Most people are said to be “neurotypical”—meaning, more or less, that the way their minds work is “normal”. And then, in contrast to that, there are the “neurodiverse” people, who are “wired” differently in one way or another, we are told—and who, as a result, may have different aptitudes and life habits to some extent.
The world is still trying to get its head around this idea, and so am I. And there may well be something to it, but the question is “what exactly is that something”? That’s the question, right?
But while that question is still steeping, I think it’s high time to point out a danger in how we think
about these things. There’s a very simple error that we all run the risk of making. It’s the common cognitive bias that assumes things such as these:
- normal = good
- abnormal = bad
- neurotypical = mentally-healthy
- neurodiverse = mentally-unhealthy
The fact is that both neurotypical and neurodiverse people have both good and bad traits in their thinking, and if we’re not careful about it, and assume simply that neurotypical is good/healthy/proper, we’re going to get ourselves into some trouble by dismissing the seriousness of some of our own common mental bad habits.
So, just a paragraph about me, and then back to the topic:
Though I have a deep interest in psychology, I’m no cognitive scientist. But here’s one strength I do have in regard to this. I have studied the psychology of rational thinking for over 12 years, and have read over 30 books and countless articles related to the subject, and have spent a lot of time thinking and talking about it and observing the world—as well as studying what the Bible has to say that’s relevant to the topic. So I’m writing this article because I believe that what I’ve learned could be helpful to many people.
So, let me reiterate: All of us humans have our quirks and shortcomings, and almost all of us have lots to love, too! (Sadly, there are some who simply seem to hate common virtue and affection, and who are very hard for us to love.) So please understand that this is not me trying to be hateful or vengeful—or trying to justify myself as a neurodiverse person—but simply trying to tell the truth about what people are like. (If you’d like to get a large dose of this, read my novel, The Extraordinary Visit of Benjamin True: The State of the Union as no one else would tell it.)
Here are some very common bad mental behaviors that are done by neurotypical people—the “normal” ones. They’re also done by neurodiverse people, mind you, but it’s important to understand that these bad behaviors are done a great deal by almost everybody—including normal people. Here are some of the top ones, in no particular order.
- Cognitive Miserliness. Just like a normal miser refuses to spend a dime unless he’s forced to spend it, it is a very common trait for people to refuse to invest time and energy in thinking things through in the reflective mind unless they are under considerable pressure to do it.
- Moral Miserliness. As with cognitive miserliness, most people tend to resist the effort it takes to be deeply and consistently concerned with their own morality.
- Dysrationalia. This term, coined by Keith Stanovich, refers to people thinking irrationally (out of step with reality) when they do have the skills and brainpower necessary to get it right. It is mental underperformance. For example, Shane Frederick’s Bat & Ball Question (see image just below) stumps about 80% of respondents even though they have all the mental faculties required to understand the correct answer when it is explained to them. For more on the Bat & Ball and other rationality problems, see my 90-minute YouTube primer about Reality-Based Thinking.
- Overestimation of Their Skills, Ability, and Knowledge. They tend to assume they know and understand more than they really do—or are good at more than they really are.
- Over-reliance on Mental Shortcuts (Heuristics). Rather than thinking things through rationally, they rely too heavily on shortcut tactics like these: guessing, assuming, going by hearsay, going by tradition, doing whatever they did last time, doing what their friends do, going by whatever their feelings are. these things frequently (but not always, mind you) lead to error, yet they are the default behaviors of a great many neurotypical people, even though we know they often lead to error.
- Cognitive Biases. Related to the whole field of mental shortcuts is the conditioning of the mind with cognitive biases. These biases can be likened analogously to mini computer programs that turn on automatically, and supply an answer to a situation. For example, having been robbed once by an Italian, Billy repeats this routine in his mind every time he sees or hears about an Italian person: “All Italians are thieves.” He both knows—and should know—that it is not true that they all are thieves, but he doesn’t want to think it through, and doesn’t care morally if what is says and thinks is exactly right or not.
Or to give another example: Larry had a bad math teacher, and now rolls his eyes every time the subject of math comes up. Even when what Larry needs most is to do a simple mathematical calculation, he will avoid it because he is cognitively biased against the value of mathematics.
- Exertive Miserliness.* All the things on this list—and more—could be lumped into the category of exertive miserliness.* That is, that most people are at least somewhat stingy when it comes to making effort—when it comes to exerting themselves. And this is especially true when it comes to exerting themselves in new ways, different ways, and difficult ways. We don’t like change (status quo bias), and to some extent, we each have some amount of time in which we’d rather do nothing than to do something. Our common word for this is “laziness”, and there can be a huge difference between how lazy one person is and how lazy his neighbor is, but almost everybody will admit to being lazy from time to time. For some, it’s a mild problem, and for others, it’s a huge problem.
*Exertive Miserliness is my own term, by the way. For years, I kept running into the fact that while cognitive science names many of our specific failures to act, I had not run across a term that handles the whole of it in one package. So, the way I understand the world so far, exertive miserliness seems to sum it all up, just like every logical fallacy can be summed up as a non sequitur.
There are more things that could be added to this short list of cognitive pitfalls, of course, but these are sufficient to get a bit of a glimpse into the cognitive/moral pitfalls of neurotypical people. And this is a huge problem in our human societies. We operate so far beneath the cognitive level at which we could operate if we were more interested in trying harder and getting more educated as to some of these common pitfalls that so often waylay us.
I’m not saying I’ve got my finger on the answer to all this, but I’d just like to point out one thing for your consideration. Oftentimes, neurodiverse people tend to think outside the box more often than do neurotypical people. That is, they tend to come up with ideas and principles and solutions that neurotypical people might not be as apt to think of. And I could see where this diversity of people types might be quite beneficial in the overall scheme of things—whether it’s a mere “accident of nature”, as some might want to see it, or whether it’s the very design of God, as others might want to see it.
What is normal in this world is a certain cognitive malaise and a captivity to established habits and cultural norms. So maybe it’s good for us as a society when certain individuals have what it takes to stir things up from time to time!