In the 1970s, renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggested giving government officials estimated probabilities of events. Looking back years later, Kahneman changed his mind, saying: “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.” (Tweet it!)
In the past year, many of us have been surprised by certain outcomes, many of them political, and we complain that our prediction models are incorrect. But the models are not incorrect: It is just that we tend to misinterpret numbers that tell us “this has a 10 percent chance of happening” as virtually no chance at all.
In a New York Times column entitled “What I Was Wrong About This Year”, pundit David Leonhardt writes that probabilities “are inherently hard to grasp. That’s especially true for an individual event, like a war or election. People understand that if they roll dice 100 times, they will get some 1’s. But when they see a probability for one event, they tend to think: Is this going to happen or not? They then effectively round to 0 or to 100 percent.”
But what if a probability came with a story? “Imagine that a forecast giving Candidate X a 10 percent chance included a prominent link, “How X wins.” It would explain how the polling could be off and include a winning map for X. It would all but shout: This really may happen.”
As Leonhardt says, this won't eliminate confusion, but it might minimize it. “The rise of big data means that probabilities are becoming a larger part of life. And our misunderstandings have real costs.”
Do you feel anecdotal explanations of probabilities would help you understand odds better? Have you ever used one, and can you give an example? To join the conversation, click "comments" above.
If you would like to read more about creating a habit around masterful communication, check out our book: Be Quiet, Be Heard: The Paradox of Persuasion.