It is famously the case that almost everyone thinks they’re above average. Derek Sivers writes:
Ninety-four percent of professors say they are better-than-average teachers.
Ninety percent of students think they are more intelligent than the average student.
Ninety-three percent of drivers say they are safer-than-average drivers.
Interesting. Intuitively this seems to suggest that people are prone to vastly overestimate their competence. But is that true? As Bill Kuszmaul points out, these people aren’t necessarily wrong!
There’s no fundamental reason why you can’t have 90% of people be better than average. For example, more than 99.9% of people have an above-average number of legs. And more than 90% of people commit fewer felonies than average. These examples are obvious, but they’re not so different than some of the examples [in Sivers’ post].
This has something to it! On the other hand, I don’t think this explains everything. Is the quality of a professor’s teaching really so skewed that 94% are above average? But more importantly, do you really think that way fewer people would answer “yes” if you just replaced the word “average” with “median” when asking the question?
That said, I don’t think these numbers necessarily point to a bias! That’s because the interpretation of “above average” is left entirely up to the person being asked. Maybe you think a good driver is one who drives safely (and so you drive safely and slowly) whereas I think a good driver is one who gets from point A to point B efficiently (and so I drive quickly but not safely). We are both, from our own perspectives, above average drivers!
Put otherwise, for any skill where “goodness at that skill” doesn’t have an objective, agreed-upon measure, we should expect more than 50% of people to think they’re better than the median, because people optimize for things they care about.
To give a personal example, I suppose I would call myself an above average blogger. This isn’t true in some objective sense; it’s just that I judge bloggers by how interesting their thoughts are to me, and obviously I write about things that are interesting to me! There’s no bias I’m falling for here; it’s just that “Are you an above average blogger?” leaves “above average” open to my interpretation.
There is, however, a closely related bias that I and lots of other people have. This bias occurs when we take a situation like those above, but now create a more objective test of that skill. To illustrate with an example, suppose you asked all the students at a university whether they have an above-median GPA. If 90% of students said yes, that would demonstrate a widespread bias — because unlike “Are you a better than the median student”, here there’s no room for interpretation.
The way this bias manifests in me (and many others I imagine) is: I tend to underestimate the competence of people who think very differently from me. I started thinking about this the other day when I listened to Julia Galef’s podcast episode with David Shor (which I highly recommend1). Shor is a young Democratic political strategist, originally hired by Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign to run their data operation and figure out how the campaign should spend its money. Shor says:
When I first started in 2012, I was 20 and I was like, “Oh, I’m going to do all of this math and we’re going to win elections.” And I was with all these other nerds, we were in this cave. We really hated these old school consultants who had been in politics for like 20 years. […] We had all these disagreements because the old school consultants were like, “You need to go up on TV, you need to focus on this..” And we really disagreed.
Put yourself in Shor’s shoes: you join an operation that’s being run by consultants who have no background in data, haven’t looked at randomized controlled trials on different interventions, etc. You know tons of math, start reading about the RCTs, looking at poll numbers, and they point you toward really different things from what the campaign was doing. You’d probably be really concerned that the campaign was doing things totally wrong! But as Shor goes on to say:
I think going back, probably 80% of the disagreements I had with these old school consultants in 2012, looking back, I think they were right.
I don’t want to accuse David Shor of any particular bias without evidence, but allow me for illustrative purposes to create a fictional David Shor who may or may not reflect the actual thoughts of the real David Shor in 2012. If you’d like, you can think of this character “strawman-Shor”, or as my own self-insertion.
Suppose Obama were to ask David Shor: “Be honest, do you think you’re better than the old school consultants at real-world reasoning?” If he suppressed any false modesty, he might have said something like:
Well, I have a good grasp of statistics and good logical reasoning skills. Show me a trend in home ownership and I’ll tell you if it’s robust or just some nice-looking noise. Tell me the sensitivity and specificity of a cancer screening test and the prevalence of that cancer, and I’ll tell you how likely someone who tested positive is to have cancer. Give me a spreadsheet of historical polling data and I’ll tell you if you’re likely to win the election. I bet the old school consultants can’t do that as well as I can. So yeah, I’m better at real-world reasoning.
Fair enough. Now suppose Obama were to ask an old school consultant (let’s call her Constance): “Do you think you’re better than David Shor at real-world reasoning?” She might have said:
Wait, who’s David Shor again?
Oh, that quant we just hired who’s fresh out of college? Listen, I understand how people think really well. Give me an opinion piece and I’ll read between the lines to figure out the author’s motivations. Drop me off at a party full of people I haven’t met before and by the end I’ll have a pretty good idea of what makes them tick. Ask me to spend ten minutes with a swing voter and I’ll tell you what things really motivate them. I bet Shor couldn’t do any of these things. So yeah, I’m better at real-world reasoning.
