Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Miss Direction

Fark links to a news report that says British men waste 6 million hours a year because of their reluctance to ask for directions. Although the report came from a survey (not available online) published by some British insurance company, Fark instead credits the Royal Office of Statistical Bollocks. And I’ll bet Fark’s right.

How did the surveyors derive that 6 million hours figure? The article gives no hints, except this: “Men who are lost wait an average of 20 minutes before giving up and asking for directions, while women only wait 10 minutes before seeking help.” So apparently they used women as a comparison group. This presumes, of course, that the women’s strategy is superior. Now, I generally lean toward the feminine approach myself – I’ll ask someone or consult a map at the drop of a hat. But it does take time to stop and ask someone, time that could have been spent driving and maybe reaching the destination. For the women’s strategy to be superior, the expected savings in drive time from getting directions (taking into account that directions could be wrong!) must exceed the lost time from stopping to ask. Let’s say this is true. Even so, the inefficiency of the men’s strategy cannot be measured as the 10-minute difference in time before asking for help; it should be the net increase in time to the final destination.

Now, maybe the methodology I’ve just described is what the surveyors actually used. After all, if you divide 6 million hours over the British male population, you get only 12 minutes of lost time per person per year (18 minutes if you consider only the 14-65 age bracket), which doesn’t sound that bad to me. But somehow I doubt the methodology was that sophisticated, because it relied only on survey data. Surveys can’t tell the real amount of time taken by stopping for directions, or the real expected time saving from having directions. If survey respondents were asked to provide estimates of those times, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that each gender had guesses that rationalized their preferred strategies.

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