Life at Three Tails of the Bell Curve

If you as­sume other peo­ple are the same as you along ev­ery di­men­sion then you will over-es­ti­mate other peo­ple ex­actly as much as you un­der­es­ti­mate them. It is a good first-or­der ap­prox­i­ma­tion to as­sume other peo­ple are like your­self.

Most peo­ple are in the mid­dle of any given bell curve. You are prob­a­bly in the mid­dle of any given bell curve too. It is a good sec­ond-or­der ap­prox­i­ma­tion to as­sume other peo­ple are like your­self.

But…if you as­sume you are statis­ti­cally nor­mal when you are not then you will have prob­lems. I have made this mis­take many, many times be­cause my per­son­al­ity is ex­trem­ized in three big ways.

Nat­u­ral Amphetamines

I once heard a friend, upon his first use of modafinil, won­der aloud if the way they felt on that stim­u­lant was the way Elon Musk felt all the time. That tied a lot of things to­gether for me, gave me an in­tu­itive un­der­stand­ing of what it might “feel like from the in­side” to be Elon Musk. And it gave me a good tool to dis­cuss biolog­i­cal vari­a­tion with. Most of us agree that peo­ple on stim­u­lants can perform in ways it’s difficult for peo­ple off stim­u­lants to match. Most of us agree that there’s noth­ing mag­i­cal about stim­u­lants, just changes to the lev­els of dopamine, his­tamine, nore­pinephrine et cetera in the brain. And most of us agree there’s a lot of nat­u­ral vari­a­tion in these chem­i­cals any­way. So “me on stim­u­lants is that guy’s nor­mal” seems like a good way of cut­ting through some of the philo­soph­i­cal difficul­ties around this is­sue.

The Parable of the Ta­lents by Scott Anderson

Ac­cord­ing to dru­, am­phetamines have the fol­low­ing short-term effects:

  • Quicker re­ac­tion times.

  • Feel­ings of en­ergy/​wake­ful­ness.

  • Ex­cite­ment.

  • In­creased at­ten­tive­ness and con­cen­tra­tion.

  • Feel­ings of eu­pho­ria.

Th­ese char­ac­ter­is­tics de­scribe my baseline state. I feel like I am on stim­u­lants[1] all the time. Nat­u­ral am­phetamines have ad­van­tages. I am en­er­getic. I con­cen­trate well. I get lots of work done.

They have dis­ad­van­tages too. Am­phetamines are as­so­ci­ated with headaches, ap­petite sup­pres­sion, se­vere anx­iety and ob­ses­sive be­hav­ior all of which also de­scribe me. The headaches are ig­nor­able be­cause I can­not re­mem­ber ever not hav­ing a headache. The ap­petite sup­pres­sion is sur­viv­able be­cause I live in a civ­i­liza­tion full of con­ve­nient calories. The ob­ses­sive be­hav­ior is a dou­ble-edge sword. On the one hand it makes me bad at small talk. On the other hand it helps me finish things.

The anx­iety in causes me to over­pre­pare for dis­aster. When your are anx­ious, it is nat­u­ral to search for a threat. When I feel merely mod­er­ate anx­iety I ought always to con­sider that there may be noth­ing to fear but the fear it­self.

I should as­sume a prior ex­pec­ta­tion that other peo­ple have the fol­low­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics rel­a­tive to my­self:

  • Slower re­ac­tion times

  • Lethargy

  • Boredom

  • Inat­ten­tive and distractable

  • Depressed

  • Relaxed

  • Nor­mal, ad­justed, bal­anced, sane, sta­ble[2]

High Curiosity

Among the Big Five per­son­al­ity traits, cu­ri­os­ity (open­ness to ex­pe­rience) is my most ex­trem­ized[3] one.

Other peo­ple are com­par­a­tively closed to ex­pe­rience. They are con­ven­tional and tra­di­tional in their out­look and be­hav­ior, with fa­mil­iar rou­tines and a nar­row range of in­ter­est. I am ex­traor­di­nary[4], with a wide range of in­ter­ests and no set rou­tine.

Open­ness to ex­pe­rience is con­sid­ered a pos­i­tive trait within liberal Western so­ciety, but it comes with dis­ad­van­tages. I suffer hard for my non­con­for­mity, think in pe­cu­liar ways and tend to get ab­sorbed by my own fan­tasies.

