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Grand truths about human behavior

It's more complicated than that.

Unintended consequences inevitably attend purposive social action. (Robert K. Merton)

"It is a principle that shines impartially on the just and the unjust that once you have a point of view all history will back you up." (Van Wyck Brooks)

All the world is multivariate.

Much of the world is distributed lognormally.

People are different.

Rehearsal improves performance.

Effective intervention-thinking and choice-thinking necessarily require reasoning about comparisons, approximations, opportunity costs, and causality.

All grand theories, other than perhaps the scientific method, ultimately err (and some collapse) by overreaching. Another version: many good ideas ultimately over-reach and turn into bureaucratized rackets.

"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled." (Richard Feynman)

In explanations of human activities, both muddling through and incompetence are under-estimated, and both rational optimizing and conspiracy over-estimated.

Nearly all self-assessments claim above-average performance.

"The rage for wanting to conclude is one of the most deadly and most fruitless manias to befall humanity. Each religion and each philosophy has pretended to have God to itself, to measure the infinite, and to know the recipe for happiness. What arrogance and what nonsense! I see, to the contrary, that the greatest geniuses and the greatest works have never concluded." (Gustave Flaubert)

"Upon expecting fair play in high places: You'll get it if enough folk are watching." ( J. P. Donleavy's variant of Wendell Phillips' "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.")


Perhaps our Kindly Contributors will have other Grand Truths about human behavior in the spirit of the material posted above—ideas with a reasonable empirical base that serve to help describe and understand human behavior.

-- Edward Tufte

I sense another book concept emerging :)

-- Clive Rushton (email)

Here's another candidate for the list: "If you know nothing, take the average or use persistence forecasting. To describe something, observe averages and variances, along with deviations from persistence forecasting. Understanding, however, requires causal explanations supported by evidence."

"Average" is meant both in the statistical sense and in the wisdom-of-crowds sense. "Persistence forecasting" is, for example, saying the tomorrow will be like today (and is often a hard forecast to beat).

There might be a grander (although probably more cryptic) way of making the point about the difference between description and causal explanation. Perhaps this point can be combined with the point about the requirements of intervention thinking.

Another candidate grows from theories about bureaucracy: "Where you stand depends on where you sit," although this thought about self-interest and selection bias is probably already sufficiently covered by a broad reading of "It is a principle that shines impartially on the just and the unjust that once you have a point of view all history will back you up." (Van Wyck Brooks)

Right now the collection contains quite a few items about methods of understanding. A better list would have additional items about individual and social behavior. One candidate might be about the rich getting richer, or in a more subtle form, the "Matthew Effect" described by Robert K. Merton. It is likely that "framing effects" (Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman) should be included in the list. To do so requires a pithy summary of that work.

One test for inclusion in the list is that the items rise above proverbs, which are sometimes close to definitions, or are cheerleading, or are negated by a counter-proverb ("No action at a distance" vs. "Everything is connected"). But the main qualification is some richness and subtlety, and reasonable evidence that the statement is generally true.

-- Edward Tufte

An interesting aspect of brief "summaries" of human behavior is they often do give rise to counter statements: The person who "looks before he leaps" is chastised because "he who hesitates is lost". The tragic element in such "truths" is they are valid in context, and the context defines the appropriateness of the statement.

If "location" defines a crucial component of house-shopping, then "Context! Context! Context!" is my contribution to "Grand truths about human behavior".

-- Michael Round (email)

What an interesting thread—we do appear to be having some
difficulty however separating the "Grand Truths" from annoying
misuses of proven statements or simple logical fallacies.

Here are a couple of items that fit into the three categories
above: ( Although I am not such how they should be classified )

When searching for something
It is always in the last place you look.
- Normally you stop looking after you have found it

Drunks always end up in the gutter
Stephen J. Gould has an excellent essay on this in FULL HOUSE.
This layman's explanation of limits deserves a better visual
- For those who cannot find the book, the wall or building
along the sidewalk serves as a limit—forcing all deviations
from the straight line either towards the gutter or against the
wall and reflected back towards the gutter. When you see the
drawing you will see what I mean. It is begging for help.

