The Pitfalls of Using Data to Correct Someone's Personal Experience: Not Realizing How Wrong You Are
A Case Study in Hypocognition and Correcting a Black Woman on Being a Black Woman
Here’s the deal: in your heart, you’d like to be one of those minimalist travelers because schlepping around fewer bags is simply easier. Alas, most of the information on traveling lightly was written by guys like Rolf Potts—young, single, able-bodied men—and you’re a single parent with two kids. A few carry-on bags would be ideal, but you’ve got nappies and onesies and toys and tiny shoes and food and a whole host of things to deal with… on your own. Kids, you see, require lots of accessories and extra time.
You’ve tried taking The Simple Advice, packing a 35 liter bag, being easy and breezy with your planning—but once arrived at a train station with a diaper blowout, sans a necessary item and unable to divide tasks with anyone.
And what happens when a single parent doesn’t have something? LOOKS. LOOKS and COMMENTS from others calling you irresponsible. “How can you call yourself a parent? Why isn’t that one in school? They need peers.” Because the easiest things to do in life are spend other people’s money and raise other people’s kids, the looks and comments are relentless.
Your life requires lots of stuff because a) kids require lots of stuff, and b) you’re tired of the comments. The constant input from the peanut gallery adds up, creating chronic social stress that others don’t even realize. Finally, you write an essay: “Why minimalist traveling advice isn’t for single parents.”
Thousands of miles away, someone on the internet responds “Is minimalist traveling advice for single parents?” Their argument boils down to this:
“It’s lazy and a huge stereotype to lump all traveling single parents together and say that this advice doesn’t work for all of them. To bolster my point that all people are different and that single parents are very diverse, here’s a study on the lack of differences between parents/childfree people on traits like extraversion and conscientiousness…”
Um, okay. Great.
Surprise! It’s really a white guy talking about black women
Last year, Dr. Carey Yazeed published “The Dangers of Courage Culture and Why Brené Brown Isn’t For Black Folk.” Yazeed’s argument is what I write about here: advice from the privileged—blind to the details of other experiences—doesn’t always work for the rest of us.
Because immutable traits (in this case, being black) influence how our actions are interpreted by others, Brené Brown’s simple “be courageous!” message is as useful for black women as Brad Pitt’s dating advice of “just show up where there are women.” Brown’s privilege inoculates her from the nuance, complexity, and difficulty that so many other people face.
In response, Todd Kashdan wrote: “Is The Self-Help Industry for Black Folk? The Science of Racial Differences in Personality.” (link; here’s a PDF.) Kashdan’s attempt at a rebuttal to her argument—and her lived experience—was to share the results of personality studies, like the lack of racial differences in extroversion.
NOTE: THESE HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH HER ARGUMENT.
The idea that “black people are treated differently than others” isn’t something that you need data for; all you need is an open mind and a brain. Alas, we do have some studies, one of the most depressing of which is the fact that white men with felony convictions are more likely to get job interviews than black men without a criminal record.1 Black women are disproportionately more likely to be called “angry” for behaviors that would either get ignored or interpreted as “assertive” and “charmingly leadership-like,” were they to come from a white male. (It's easier for our brain to interpret events in a way that conforms to our pre-existing beliefs.)
Giving other people the benefit of the doubt
In Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz suggests that we tend to make three assumptions when someone else is incorrect: “the Ignorance Assumption, the Idiocy Assumption, and the Evil Assumption.” Instead of assuming any of these things about Kashdan, I’ll stick with how he uses data to try and prove someone wrong, and how to spot using data in bad faith.
A case study in using data to make a point that doesn’t exist
Only using the part of the definition that suits you
Kashdan claims that Yazeed’s argument is racist:
“The assumption that an entire racial group thinks, feels, and behaves similarly is a near perfect match with the dictionary definition of racism.”
