Bryan Caplan  

We Are So Different

The Problem with a Variable Ta... The Unsung...
One of my rules of thumb is: "Human heterogeneity is bigger than you think."  At Less Wrong, Yvain explains it better than I ever have.  Lead-in:
There was a debate, in the late 1800s, about whether "imagination" was simply a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon. That is, can people actually create images in their minds which they see vividly, or do they simply say "I saw it in my mind" as a metaphor for considering what it looked like?

Upon hearing this, my response was "How the stars was this actually a real debate? Of course we have mental imagery. Anyone who doesn't think we have mental imagery is either such a fanatical Behaviorist that she doubts the evidence of her own senses, or simply insane." Unfortunately, the professor was able to parade a long list of famous people who denied mental imagery, including some leading scientists of the era. And this was all before Behaviorism even existed.

The debate was resolved by Francis Galton, a fascinating man who among other achievements invented eugenics, the "wisdom of crowds", and standard deviation. Galton gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn't. The ones who did had simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn't had simply assumed everyone didn't, to the point of coming up with absurd justifications for why they were lying or misunderstanding the question. There was a wide spectrum of imaging ability, from about five percent of people with perfect eidetic imagery to three percent of people completely unable to form mental images.

Dr. Berman [Yvain's old prof] dubbed this the Typical Mind Fallacy: the human tendency to believe that one's own mental structure can be generalized to apply to everyone else's.
Yvain then expertly applies this point to diverse examples, including:

1. Personality clash:
I'm about as introverted a person as you're ever likely to meet - anyone more introverted than I am doesn't communicate with anyone. All through elementary and middle school, I suspected that the other children were out to get me. They kept on grabbing me when I was busy with something and trying to drag me off to do some rough activity with them and their friends. When I protested, they counter-protested and told me I really needed to stop whatever I was doing and come join them. I figured they were bullies who were trying to annoy me, and found ways to hide from them and scare them off.

Eventually I realized that it was a double misunderstanding. They figured I must be like them, and the only thing keeping me from playing their fun games was that I was too shy. I figured they must be like me, and that the only reason they would interrupt a person who was obviously busy reading was that they wanted to annoy him.
2. Pedagogy:
There's a lot of data on teaching methods that students enjoy and learn from. I had some of these methods...inflicted...on me during my school days, and I had no intention of abusing my own students in the same way. And when I tried the sorts of really creative stuff I would have loved as a fell completely flat. What ended up working? Something pretty close to the teaching methods I'd hated as a kid. Oh. Well. Now I know why people use them so much. And here I'd gone through life thinking my teachers were just inexplicably bad at what they did, never figuring out that I was just the odd outlier who couldn't be reached by this sort of stuff.
3. "Game":
There are a lot of not-particularly-complimentary things about women that many men tend to believe. Some guys say that women will never have romantic relationships with their actually-decent-people male friends because they prefer alpha-male jerks who treat them poorly. Other guys say women want to be lied to and tricked. I could go on, but I think most of them are covered in that thread anyway.

The response I hear from most of the women I know is that this is complete balderdash and women aren't like that at all. So what's going on?

Well, I'm afraid I kind of trust the seduction people. They've put a lot of work into their "art" and at least according to their self-report are pretty successful. And unhappy romantically frustrated nice guys everywhere can't be completely wrong.

My theory is that the women in this case are committing a Typical Psyche Fallacy. The women I ask about this are not even remotely close to being a representative sample of all women. They're the kind of women whom a shy and somewhat geeky guy knows and talks about psychology with. Likewise, the type of women who publish strong opinions about this on the Internet aren't close to a representative sample. They're well-educated women who have strong opinions about gender issues and post about them on blogs.

And lest I sound chauvinistic, the same is certainly true of men. I hear a lot of bad things said about men (especially with reference to what they want romantically) that I wouldn't dream of applying to myself, my close friends, or to any man I know. But they're so common and so well-supported that I have excellent reason to believe they're true.
You could say that if Yvain's right, each of us inevitably lives in our own Bubble.  To be enlightened is to see the two layers of film that separate us from everyone else.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
KenF writes:
The debate was resolved by Francis Galton... Galton gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn't.
Do you even read the things you repost?
KenF writes:

Let us enjoy a quote from Sir Galton:

Ladies rarely distinguish the merits of wine at the dinner-table, and though custom allows them to preside at the breakfast-table, men think them on the whole to be far from successful makers of tea and coffee.
That is from page 30 of Inquiries into Human Faculty, available on Google Books. You'll find in the Appendix his questionnaire about visualization.

