A Bell Curve Lens
I don’t yet know what the collection of words below will become. The longer I live with my Bell Curve Lens, the more facets of the concept are revealed to me. So perhaps these ramblings could fill a book. Time will tell.
For now, consider this me jotting down some thoughts…
What is it?
Lens: a perspective through which one may view the world
Bell curve: a graph of a normal distribution, with a large rounded peak tapering away at each end
In the context of the ‘bell curve lens’, all you need to know about bell curves is that they represent people, plotted on a chart according to a particular trait. A neat way to picture a bell curve is to ask people to stand in a line based on, say, how tall they are. Each column represents some range, like five foot seven up to five foot seven point nine nine nine nine.
You’ll get something like this:
There are more people in the ‘middle’, fewer at the ends. There’s some maths involved hat I promise I will not go into, but here it is in chart form:
The crucial part to know — and you already know it — is that for any given trait, everyone is somewhere. This will pop up again and again. Everyone is somewhere.
And so, a ‘bell curve lens’ is a way of seeing the world. It’s about accepting that, no matter the trait, everyone is somewhere.
But I’m already getting ahead of myself. Let me explain why I’m writing this. Over the past few years, I’ve been paying attention to how I react to other people, and the world around me. I’ve identified and modified my interactions and it’s made me a happier person.
Maybe, if I can put forward these ideas in a coherent manner, you can incorporate them into your life and they can increase your happiness too.
One thing I identified were thoughts that fell into the category of “how could someone be so stupid?”. Or cruel, or naïve, or many other negative traits. Such thoughts lead to frustration and ultimately some level of unhappiness.
So what if we look at the bell curve for, say, ‘kindness’. Remembering, every person on the planet has their place on this bell curve.
Think of the cruellest person you’re aware of. They exist on this chart. They exist. Others like them exist, perhaps even crueller people exist. You share this planet with them, and this will never change.
Acceptance is a big part of viewing the world through a Bell Curve Lens, so I’ll really drill it in. That person you “can’t believe” is so stupid, so cruel, so inconsiderate, does exist. You must believe this. You must internalise this, then you can move past the disbelief and onto more important questions, like: what can be done about it? How will you allow this to affect you?
Let’s look at a more light-hearted example: people’s ability to stick to the correct side of the footpath/escalator. Most people get it right most of the time. Some may temporarily forget themselves if they’re in a conversation with someone, or off with the fairies.
Some people just don’t get it. They exist. You share this planet with such people. This will always be the case. This will never not be the case. That your paths should one day cross is a matter of probability.
I’ve been living with my bell curve lenses on for so long now that it’s second nature. I see someone walking down the wrong side of the footpath, or leaving rubbish behind in the park, or sticking gum on a handrail, and it doesn’t trigger a sense of anger, or a sense of disbelief. I’m just witnessing reality. These are the people that I share this planet with.
I’d like to make a subtle point of distinction: seeing the world through a bell curve lens is about you, not about the other people. It’s (in part) about bringing an end to the bouts of frustration and rage. It does not preclude you from telling someone to pick up their rubbish. You won’t become an emotionless blob. You don’t need the anger in order to affect change. If you’re the type of person to confront someone for behaving in an antisocial way, you won’t lose this.
So far we’ve looked at simply accepting that people vary, and therefore that people at both ends of any spectrum must exist. Many pet peeves (if not all) come down to the behaviours of people ‘below’ you in some trait, such as intelligence or considerateness or kindness.
But where are you on the bell curve — and where do you want to be — for these traits, indeed for any trait that’s important to you.
I myself have noticed that some people are very good at ‘getting to the bottom of’ issues. Breaking things down in a thoughtful way — this is a trait that I want to be better at, I want to shift myself to the right of the bell curve for the ‘getting to the bottom of’ trait. And so this is a thing that I’m working on. Perhaps with would have happened even if I didn’t see the world through a bell curve lens, but I’m reasonably sure that it helped.
A nuanced understanding
The bell curve lens is the antithesis of the stereotype.
When groups are compared on some metric, we are almost always given the average for the groups (occasionally the mean). For example, the groups ‘male’ and ‘female’, for the metric ‘height’, we all know that men are taller, on average.
But this hides the fact that most men and women fall into the same height range. Height is not something you can control of course, so let’s look at something slightly more contentious: math scores. In some countries (about half) boys out-perform girls (by a larger margin the longer the schooling goes on, suggesting that societal — rather than biological — factors are are play).
But the fact that the average of one group is higher than the average of the other group is largely meaningless to the individual. The figure you’re presented with is just the peak of the curve, it has a very loose relationship to the millions of individual humans that make up the body of the bell.
