When confronted by data, our gut instincts, received wisdom, common sense, and stereotypes, are often proven to be wrong. We need to be able to change our opinion based on evidence.
I was brought up to believe that women are more emotional and less rational than men. But in a range of behavior data I’ve been examining recently, it is men who are more emotional, more likely to be led on by ego-based brand messaging. Women, on the other hand, are more practical and cost-focused. (The data examines how people buy a high-priced consumer product.)
So, can we conclude that men are more emotional than women? Of course not. No more than we can say the opposite. Data lifts the lid on human behavior and what it shows is complex and changeable based on time and context. Modern life is complex and unpredictable. There are no easy answers, and there are always more questions.
Data is a torch in what has generally been a large, dark room. It throws some more light on the subject, but it’s open to misinterpretation, and rarely tells us the full picture because the full picture is a very complex one full of nuance and hidden depths.
However, you’re better going into that large dark room of human behavior with a torch of data than with blind instinct. Of course, instinct can be useful if it’s well trained. Instinct is a repeated behavior in a repeated situation that has become habitual and automatic. It works well in environments that don’t change much. It can be dangerous and misleading in rapidly changing, unpredictable environments. Like the world we live in today: unpredictable, often random, highly complex.
The way we succeed in such a world is to use data to create hypotheses and then to test these hypotheses, and to continuously tweak and evolve them based on feedback. We need a new mindset, one that is focused on how to know rather than what to know. We cannot hope to have a fraction of all the answers. Rather, we should seek to have the tools, methods and network of other people to get the answers, knowing that the answer today may not be quite right tomorrow.
The danger for all of us is that the knowledge and instincts we have gathered in the past become blockages to our ability to clearly understand the present. Forget about the future. Those who predict the future are fools hoping to find bigger fools to believe them. At best, we can only have a rough guide, a general direction, and we must be ready to constantly adapt based on continuous feedback.
Along the way we will discover that things we were certain were true are not true at all. True wisdom is to acknowledge your ignorance, and to celebrate a new fact rather than dismiss it because it challenges your established thinking. The goldmine of digital is data, and it is the data miners and interpreters who will pave the road to the future.