Any use of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle that is not
directly related to its intended use.

This could be a nice segue from "If you spot it you got it" and
would tie into the "observer effect", which is often cited,
usually incorrectly, in similar circumstances.

Oversimplification of learning
"I learned everything I need to know in Kindergarten"—it seems that
only Management Gurus feel this way. The rest of us feel that
the more we learn the less we know, or is it the less we know to be true,
or is it a "capital T" True.

It might be interesting to look into the nature of Stereotypes
and attempt to find the fine line that exists between useful
generalisation and destructive ignorance.

- All lions are dangerous.
- Stereotypes are useful generalisations based on common sense.
- Clean water is clear, odorless and tasteless.
- Dirty objects carry germs.
- Dark alleys with steamy shadows are dangerous.
- Police officers are trustworthy, helpful enforces of the law.
- Professors are smart.
- Good research institutions have good teachers.
- Group of people "X" are peaceful.
- Group of people "Y" are well educated.
- People from Country "Z" are...etc., etc.
- Stereotypes are bad.

-- Tchad (email)

Stereotyping and its issues (useful generalization v. destructive ignorance) are picked up by my "know nothing, explain something" item:

"If you know nothing, take the average or use persistence forecasting. To describe something, observe averages and variances, along with deviations from persistence forecasting. Understanding, however, requires causal explanations supported by evidence."

"Average" is meant both in the statistical sense and in the wisdom-of-crowds sense. "Persistence forecasting" is, for example, saying the tomorrow will be like today (and is often a hard forecast to beat).

Thus stereotyping is a "know nothing" strategy which often works, but sometimes there are relevant variances that should assessed and explained.

The deeper issue is: What strategies identify those situations when variances become relevant? When is it worthwhile to consider possible anomalies from average or persistence forecasting--and not merely reopen solved problems?

-- Edward Tufte

What strategies identify those situations when variances become relevant? When is it worthwhile to consider possible anomalies from average or persistence forecasting—and not merely reopen solved problems?  ——ET

The simplest strategy is to show a counterexample, one step removed from pure confabulation. Problem is, the evidence is quite shaky: "I confabulated something that seems to be logically consistent." The next simplest answer, which is commonly used in physics, is to show that some perturbation affects a result by more than roughly 10%. If it's more than 10%, easy answer: this is important. If it's less than 10%, it gets more complicated.

-- Niels Olson (email)

Look at the Brief that governed the creation of the system under review, look at the output of the system that is affected by the variation. Only then you will know its true value.

-- Roger Daventry (email)

"In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

This statement speaks to the importance of marginal thinking, which describes most of the choices people face, and to me, offers both truth about the distribution of wealth, resources, and income in a market economy, but also hope for those who are daunted by the gap between themselves and their dreams. The difference between being in the top ten on the money list on the PGA Tour and losing your Tour card is usually less than two strokes per round, and the difference between a typical Powerpoint presentation and a delightful one is usually a small dose of time, empathy, and creativity.

-- Chas Martie (email)

The Pareto Principle or the 80 - 20 rule here.

The principle was suggested by management thinker Joseph M. Juran. It was named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of income in Italy was received by 20% of the Italian population. The assumption is that most of the results in any situation are determined by a small number of causes.

-- Tchad (email)

"The world is distributed lognormally" = Pareto

-- Edward Tufte

A possible third pillar in the Grand-Truths-of-Human-Behavior-and-Advise-for-Analytical-Reasoning tent: if all knowledge was lost, what once sentence would you leave the future about your area of expertise?, which begins by quoting Feynman.

-- Niels Olson (email)

How about for the benefits/costs trade-off:

"It comes with the package."

Or maybe the idea of opportunity costs already covers this one.

-- Edward Tufte

From Emerson in the The Conduct of Life, "We learn geology the morning after the earthquake..." Which reminds me of something a seismic engineer once told me, "We're very good at building things that will stand up during the last earthquake."

