I’m in the middle of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. From Chapter 16:
Nisbett and Borgida found that when they presented their students with a surprising statistical fact, the students managed to learn nothing at all. But when the students were surprised by individual cases – two nice people who had not helped – they immediately made the generalization and inferred that helping is more diffuclt than they thought. Nisbett and Bordiga summarize the results in a memorable sentence:
Subjects’ unwillingness to deduce the particular from the general was matched only by their willingness to infer the general from the particular.
Consider this the psychological case for man-on-the-street stories. Humanizing data with individual examples is essential to helping people absorb information.
But journalists aren’t themselves immune to this phenomenon. It’s essential that reporters assess the evidence behind their stories, and consciously try to overcome their bias to react more strongly to individual anecdotes than to data. But if journalists are able to overcome this bias and base their stories on good data, then their ability to apply individual cases to explain larger trends can be a crucial mechanism for informing the public.