To put it another way, every single individual has the potential to be well above average. We can say things like (warning, made up statistic) “there is a 45% chance that any one girl will do better than most boys”. To the individual, a 45% chance of something happening is plenty. If there’s a 45% chance of rain, you pack an umbrella.
This comes back to the fact that you’ve known all along: everyone is somewhere on the bell curve. Meaning that not only can you expect to encounter other people from all points on the curve, but that you yourself rightly have a place anywhere along the x axis. To focus on the average for a group with which you identify makes very little sense.
(Of course, averages are useful for identifying systemic issues, planning policies to rectify them, and monitoring the outcomes, but these words are for individuals, not policy makers.)
In a sense, stereotypes can be either true of false. Maybe ‘Asian students are better at maths’ is not incorrect. Maybe if we plotted the bell curves the peak of the Asian lump would be a little to the right for some group of individuals.
But so what? It’s important to note that it’s irrelevant whether or not there’s truth to the stereotype. Either way it’s still a warped bell curve.
The more you buy into a stereotype, the less variance you expect between individuals. You end up thinking all people of group X have a particular trait, even though your sensible self knows that this couldn’t possibly be true.
By visualising what’s happening as we form our stereotypes, we can better understand them and, importantly, better resist them.
What we’re doing when we form a stereotype is to take information about a few individuals and create a warped bell curve in our heads. Let’s say X measures intelligence in the chart below (and here I’ll use ‘intelligence’ in a nebulous, poorly defined sense, don’t dwell on that).
We know that if we take the whole population and plot their intelligence, we’ll get a normal looking curve. Now let’s overlay a second bell curve that represents the group of people on the receiving end of the stereotype you’ve bought into. Maybe you think a particular sex is less intelligent, or a race, or members of that political party you hate. Maybe people that drive a particular type of car, people who enjoy a particular type of sport, or people who watch a particular genre of TV. Dive deep to think of a group that you genuinely believe are less intelligent than the group with which you associate.
To bolster your stereotype, you will have a number of examples of individuals performing actions that have provided you with enough information for you to gauge the intelligence of that person, and plot them on a chart.
In your mind, it won’t matter that you’ve only witnessed the behaviour of a miniscule fraction of the group — it will be enough to give you confidence that your stereotype is justified, and does indeed apply to the whole group.
Confirmation bias will ensure that new information that doesn’t fit this curve is discarded. You can either discard an individual as not being representative of the group, or discard a particular action as not representative of the individual. And so you move through life, picking up examples that fit your stereotype, and the stereotype growing ever stronger.
The real danger comes when you meet a new person, a real life human with thoughts and feelings, a human about whom you know nothing, and you discover that they are in this group. We all know what happens next.
Partisanism, tribalism, racism, sexism, it’s all the same thing. They’re all the manifestations of a warped bell curve.
And things are only getting worse as technology evolves, particularly with regards to politics: our observations are increasingly provided to us through algorithms that decide what we see, that deliver information that fits our ever-narrowing bell curves. If you’re politically a lefty or a righty, there is an ever-slimming chance that you will be served up information of successful, intelligent behaviour of the ‘other side’. The algorithms know you don’t want to hear about it. You can ask yourself the question: if the other political team did something good, would that news find its way to you? Perhaps the stereotype is so strong that you’re not even open to that possibility — this is a dangerous and limiting view of the world.
Compassion where once there was frustration
Do you get mad at children with learning disabilities for being so damn stupid? No, of course not, because you’re not an awful person. So here’s a question for you: how smart does somehow have to be before you feel comfortable making fun of them for being stupid? Do you treat the bottom 2% with compassion, and the next 8% with scathing ridicule? Why is that?
Chances are, it’s because you see these as discrete categories. “Developmentally challenged” is one bucket, “garden variety idiot” is another bucket.
Not only is everyone somewhere on the scale — as I keep saying — but it’s also true that there are rarely gaps. That is, for any level (of any trait) you will find real live human beings. And the line between ‘idiot’ and a diagnosable condition does not exist. Richard Dawkins talks about the tyranny of the discontinuous mind — our propensity to see discrete categories when really there’s a continuum. And we see this progress played out with re-classification of things like autism, from a category to a spectrum. Although still many will see two categories: “those on the spectrum” and “normal people” which is of course missing the point.
Predicting the existence of certain types of people
I write a lot, and receive comments from a lot of people. And on the internet, no one makes eye contact, which means feedback comes through with minimal sugar and plenty of salt.
A bell curve lens has helped with both the reading and the writing side of things. I guess this would extend to real life if ever I communicated with people face-to-face.
Hmm, this all generalises to the idea of having a basic understanding of the big five personality traits, and accepting that — once again — everyone is somewhere.
