Never Underestimate The Human Ability To Ignore Data

It’s one thing to have data. It’s another to pay attention to it.

We marketers are stumbling over ourselves to move to data-driven marketing. No one would say that’s a bad thing. But here’s the catch: Data-driven marketing is all well and good when it’s a small-stakes game: optimizing spend, targeting, conversion rates, etc. If we gain a point or two on the topside, so much the better. And if we screw up and lose a point or two -- well, mistakes happen and as long as we fix it quickly, no permanent harm done.

But what if the data is telling us something we don’t want to know? I mean, something we really don’t want to know. For instance, our brand messaging is complete BS in the eyes of our target market, or they feel our products suck, or our primary revenue source appears to be drying up, or our entire strategic direction looks to be heading over a cliff? What then?

This reminds me of a certain CMO of my acquaintance who identified himself as a “Numbers Guy.” In actual fact, he was a numbers guy only if the numbers said what he wanted them to say. If not, then he’d ask for a different set of numbers that confirmed his view of the world. This data hypocrisy generated a tremendous amount of bogus activity in his team, as they ran around grabbing numbers out of the air and massaging them to keep their boss happy. I call this quantifiable bullshit.

I think this is why data tends to be used to optimize tactics, but why it’s much more difficult to use data to inform strategy. The stakes are much higher, and even if the data is providing clear predictive signals, it may be predicting a future we’d rather not accept. Then we fall back on our default human defense: ignore, ignore, ignore.

Let me give you an example. Any human who functions even slightly above the level of brain-dead has to accept the data that says our climate is changing. The signals couldn’t be clearer. And if we choose to pay attention to the data, the future looks pretty damn scary. Best-case scenario: We’re probably screwing up the planet for our children and grandchildren. Worst-case scenario: We’re definitely screwing up the planet, and it will happen in our lifetime.

And we’re not talking about an increased risk of sunburn. We’re talking about the potential end of our species. So what do we do? We ignore it. Even when flooding, drought and ice storms without historic precedent are happening in our back yards. Even when Atlanta is paralyzed by a freak winter storm. Nothing about what is happening is good news, and it’s going to get worse. So, damn the data, let’s just look the other way.

In a recent poll by The Wall Street Journal, out of a list of 15 things that Americans believed should be top priorities for President Obama and Congress, climate change came out dead last, behind pension reform, Iran’s nuclear program and immigration legislation. Yet, if we look at the data that the UN and the World Economic Forum collect, quantifying the biggest threats to our existence, climate change is consistently near the top, both in terms of likelihood and impact. But it’s really hard to do something about it. It’s a story we don’t want to hear, so we just ignore the data, like the aforementioned CMO.

As we get access to more and more data, it will be harder and harder to remain uninformed -- but I suspect it will have little impact on our ability to be ignorant. If we don’t know something, we don’t know it. But if we can know something, and we choose not to, that’s a completely different matter. That’s embracing ignorance -- and that’s dangerous. In fact, it could be deadly.
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9 comments about "Never Underestimate The Human Ability To Ignore Data".
  1. Jeff Schlueter from Nexidia Inc. , January 30, 2014 at 1:14 p.m.
    Gord, I always enjoy your perspective on things. And I think your general thesis in this article is correct; human beings DO tend to tune into what we believe, or want to believe, and tune out to what doesn't fit our world view. This has been the basis for all religions the world has ever known, after all. But I think using climate change to make your point only puts you in the column of adding to the hyperbole. You list articles that support the view of human-derived climate change, but you ignore those that other very reasoned people have penned with a counter argument, such as this one: http://www.forbes.com/sites/larrybell/2013/02/05/in-their-own-words-climate-alarmists-debunk-their-science/ Are you perhaps being guilty of the point you are trying to make? Are you so ensconced in the climate change view that there isn't room for debate? Cheers!
  2. Martin Pratt from Unidad Solutions for Marketing and Media , January 30, 2014 at 1:24 p.m.
    #irony smdh @iluvblackwomen. I suspect that the ignorant like being ignorant even with a simple tool like google being in the hands of million of people still to this very minute or second. They remain steadfast in their belief that they possess or own the only right way to think, live, act or judge.
  3. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting , January 30, 2014 at 1:40 p.m.
    Jeff... Actually, the debate is exactly what I want to happen. Maybe the data you reference is right..maybe not (http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2011/01/forbes-rich-list-of-nonsense/). But if I'm wrong - it won't kill us. If you're wrong, it might. In this case, a false negative is much worse than a false positive. And latching on to arguments like Mr. Bell's to gain a potentially false sense of security is exactly like my CMO looking for data to confirm his view of the world. By all means, let's open up the debate to rational evidence..and I really hope I'm wrong!
  4. Jeff Schlueter from Nexidia Inc. , January 30, 2014 at 1:44 p.m.
    Ah, but if you are wrong it *could* kill us if it means we drive our economies into the tank chasing an elusive goal that in the end has no basis in truth! But yes, the debate is the important part...on that we DO agree.
  5. Donna Gordon from Investment Resources , January 31, 2014 at 5:39 p.m.
    Gord, I love your column and is the only reason I continue to keep MediaPost in my inbox among the plethora of newsletters that clog my inbox daily. I'm a business researcher and can attest to having a 3rd party to assess your data when making a decision may not tell you what you want to hear. However, I was dismayed that you chose 'climate change' as your case study. Certainly in the realm of science, the results you choose to look at can color your perception of fact, something that scientists themselves are grappling with on a much larger scale. Especially when studies, for instance, are funded by a corporate entity with a big checkbook. But I have read and listened to very educated presentations indicating that climate change is very much one of those issues where data is cherry picked to produce the intended result. And weather data is indeed very limited in its scope when you consider the age of the planet relative to the number of years for which we have recorded data. Like the previous commenter, I do not consider it good public policy to ruin our economy on a theory that lines the pockets of many who espouse it.
  6. Hart Weichselbaum from the planning practice , February 1, 2014 at 4:37 p.m.
    Here's what you're up against Gord. Economic interests advocate in their own self interest in ways that confuse the issue. The Forbes piece is the perfect example of how these loud and powerful voices confuse the issue by cherry picking the statements of environmentalists who have fought back in ways that are less than admirable. It's no wonder people are confused. The reality is that climate scientists are virtually unanimous in their view that the climate is changing and we did it. But too many powerful forces are working to make it seem that's a matter of debate.
  7. Pete Austin from Triggered Messaging , February 3, 2014 at 7:03 a.m.
    Ignoring Data is the most important thing we do. Only the people who could ignore the trees and see the tiger, in real-time, survived to become our ancestors. What you need to concentrate on now is "curated data", where the junk has already been ignored for you.
  8. Pete Austin from Triggered Messaging , February 3, 2014 at 7:11 a.m.
    Just noted your comments about climate change. Sigh. Even the alarmists are only talking about a 3 degrees rise in average temperature and civilization will survive that just fine. If you are concerned about threats that could wipe our species out, then redirect the money away from green issues to mapping large asteroids and nearby stars that could go nova, and to researching another half-dozen antibiotics.
  9. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting , February 3, 2014 at 1:36 p.m.
    Some very interesting comments. Pete - you hit a great point about "curated data" - which I think I'll follow up on in the next column. What strikes me is how all we savvy data marketers interpret the data on global warming in completely different ways. Seems to me that this is a great case in point on what happens when data is subject to human frailty. I happen to feel very strongly that there is strong evidence for climate change, and I can certainly find data to back up my view. But many of you believe just as strongly that it's a "tempest in a tea pot" and you have data to back you up as well. My mistake, it seems, was falling into the same trap that my CMO did, where I overstated my case (perhaps) based on my interpretation of the data. This makes me realize just how difficult it is to balance objective data and very subjective beliefs.