Xerographica writes:

We are so are the economic benefits of our diversity...

It's really not easy for me to articulate the economic benefit of diversity. We get that two heads are better than one...but struggle to grasp just how much better 150 million heads are compared to 538 heads.

What's the value of allowing 150 million taxpayers to choose which government organizations they give their taxes to? What's the value of allowing the "wisdom of the crowd" to determine the distribution of public funds?

Let's start a Magna Carta Movement to find out.

dragonfly writes:

I had the same experience as Yvain when filling in a questionnaire that was designed to deduce whether a person's thinking was based on imagery (visual), sound, or (I think - I can't quite remember now) kinetic (thinking in terms of physical action). I was stunned to discover that many people were not visual thinkers. I had always assumed that everyone was like me and thought in terms of imagery - it had in fact never occurred to me that there was any other way of being.

Keith writes:

Bryan, I sense some tension between the claim that humanity exhibits great psychological diversity and moral intuitionism.

J Storrs Hall writes:

The mental imagery debate rages even today, although in perhaps a more refined form. The leading schools of thought are represented by the following (both fascinating if you have time to get into them):

Yes images, Kosslyn:

No images, Pylyshyn:

Joe Cushing writes:

You also have to consider that what some say in a survey is not what their behavior actually is. I think many women are drawn to alpha males while complaining that they can't find romantic men. There are also women who are drawn to men who beat women...I suspect some of these women are supper annoying though and drive men who would otherwise not beat people to hit them. There are probably two things interacting there. Annoying women and men who will snap in their presence. I wouldn't be surprised if my last girlfriend had been beat by other men, or gets beat in the future.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

consider, then, the possibility of a strongly ethnocentric group immigrating to the US, ignoring our norms, gaming the wouldn't do it, and don't know anyone who would, but does that make it irrelevant?

Personally I find this a good description of the Sharpe ratio, which makes sense to economists, but doesn't jibe much with fund managers who are compared to benchmarks.

Swimmy writes:

Bryan, this should give you at least a little pause when you appeal entirely to intuition for an argument.

Joe Cushing, I would recommend you spend a little time looking up the academic literature on domestic abuse before you posit such terribly insensitive things. I would be willing to bet signifigant change that any woman randomly assigned to a serial woman-beater would not have a very good time, and this is hardly evidence that all women are annoying. Some research has shown that domestic abusers are perfectly capable of self-control that they choose not to exercise, suggesting that they engage in such behavior for power-control reasons, not for reasons of sudden rage expression. Furthermore, domestic abusers are well known to stalk and batter former mates after they leave, suggesting that it is not anything "annoying" done in the immediate presence of the abuser that leads to such behavior (unless you want to argue that leaving someone who beats you is "annoying"). It probably "works" because some women are attracted to (or have difficulty leaving) this type. But domestic abuse is a much better sign of mental illness in the abuser than annoyingness in any woman.

Joe Cushing writes:

what the research shows is that someone women get abused over and over gain, man after man. What the assumption has always been is that these women select abusive men. I was merely suggesting that some women may trigger men to become abusive. Whenever you have a victim, nobody wants to look at the victim for having any roll in their situation. All I'm saying is you don't go poking lions with sticks.

Peter writes:


Defending Joe Cushing but I think this is one of those cases where the literature doesn't exist as it's not PC and Joe is correct. I myself have hit one woman in my life (my first wife) having had many successful relationship before and after her with no violence. I know for a fact she has been hit in prior and subsequent relationships and also has been hit (by women no less) in a groceries stores, restaurants, and other mundane activities. Some women cause themselves to be abused in the same way some guys are always getting in fights (we all have that male friend that shows up at least once a month with a black eye or bruised knuckles) and amusingly with the same results, the man always goes to jail.

I have spoken with other men about this over the years and they also can recall women that they have hit though never had any prior or subsequence hitting in any other relationships. Nobody is saying that all women deserve to be hit but some women do (I’m not sure a better way to put that).

jostein writes:

One naturally wonders if there might be systematic differences in mental maps between groups. In which case, we will not become them. We will cease to exist.

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