Beware n of 1

We all crave simplicity and causality. We want to understand the world around us. We want to believe that we do.

I recently met a woman who survived an horrific workplace shooting. She never wants to feel that vulnerable again. So, she wants to have a gun with her at all times. We can all empathize. But, it doesn’t mean that there’d be fewer deaths from guns if we were all armed all the time.

It’s tough to separate our decision making from our personal experiences. When there’s a 1% chance of something, it happens sometimes. And, when it does, it’s just as real at that moment as something that happens 50% of the time or something that happens every time.

I think about this is as the “n of 1 problem”. When a politician makes a point by finding the 1 (in 100) person or event supporting their argument, it’s very easy to believe them. That story is real. It demonstrates that it could happen, that it has happened. But, it doesn’t mean that it’s likely or statistically relevant. Or, that it should be the basis for an important decision.

The “n of 1 problem” manifests itself in false dichotomy arguments. If you want to be perceived as neutral or independent, you can find people who disagree. It may be that you have to screen 100 people to find someone on one side while the 99 are on the other. John Oliver demonstrated this brilliantly on the climate change episode of his show.

I believe that “n of 1” partly explains why innovation efforts inside large enterprises usually fail to create enterprise value. Most innovative new products fail. If you’re the executive who was responsible for one of the rare but, often large successes, you’re going to support and green light the next one. If you’re the executive (like most statistically) who was responsible for one of the failures, you’re not likely to try again.

The world is very complex – probably more complex than many of would like it to be or even understand it to be. There are amazing things buried in the complexity. Embrace the complexity. Be vulnerable to it. And, beware of people selling their ideas with an “n of 1”.


Leave a Comment