Personal Experience = Invalid, Useless

Ok I admit that title is a bit hyperbolic. I get very tired of people invoking their personal experience on most topics, but especially when it is related to science, and of course psychology. Here are my two main issues, this post will relate to many others in the future, so please read, and take it to heart! There will be a part two as well to this…

Point 1… Standstill, stalemate.

One of the things I have always loved about philosophy are thought experiments. This is where you simply ask someone to think of some case or situation of which usually you can’t actually engage in. This one you actually can… Yet since you are reading this please do in fact think of it. Imagine you are in a room, with another person, me lets say me, arguing about discrimination against black people. Remember the ONLY information we have available is our experience. We can’t cite news, research, hearsay, tv, reading we have done or anything else… Purely and only our personal experience counts.

You tell me that you throughout all of grade school, middle school and high school witnessed discrimination against black people. You give examples, and tell stories and such. Now, here is the crux of the issue, that is your personal experience that you witnessed, were exposed to etc. Now enter me. I then come back with the fact which is a true statement in actual real life, that I have never throughout my grade school, middle school, and high school ever witnessed discrimination against black people. Now, this is the essence of the problem with personal experience. You had yours, I had mine, and they are opposites. Now the standstill, or stalemate happens.

Again we are not allowed to bring in any outside information into this room. Well, we by definition are now at a standstill. Since, we can’t bring in outside information, your experience can’t outweigh mine or mine outweigh yours, they are equal! For you reading this type of description, you probably want to know where we both grew up, socioeconomic status, and variety of other pieces of information. You want this information to determine which person is more representative of the population. In other words, whose experience should in the discussion outweigh the other persons. Obviously, the easy answer is well I saw … on the news, and  you start to think of various research projects that have been done on discrimination. Again, all of that is null and void when we use personal experience in this room, and give such psychological weight to personal experience.

See this is where the power of research and information from sources other than our own experience absolutely should override your personal experience. Yes, personal stories are great at touching people, however, when we get down and dirty, we need outside information. It sounds silly but how do I know kangaroos exist. I have never seen one in person, even at a zoo. Yet, I have seen them on tv and learned about them in school. A well educated and literate person should necessarily go beyond their experience to gain information. Personal experience, will by definition result in a standstill discussion eventually with someone that you meet.

You can always find someone who counters you. Yes, then it becomes a debate as to which experience should carry more weight in the discussion. However in the end in almost every discussion I have witnessed or been a part of, both parties bring in information outside their personal experience to ultimately support their point of view.

Point 2… It’s emotionally manipulative.

The second reason why I dislike personal experience points of view is how usually they take on an emotionally manipulative stance in a discussion. Forget, about being in a room closed off from everything. Now imagine you and I are at a dinner party at someones house, say a group of ten of us.

Now in this situation, we are arguing guns in the U.S. In this discussion, a woman cites the fact that her teenage son was shot by a person, during a drug deal of which he was not even a part of, innocent bystander. She goes into a lengthy explanation describing it, how tragic it was that someone innocent was shot. She is crying during it yet maintaining a description of the story accurately and passionately.  Now, if I (which is not my stance on guns) started to point out how statistically this is such an anomaly and rarely ever happens. I quote stats and blah blah… Imagine to yourself, how big of an insensitive jerk I would appear to the other dinner guests. I would be considered to be the root of all evil in that situation, regardless of the statistical accuracy, and research based results that I’m spewing forth during my “rebuttal.”

The point here is that people like to give passionate stories to try to persuade people regarding a certain point of view. They utilize the social situation, which is very specifically that IF a person denounces their personal experience/story, they appear as the rude insensitive person in the discussion/social interaction. This is the second reason, which I have such an issue with these experiences/stories. All, I have to do is start to tell you how badly something went for me or a friend of mine, and bam, you can’t touch it otherwise you look like a jerk!

How many of you watch TED talks? Ever noticed how they have people speak who literally only, have personal stories? Sure they are well told and interesting and even tug at your heart strings, may even make you cry. Yet, after, that’s all they have, a story, not some extensive background in that area, but simply their personal experience, in an attempt to persuade you with emotions to do something or donate or support their cause! I find it as a cheap unfair social psychological ploy that people use all the time. Personally, and I will toot my own horn, have been in arguments/debates where I have had extensive personal experience with something. Yet, I’ll maintain a stance of research, and academic thought on the topic, and not use the cheap ploy of experience.

In conclusion to both of these two main points I believe that people should base opinions and decisions on research, education, and/or sound philosophical principles. I am the first to admit we don’t have research for all the different types of information available. Then yes, start from some well thought out philosophical position! At worst, yes use personal experience. However, be ready to immediately change your stance when you become educated, research is done, or someone deconstructs your position, and shows flaws. Furthermore, some issues transcend research, after all it is a lot of the time descriptive, not prescriptive. Just because something happened in the past research does not mean it should or ought to be that way. This is where adhering to a basic philosophy comes in. I for example believe in gay marriage. This is not at all because I have had friends who are gay and in love (personal experience), actually, never had close friends who are/were. Yet, my basic philosophical stance is that if two people are in love they should be able to get married! That’s it, not based on research, some religious text or otherwise. It’s a basic premise that is part of how I think and who I am. It has nothing to do with personal experience.

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