11
Jan
08

Looking for Answers in Numbers

Spiekermann House NumbersWe have gone crazy with numbers. No matter where you look, it seems like we’re trying to reduce life and people to a bunch of digits. I posted yesterday on how if you want to be a successful creator, you have to be an equally good listener. Besides listening, I think you have to stop seeing people like they’re a number.

For the last week, pundits and other media types have wondered how pollsters got the data so wrong in New Hampshire, predicting a blow out for Democratic presidential hopeful Barak Obama. In the end, Hillary Clinton “stunned” said pollsters with a “comeback win.” Of late, I’m seeing two trends: (1) people want numbers to be the ultimate answer to the question (whatever it may be); and (2) the rhetoric surrounding data feels more forced.

Numbers as the Answer

There’s beauty in numbers. They give the appearance of a clear and concise answer to many sticky problems. There’s an issue with relying so heavily on numbers for the answers. Data shields the source of the numbers—people—and people are anything but clear and concise. But we so desperately want clarity that we latch on to the numbers to declare victories, defeats, and everything else in between.

Forcing Numbers into Boxes

Whether it’s how the stock market performed or the latest poll on whatever topic that holds the public’s attention, the translators of said data are in trouble. For years, people dutifully answered questions put to them by pollsters. Now, some people intentionally give the “wrong” answers, hoping to skew the results. However, this reality seems to have little effect on the people gravely sharing the results of said poll as thought it contains the answer to life itself. The same goes for market research. Will we ever own up to the fact that we put huge amounts of money and time behind data that may or may not be valid?

Sometimes Numbers Matter—Sometimes They Don’t

On Thursday, Jeremiah Owyang commented on how happy people were that he posted data on social networks. He made the incredibly important point that:

Without insight, context, and analysis, data itself is a crutch, and remember the numbers only indicate what has happened, and sometimes point to what could happen.

There’s a reason why polls don’t always match up with election results, or why products predicted to fly off the shelf stay in place: human beings don’t like being seen as numbers. Reminiscent of a child who refuses to do what a parent wants, even though what the parent says makes sense, we fight the notion that someone can direct our individual behavior. Deep down, we hate the thought of being predictable and easy to categorize. What child says, “I hope a marketer has my buying behavior totally figured out by the time I’m 18?” We don’t want to lose our mystery, and numbers have a way of stripping the mystery from each of us.

From now on, the next time you see anyone touting a number as an answer, ask yourself whether the question posed is really answered by a number or if it’s a bit more complicated. I’m betting on complicated if the question is about people, because humanity is rarely that easy to define or to describe.

Comments?

(Image courtesy of Stewf. Some rights reserved.)
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4 Responses to “Looking for Answers in Numbers”


  1. January 11, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    well, if there’s an economist reading this, you’d be in for a battle – cause though they assess and develop systems and people’s activities, their heart still lies in numbers.

    I though, tend to agree with your side there. “…betting on complicated if the question is about people, because humanity is rarely that easy to define or to describe.” I used that argument once against a technical finance/investor blogger who has been talking about a stock crash in China for some time now – as it has continued to rise through the year. Now, he’ll be correct, eventually, but I tried to remind him that markets are still people. That’s what they are – though numbers and technical for sure – markets will still be predominantly about sentiment and people, until of course a bubble pops, then it’s about numbers as well. I told him to try some cultural relativism, in that if he couldn’t understand WHY the market was still nuts, to remember that they are NOT HIM – and neither are they American and pessimistic. If they are optimistic, so too will their market be.

    He of course told me to *F-off. But that’s okay. All year I’ve been right, just by betting on optimism.

  2. January 15, 2008 at 12:37 am

    Polls are notoriously unreliable and cannot provide the rock solid conclusions people crave. It’s not so much that people don’t want to be seen as numbers as people are wholly unpredictable. They say one thing, and then ten minutes later change their minds. Some people say what they think the pollster wants to hear. Numbers are constant. People are wild cards. And never the twain shall meet.

  3. 3 Britt
    January 15, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    @t h rive: You make an excellent point that markets are still people. Numbers may make a prediction about what the market will do, but ultimately it’s the people affecting the market. It’s interesting to me how unwilling economists are (sometimes) to combine both their numbers with what they know about people.

    @CherylT: What a great comparison: “Numbers are constant. People are wild cards.” I need to learn about about the psychology of why we answer pollsters they way we think they want to be answered. I’m on the opposite side a bit, in that I take some pleasure in giving opposite what they want to hear. Part of me wishes that polling was banned because they can be so misleading but still have a serious influence. However, it goes against my first amendment beliefs. Sigh. It’s a conundrum any way you look at it.


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