-- Steve Sprague (email)

Steven Shapin concludes his New Yorker article (January 22, 2007) on vegetarianism with this from Benjamin Franklin, who became a vegetarian at age 16 but later strayed. From Franklin's account of a sea voyage near Block Island:

The last sentence is a grand truth about human behavior.

-- Edward Tufte

"Authority gone to one's head is the greatest enemy of truth." – Albert Einstein, in a letter to Jost Winteler, 8 July 1901, as quoted in Peter Galison's Einsteins' Clocks, Poincare's Maps.

-- rafe donahue (email)

"Good propaganda fools the people who see it. Great propaganda fools the people who make it." – Dan Neil, The Los Angeles Times, 2007

No comment needed.

-- Ron Harris (email)

"The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not."
– Richard Rorty Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (sadly, out of print)

Although it is not at first impression a direct claim about human behavior, this short sentence tells a grand truth about that most characteristic of human behaviors: describing things or "saying how it is."

Every claim on the nature of the world that represents itself as true and final elides the distinction between the world and language. At the same time, and against the loose suggestion that nothing is knowable or that there is only interpretation, the world is out there! Understanding and respecting this condition seems to me to be a piece of what we are hoping for in the education of ourselves and each rising generation. I love this sentence. For many years I have found myself using it as a kind of prism for pulling apart that aspect of human language that tends to collapse the color of "what is" from the color of "what is said."

-- Chris Nathan (email)

Tukey and Keynes on being approximately right

As discussed earlier, John Tukey, "An approximate answer to the right question is worth a great deal more than a precise answer to the wrong question."

J. M Keynes, "It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong." My 10-minute search on Google failed to find any exact reference where Keynes in fact said this.

My variant on Keynes is "It is better to be roughly right rather than precisely irrelevant."

-- Edward Tufte

Variant on the over-reaching principle

"There never was anything by the wit of man so well-devised or so sure established which in continuance of time has not been corrupted." – Preface to the Book of Common Prayer

The last one is THE truth about human behavior.

-- Tracy Lightcap (email)

Stein's Law

From Herbert Stein, a distinguished economic historian and also chair of the Council of Economic Advisors during the Nixon administration:

"If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." Another version: "Things cannot go on forever."

-- Edward Tufte

"90 percent of everything is crud."

(From science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who responded to a criticism of his often marginalized genre by saying: "Sure, 90 percent of science fiction is crud. That's because 90 percent of everything is crud.")

Slight hyperbole perhaps, but not that far off.

-- Jeff Stupakevich (email)

Andrea Zittel has a few of my favorites:

"It is a human trait to organize things into categories. Inventing categories creates an illusion that there is an overriding rationale in the way the world works."

"No matter how many options there are, it is human nature to always narrow things down to two polar, yet inextricably linked choices."

"Personal truths are often perceived as universal truths. For instance it is easy to imagine a system or design that works well for oneself will work for everyone else."

-- Scott Goodwin (email)

THE NEW ORGANON OR TRUE DIRECTIONS CONCERNING THE INTERPRETATION OF NATURE Francis Bacon 1620 APHORISMS [BOOK ONE] XLVI The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.... is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human intellect to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives; whereas it ought properly to hold itself indifferently disposed toward both alike. Indeed, in the establishment of any true axiom, the negative instance is the more forcible of the two.

-- Tim Belliveau (email)

"The concept is synonymous with the corresponding set of operations." Physicist P.W. Bridgman.

What you do reflects what you think, whether or not you are aware of exactly what you're thinking.

-- Max M. Houck (email)

One I remember and have seen many times since I first heard you say it back in 1998 when I was attending your seminar: Bureaucracy reproduces itself in the design. The systems people live and work in will always have a manifestation in the finished product/service.

I've also seen another truth that I call "confidence replaces the need for facts." That is, the more confident a person is in their solution the less likely they will want, accept, or seek out facts to support their confidence.

