logo Learn more images

Anecdotal fallacy: definition, examples and practical tips

Anecdotal Fallacy
Marketing

Written by Niek van Son MSc on November 24, 2023

Niek van Son

Introduction

The anecdotal fallacy, or "Volvo fallacy," is the cognitive fallacy that is perhaps most common among entrepreneurs. It is appealing because it feels natural and logical to rely on the experiences of others. However, this very apparent simplicity can lead to poor decision-making.

What is the anecdotal fallacy?

When people use a one-time experience, their limited personal experience or that of an acquaintance to draw general conclusions about a subject, there is the anecdotal fallacy.

However, an anecdote or illogical argument does not constitute conclusive proof that something is always so. With the anecdotal fallacy, anecdote is preferred to scientifically based counter-evidence. The fallacy is common because personal experience is often also the only experience we have. On the surface, the conclusion seems true, but when you look at the roots, it is often a simplification of the problem, and many important details, other factors and scientific findings are left out in the conclusion we draw (Goodwin, 2009). This often involves other biases, such as confirmation bias and the bandwagon effect.

How does the anecdotal fallacy arise?

It is attractive to think this way because it turns something complex into something simple. You don't have to spend further time sifting through arguments. Many people would rather be lazy than tired and go for the quick conclusion (Kahneman, 2011). But because critical details are left out, the wrong conclusions can be drawn (Goodwin, 2009).

Anecdotes appeal more than scientific theories. Concrete, human examples we can better imagine, which makes them seem more relevant. We sometimes trust the findings of someone we know better than abstract, statistical findings, but an exception to the rule does not mean the rule is wrong.

The anecdotal fallacy bears similarities to the post hoc fallacy, where when event B happens after event A, the conclusion is automatically drawn that event A is the cause of event B (Grouse, 2016). This is also known as fallacious reasoning.

Examples in practice

  • The original name Volvo fallacy has its origin here: a man needed a new car. After carefully reading all kinds of tests and studies, he came to the conclusion that the Volvo often came out as the best, so that had to be him. Until, at a party, he spoke to an acquaintance whose brother had a Volvo. He had had all kinds of problems with that and eventually had even sold the Volvo. Based on this experience, the man therefore decided not to buy a Volvo after all.
  • A friend's grandfather smoked 20 cigarettes a day and lived to be 96, so smoking won't be so bad.
  • A friend on the golf course tells him that demand generation is going to replace marketing next year. An entrepreneur with no marketing knowledge decides to cut his budgets in advance.
  • The poker player who "always" loses with pocket aces.

Using the anecdotal fallacy to your advantage

Marketers like to use the anecdotal fallacy because it is an easy way to convince potential customers. Here are some examples:

  • With services that are mostly subjective in nature, such as a hotel stay or a restaurant visit, you can use testimonials to influence your view of the service.
  • Have a well-known person tell you something about your product or service.
  • Use an emotional personal experience to emphasize the need for something. Capitalize on customer concerns with an anecdote.
  • Turn a success story into big news.
  • Internally, make sure that you stay abreast of new scientific research, and don't stay blind to a case or strategy that went very well before, leaving you feeling that you have to keep acting the same way.

Resources

Goodwin, C. J. (2009). "Research in Psychology: Methods and Design." John Wiley & Sons.

Grouse, L. (2016). "Post hoc ergo propter hoc". Journal of Thoracic Disease.

Kahneman, D. (2011). "Thinking, Fast and Slow." Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Niek van Son
THE AUTHOR

Niek van Son MSc

Marketing Management (MSc, University of Tilburg). 10+ years of experience as an online marketing consultant (SEO - SEA). Occasionally writes articles for Frankwatching, Marketingfacts and B2bmarketeers.nl.

Are you choosing exponential growth?

It doesn't happen by itself.