Tuesday, November 9, 2010

We're All Individuals Now

Christian Jarrett explains how we tend to value our uniqueness, 
Whether it's a gift for small talk or a knack for arithmetic, many of us have something we feel we're particularly good at... this strength then becomes important for our self-esteem... children tend to choose friends who excel on different dimensions than themselves, presumably to protect their self-esteem from threat... [W]hen making hiring decisions, people tend to favour [sic] potential candidates who don't compete with their own particular strengths... Participants tricked into thinking they'd excelled at the maths [sic] tended to choose the potential team member who was weak at maths but stronger verbally, and vice versa for those participants fed false feedback indicating they'd excelled verbally. 
I think this drive can explain two anomalies:

1) We often agree to disagree. Aumann's classic disagreement theorem (pdf) says that rational truth-seekers cannot and will not agree to disagree; given the same priors and the same data, they must each reach the same conclusions. Cowen and Hanson (pdf) discuss how this disagreement result is quite robust. What's the deal? Disagreeing allows us to show off our independence and individual intelligence, which are among the most credible ways to establish uniqueness.

2) Our opinions oscillate in cycles away from what we perceive as the current consensus. A recent PLoS Comp Bio paper shows that in order to explain this "hype cycle" you need to model the preference for individuals to feel unique:
[W]e identify a missing ingredient that helps to fill this gap: the striving for uniqueness. Besides being influenced by their social environment, individuals also show a desire to hold a unique opinion. Thus, when too many other members of the population hold a similar opinion, individuals tend to adopt an opinion that distinguishes them from others....

[T]here is a third, pluralistic clustering phase, in which individualization prevents overall consensus, but at the same time, social influence can still prevent extreme individualism. The interplay between integrating and disintegrating forces leads to a plurality of opinions, while metastable subgroups occur, within which individuals find a local consensus. Individuals may identify with such subgroups and develop long-lasting social relationships with similar others.
There is a trade-off between uniqueness and accuracy in beliefs, so we typically seek uniqueness on opinions for which the cost of being wrong is low: art, politics, sports, etc. That's why there is less of drive for uniqueness regarding med. Few would claim that covering an open wound is a bad idea.

Before you say, "but I'm not an individual!", you need to check out this classic Monty Python scene.