-- Neil Schulman (email)

Neil Schulman's observation that "confidence replaces the need for facts" is well described by the studies in Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (article pdf).

-- Dave Nash (email)

Conway's law

Neil Schulman's 10th of June post may also be alluding to
Conway's Law:

Any organization that designs a system
(defined more broadly here than just information systems)
will inevitably produce a design whose structure
is a copy of the organization's communication structure.

See the thread here.

-- Tchad (email)

Self and Other

How We See Ourselves and How We See Others
Emily Pronin, Princeton University

"People see themselves differently from how they see others. They are immersed in their own sensations, emotions, and cognitions at the same time that their experience of others is dominated by what can be observed externally. This basic asymmetry has broad consequences. It leads people to judge themselves and their own behavior differently from how they judge others and those others' behavior. Often, those differences produce disagreement and conflict. Understanding the psychological basis of those differences may help mitigate some of their negative effects."

Read the full article, clearly about a grand truth concerning human behavior here (now behind a paywall).

-- Edward Tufte

Self-perception vs. other-perception

"It's not what you're thinking, it's what they're seeing."

This restatement of self vs. other perceptions parallels Red Auerbach's famous remark about basketball coaches talking to their basketball players: "It's not what you say, it's what they hear."

-- Edward Tufte

"There's nothing more practical than a good theory." – Kurt Lewin, considered to be the founder of social psychology.

Grasping this could lead one to "find or make a reason for everything one wants to do," as Benjamin Franklin so well noted. Or, it could keep a person from dithering in the upper stratosphere of ideas, searching for elusive perfection and never getting around to action (being precisely irrelevant rather than roughly right, as you yourself pointed out). Not only that, a good theory can guide that action, so that the lessons learned are as valuable when the theory is "wrong" as when it leads to further insights.

-- Emily Passino (email)

If we did not regularly re-invent the wheel Ferrari's would have wooden cart-wheels.

-- Alberto Tagliaro (email)

The very things we do, to prevent the things we most fear from happening, cause them to happen.

-- Alberto Tagliaro (email)

"The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better" – Francis of Assisi

-- Michael Starks (email)

We see what we expect to see.

-- Donner (email)

Hanlon's Razor,

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

is not complete with out Grey's corrollary:

Sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice.

-- Niels Olson (email)

Here are two fine articulations of themes already expressed in different forms:

"It is the commonest of mistakes to consider that the limit of our power of perception is also the limit of all there is to perceive." (C.W. Leadbetter)

"Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof." (John K. Galbraith)

Slightly more whimsically but no less insightful, an excerpt from "The Club of Queer Trades" by GK Chesterton...

"Bosh," he said, "On what else is the whole world run but immediate impressions? What is more practical? My friend, the philosophy of this world may be founded on facts, its business is run on spiritual impressions and atmospheres."

-- Brian Clark (email)

"You have no idea what is going on in the heads of people who walk by you. Their ignorance is hard to imagine and it can be discovered only by accident. This does not mean you are wise and they are stupid: simply that everyone garners information up to a certain level only, and is unable to reach higher. Space is limited, and they may be unaware of what is happening in the next street. Also, time is limited, and events, which for you happened yesterday, for them are sunken in the fog of an indefinite past. Thus TV, print can transform and alter as they please everything that is and has been. We should wonder not at the power of propaganda but at the modest amount of knowledge which somehow gets through." – Czeslaw Milosz, from the book "Road-side Dog"

I like this reminder of how limited our personal perspectives are. An explanation for the 'Tragedy of the Commons.' My world view is more about me than your world view, which, of course, is more about you.