It’s the classic method of misleading and undermining: 1. making false claims (Yazeed never claimed that an entire group thinks, feels, and behaves similarly). And 2. misrepresenting the outside information: the definition that Kashdan linked to includes the phrase a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.2
Her claims aren’t racist or prejudiced, but a simple truth about her world. Kashdan’s dismissal of Yazeed’s experience—the dehumanization, the failure to accept her personal experience at face value, the fact that he’s essentially mansplaining and white-splaining the experience of being a black woman—is just another example of chronic stress faced by black women. One study suggested that “U.S. blacks may be biologically older than whites of the same chronological age due to the cumulative impact of repeated exposure to and high-effort coping with stressors.”3
Data is a garnish, not the main course
When you make Big Assumptions about people and behavior based on data—not actual experiences—bad things happen.4 For one, social science data has been weaponized throughout history, having been used to “prove” the superiority of whites, of men, of certain families, anchoring their arguments in data instead of looking at the whole picture. Trying to explain a life with data is like trying to explain a movie from a few pixels. It’s scientism
And then there’s The Fallacy of Ergodicity:
Ergodicity as a theoretical assumption posits that individuals are assumed to look like the group. In reality, however, the individual may not mirror the group.5
No one actually has 2.3 kids and has an average commute/salary. The GDP per capita rises, but most people are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Having data about a group doesn’t mean anything about the individuals in that group.
Hypocognition: Why Privileged White Male Professors Don’t Know That They’re Privileged
My dog Daisy loves to sniff the ground at the dog-friendly apartments near our home. She seems to sniff arbitrarily until it snows:
That’s when I discover that these locations have plenty of paw prints and yellow patches of snow, why they’re objectively fascinating to her. Usually, her world of information is entirely hidden from me—and without constant snow coverage, it’s easy to underestimate how different Daisy’s world is from mine.
In social psychology, a relevant idea is hypocognition—the fact that a chronic lack of experience stunts our ability to appreciate or entertain the “unknown unknowns.” From Hypocognition and the Invisibility of Social Privilege:
Lacking a rich cognitive or linguistic representation (i.e., a schema) of a concept in question. By social privilege, we refer to advantages that members of dominant social groups enjoy because of their group membership. We argue that such group members are hypocognitive of the privilege they enjoy. They have little cognitive representation of it. As a consequence, their social advantage is invisible to them.
We provide a narrative review of recent empirical work demonstrating and explaining this lack of expertise and knowledge in socially dominant groups (e.g., White People, men) about discrimination and disadvantage encountered by other groups (e.g., Black People, Asian Americans, women), relative what members of those other groups know.
This lack of expertise or knowledge is revealed by classic cognitive psychological measures. Relative to members of other groups, social dominant group members generate fewer examples of discrimination that other groups confront, remember fewer instances after being presented a list of them, and are slower to respond when classifying whether these examples are discriminatory.
Kashdan isn’t evil or an idiot—as a white man, he simply doesn’t have the arsenal of experiences required to recognize how different other people’s experiences of the world really are. It’s easy for white men who grew up in a single parent household, poor, as a minority in their town, etc., to mistake these early experiences as a lifelong social disadvantage. Regardless of how well these men have emerged from their childhood trauma, being a white male in the United States is the dominant social position. Your current experiences shield you from the ubiquity of yellow snow. How we look affects how others interpret our actions, which changes our lives, and people at the top of the totem pole are oblivious to the difficulties of others.
What’s the motivation behind this attempt to correct someone’s personal experience? It seems like he wanted to create an alt-right-friendly teachable moment: hey! We’re actually more alike than you realize. Here’s a number. But that’s ignoring the fact that not every aspect of reality has been captured by data; sometimes, you just have to listen and accept the fact that everyone’s perspective is valid and incomplete.
White men have the right to talk about the experience of black women, but it’s a surprising one considering the obvious pitfall: not having any idea how wrong they are.
Since publishing this post, Kashdan lost a court battle:
He argued in a lawsuit that it was “anti-male bias” for the school to discipline him for sexual harassment. Kashdan lost at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit after a lower court had rejected his claims against the university in 2020, saying there was no evidence of discrimination against him. The higher court came to the same conclusion.
Even if the behavior was inappropriate, Kashdan argued, there was no evidence it had a negative impact on the female students’ education.
“He can’t accept the fact that he’s caused harm,” Williams said.
Words aren’t words.
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Pager, Devah. “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” American Journal of Sociology 108, no. 5 (2003): 937-975. Link here.
Kashdan said it was racist of Yazeed to make a blanket statement about all black people, but the link he included defines racism as a belief about status differences.
Re: the minimalist traveling thing: the equivalent would be that while Kashdan claims to be offended by the idea of lumping single parents together, it almost seems like he stopped reading and then went out of his way to “prove” the diversity of single parents. First, while it’s true that single parents differ in many ways, they’re also united by the need to carry lots of shit around, to plan and prepare for the worst and be tired anyways, by the complete lack of privacy and free time and the general exhaustion, and by the hyper-critical responses of others when they do the same thing as others.
I’ve now been helping people and organizations communicate their data clearly since the release of my second book, Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers.