Why You Should Ignore Big-Picture Statistics

ignore the numbers

We’re a number-hungry society. We obsess over studies and surveys. How many pennies women are making on the dollar compared to men. The chances of finding a marriage-ready man in New York City. The correlation between the money you invest in preschool and your child’s chances of growing up to be a 1 percenter.

I love numbers, too. I’m a journalist; we live for numbers! And I’m an educated and curious person. I want to know what’s happening in the world and how we’re progressing on different issues. Studies, reports and surveys can provide that. 

But when it comes to assessing your own life? Ignore the stats. Cover your eyes and plug your ears. LALALA! I can’t hear you, numbers! 

Why? As anyone who has taken a statistics course will tell you: Numbers can be deceiving and, often, tell but a portion of the story. Plus, statistics often represent giant social movements, trends or patterns, so they may not be an accurate representation of your life or circumstances. (They can’t possibly take into account all the factors of your particular life.)  Worse: Statistics can be paralyzing or falsely reassuring, which can affect your confidence and your decision-making abilities in bad ways.

Case in point: I was recently shocked to hear a fellow professional single mom explain her freakout over deciding where her daughter would attend kindergarten. “Just look at the statistics about how children of single mothers fare in the world! This is make or break!”  After reading that children of single parents fare worse (an assertion that has been hotly debated), she’d convinced herself that she needed to find the best kindergarten possible just to overcome the odds.

My instinct was to dig into those very statistics. Yes, you can argue that kids raised by single parents are at a disadvantage. But many kids in single-family homes live in poverty — very different circumstances than that of my friend. She was spending a whole lot of negative energy based on figures that are not terribly relevant to her. But more than that, absorbing extra pressure did nothing but add to the stress and guilt that comes with being a parent. She was already doing her best as a mom. 

Statistic obsession can swing the other way, too. Maybe you or your kids are doing better than the average, and that makes you feel special. But measuring your own successes against misleading statistics can be equally dangerous. 

My own daughter, 6 and also being raised by a single mom, recently scored in the 97th percentile on a national standardized test. I try hard not to put too much stock in such things. After all, what does a standardize test measure? And what makes one child succeed over another? 

But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thrilled. Or that I didn’t gloat a little. Or that I didn’t feel like a superior parent — not only because my kid did so well on this flimsy test, but also because statistically she did so despite being statistically at a disadvantage. (Not that I pay attention to that sort of thing.)

What both my friend and I should have been paying attention to wasn’t those numbers — it’s the nuanced circumstances, people and trends in our midsts. When you obsess over statistics, you frame your life in terms of meta-movements and macro trends. That’s rarely relevant to a single human life. 

So, instead of obsessing over big figures, just get up in the morning and deal with what’s immediately in front of you. What do you see around you? What do you want to change? Set your goals. Find ways to make your life, your family’s life and your community better. Take small, conscious steps towards improving your own world. And don’t let the decisions you make, or the way you feel about them, be dictated by the universe of terror-making statistics. Because you are one person, not a statistic.

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