Which — again — fair enough! Neither of them are wrong; they just place a high value on different skills. The sort of real-world reasoning that is salient to Shor is figuring out how systems work by analyzing them logically and statistically. By contrast, Constance thinks of real-world reasoning as understanding how people behave. If Shor is better at the former and Constance is better at the latter, but they think of “real-world reasoning” in different ways, both of their replies are “correct”.
But now, Obama asks Shor a follow-up question. “So, do you think you’re better than the consultants at figuring out how to spend our money so as to most increase our chances of winning?” And I say:
Yeah — this is a great example of real-world reasoning, and I’m better at that.
And when Obama asks Constance, she also says:
Yeah — this is a great example of real-world reasoning, and I’m better at that.
In this case — if David Shor’s 80% estimate from the podcast is right — Constance would have been right most of the time. It could have easily been the reverse, if Obama chose to ask about a different concrete measure! But the point is: Shor and Constance both — predictably — said they’d be better at the thing Obama asked them about.
I would guess that this sort of reasoning happens a lot. In concrete terms:
- A person (call her Alice) forms a heuristic — “I am good at X” — where X isn’t perfectly defined. (“I am good at real-world reasoning”; “I am good at driving”; “I am a good math teacher”.) She forms it because she’s good at X on a particular axis she cares about (“I am good at statistical problem solving”; “I drive safely”; “My algebraic geometry classes consistently get great reviews”).
- Alice encounters a specific problem where being good at X is important, though maybe in a different form. (Figuring out how to spend campaign money; Getting to the airport really quickly; Teaching young kids arithmetic.)
- Alice pattern matches the problem as an instance of X, thinks I’m good at X, and (this is the fallacy) concludes I’m good at this problem.
Shor and Constance are both good at real-world reasoning, but in different ways. If they both end up committing this fallacy, the end result is that each of them thinks they are better than the other at the concrete problem at hand (spending campaign money). More generally, misapplying heuristics in this way would lead you to overestimate the competence of like-minded people (who are good at X along the dimensions you value) relative to those who think differently.
The last thing I want to say here is: from personal experience, I’m pretty sure that overestimating the competence of like-minded people (if you want a concept handle for this bias, may I suggest “alike minds think great”?) actually happens. But why do I think that the mechanism I just proposed is the right explanation? Well, I don’t think it’s all of the explanation (I can think of other plausible mechanisms2) but I would speculate that it’s part of what’s going on, if only because I’m pretty sure that my brain often makes the sort of mistake I outline in steps 1 through 3.
It might be inconvenient that Shor and Constance underestimate each other’s competence, but the problem runs deeper. If this bias were the entire problem, the two of them could have laid out their arguments, judged the relative merits, and resolved the disagreement over campaign spending. The deeper issue is that Shor and Constance have different ways of thinking about the world, so resolving this disagreements is really tricky. Shor is inclined to distrust Constance’s reliance on intuition and past experience, and Constance is inclined to distrust Shor’s reliance on statistical methods. Like many smart people with different ways of thinking, they’re likely to talk past each other. But, like, they’re on a team together. They have to come to a decision. How are they supposed to do that?
First, both Shor and Constance could stand to be a bit less confident. If only because the previously discussed bias is a real possibility, they should both entertain the notion that the other is right and they are wrong. From there it isn’t too hard to strike some sort of balance between the two approaches.
But, striking some arbitrary (maybe 50/50) balance isn’t great either! If Shor could have figured out back then that Constance was right 80% of the time, they would have been able to allocate Obama’s resources much better. So it’s truly important for them to really figure out who’s right.
And for that, they need a really important sort of person. The more I think about it, the more I believe that this is an utterly crucial role for some members of society to fill. This role is the translator.
(Edit: Kelsey Piper independently coined the same word for the same concept in 2015!)
In June, when Scott Alexander put his blog on pause over a possible New York Times article that would reveal his real name, outrage erupted on Twitter. The vast majority of comments were supportive of Scott and called for the New York Times to withhold his name from the piece. But I also saw some criticisms of Scott, of which one stuck out to me. It went something like this:
Scott Alexander’s blog is really overrated. People seem to think he’s really insightful, but as far as I can tell he just takes really obvious concepts and explains them in an unnatural, convoluted way.
I dismissed this critique as… obviously wrong?… at the time. Scott’s essays were consistently enlightening, fitting different pieces of the world together like a jigsaw puzzle, helping me understand the world better. Some examples:
- I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup, which made me understand why people often get much more upset at those with a slightly different opinion than at those who are completely opposed to everything they believe in.
- The Toxoplasma Of Rage, which made me understand why activists so often seem to use divisive tactics.
- Right Is The New Left, which gave me a model of how beliefs interact with social status, and also gave me a model of how fashion trends work, something I previously had no conception of at all.