These five traits — openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism — are fairly simple to understand, and those at either end of the scale fairly easy to spot. The idea though is not to ‘spot’ people. It’s not to ‘pigeon hole’ people, either, or even to try and quantify people.
For all of these traits, most people are somewhere in the middle. That is, most people aren’t particularly extroverted, or agreeable, or neurotic. And therefore, as you go about your life interacting with people who are medium-extroverted and medium-agreeable and medium-open-to-experience, there is no need for these traits to be front of mind.
It’s when you meet someone at one end of the scale — especially if you’re at the other end — that it pays to have an understanding of that trait, and to not be surprised or upset that such a person exists.
A lot of what I write doesn’t sit well with people who score low in ‘openness to experience’. This fact is not good or bad, it just is. I am aware that, of the ‘big five’ traits, this is the one where I myself am not in the middle, and have come to terms with the fact that this means there will be large differences between my view of the world and the views of people at the other end of the scale.
Another trait where I find myself in the skinny part of the curve is extroversion/introversion. Earlier in my life I would attach a negative sense to the opposite end of this scale. I’m quite the introvert, and saw extroverts as boorish. But this makes no sense. The bell curve represents all the people, everyone is somewhere, who am I to decide that people who aren’t like me are somehow ‘bad’.
Understanding these five traits, and particularly where I sit on their curves, prepares me for the differences I will see in other people.
Of course, these five traits are somewhat arbitrary, there are plenty of different attempts to quantify people and their personalities. The exact terms are not the point. The understanding that people are different, and an understanding of the general ways in which people differ is what’s important.
I guess this is a self-help book.
I don’t know about you, but I struggle to put new advice into practice, because it’s never front-of-mind when I’m actually out there living my life. So instead of telling you “next time you’re talking to someone …” I’ll make a more realistic suggestion.
Set an alarm to go off once a day at a time when you know you’ll have a few seconds to spare. When the alarm goes off, take a moment to think of the last time you saw/heard/read someone doing something that left you thinking “how could they be so ______?” Now ask yourself: is it really so surprising that this person behaved in a way that was so ______? Could you not have predicted that a person at this position on the ______ bell curve existed?
Now you can adjust your future expectations. You have just learned that people who are that ______ do indeed exist. Do you think there are more? (I can tell you, there are more). You might even begin to feel sympathy for this person; perhaps they were born this ______, perhaps they don’t have the emotional tools available to be able to do anything about it. Aren’t you glad that you’re not as ______ as this person?
Each day, do this. During the day you’ll read a Tweet that enrages you and this book (?) won’t come to mind. But that evening, when your Bell Curve Lens alarm goes off, you’ll think back to that Tweet and relive thinking how can ______ _____ be so ______, and then you’ll set the record straight: you knew that it was possible for people to be like this. It’s not surprising. It’s expected. It’s normal, it’s the way things are.
You’ll repeat this again and again, day after day, until you stop having the thought in the first place. You’ll see/hear/read something and it won’t be surprising or frustrating, it will simply be an example of behaviour from a type of person that you’ve known all along exists.
With the knee-jerk reaction taken out of the equation you will be free to think about how to solve problems, rather than just react to them. Issues will become clearer.
A common cry is that the leader of one country or another is a damn fool. But the problem isn’t that they’re a fool. Fools exist. There’s millions of them. This particular fool existed for decades before you heard of them. The problem is that this particular fool was voted into office by a large collection of the citizens of the country in question. That’s a very different problem indeed. By moving past “OMG this person is so dumb”, the truth of the situation will come into focus, and perhaps too, a path toward a solution.
These ‘chapters’ are in no particular order.
The concept of privilege can be a useful tool for highlighting inequalities promoting empathy. Unfortunately, it’s often used as a weapon — an accusation — rather than a tool, and in these cases it ceases to be useful and only strengthens existing divides. We can see this more clearly if we view things through a bell curve lens…
When talking about privilege, the first step must be for us to understand where we stand, before concerning ourselves with the privilege of others.
Imagine for a moment that you are just about to begin your life. You are a soul floating out in the ether, waiting in a queue of souls for the next available mother. Look look down upon the earth nervously, as it spins like a giant bingo ball cage. You’ve got a 1-in-2 chance of landing in Asia, a 1-in-5 of arriving in Africa. You might be born with a skin colour that does not match the majority in the country in which you arrive. You may be born fully-abled, or not. You’ll probably be blessed with the ability to see, and hear. You might arrive with a double-digit IQ, or a triple digit. You might be born to a family with strong values that makes an effort to raise a valuable member of society. You may be abandoned at birth.
