Why Emotion-Driven Data Is Dangerous

data is dangerous

By Brooke B. Sellas, {grow} Contributing Columnist

When we include our emotions in data, we end up with emotion-driven data. And that data is dangerous, to say the least.

By allowing bias to creep into our data selections, we’re not showing the “real” story. Rather, we’re making the story what we want it to be.

Are you guilty of making this mistake? Read on to find out.

Logic Rules, Emotions Drool

Recently, I wanted to include some data representing the difference between organic social media efforts and advertising efforts on our website. I pulled in our Web Director, our Organic Director, and our Paid Director to pull the data and decide on which charts represented the story the best.

We used an actual client’s data. But the push and pull of emotions started to get in the way. And it slowly started to dawn on me that we were letting our emotions distract us from the actual data.

I don’t want the “story bias” of what one of us liked or didn’t like represented on our website. I wanted the actual data that clearly shows that there’s an advantage to using paid social media in tandem with organic efforts.

Here are the ways I saw emotion-driven data getting in the way of real results (and logic!).

Anxiety Drives The Danger Bus

Our Organic Director had anxiety about showing the organic data because it wasn’t as good as the paid data. I completely get this anxiety because we offer organic services and in her mind, the data makes it look like paid services are way better.

data is dangerous

Her thinking got clouded about offering the actual data set. She created emotion-driven data sets and ideas instead of using the actual data. Her anxiety also caused her to struggle with making a decision on how we should represent the data (bar, graph, or pie chart).

Research on anxiety and decision making uncovers two dangers:

  • Anxiety reduces our ability to discern between good and bad advice
  • We more likely to rely on bad advice or advice that poses a conflict of interest

Which is exactly what happened! It was a conflict to change paid media data just because the Organic Director “didn’t like the way it made her side look.”

Excitement Can Cause Emotion-Driven Data, Too

Furthermore, it’s not just “bad” feelings that can cause emotion-driven data. When our Paid Director saw the AMAZING results of paid social media versus organic social media efforts, she got super excited. Again, this is understandable.

However, her excitement led her down a path of wanting to manipulate the data. She ran off to grab data of other successful paid media clients and wanted to highlight that data instead. But this wasn’t a fair representation of what we were showing. If we removed the actual organic data, we wouldn’t be showing the entire story.

data is dangerous

She underestimated the risk of just showing paid data instead of paid data against organic data.

That example is exactly why casinos use bright lights and loud sounds — they produce excitement in us and when we’re excited we underestimate risk.

That’s good for casinos, but bad for data representation.

Frustration Makes You A Fickle Friend

If you haven’t figured it out already, I was pretty frustrated. And that led me to send things in a bad direction as well. I kinda gave up and was trying to let them work it out.

Looking back, my “this is too hard” attitude made me give up and put less of an effort in. So I was just as guilty as taking away from the goal and letting emotion-driven data get the best of us. Lucky for me, I took a break, took some breaths and realized what we were all doing.

Which led to this post … which was very cathartic!

We got back on track and I’m happy to say that we’re well on our way to creating a real data point, with actual data, and none of us are getting in the way of the story the data is telling.

Just Say NO To Emotion-Driven Data

Emotions and data don’t work. Or at least they don’t when you don’t know how to balance data and emotion with logic.

However, If you find yourself saying things like …

  • If we tweak this a tiny bit I bet we’ll see [emotionally desired outcome] …
  • Let’s just take this data set out and see what happens …
  • If we remove this one really bad day, the month will look great …
  • Run the report again, but without [emotionally undesirable data set] …

… take a step back and ask yourself if your emotions are getting in the way of logic and data.

Sure, we all want to tell a stellar story. But good data does that all on its own (whether we like it or not).

My advice? Let the PR peeps do the “spinning” and data do the talking.


Brooke B. Sellas is the Founder  & CEO of B Squared Media, an award-winning done-for-you social media management, advertising, and customer care agency. She’s also Mark Schaefer’s Co-host on the top-rated Marketing Companion Podcast. Brooke’s marketing mantra is “Think Conversation, Not Campaign” so be sure to give her a shout!


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