Recently, I’ve noticed an interesting failure mode in humans. Here are a few examples, can you tell what’s wrong?

I eat meat. My family doesn’t. At our last family gathering, my family urged me to go to the dentist, because it seemed like my teeth were sharper. The only reasonable conclusion was it’s an effect of meat, like how carnivores have sharp canines.

I have a friend who washes his hands regularly. Like, every three hours. He also has a severe dry hands problem. His family is convinced it’s because he washes hands too often. The thinking goes something like: “We don’t wash hands regularly, and we don’t have dry hands. He washes hands too often, and he does have dry hands!”

This is an interesting case of privileging the hypothesis, where you figure an obvious cause for people’s problems is doing things differently.

The way I see others as different from me, is the way I expect their ill-effects to present themselves.

Further, it’s not just about trivial stuff.

I was debugging code with a colleague once, and the first thing I jumped at as problematic were things done differently. Regardless of what the compiler says is the problem. I didn’t feel comfortable with things done in such a way, and suspected them to be the root cause, just because I don’t code in the same way.

The way I see things done differently from me, is the way I expect inefficiencies and problems to arise.

It’s not only personal differences that show the same way, but cultural differences too. The same people make up a culture, so a lot of inter-personal problems apply to inter-cultural problems as well.

In the 14th century, the bubonic plague struck. Perhaps surprisingly, the Jews were relatively less affected. They didn’t use common wells, washed hands regularly, and washed their dead before burials. Around the same time, anti-semitism was widespread. Other people used to drink from the well, not wash their hands, and were healthy, until they were not. Seeing the antics of the Jews, and their relative continued health convinced people that the Jews were responsible for the plague. Sadly, this lead to widespread massacares.

As we know now, Jews were definitely not responsible for the plague. It was rats instead.

The way I see other cultures as different from mine, is the way I expect their ill effects to shine.

In all examples I’ve shared above, we let the contrast between personalities and cultures govern what’s wrong with other people. It’s an interesting mish-mash of two fallacies:

  1. Contrast bias
  2. Typical mind fallacy

Contrast bias occurs whenever you’re comparing two or more things. The differences between these two things take up all your attention, while viewing them individually you might not reach the same conclusions.

For example, a person will appear more attractive than they do in isolation when simultaneously compared to a less attractive person.

For the same reason, I’d jump to conclusions around dry hands and washing hands, simply because I’m contrasting the two, rather than thinking clearly. Can more wetness lead to dryness? Actually, yes, it can, so the heuristic isn’t always wrong. Rather, it’s about discarding all other information because the contrast pops at you.

The typical mind fallacy occurs whenever you assume that every person’s brain is similar to yours. If you like rock music, everyone who doesn’t is plain weird. You compare people, and subject them to the same goals and ideals as yourself. A perverse way this shows up is thinking others are ‘lesser’, when they can’t do what you can, specially when you assume they’ve had the same opportunities as you.

While most people have similar goals, their values and constraints are usually different. It’s hard to tell a recessive gene is the cause of resisting the plague, when you can’t see the gene in action. It’s easier to contrast and jump to conclusions that make sense from your mind’s point of view.

With most biases, the trick is to notice what’s happening, have a name to call it, and you’re in a good spot to at least know when you’ve already fallen for it. So, to end, I’ll leave you with a name. It’s the “People fuck up because they’re not like me” Fallacy.