All of these things were, the moment before you came into existence, a matter of pure chance. You could have been anyone.
We can understand our own privilege on a global scale by asking ourselves the question: how many people would we have rather been? Chances are — given all the things that need to be in place for you to consume these words — you’ve got it pretty good when compared with several billion other people. With this understanding, we can think about those ‘below’ us on the privilege scale and think about how we might like to lift them up.
Understanding our global privilege like this can provide us with a sense of gratitude, but it’s unlikely to be much comfort to the individual facing systemic inequality in their own society. Inequalities are often perpetuated and rectified by policy, most commonly defined at a national level. So for a more relevant view of privilege we can forget about the rest of the world. At this point we can turn to the idea of informing those in a position of privilege of said privilege, but with an understanding that it isn’t a crime in and of itself. It isn’t something someone should be ashamed of any more than you should feel ashamed for being born into a family with access to running water (plumbing privilege!).
With a more grounded understanding of our own privilege we can be more precise in our use of this tool and therefore be more successful at bringing about change. We can do away with the idea that privilege is ‘bad’, and indeed that it’s binary, and narrow in on something more specific: people in a position of greater privilege using their position to maintain the state of inequality that favours them.
By seeing ourselves (our privilege) as a point on a bell curve, the false dichotomy of the ‘haves and have-nots’ fades away and we gain a more nuanced view of reality.
Privilege is just one example where something that runs along a spectrum is simplified into a binary, leading to false logic. It’s quite possibly a bad example since it’s quite a charged topic. This might feel like me leading into another example that is less contentious…
Binary vs spectrum
Anywhere ‘groups’ are put forward, it’s worth asking the question if really what you’re dealing with is a spectrum.
The bell curves take all sorts of shapes — maybe that’s its own chapter. One of those shapes is ‘bimodal’ where people don’t tend toward a single point, but rather clump to form one of two points.
For example, people argue about whether or not gender is binary or a spectrum. When you view the world through a bell curve lens you can see that the argument itself makes no sense.
We know there are blokey blokes and girly girls. We know there are effeminate men and tom boys. Are we arguing about whether or not this is true? Or are we arguing about the extent to which this is true. Or do we not really know what we’re arguing about?
When you see the world through a bell curve lens, very little is binary. Male/female, black/white, politically left/right are all bimodal curves. Even a flipped coin will occasionally land on its edge.
The question of “is it a spectrum?” can almost always be shuffled along to the question of “what do we do about the humans in the middle?” To which the obvious response is “define middle” and later, “how many people are there in the middle?”.
As a convert to viewing the world through a bell curve lens, you will begin to notice people arguing before even deciding what it is that goes on the x axis of the bell curve you see in your mind. It will be clear to you when one person is talking about plotting the number of Y chromosomes (0 or not 0) on a chart and the other person is plotting where they imagine individuals place themselves on the spectrum with regards to whatever the word ‘gender’ means to them.
You will be able to move past the brick-wall-head-hanging and pose the question: “what is it that we want to measure?” which will lead to questions like “what will the results be used for?” — often the crux of the issue. We don’t argue about the binary-ness of inny/outy belly buttons, because we don’t treat people differently based on this trait.
Lawmakers often need to draw a line in the sand — a sharp vertical line through a natural bell curve. Speed limits must be a single number for long stretches of road. They need to be unambiguous, so that they can be consistently enforced. Most people agree that sports should be segregated based on gender, so here too there is a need to draw a sharp vertical line through a curve.
There will always, always, be people that fall on one side of the line who believe they should be on the other. (No need to make a judgement about whether or not they are ‘correct’.) In these cases, we can ask the question: “do we need to draw a strict line?” and oftentimes the answer is “yes” — because the other option is usually personal judgement and all the biases that come with it. Having established that we need to draw a line, and having understood that this will result in unfair treatment of people near the line (but on the wrong side), we can work toward minimising the number of people who are negatively impacted, by intelligently deciding what it is that we measure.
Imagine you are tasked with finding an objective measure of whether an athlete should play on the male or the female team of a given sport. A test that will always return the same result for the same person no matter who administers the test (in contrast to, say, the legal system).
You will realise that curves are at the centre of the issue, so you will seek to find a metric (e.g. estrogen or testosterone levels) that returns a value with a pronounced dip between the two peaks that should align with ‘male’ and ‘female’. It’s one of those activities that’s guaranteed to result in cases that will spark outrage. This is the nature of slicing through organic, flowing curves with harsh vertical lines — there will always be punters ready to comment on the rough edges. All you can do is minimise the number of those cases.
This is all a white hot mess. I feel like there’s more to be said, clarification to be offered, examples to be presented.
We will see what Erica thinks.