Anecdotal Evidence: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Starting Over
  • 1:06 Anecdotal Evidence
  • 2:18 Drawbacks of Anecdotes
  • 4:03 Anecdotal Evidence's Uses
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tracy Payne, Ph.D.

Tracy earned her doctorate from Vanderbilt University and has taught mathematics from preschool through graduate level statistics.

This lesson discusses a type of evidence often provided to support some claim: anecdotal evidence. Learn how it differs from scientific evidence and when it is appropriate or inappropriate to use.

Starting Over

Most of us have moved from one place to another at least one time in our lives. If that move happened to take place during our childhoods, then the vast majority of logistical details of the move were left to our parents. I, however, have had quite the adventure as an adult, moving cross-country about a half a dozen times in the last ten years, each time having to start all over.

It's exciting, but logistically, it can also be a nightmare. Beyond the costs associated with moving and having to find a new home, there are the little details to take care of once you're done unpacking all the boxes. Which is the best drycleaner in town? Where are the best parks? How do I decide on a new dentist, a new doctor, a new babysitter?

The list goes on and on. So, how do you decide on these things? If you're lucky - as I have been - you'll know a few people in your new city or town and will be able to ask these questions of current area residents. Perhaps you can find a community forum online. Regardless of who you end up asking, their recommendations will come to you in the form of anecdotal evidence, the focus of today's lesson.

Anecdotal Evidence

The term anecdotal evidence can be broken up into two distinct halves, both of which are words you are more than likely familiar with. Evidence is proof, in some form or another, offered to defend a belief or a claim. Anecdotes are short stories told to illustrate a point or support a claim. In many cases, anecdotes are presented as being true, representing real people and events.

Today's topic, anecdotal evidence, can be defined as testimony that something is true, false, related, or unrelated based on isolated examples of someone's personal experience. Anecdotal evidence is very popular in the advertising world. Every time you see a claim about a product's effectiveness based on a person's personal experience, the company is using anecdotal evidence to encourage sales.

There is a big and distinct difference between anecdotal evidence and scientific evidence, or proof based on findings from systematic observation, measurement, and experimentation. While scientific evidence can be independently verified using the scientific method, anecdotal evidence cannot. Anecdotal evidence is often offered when there is an absence of scientific evidence or in an effort to refute scientific evidence.

Drawbacks of Anecdotal Evidence

One problem with anecdotal evidence is when one or more 'best case' examples are used to generalize about some larger group of people. Diet products and weight loss programs are a terrific example of companies using anecdotal evidence to their full potential.

For instance, a commercial for a weight loss supplement might show before-and-after pictures of individuals who took the supplement and subsequently lost weight. These commercials are emotionally driven and ONLY use the personal experiences of the individuals who have had extreme success with the supplement. The commercials are implying that what worked for some will work for everyone. However, if you look very closely at the fine print, you will see a disclaimer that states, 'Results are not typical and will vary from individual to individual.'

It would be reasonable to question whether it was the supplement that caused the weight loss or if there were other factors. Luckily, this is a research question easily tested using the scientific method. Scientific evidence might show that the weight loss pill is indeed effective in most or even all cases, or it might show that other factors - water intake, the amount of exercise undertaken by the consumer, or changes in diet - had a larger influence on the participants' weight loss results.

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