Skewed samples…

We're not statisticians...

I’m an engineer. I don’t know if I’m being honest to myself when I say that. All my life, I’ve believed that an engineer was someone who built things, after few long years of rigorous study. As it turns out, the part about building is inconsequential to the title. Still, I like to consider myself apart from the herd. I’m pretty sure I’ve already applied more of my knowledge, gained on record, than most of my colleagues.

Engineering wasn’t just all study and no play, even if I say so myself. I mean, sure, my idea of play absolutely didn’t coalesce with popular opinion. For me, play was just more learn. I learnt the minds of people and everything there was to know about them. I learnt that many of the things I believed in, for a long time, were inconsistent with reality. There were too many dreadful little stories, I was told as a child, about mishaps in the lives of college students living away from home. Unlike those who feared not being able to complete their course, I feared falling into bad company. Now that I think of it, nothing bad ever happened.

Did they lie? In a way, yes. Did they know they were lying? Not really.

See, I could count, on one hand, the number of people who didn’t try a drug while I was there. As I saw my fellow humans engage in the highly versatile forms of drug intake, my mind was screaming at the possibility of them getting in trouble. I expected a few of them would end up with a drug problem. I expected to see at least one of them constantly taunted for owing hundreds of people. I expected to see some trying to kick their habits by appointing sober companions. Did any of that happen? Nope. In fact, the worst drug related crime anyone has committed is possession.

There was a time when I refrained from consuming even a drop of alcohol thinking it would brand me an alcoholic for life. Yes, it is as stupid as it sounds, but that is exactly what I was told. I visited my friends at bars sometimes, all the while keeping a safe distance from drinks. I expected to be pressured into drinking; that never happened. All I’d get was a ‘Hey, won’t you take a drink?’. Whenever I promptly replied that I won’t, all I’d get is a ‘Cool!’. There was absolutely no peer-pressure, unless peer-pressure meant an ever-increasing curiosity compelling one to try what others were doing, in which case, there was loads of it.

I must’ve had under a hundred millilitres of alcohol in my entire life – upto now, I hope – excluding all the fermented foodstuffs. The one time I took a sip of beer, I immediately spat it out. It was disgusting. At the end of the four years, I partook in a shot of chocolate Vodka. Four years of college and until that moment I had no idea it was going to burn. Yes, I saw it on TV very often but I just assumed it tasted bad.

In those years, I made a lot of friends, mostly children of army personnel. They made it a point to stock up a few bottles of their favourite whiskeys to be consumed in their frequent gatherings. Many many bottles of alcohol in their cupboards and yet, they never quite turned out as I expected. Minus the occasional drinking, they weren’t any different to people in general. Their alcohol consumption never really correlated to reckless behaviour. As with drugs, the worst thing that ever happened to people because of alcohol, was them getting caught with it.

You see, I was fed with a lot of untruths about all of the things that could potentially kill me. I never learnt to ride a bike because I didn’t want to die. I never went too far from home because I didn’t want to die. I visited only a select collection of places around my house because I didn’t want to die. I didn’t roam around at night because I didn’t want to die. If I’ve not already made it clear, I’ve been told, all my life, to avoid things that had even the slightest chance of triggering a slippery slope to my demise.

I’d love to blame it all on my elders and I’ve tried, but it gets tiring after a while. Truth be told, the most ridiculous ones of those instructions were not self-learnt; it was drilled through my skull by my relatives. I would not think for a long time, that there is something intrinsically wrong in being out at night, if it weren’t for those family idiots. What bothers me the most is that, as I’ve tried analysing my life, I’ve come to realise that I too am not fully immune to the cognitive biases that prevent me from properly evaluating the risk of various activities.

In the 18 years, before I was sent away from home, the only times I heard about drugs were when there was a fiasco. The only time I heard of marijuana, was when loads of it was found in somebody’s possession. The only time I heard of heroin and cocaine was when they happened to ruin people’s lives. In the first few years of my life, I only came upon smoking when people suffered from some kind of cancer. I only heard of LSD when someone suffered from psychosis. All of the stories I’ve ever heard about alcohol ended with people jailed for driving under the influence. All the stories about infidelities in a marriage, that I’ve heard of, ended with a divorce. I’ve never known if someone in their teens was sexually active unless it resulted in a pregnancy; as of now, none had the whimsy to play the divine-intervention card. Come on! We need another Jesus.

These bad, awful, gut-wrenching stories are only heard when someone screws up. You’d never hear a story about two people becoming best friends through their mutual drug dealer. You’d never hear of people finding comfort in sharing their troubles while they ‘shared a smoke’. If someone got away with trying heroin or cocaine in their moments of curiosity, you’d never know about it. You’d never know that people consume alcohol socially unless it happens around you often. You’ll never hear of a three-way that ends up saving a marriage. Even though you were subconsciously aware of it already, you’d never actually hear of your colleagues’ sex lives unless they were somehow eager to share it with you.

See, we’re not really very smart when it comes to selecting a sample size for training our snap-judgments. We don’t make it our life’s mission to know the absolute truth about something that has had a bad reputation. We’re not aware of an alternate side to a practise, with no adverse effects, even though it might just be the most common outcome. I’ve thought about this a lot and I’ve done my part to rectify my own biases, but the fact that my brain didn’t account for conditional probabilities continues to baffle me.

The events of being into a bad habit (say A) and getting into trouble (say B) could be independent of each other. The only time you hear of someone partaking in event A is when you find out about event B. If you know about A, and you hear about B later, you’ll most likely attribute it to A. If a person is not already in trouble for their “bad habit”, you’ll end up being the bane of their existence. If he gets into an accident, you’ll blame it on the “bad habit”. I’ve had some nut-bag tell me that my frequent rants and “aggressive thinking” stems from my meat eating habits; they still owe me an explanation as to how either of those are bad, by any standards, much less how they might correlate.

These biases don’t remain dormant. They’re the individual’s version of sensational news items – they spread until they become the common consensus. That is the dangerous part because, at that point, refuting the source of the bias means going against popular belief. Popular belief, for some bizarre reason, continues to pass off as the threshold for morally right. History is evidence that popular consensus is always the biggest hurdle in any movement that was intended to bring a positive change for the masses.

I guess what I’m saying, is that I will actively avoid judging other people based the conclusions I drew from observing skewed samples. When an untidily clad, clearly-not-first-class person gets into the special compartment of the train, I’ll refrain from enacting the impulse to tell them they might be breaking the law. I’ll do the right thing – patiently yet eagerly wait for the ticket examiner to arrive and boot them off…