Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 53;   December 31, 2014: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: I

The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: I

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion, but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners.
An egg sandwich

An egg sandwich. The story of the invention of the sandwich is widely known. As the story goes, it was named after an English aristocrat, John Montagu (1718-1792), the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who ordered his valet to bring him meat between two slices of bread. The Earl was supposedly playing cards, and wanted to avoid both greasy fingers and using a fork. Whether or not the anecdote is true, it is certainly memorable.

One powerful tool of persuasion is the anecdote. Anecdotes are stories about specific incidents, or descriptions of specific situations. We use anecdotes to persuade because they represent a more general class of incidents or situations. For example, we might say, "One customer tried to follow those installation instructions, and it destroyed all her data files." That's an anecdote that suggests problems with the installation procedure.

Anecdotes derive their power from their repeatability and their passion.

Repeatability
Anecdotes confer leverage upon their tellers because those who hear the anecdotes can easily repeat the anecdotes to others. This enables the teller of the anecdote to persuade people who aren't actually present for the telling. Anecdotes can thus go viral without computers or networks. And the people persuaded by anecdotes can clearly explain why they were persuaded, because anecdotes are memorable.
Passion
Some anecdotes are compelling because they convey emotion or passion. They can elicit empathy from those who hear them, as does the anecdote about the lost data files from anyone who has ever lost data. Telling a compelling anecdote can persuade powerfully.

Although anecdotes are powerful, they can also be hazardous to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners. As we listen to anecdotes we're subject to a variety of so-called cognitive biases. The biases can distort our thinking as we interpret and evaluate the persuader's message. Listeners can find themselves adopting views that aren't in their interests. Similarly, if listeners make interpretations not intended by anecdote tellers, they might adopt views that aren't consistent with the teller's intentions.

Here is Part I of a catalog of cognitive biases that create these hazards.

Availability Heuristic
We tend to estimate the probability of events based on how easy it is to imagine those events occurring, Although anecdotes are powerful
tools of persuasion, they can also
be hazardous to both anecdote
tellers and anecdote listeners
rather than on serious estimates of likelihoods. Likewise, we gauge the plausibility of an assertion based on how easy it is to imagine the conditions that would make it valid. Anecdotes illustrating assertions can thus lead listeners to feel that the assertions are more likely to be true than they actually are. That's one way in which the Availability Heuristic makes false rumors — which are often in the form of anecdotes — credible.
Focusing Illusion
The Focusing Illusion is our tendency to overvalue one aspect of a situation relative to its importance. For example, in the anecdote about the lost data files, the listener focuses on the fact that the loss occurred at the time of installing the new software. The anecdote says nothing about what else might have been happening at the time. Did another user have access to the files on the server? Did someone or something else delete the files? The anecdote's form actually suppresses any thought of possible causes other than the installation.

We'll continue next time exploring additional sources of distorted thinking associated with anecdotes used for persuasion.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: II  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill on the portico of the Soviet Embassy at the Teheran ConferenceHostile Collaborations
Sometimes collaboration with people we hold in low regard can be valuable. If we enter a hostile collaboration without first accepting both the hostility and the value, we might sabotage it outside our awareness, and that can render the effort worthless — or worse. What are the dynamics of hostile collaborations, and how can we do them well?
Damage to the Interstate 10 Twin Bridge across Lake PontchartrainManaging Risk Revision
Prudent risk management begins by accepting the possibility that unpleasant events might actually happen. But when organizations try to achieve goals that are a bit out of reach, they're often tempted to stretch resources by revising or denying risks. Here's a tactic for managing risk revision.
The Costanza MatrixThe Costanza Matrix
The Seinfeld character "George Costanza" is famous for having said, "It's not a lie if you believe it." What if you don't believe it and it's true? Some musings.
Drawing the line between one category and the nextMeets Expectations
Many performance management systems include ratings such as "meets expectations," "exceeds expectations," and "needs improvement." Many find the "meets" rating demoralizing. Why?
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), Speaker of the U.S. House of RepresentativesGrace Under Fire: IV
People can be astonishingly inventive when trying to harm others. Some strategies involve driving to distraction the target of their malevolence by humiliating the target and lying about the target's character, deeds, or abilities. Targets who recognize these methods are more likely to be able to maintain composure.

See also Workplace Politics and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A railroad switchComing April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
Child's toys known as Chinese finger trapsAnd on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.