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Symposium Keynote Speaker Stephen Dubner Discusses Data, Leadership, and Saying 'I Don't Know'

Posted on Mon, May 22, 2017 @ 15:05 PM by Daniel James

Stephen Dubner, this year's Symposium New York keynote speaker, is an expert in data and economics. In anticipation of his keynote, we've compiled some of his observations and expertise to help drive your marketing success! 

Symposium NY Keynote Speaker Stephen Dubner Speaks to Data, Leadership, and Not Knowing

Stephen Dubner will be delivering a keynote at Symposium New York 2017, and it will not be something anyone wants to miss. Dubner is renowned for his ability to use economics and data in a multitude of ways. Dubner's expertise has made his Freakonomics podcast one of the most popular podcasts in the world, and also propelled him as a best-selling author with over 7 million copies of his book Freakonomics sold.

In anticipation for Dubner's keynote, we've compiled some of Dubner's previous work, keynotes, and podcasts to help you get started with thinking about ways you can use data and information to enhance your marketing practices. Check it out below, and be sure not to miss Dubner's keynote at Symposium New York this year!

1. Data Can Tell You the What, But Not the Why

At Looker’s Disrupt with Data 2016 conference, Dubner tackled the challenge of solving problems with data. Dubner made an important point when someone looks to data to solve business challenges: data can tell you the what of something, but not the why. That’s because the ‘why’ can be incredibly hard to determine.


The challenge of finding the ‘why’ is attributed to the behavior being influenced by various factors, and identifying the right trigger to influence the right behavior isn’t always clear.

To demonstrate this, Dubner cites a study of doctors who wash their hands. At the hospital where the study was recorded, doctors self-reported washing their hands 75% of the time, but when their behavior was observed and reported by impartial third parties (in this case, nurses), the actual amount of hand washing happened only about 10% of the time. The information showed the ‘what’ (how often doctors were washing their hands) but it did not explain the ‘why’ (why weren’t doctors washing their hands as much as they thought they were, and why they weren’t washing their hands as much as they should).

At another hospital, according to Dubner, rates weren’t much better, and so they decided to try and address the issue of ‘why weren’t doctors washing their hands as much’ by giving them a reason to wash their hands more. Dubner noted the hospital tried several things – writing a memo, putting a sign up, having a group of people go around and watch to see if doctors were washing their hands and then call them out, and even offer free coffee to motivate the doctors – but nothing worked. In every instance, the doctors either ignored the effort or adjusted their behavior to avoid the negative effect (getting caught) or gain the positive incentive (the free coffee). Dubner refers to this as “carrot and stick” methods, or positive and negative to try and change the behavior and provide a solution. There was no effective solution for the ‘why’ question.

Eventually, someone at a meeting on this issue spoke up with a solution: she took out Petri dishes and had everyone put their hand in one. The dishes were shown to have tons of bacteria, showing that not only were they not fixing the problem but they were also part of it. They decided to take a picture of the bacteria dishes, made it known that the picture was one of the higher ups’ hands, and made it the screensaver on every computer in the hospital. The results – 100% handwashing by doctors, and other hospitals requesting to use the picture in their hospital to accomplish the same.

The advice here is clear: you can use the data and to understand what is happening, but to address something with the ‘why’ will often require you to think outside the box and address the challenge in a number of different ways.

2. The Importance of Saying ‘I Don’t Know’

In the Freakanomics podcast episode, ‘The Three Hardest Words in the English Language’ Dubner and co-host/co-author Steven Levitt explores the concept behind saying ‘I don’t know’, why people have such a hard time saying it, and why not saying it can be more detrimental than many realize.

Dubner first speaks with Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Leeds Amanda Waterman, who talks about experiments she’s run on both children and adults to determine why people might say they don’t know the answer to something. In the experiment, Waterman asked children a series of questions that had no answer and found that, oftentimes, children fall back to a ‘classroom expectation’ where they pretend to know the answer because admitting ‘I don’t know’ doesn’t award any points when asked a question in the academic sense. In the same test with adults, 25% tried to answer the questions that had no answer rather than admit they didn’t know.

One theory behind this is that some people are experts, and when they’re viewed as experts on a topic they want to be able to demonstrate they have the answer rather than admit they don’t know (which might invalidate them as an expert in their minds). Levitt shares his experiences with this belief – and how it can be costly – with Dubner, where Levitt notes that he can “count on one hand” the times he’s been in a meeting and someone was asked a question and they admitted not knowing the answer to it.  The two discuss a case study where a brand was advertising in newspapers via inserts but didn’t know if the inserts were effective in driving more sales, or if people were shopping at the store regardless of the inserts. Levitt and Dubner pondered if not using inserts would negatively affect sales and Levitt noted that a test was suggested to stop putting inserts into the paper to see what would happen. The advertisers working on the brand panicked, noting that they’d get in trouble with the CEO. What Levitt observed was that the real concern was that there might be no change in sales without the inserts, which would thereby prove these advertisers didn’t know how effective (or ineffective) these inserts were. The fear of looking like they didn’t know was so concerning that the advertisers would rather spend money to make it look like they knew, rather than test, find results, and adjust accordingly.

The lesson from this podcast is clear: Embrace the idea of not knowing by taking the time to learn and verify what you learn.

3. Evaluating Effective Leaders

Effectively measuring the influence a company leader has on productivity can be difficult to scale. A number of variables, such as technology and employee work habits, can muddle the effectiveness of a study and make the question “does this leader have an effective impact on employee productivity?” difficult to answer.

In the podcast Marketplace, Dubner joined the show for an episode to talk about how much a good boss matters, if they matter at all. Dubner cited a study done by Stanford economist Edward Lazear, along with Kathryn Shaw and Christopher Stanton, on how economics can help measure the effectiveness of a good boss. The study evaluated a company that has 23,000 employees and 2,000 managers, and the company was chosen because their model had employees working for 2-3 different managers every year. This work model allowed researchers to more accurately study the impact a good boss has on the employee.

What they found was that better bosses increased productivity by 10% among the workforce. This increased productivity, in particularly when the boss isn’t working on the project directly but rather acting as a guide to help the employees be more productive on the project. Using direct communication methods is also effective – a boss working directly with an employee is a better motivator than a CEO encouraging the employee from afar. Lazear noted that, when he worked as an economist under George W. Bush at the White House, President Bush would often request Lazear present the information in-person so that he could have better opportunities for communication and to reduce messages getting misaligned.

Want to hear even more of Dubner's expertise? Join Dubner at Symposium New York on June 26-27 in New York City. If you've already registered you're all set, but if you haven't now is the time! Tickets are selling fast so be sure to save your spot and hear what Dubner will have to say. Click below to register! 

Symposium New York 2017 Register Now Stephen Dubner Keynote Speaker Affiliate Marketing

Tags: Events, Symposium New York, Affiliate Marketing, Data Analytics, Keynote

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