Statistics Aren’t the Same as Rules

The statistician will collect and publish statistics about how people are, and the rest of the world tends to take those stats as rules. And in doing so, they often draw some bad conclusions. For instance, when some certain ailments show up a lot in the elderly, it’s easy to assume that the ailment happens because they are elderly, rather than because they’ve been doing some certain bad habit long enough for it to start showing up in disease. We see alarming rates of disease, so we jump to conclusions about the causes, without ever stopping to give due consideration to the question, “Why aren’t all the elderly suffering from this disease?”

It’s the outliers whose stories can tell us the truth about certain things, but often, the outliers are ignored in favor of a general rule. So when we hear that 90% of a certain group has this or that problem, we do well to ask ourselves immediately, “What are the other 10% doing that has avoided this problem?” But we don’t tend to ask that nearly often enough.

And so it goes with other things. Take narcissism, for example. When counselors tell us that narcissists don’t change or can’t change, are they giving us the actual statistics from real case studies? No! They’re giving us their impression from their general experience. But if we knew that some small percentage of narcissists have overcome narcissistic thinking, we would do well to ask the question, “What did those few narcissists do to overcome that the others did not do?” Or, “What was special about the circumstances of those few who overcame?” And if we were to ask questions like that, we might just learn something.

I can’t make a rule that narcissists can’t change. In fact, I’m pretty sure that there are some Bible stories about people changing, and that at least some of those who changed were indeed narcissists. So, just because it is rare doesn’t mean it is ruled out. But it’s easier just to make up a rule (“Narcissists can’t change”) than it is to find out how a few of them actually do change.

And I think we probably make this same sort of mistake across many topics. And we cause a lot of harm and heartache in so doing.

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