-- Mary Beth Sanders (email)

"There are trivial truths and the great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true." – Niels Bohr

-- MP (email)

"What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we know for sure that just ain't so." – Mark Twain

-- Dan Slobodzian (email)

"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation." – Herbert Spencer

-- Phil C (email)

People are most like themselves. (A clinical observation.) – Seth Powsner

-- Seth Powsner (email)

Regarding generalizations and stereotypes:

We believe that generalizations and stereotypes are undesirable because we operate under the fallacy that every situation requires complete and accurate information in order to make the best possible decision. In reality, nature has no such requirement—in fact, nature has no resources to spare for "optimization" and will gladly settle for a series of satisfactory developments. "Survival of the Fittest" is not exactly the way it works—marginal improvements relative only to current conditions, with a vast number of repetitions, results in the preferential survival of those with a marginal advantage. 99.9999% of the time, solutions that are "good enough" are just that. And any being that has those "good enough" solutions hard-wired into its reactions to the world around it will have an advantage over those that do not. Isn't that what generalizations and stereotypes really represent—"good enough" solutions for daily survival?

The real trick is to identify those occasions where the discontinuities exist and generalization and stereotypes do NOT serve well—that is what will ultimately separate Human intelligence from any rule-driven artificial intelligence...

-- John Higgins (email)

I had a bumper sticker that I still think about when I am trying to understand human behavior (mine and others). It said, "The universe rearranges itself to accommodate your picture of reality." I am still thinking about it as I write this.

-- Katherine Rowell (email)

Back in the eighties, my alumni magazine held a Great Generalizations contest. One of the finalists was "Administrators are born optimists."

More recently Lance Morrow wrote in Smithsonian of a surefire method for creating a positive impression of a person: describe him having breakfast, preferably with something slightly exotic on the menu. Morrow worked for Time, which frequently used this method. In 1936, they described Alf Landon having kidneys; in 1965, they described Lyndon Johnson having venison sausage. They weren't the only ones: the 1970 World Book Year Book included an article on presidential aides that described John Ehrlichman arriving at the White House, going for a swim and having breakfast. What a guy!

Since I'm here, I'll contribute one of my own: if you're a Kennedy, your chances of being elected to public office are greater than they'd be if you were a Frickenschmidt—even in Germany.

-- Robert O'Rourke (email)

Hofstadter's Law

Hofstadter's Law is a self-referencing time-related adage, coined by Douglas Hofstadter and named after himself.

Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law. – Douglas Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

-- Max Hodges (email)

Here's a motley collection of truths that I am fond of. I'll let others judge how grand they are.

Garrison Keillor:

"The urge to be top dog is a bad urge."

"It's hard to be militant in defense of moderation."

Erich Fromm:

"Insight separated from practice remains ineffective."

"The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers."

Henri Frederic Amiel:

"An error is the more dangerous in proportion to the degree of truth which it contains."

Frederic Chopin:

"Simplicity is the final achievement."

-- Andreas (email)

Ignorant futility can be complex.

-- Dan Murray (email)

"He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either option." – John Stuart Mill, 'On Liberty'

"The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he'll fight and die for it. The way real science goes is that you come up with lots of ideas, and most of them will be wrong" – Francis Crick (co-discoverer of DNA)

"One habitual ruse of the enemies of freedom and enlightenment is to affirm that their ignoble doctrine is universally adopted, that principles on which rest the dignity of the human race are abandoned by unanimous agreement, and that it is unfashionable and almost in bad taste to profess them" – Benjamin Constant, 'Principles of Politics Applicable To All Governments'

-- Daniel Emkay (email)

Sturgeons Law:

"Nothing is always absolutely so>"

And Sturgeons Revelation:

"I repeat Sturgeon's Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms."


"90% of everything is crap."

Both here.

-- Matt R (email)

Our tendency to narrate our 'not knowing' in a way that confuses it with knowing. Our instinct towards narrative in general.

The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Fall, Albert Camus

-- Patrick Bannan (email)

A guiding principle of usability design: "People are lazy."

Inversely (overheard at SXSW): "A sufficiently motivated person will put up with a fair amount of bull---t."

-- David Thiel (email)

Mediocre movie directors stage dramatic confrontations out in the rain whenever possible.

-- Robert O'Rourke

"People don't know what they don't know"

-- james kim (email)

"Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time."

– Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian 22/5/2014 (read here).

-- Matt R (email)

Threads relevant to evidence reasoning:

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