Never Underestimate the Human Ability to Ignore Data

First published January 30, 2014 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

ignore_factsIt’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 in that. 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 was 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 grand children. 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 collects, 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 afore-said 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.

One thought on “Never Underestimate the Human Ability to Ignore Data

  1. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon more than I care to admit. “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.”

    It never ceases to amaze me how smart people tend to ignore what is right in front of them.

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