In all three of these (admittedly somewhat cherry-picked) examples, Scott explained a social phenomenon with an analytical model. This was fantastic for me! It’s more difficult for me than for most others to understand social dynamics at an intuitive level; but analytical models — that’s totally my thing.
Whereas from the critic’s perspective, these explanations didn’t appear particularly insightful. Of course people get upset at the outgroup more than the far-group. Of course it makes sense for activists to use divisive tactics. Of course changes in fashion styles are a the result of a status game. Perhaps Scott Alexander’s critic grasped all of these things on an intuitive level. If you will, the critic is somewhat like Constance, and I’m somewhat like Shor.
Scott Alexander is what I would call a translator. He takes concepts that are really natural to the Constances of the world and explains them in a way that makes sense to the Shors of the world. And this is really, really useful. It’s useful to Shors because it makes them understand the world better. But it’s also useful to Constances because it’s good for them too if Shors understand these things. It makes it easier for them to reconcile disagreements, and it makes Shors come to better conclusions in e.g. matters of public policy that affect Constances too.
(Edit: I don’t mean to suggest that Scott Alexander’s explanations can’t be useful for Constance — but at minimum it’s harder for her to understand the insights since they aren’t written in Constance’s “native language”. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that translation is the only value of the posts.)
There are no doubt effective translators in the other direction, too. An example would be a mathematician or statistician who’s really good at using real-world examples to explain abstract concepts to people who aren’t mathematically inclined. Jordan Ellenberg and Eugenia Cheng might be good examples (though I don’t know, since I’m not their audience!).
Being a translator requires a pretty unique skill set. Scott Alexander needs to understand social dynamics really well. He also needs to understand analytical methods well enough to use them in his explanations. He also needs to be able to speak the language of Shors, because his explanation will ultimately be in their language. Think in terms of language-to-language translators: to translate really well from language A to language B, you need be masterful at A (to understand all the subtleties of the meaning) and also at B (to convey that meaning while preserving those nuances). That’s why good translators (in both senses) are so rare.
But because there are so many Shors and so many Constances in the world, translators are really, really important. Having translators would have given David Shor and the consultant an opportunity to figure out which of them was right (or at least come closer to an agreement). Let me give an example of what a Constance-to-Shor translator could have said:
Constance’s intuition that Obama should use a slogan that highlights his position on economic issues comes from her work in the 1990s, when there were lots of persuadable voters and you could measure effects of candidates’ speeches in real time. From that time period we have lots of examples of economic issues playing better for Democrats than cultural issues. Now, times have changed, and these effects have gotten smaller as the number of persuadable voters has diminished, but the “what persuades undecided voters hasn’t changed” prior is a reasonable one to start with. Now, your data should make us update toward considering the alternative more effective, but given the messiness of our data and the small effect sizes, I would argue that we should mostly stick to our prior.
How do I know that this would have been the right thing to say? Because in the podcast, this is how David Shor currently explains why the old-school consultants ended up being right! It would have been really useful for Shor to have this sort of explanation at the time. But — I theorize — there wasn’t an effective translator. This is no surprise — as I mentioned, translators are few and far between — but this example goes to show how useful a translator can be.
I’ll conclude by noting that while I talked specifically about translators between analytically-minded and socially-minded people, translators can exist and are extremely useful between any two groups of people who think really differently! Some examples:
- Translators between different ideologies. Liberals and conservatives not only have different beliefs, they reason about political issues totally differently. They have different notions of fairness and justice, different models of society, etc. It’s really useful to have someone who can present conservative arguments in liberal-friendly language and vice versa. A good example here, perhaps, is Bill Clinton, who was called “explainer in chief” for being able to explain liberal ideas in ways that appealed to conservatives.
- Translators between different cultures. People from different cultures are often brought up to see the world in different ways, and translators are important for bridging cultural divides.
- Translators between different socio-economic classes. We often talk about a disconnect between coastal elites and non-elites. In fact, this is (probably correctly) pointed to as a major source of political polarization. Effective translator could bridge this divide, perhaps decreasing polarization (or at least slowing its increase).
Fostering mutual understanding is really important for social cohesion and for truth-seeking. Doing this between two people who have similar thought patterns is relatively easy. Helping Republicans understand Democrats, economic elites understand middle-Americans, Shors understand Constances — that is hard. For that, you might just need a translator.
1. The day before the episode was released, I wrote a tweet that listed Julia Galef and David Shor as two of the four people I follow on Twitter who reliably have great tweets. (They both “liked” the tweet, no doubt knowing that they were about to make me quite happy.) I sure had high expectations, and the episode did not disappoint.↩
2. One other possible mechanism: when people discuss technical things with people who think differently from them, they often don’t understand those people’s points (to a greater extent than discussing with like-minded people). Their brains jump from “this don’t make sense to me” to “this person’s thoughts don’t make sense”, causing them to underestimate the person’s competence.↩