be a fun way to learn about an issue, but just because something happened in one case (in the story), it does not mean that it happens in all cases.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about “experience.” Experience is generally a good thing and among professionals it could even be considered the most valuable trait a person could have. In press releases announcing new management hires, nothing wins instant respect and acceptance for your new manager like touting 20+ years of relevant experience.

But what is experience if not a collection of anecdotes that you draw on to help solve problems? Why are these anecdotes valuable for professionals, but frowned upon when authors use them to prove their points? It seems to me that when it comes to making decisions and proving points, there is a dichotomy between

experience and statistics. You need statistics to support your decisions, but you need experience to identify the decisions that need to be made.

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Experience
  • One of my favorite quotes is: “The plural of anecdote is not data.”

    I have to disagree with you wrt experience, though – cognitively (lots of psychology on this) experience confers expertise, which is (operationally) defined as being able to filter out all the irrelevent, extraneous information.

    Classic example: learning to drive. When you first sit in the drivers seat, there’s so much to do – it’s hard to remember to do everything. Check the mirrors, press the gas petal, keep an eye on your speed, watch traffic in advance, etc etc etc. Yet you relatively quickly get good at doing most of those things “automatically”, so you only focus on the important things.

    In other words, people with experience can make decisions faster, and often better decisions, than people without experience. This is particularly true if you are resource-constrained (time, exhaustion, stressed, etc).

    That said, lack of experience can be useful because you also typically develop poor mental models over time. Having someone capable of judging them sui generis, on their own standards, can sometimes lead to the discovery of inconsistencies or inefficiencies.

    This is particularly true if things change. If the underlying model changes, then the experience in some ways works against you, because the internal mental model no longer corresponds to reality. Thus we get seemingly clueless decisions by people in some industries…