When I meet new peo­ple, I ought to as­sume the fol­low­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics[5] as a prior:

  • Con­ven­tional, tra­di­tional, cul­turally conservative

  • Ten­dency not to daydream

  • Rigidly con­form­ing to rou­tines, lit­tle need for variation

  • Nar­row range of interest

  • Lower crys­tal­lized intelligence

  • Less gen­eral knowledge

  • Lit­tle need for cog­ni­tive exercise

  • Dis­like of in­tel­lec­tual ac­tivi­ties in gen­eral and solv­ing puz­zles in particular

  • Eth­no­cen­tric, au­thor­i­tar­ian, in­tol­er­ant of diversity

  • Dis­likes free­dom, prefers ex­ter­nally-im­posed structure

  • Con­cerned with so­cial dominance

  • Prej­u­diced against all sorts of things

  • Low pos­i­tive af­fect, lit­tle joy

  • Emo­tional blunt­ing, re­duced af­fec­tive display

High Systemization

The em­pathiz­ing–sys­tem­iz­ing the­ory sug­gests there is an evolu­tion­ary trade­off be­tween em­pathiz­ing and sys­tem­atiz­ing with autism at one end and schizophre­nia at the other end, with most peo­ple in the mid­dle. I find it a use­ful model for un­der­stand­ing a differ­ence be­tween my­self and oth­ers. I am heav­ily on the sys­tem­atiz­ing end of this spec­trum.

There is less re­search on this topic than the oth­ers so in­stead of list­ing the traits of sys­tem­atiz­ers I will list the traits of autis­tic peo­ple and flip them around. Com­pared to me, other peo­ple are:

  • Tol­er­ant of dis­rup­tions to their sched­ule, do not need to be no­tified in advance

  • Tol­er­ant of noise and other back­ground sen­sory stimuli

  • High em­pa­thy, al­most telepathic

  • Fewer, less in­tense spe­cial interests

  • Think vaguely, imprecisely

  • Good communicators


Com­par­a­tively-speak­ing, I am a hereti­cal sa­vant high on co­caine. That would ex­plain why strangers tend to re­mem­ber hav­ing met me. I can im­prove my in­ter­ac­tions with oth­ers by adopt­ing the prior that they are pas­sive parochial team play­ers.

High open­ness is as­so­ci­ated with a prefer­ence for fre­quently-chang­ing sched­ules. Sys­tem­atiz­ing is as­so­ci­ated with sched­ule in­flex­i­bil­ity. How can I ex­hibit both traits? I am in­flex­ible to­ward oth­ers when it comes to my whim­si­cal sched­ule.

By a similar para­dox, I feel com­fortable in the tra­di­tional op­pres­sive cul­ture of Ja­pan. My sys­tem­atiz­ing pro­clivi­ties en­joy the quiet perfec­tion­ism. Mean­while, as a for­eigner, I am not my­self ex­pected to con­form.

My ex­trem­ized char­ac­ter­is­tics all con­tribute to my ad­vanced tech­ni­cal skills; I am pathalog­i­cally good at writ­ing soft­ware. Iron­i­cally, the same traits si­mul­ta­neously make it harder to find a job and fit into a cor­po­ra­tion. I can only work some­where where my tech­ni­cal skills are suffi­ciently val­ued for the com­pany to tol­er­ate my ec­cen­tric­ity. My ideal com­pany would prob­a­bly be work­ing re­motely for a small ma­chine learn­ing team. Or I could sim­ply self-em­ploy.

So­cially, these ex­trem­ized traits sug­gest I might con­nect well to other peo­ple through art, which benefits from ob­ses­sively sys­tem­atic non­con­for­mity. In par­tic­u­lar, I have ex­actly the right char­ac­ter sheet to write a tech­ni­cal we­b­comic like xkcd.

Th­ese traits also sug­gest I should stay away from quan­tum field the­ory as it were meth.

  1. Dis­claimer: I have never per­son­ally taken am­phetamines, co­caine, heroin, meth or any­thing along those lines. I apol­o­gize for my lack of em­piri­cal rigor in this do­main. ↩︎

  2. Th­e­ lists these words as antonyms to “ob­ses­sive”. ↩︎

  3. My other Big Five per­son­al­ity traits fall in the mid­dle 98% of the bell curve. ↩︎

  4. Th­e­ lists “ex­traor­di­nary” as an antonym to “tra­di­tional”. ↩︎

  5. