Quant Vs. Qual During Crisis Time

Digesting reality is becoming more and more difficult. I often find myself gagging on it. Last Friday was a good example. I have been limiting my news reading for my own sanity, but Friday morning I went down the rabbit hole. Truth be told, I started doing some research for the post I was intending to write (which I will probably get to next week), and I was soon overwhelmed with what I was reading.

I’m beginning to suspect we’re getting an extra dump of frightening news on Fridays as officials realize that it’s more difficult to enforce social distancing on weekends.

Whether this is the case or not, I found my chest tightening from anxiety. My hands got shaky as I found myself clicking on frightening link after frightening link. Predictions scared the shit out of me. I was worried for my community and country. I was worried for myself. But most of all, I was worried for my kids, my wife, my dad, my in-laws and my family. 



Fear and anxiety swamped my normally rational side. Intellect gave way to despair. That’s not a good mode for me. I need to be rational to function. Emotions mentally shut me down. 

So I retreated to the numbers. My single best source throughout this has been the posts from Tomas Pueyo, the vice president of growth at Course Hero. They are exhaustively researched statistical analyses and “what-if” models assembled by an ad-hoc team of Rockstar quants. On his first post, on March 10 --  “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now” -- Pueyo and his team nailed it. If everyone listened and followed his advice, we wouldn’t be where we are now. 

Similarly, his post on March 19, “Coronavirus: The Hammer and The Dance,” gave a tough but rational prescription to follow. His latest -- “Coronavirus: Out of Many, One” -- drills down on a state-by-state analysis of the virus in the U.S.

I’m not going to blow smoke here. These are tough numbers to read. Even the best-case scenarios would have been impossible to imagine just a few weeks ago. But the worst-case scenarios are exponentially more frightening. And if you, like me, need to retreat to rationality in order to keep functioning, this is the best way I’ve found to deal with the crisis. It’s not what we want to hear, but it’s what we must listen to.

In my marketing life, I always encouraged a healthy mix of both quantitative and qualitative perspectives in trying to understand what is real. I’ve said in the past: “Quantitative is watching the dashboard while you drive. Qualitative is looking out the windshield.”

I often found marketers tended to focus too much on the numbers and not enough on the people on the other side of those numbers. We were an industry deluged with data, which made us less human.

Ironically, I now find myself on the other side of that argument. We have to understand that even our most trustworthy media sources are going to be telling us the stories that have the most impact on us. Whether you turn to Fox or CNN as your news source, you’re often getting soundbites out of context that are -- by design  -- sensational in nature and veering toward outlier status.

Being human, we can’t help but apply these to our current reality. It’s called availability bias. In the simplest terms possibility, it means that those things that are most in our face become our understanding of any given situation.

In normal times, these individual examples can heighten our humanity and make us a little less numb. They remind us of the relevance of the individual experience -- the importance of every life, and the tragedy of even one person suffering.

“If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only a statistic.”

That quote has been attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Joseph Stalin. Normally, I would never dream of quoting Stalin in a post. But these are not normal times. And the fact is, Stalin was right. When we start looking at statistics and mathematical modeling, our brain works differently. It forces us to use a more rational cognitive mechanism; one less likely to be influenced by emotion. And in responding to a crisis, this is exactly the type of reasoning required.

This is a time unlike anything any of us has experienced, when actions should be based on the most accurate and scientific information possible. We need the cold, hard logic of math as a way not to become swamped by the wave of our own emotions. In order to make really difficult decisions for the greater good, we need to distance ourselves from our own little bubbles of reality, especially when that reality is made up of non-representative examples streamed to us through media channels. 

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