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Authoritative Anecdotes and Feeble Facts

Personal experiences garner more respect, trust, and engagement than facts.

Key points

  • Personal experiences and anecdotes receive more respect, are perceived as more rational, and elicit a greater willingness to engage than facts and statistics.
  • Experiences about personal harms were the most impactful; people were more likely to doubt the validity of facts relative to personal experiences.
  • People, whatever their political leanings, often believe (incorrectly) that facts will matter more to them than personal experiences.

Facts exist out in the world independent of humans and our ability to comprehend those facts (although George Berkeley might disagree). But in the minds of humans, facts are filtered through people, interpreted through a lens of our own personal experiences and motivations, and our trust in the wisdom of others. Representative statistics and rigorous scientific analyses are relatively novel in human history, and so human cognition, including our search for truth, likely evolved to rely on the best information consistently available—personal experiences and stories from acquaintances. In other words, we evolved to formulate truth based on anecdotes.

The Enlightenment sought to challenge this approach to truth-making, emphasizing empirical evidence and reason as the basis for knowledge. This ideal continues to receive widespread support in many modern societies, but old habits die hard, and human nature is notoriously difficult to alter. Recent research led by Emily Kubin finds that personal experiences and anecdotes receive more respect, are perceived as more rational, and elicit a greater willingness to engage than facts and statistics.

The persuasive power of personal anecdotes

In a field study, pedestrians were introduced to a confederate (a person who appeared to be another pedestrian but was actually a member of the research team) who disagreed with the participant’s stance on gun policy. The confederate based their disagreement either on facts (their familiarity with government reports) or on personal experiences (their mom had been hospitalized after being hit by a stray bullet or had protected herself from an attack with a gun). Participants responded more respectfully and demonstrated a greater willingness to engage with the confederate who based their disagreement on personal experiences rather than on facts and knowledge.

Similar findings replicated in other contexts. For example, the authors coded >300k comments to YouTube videos about abortion, some that presented facts, and some that involved people describing their personal experiences, and they found that comments were more positive toward the personal experience videos than the fact-based videos.

And in another study, participants read real New York Times op-eds that disagreed with their personal stance on gun rights using factual arguments (e.g., the number of assault rifles in circulation) or personal experience (e.g., survival of a school shooting). Participants evaluated authors as more rational and more worthy of respect and were more willing to interact with them when they wrote about personal experiences than when they wrote about facts.

These studies also found that experiences about personal harms were the most impactful and that people were more likely to doubt the validity of facts relative to personal experiences. For example, participants read an argument by a person who opposed their personal views on illegal immigration. In one condition, the opponent supported their position with a story about his father being assaulted after deportation or being assaulted by illegal immigrants. In another, the opponent supported their position with facts about increasing rates of deportees being assaulted or assaults by illegal immigrants. In a third condition, the opponent was a scientist whose research discovered the aforementioned facts. Participants expressed the least doubt about the validity of personal experiences.

Overall, these results suggest that, at least in some contexts, arguing political positions with personal experiences garners more respect, trust, and engagement with one’s perspective than arguing with facts, statistics, and scientific data. Across studies, these findings were similarly true for both liberals and conservatives.

Why facts and statistics are often less convincing

And people were generally unaware they had such preferences. The majority of people believed they would most respect the views of someone who disagreed with them on the basis of facts and evidence, and only a minority reported that personal experiences would do the trick. Thus people seemed to believe (incorrectly) that facts would matter more to them than personal experiences.

According to Kubin and colleagues, personal experiences have an “aura of impeachability”—they cannot be doubted or questioned. Whereas facts and statistics (especially regarding political issues) are complicated, incomplete, subject to misrepresentation, and vary across time and contexts, personal experiences may be viewed as verified reality. Moreover, personal experiences involving harm tap into a value shared by almost all people—the moral obligation to minimize harm.

Other research has found that people will alter perceived facts to cohere with their moral positions. For example, a study by Brittany Liu and Pete Ditto found that persuading people of the inherent immorality of the death penalty led people to believe it was less efficacious for deterring crime. Thus moral feelings alone might influence beliefs about empirical reality.

This is not to say that facts and reasons are always or even typically disregarded. For example, one recent set of studies found that exposure to good reasons for opposing political positions led to more favorable impressions of political opponents. Nonetheless, people might find anecdotes about personal experiences more compelling than facts and statistics in certain contexts, even while they do not recognize these tendencies in themselves.

When humans lived in smaller social groups, a handful of anecdotes from well-known others might have been a reasonable sample size for drawing conclusions and making decisions. But now we live in social groups where decisions are made for millions or even billions of people, where no individual could possibly be exposed to a representative sample of human experiences. Statistics and facts are thus useful—if less emotionally captivating—for forming the most accurate beliefs about empirical reality and even the opinions most consistent with one’s personal values.

Personal stories might elicit empathy toward those directly in front of us but may distract us from better indicators of human experience.


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Kubin, E., Puryear, C., Schein, C., & Gray, K. (2021). Personal experiences bridge moral and political divides better than facts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(6), e2008389118.

Liu, B. S., & Ditto, P. H. (2013). What dilemma? Moral evaluation shapes factual belief. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(3), 316-323.

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