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When poignant stories outweigh cold hard facts: A meta-analysis of the anecdotal bias

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Abstract

The objective of this paper is to resolve mixed findings about which type of evidence is more persuasive—statistical or anecdotal information. In a meta-analysis of 61 papers exploring the persuasive impact of evidence type, we establish that, in situations where emotional engagement is high (e.g., an issue associated with a severe threat, involving a health issue, or affecting oneself), statistical evidence is less influential than anecdotal evidence. However, in situations where emotional engagement is relatively low (e.g., an issue associated with low threat severity, involving a non-health issue, or affecting others), statistical evidence is more persuasive than anecdotal evidence. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of these findings, and how to improve persuasive messaging by considering the contextual effectiveness of both anecdotes and statistics.

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Freling, T. H., Yang, Z., Saini, R., Itani, O. S., & Rashad Abualsamh, R. (2020). When poignant stories outweigh cold hard facts: A meta-analysis of the anecdotal bias. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 160, 51–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2020.01.006

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