Posts Tagged psychology

Defying categorization

“Categorizing people is not something we do here” was the slogan used during my college orientation to teach us impressionable freshmen not to discriminate, generalize, or judge based on a person’s skin color, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

Since embracing diversity is second nature for most New England liberal arts students, that slogan became the punchline of many fine jokes, but what’s really funny is how far some people are taking the act of categorization.

Reading Thought Catalog, one would think introverted people are an oppressed minority. The site recently ran a list article on things you should never say to an introvert, and a POV piece on how the deck of life is stacked against the less-talkative, because things like job interviews are dependent entirely on sociability and charisma.

I’m not going to argue that being outgoing doesn’t make certain parts of life easier, but the whole idea of categorizing people as either “introverted” or “extroverted’ is an oversimplification worthy of a “Physics for English Majors” class.

Obviously, when many individuals act a certain way, it’s easy to recognize patterns of behavior. But to extrapolate that and apply one’s observations to every introverted or extroverted person is crazy. We’re not robots, are we?

What’s the threshold for introversion anyway? Should the American Psychiatric Association add some diagnostic criteria to the DSM-V? What if someone doesn’t fit the template of “introvert” or “extrovert,” just as most people don’t fit classic social stereotypes like “jock” or “nerd?”

The answer to all of those questions is the same: human beings are individuals, and their behavior can’t be accounted for by gross generalizations. They are conscious of their actions and capable of changing. Labeling people just obfuscates that fact.

I’ve always thought my generation knew enough about the dangers of generalizations based on race, religion, or sexual orientation, but here we are creating new generalizations based on how much a person talks at parties. One of those Thought Catalog articles was followed by “The Current State of Public Discourse” on the site’s feed. A tad ironic, no?

Everyone wants to make sense of the chaos that is human interaction, but that chaos is the essential fact of it. Individuality makes our actions unpredictable, and it can’t be any other way.

Categorizing people may give the categorizer a sense of serenity, but it also dehumanizes the people being categorized by making it seem like they are not in control of their own actions. That’s why it is not something we do here.


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Why a Nietzschean superman values humanity more than humans

Doctor ManhattanIt’s not often that a superior being reminds you about why it’s great to be human. As we wade through our daily lives, we tend to notice the negatives: confusion, irrationality, uncontrolled emotion, physical frailty, the list goes on.

That uniquely human trait known as “consciousness” might seem to override these foibles, but the rise of big data is making it seem like what Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan would call a “highly overrated phenomenon.” Luckily, the Doctor is in.

In Watchmen Manhattan, a super being with God-like control of matter, along with the ability to teleport, fly, and grow into a giant, hides out on Mars after being accused of giving his colleagues cancer. He teleports his former girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter, herself a superhero called the Silk Spector, to Mars to convince him to save humanity. In the end, he convinces himself.

Manhattan sees things on a big scale (he finds erosion entertaining), so he’s more aware than most people of the unlikelihood of a specific human individual coming into existence.

“To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air into gold… That is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle,” Manhattan says. It’s particularly true of Laurie, whose mother had sex with her (absent) father even after he tried to rape her.

The whole speech is very dramatic, and definitely worth a read, but what does this have to do with data?

Sometimes I wonder if people think they can override human uniqueness with data, that if they acquire a large enough sample size, they can accurately predict human behavior.

I made the mistake of going to a psychology lecture in college. The visiting professor, apparently a well-regarded expert in the field, said his experiments had determined the level of autonomy an individual exhibits in a given situation.

I’m not a psychologist, but that seemed a bit odd. Doesn’t extrapolating what people do under controlled circumstances run counter to the nature of, well, autonomy?

Some might point to the wealth of data from uncontrolled circumstances that is available to researchers. Data: A Love Story is about how an Internet trend analyst constructed the ideal online dating profile by data-mining sites, and found herself a fiancee by systematizing her dating preferences.

Since I’m not very good at math, I guess that means I’ll never find true love online. Or maybe the future isn’t that dismal.

It’s true that Netflix can make good movie recommendations, but can an algorithm really account for the infinite number of variables contained within each individual consciousness?

By definition, data tells us what people have already done. As long as they keep doing the same thing (which, admittedly, they probably will) that’s fine. But what happens if someone changes their behavior? Or everyone?

Humans are subject to physical needs and social stimuli, but they are not programmed to act a certain way. As Dr. Manhattan points out, each person is one of a nearly infinite amount of possible combinations. It’s important to remember that.

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