IT Professionals and the Typical Mind Fallacy

Introduction

This blog post, my first, will be a slightly unusual one, drawing as it does from my undergraduate thesis (I studied Philosophy). I will talk about a concept called the Typical Mind Fallacy, and how it can be applied to the field of information technology.You won’t learn anything technical. Ideally though, after reading this post you will feel ready to adopt a more even, accepting and ‘zen’ attitude towards the behaviour of other people that you come across in the course of your work. I’ll start with a lengthy explanation of the fallacy, because I think you’ll find it interesting, and then I’ll describe just a few of the ways in which the fallacy may come into our daily lives as developers/ops…ers/CTOs/etc.

The Typical Mind Fallacy

The typical mind fallacy is a term coined by an old professor of mine (David Berman) to describe the mistaken belief that all minds are the same, and that there is uniformity to the way that people think and perceive the world around them. The concept was previously described by Arthur Danto, an American philosopher who you probably won’t have heard of, and William James, the famous American psychologist. Those two, like my professor and I, believed that all people naturally tend towards the fallacy, and it is only experience and education that allows us to see that others may have radically different perspectives than our own.

It’s likely that the first time that it was demonstrated that there are significant differences in how we think was in the late 19th century. Francis Galton, an English scientist, presented a questionnaire to a number of people, asking them to describe their breakfast table in as much detail as possible. His aim was to discover how mental imaging ability was distributed among the population. He discovered a bell curve of imaging ability, with most people in the middle, describing their breakfast table in moderate detail, and a few at either end. Of those at the end, some could describe their breakfast table in ‘photographic’ detail, and a similar number had no imaging ability at all. These people were only able to discuss abstract concepts, and could not ‘see’ the scene of their table in their mind’s eye. Before Galton, it was believed that imaging ability was fairly evenly distributed amongst the population and that while it may differ somewhat in degree it did not differ in kind. However, Galton’s results showed that not only was the range of imaging ability enormous, but also that there were several types of imagers. There were non-imagers, eidetic (or ‘photographic’) imagers, and synaesthetic imagers. Synaesthesia is a fascinating condition whereby ‘stimulation of one sensory modality automatically triggers a perception in a second modality, in the absence of direct stimulation to this second modality’. For example, a sound may trigger a visual perception of colour, even though no colour has been seen by the eyes. For Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, reading the letters of the alphabet would invoke a particular synaesthetic colour perception. He even had a private word for ‘rainbow’: kzspygv. Each letter corresponds to a colour in the spectrum of light.

Back to Galton. He found that men of science typically had little mental imagery, and moreover, they tended to insist that anybody who claimed to have mental imagery was either confused or lying. James wrote how his subjects with strong imagery found it hard to understand how anybody without this power managed to think at all! So, this is the essence of the typical mind fallacy. We can only possibly be aware of our own mental processes, and therefore we naturally have difficulty imagining processes that are very different from our own. It takes considerable effort to stop ourselves from constantly projecting our own thinking onto others.

How It Affects Us

Perhaps you can now see how easily the fallacy comes in to play, especially in our interpersonal communications. As a weak imager myself, I’ve lost count of the number of times that people have asked me to visualize something, to be amazed when I tell them that I can’t do it. Ask me to visualize a database schema and you’ll be met with a blank look, but ask me to understand the abstract interactions between different modules in a system and you’ll be ‘talking my language’.

So far, the examples of differing minds that we’ve looked at have involved innate differences between minds. The hardwiring, so to speak. We haven’t even mentioned differences in age, gender, place of birth, life experience, position in an organizational hierarchy, etc, etc. All of these factors can cause perspectives on the world to diverge.

Have you ever seen somebody make a technology choice that just seemed absolutely inexplicable? Perhaps you were working in a large organisation and a manager chose technology that was undeniably the wrong choice for the business? Perhaps you cursed the manager under your breath and were bitter about it for days? Unless the manager was a complete idiot (which of course is possible), what happened was that while you were driven purely by the needs of the business, the manager had other motivations that conflicted with the business’ needs. For example, higher managers in large organisations often have to deal with a lot of politics, and these politics can put pressure on technology choices. In this hypothetical case you (hypothetically speaking) probably assumed that the manager was also primarily driven by the needs of the business. Why then did he choose an inferior technology? Is he an idiot? No, he was simply looking at the world through a slightly different lens than you.

Another case that perfectly illustrates the fallacy is the difficulty of intercultural communication. In some East Asian cultures, for example, it is considered impolite to disagree with somebody. Therefore a person that has grown up in this culture will often agree to a request, and then quietly go off and, well, not do it. Many Western people are aware of this cultural difference. But do you remember your interactions with people from these cultures, before you were educated on the difference? Perhaps you found it infuriating? However, the other person is looking through a different lens that is probably equally as valid as yours.

In the SME at which I work, off the top of my head, we have the following differing perspectives:

  • The broad, holistic perspective of CTO, Product Owner, Scrum Master versus the narrower focus of a developer.
  • Junior developers who are focused on learning versus senior developers who are more focused on getting the job done.
  • By my count, in the dev function alone, we have 6 different nationalities, from three different continents.
  • Ages ranging from early thirties to whatever age my manager is.

Therefore…

Therefore, although my colleagues and I all have a huge amount in common, it is absolutely certain that we each will bring a completely unique perspective to many aspects of our work. It’s perhaps a little counter-intuitive, but by recognising our differences we can be more understanding and empathetic people, and have a happier and less stressful work life. I would encourage you to consider what I have written here, and to reflect on whether you can profitably adjust your own interactions with, and reactions to, your own colleagues.

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IT Professionals and the Typical Mind Fallacy

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