The use of statistics – is reducing human behaviours to figures ignoring the individualistic nature of our species?

It only takes one look in any newspaper or magazine to see the grip statistics have on modern-day society. Continuously we are presented with shocking statistics that project often conflicting inferences about trends in our behaviour. Therefore perhaps H.G. Wells was correct in saying “Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.” Modern psychology thrives off statistics, with the necessity to place a figure to everything evident not just in the media, but in the research behind it also.

However one cannot help but question – how can an individualistic society so focused on the uniqueness of individuals have this urge to sit under the nomothetical roof of statistics? Why do we insist in our differences, yet are more than happy to be represented as a grouped numerical value?

Statistics is the study of the collection, organization, analysis and interpretation of data. It can give an understandable figure to qualitative data, therefore creating a simple meaning that everyone can understand. Florence Nightingale believed in its strength when she suggested “Statistic…the most important science in the whole world: for upon it depends the practical application of every other science and of every art; the one science essential to all political and social administration, all education, all organisation based upon experience, for it only gives the results of our experience.”

We cannot deny that statistics provides us with an influential result, however the accuracy of this result is somewhat questionable.  “There are three kind of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics” (Mark Twain, 1906); statistics can be manipulated to say whatever the research or media want them to say, therefore can we really trust the figures we’re given? Ben Goldacre highlighted this problem in his book ‘Bad Science’, giving numerous examples of not just the media, but professionals incorrectly manipulating statistics to provide them with the desired outcome. An example of this is the notorious case of Lucia de Berk, a nurse in Holland who has been in prison for six years, convicted of seven counts of murder and three attempted murders. An unusually large amount of people died when she was on shift, however she has never confessed and continues to protest her innocence. The prosecutor’s statistician proclaimed it was “one in 342 million against”, however Ben Goldacre shows the error in the statistician’s methods that have created this ludicrous statistic. As he suggests, before Lucia worked on the ward there were seven deaths, and the three years she did work there, there was six. “Here’s a thought: it seems odd that the death rate should go down on a ward at the precise moment that a serial killer on a killing spree arrives”.

Statistics can often forget to emphasize the likelihood that something could have occurred by chance. We are often provided with statistics suggesting ground-breaking findings; however they are often based on results from a small sample, with the statistical significance of the data being low. Who is to say that the deaths in Lucia’s ward didn’t occur by chance? We cannot ignore that unlikely things (such as getting struck by lightning) do happen!

To revert back to my original statement, one cannot forget that everyone is different. No two people, not even identical twins have exactly the same environmental experiences and upbringing, therefore how can we create statistics that represent everyone? Statistics thrive to find similarities that give significance to variables, but how can they do that if the sample is so diverse? We must also remember that individuals themselves are not consistent. People’s opinions, behaviour and health changes, and quite often we don’t even know ourselves what we want from life. How can reliable statistics be formed from such inconsistency, and more importantly, do we want them to?

It is true that statistics play an important part in our lives. Despite us insisting that everyone is unique, we are influenced largely by what statistics tell us about us as a society. However when one actually takes a look behind the figures as Ben Goldacre did, the incorrect manipulation behind them makes one question our national obsession with them. Inevitably, it is debatable whether solid, accurate figures can be created from a source so unreliable and diverse – that of the human mind.


3 responses

  1. You make a valid point where you wrote ‘We must also remember that individuals themselves are not consistent. People’s opinions, behaviour and health changes,’ one way to overcome these changes is by carrying out longitudinal studies, this way we could monitor the changes in different periods of time. I also think that the emphasis on people being individual is consistent nowadays however we are all made of the same compounds the only thing that makes us different is personality and appearance. In psychology we cannot prove something to be true all we can do is provide evidence to support our theories. So with this in mind we should not be able to group people together to collect findings and make statistical analysis but statistics is how we give evidence. Without it are work is meaningless. Statistics also allow us to compare variables such as gender. We can clearly see from data the differences between variables. However this does not mean we can generalise our statistical findings to the public but it does mean we can make conclusions about our data set. The SPSS programme has many advantages, it makes it easier to look closer at individual cases in our data, deal with outliers, make calculations and draw conclusions about the results. If we cannot test our findings then theories will lack evidence, if we cannot prove our theories then evidence is all we have got.

  2. That is a valid point! Longitudinal studies do in a sense check the consistency of an individual’s results. An example of where a longitudinal study is used is Dr Tracey Lloyd’s study of “Psychological variables as correlates of adjustment in mothers of children with intellectual disabilities: cross-sectional and longitudinal relationships” (what she produced her research talk on). Her method of giving questionnaires to mothers of children with intellectual disability was then repeated eighteen months later with the majority of these mothers (some refused). This was to find if her results were consistent, and thankfully they were, with no significant difference between the results at the two separate times. There are methods such as this that makes statistics more reliable and accurate, however inevitably there is always going to be manipulation of figures to create a desired statistic. Whilst it does sometimes help create understandable meaning to research, the humanistic perspective to psychology will argue that we should always be treated ideographically, and embrace our inviduality as a species by never subsiding to nomothetical statistics.

  3. I think that statisitics do reduce human behaviours to figures and I believe they do this so Pscyhcology can boast scientific features. Psychology is the study of the mind and human behaviour in relation to the natural world. The mind and behaviour are not objective entities that can be scientifically measured. Statistics seem to be an attempt to do this, a way to present behaviours as patterns and the mind as measurable processes think you’re right to mention individual differences; statistics represent behvaiour groups or patterns but are humans really so simple to group? Are two humans ever the same? Their behvaiours may appear to be identical but are the cognitive processes behind them or the environmental stimuli that initiate such processes. Statistics are a comprehensive way to present data, but I don’t think that’s how humans should be presented.

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