Mythical Thinking

What prevents high performance decision making is usually not the things we don’t know, but the things that we know which are not true. For example, an often stated claim is that 55% of our communication is transmitted non-verbally, and only 7% is transmitted verbally. The source of these statistics is a 1970s study by Professor Albert Mehrabian, who researched the social reactions when an individual tries to by-pass a line of waiting people.

There are three problems when using the 55% claim to sell the massive impact of non-verbal communication. First, technologies, attitudes, and behaviors have significantly changed in 40 years. Second, the experiments were only conducted in a specific social situation (people waiting in line). Finally, the results of this particular study have never been replicated.

The last point is the Achilles heel of many experiments, especially in the social sciences: Replication is the core of the scientific method. If experimental results cannot be reproduced, it casts doubt on the scientific validity of any claim based on the same experiments. This is called the replication crisis in science. For example, in the field of psychology, it’s estimated that up to 50% of published studies cannot be replicated in a statistical meaningful way.

Therefore, when using data to make critical decisions, always consider the source: Many common truths may be rooted in mythical thinking.  

Photo Credit: iStockPhoto/MadKruben

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