We pretend to live in a data-driven world, but live in a belief-driven one

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Not sure if WordPress still embeds tweets, but I was just in this discussion on the old Twitter device and my friend Theresa said this:

She was a guest on my podcast a bit ago talking about Japanese culture and motherhood, as an aside.

I’ve written about this idea a couple of times in my life. I am no expert and have held maybe two jobs that could be loosely defined as “data-driven.” But Dubner, from Freakonomics, is a smarter and more accomplished person than me, and he’s made the same argument. In 2015, when I was first starting to gain a little traction with blogging, I wrote about the idea of “gut feel” — how most executives make decisions — versus “data.” A couple of years later, about a week before I got divorced according to publish date, I wrote pretty deep about confirmation bias too. So I kinda, sorta, vaguely know what I’m talking about here.

Also, and I think this should be noted in a post of this nature, I came to the idea maybe a year ago that Facebook is a total joke, and I mostly treat it like that now. I post memes, often from both sides of the political spectrum, and dumb shit all the time. It’s funny because I think some people assume I sit on Facebook all day (been told that) when in reality I use it maybe 20 minutes/day then scroll the comments, which are often insane.

This morning I did a simple COVID case graph, and you’ve got the right (politically) saying “This is fake” and the left screaming about death and ventilators.

So there’s data — in the graph, which is below — and there’s belief. Which do you think is more powerful for people?

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Now, I don’t want to give you 10 million academic reasons for why. I think you know. If you don’t know, here’s a good but long article from The New Yorker called “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.” The ironic part about that article, of course, is that it’s in a liberal publication, so instantly half the people who come across it will dismiss it (belief, not data) and it relies a lot on academic studies, so instantly another group of people who believe academics are eggheads without real-life experience will also dismiss it (again, belief > data).

A belief vs. data story with personal implications to boot!

This story will go off the rails for some people, but … f*ck it, let’s see if it resonates for some others.

I moved to Texas for this gig in ’14. I got laid off from it in ’15. It ended up being a terrible, purposeless job, so getting fired/laid off was likely a blessing, but obviously income-wise it sucked at the moment.

So, in late ’15 I applied for a job at this agency in my area that branded itself as “hip” and “cool” and “disruptive,” and I got 2–3 rounds in, then it went (the job did) to some kid named Rob. Cool dude, I had seen him “out and about” a few times.

So flash forward to early ’17 and I had just gotten divorced. Actually, at the time of this anecdote, I was separated from but still living with my ex, and we were avoiding each other like the plague, so I was waiting for my friend at this bar a few miles from my house.

My friend is late, and in walks Rob, his wife, and their newborn.

So here I am, solo at the bar drinking an IPA, and I see this nice family enter, and all this stuff is rushing around in my brain, like “Man, if I had gotten that job, would I be in that spot instead of this one?”


And in that case, the belief is wrong. I probably still would be in that spot, or be in a bar with a kid and still getting divorced. (Worse.)

But it’s still belief, and that’s powerful.

So now jump to late ’18, and I end up getting a job at that agency. I actually cried in the car after my interview, because I had this belief that stuff was coming full-circle for me and we would be good. I was moving in with my girl (now fiancee) at the same time. Lot of intersection points. Powerful belief.

So, that job tanked for me, but I tried to hang on to the belief that this was a powerful, disruptive, important place for me to be. It’s just that the data of day-to-day interactions and projects didn’t line up with those beliefs. The disconnect was part of the reason I ended up being a shitty employee there, and I got piped out the door.

Well, interestingly enough the Big Kahuna of that place always tells people (potential marketing clients) that “People don’t buy facts, they buy opinions.”

Or, as you can see in the tweet above, we buy on emotion and then use data to justify. Or, more accurately, we process on emotion and then find the data source (the old “MSNBC vs. FOX” argument) that works for our belief structure.

I ended up kinda hating the company that guy built, but I agree with him completely on people buying opinions vs. buying facts. Heck, look at most elections.

Isn’t there a sales implication to all this?

Yea, but I’m not gonna go down that road. No one reads this blog for sales advice.

So to get opinions out there that are rooted in data, do we just ask Beyonce to post more charts on Instagram?

Yea, maybe. But that still wouldn’t work because while I do believe Beyonce transcends the base concept of racism, I also think a lot of people would find a way to dismiss the data she was presenting based on their own belief structure, what grand-pappy taught them back when, or whatever else.

Confirmation bias.


All that stuff is more powerful to our brains than charts, graphs, and data. It’s just true. I’m sorry, and I know we want these powerful, data-driven companies that make trillions of dollars, but only a sliver of people think that way and legitimately design things that way.

Go into 100 random companies and observe their decision-making. It’s gut feel-driven in 97 of them. If you present an executive data that contradicts how that executive thinks, he/she will absolutely go with how they think, not what the data says. Work is about relevance and control, not nodding at what Excel documents tell you to do.

I legit know a couple of guys in Texas who, if I built a time machine and flew them back to the moment of Obama’s birth and showed them we were on USA soil, they would still not believe it. I’d present data, and build a time machine, and they’d still rely on belief.

This is just life, y’all. I’m not sure we can solve for this, even if AI gets to scale and becomes our overlords.


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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/work-with-me/

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