Spurious Correlations: Shark attacks and sales at all-you-can-eat buffets

Did you know that the Total Revenue Generated by Arcades correlates with the Number of Computer Science Doctorates awarded in the United States? Makes sense, right?

Hold on before you start using this fact to impress people at cocktail parties. It comes from Tyler Virgen’s website Spurious Correlations (which is also available as a book on Amazon). Virgen’s mines data and plays with the X and Y axes to create ridiculous but fun correlations such as the link between margarine consumption and divorce rates in Maine and the link between drownings in pools and movies starring Nicholas Cage.

As silly as these correlations are, they illustrate how our minds automatically look for relationships between events and create explanations for them. It’s easy to ignore the base rate and craft a plausible story that people who like video games like computers or that the use of margarine in the 1960’s was tied to the weakening of traditional family values. This tendency is built into our genes and has helped our species survive for millennia – it’s better to see and overreact to false positives than miss a real threat. Unfortunately, in modern times it leads us to things such as confirmation bias which makes us to see trends in the data that support the story we want to tell.

As marketers and strategists we must be vigilant to ensure we see the data for what it is, and not what we want it to be. We also need to think about how others will interpret the data we present in charts and reports when we aren’t there to explain them. Charts that exaggerate differences for the point of discussion can easily be misconstrued the further they are distributed across the organization.

So be careful with your data, you don’t want to be the one in your organization that identifies the correlation between shark attacks and sales at all-you-can-eat buffets.