What Data Do You Absorb (And What Eludes You)?


There is a certain breed of nonprofit staff who roll their eyes at the mention of “evidence-based practices” or “KPIs” or other data jargon. I myself have experienced mild nausea when listening to someone try to quantify what seems unquantifiable: what a child feels after learning to paint or what a homeless adult feels upon acquiring an apartment.

But I’m here to implore, beseech, even beg you to not write off data. Why? Because of how our brains work.

What we perceive is based not just on what we actually observe but also on what we expect to observe. This is how it works. First, the brain evaluates which of a variety of probable events are actually occurring. Then it uses this information, along with signals from the outside world (aka data), to decide what it is perceiving.  And here's the surprising news: there are far more signals coming from within the brain that affect our perception than data signals from the outside.

These inner brain signals or expectations can distort our understanding of a situation. Thus data are quite important to confirming or negating our expectations.  But you have to pay attention to data to make that happen. And that’s where things get tricky.

The esteemed philosopher and psychologist, William James, noted in The Principles of Psychology (1890): “Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind .” 

So how can we see what we are not attending to, the stuff that eludes us? The answer is to think like a scientist. Rather than operating on assumption or instinct, form hypotheses about how your programs and services work and then gather data to test them. You might be surprised.

(And, if you missed it, check out last week's data tip on how data visualization can help correct misperceptions.)

See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data.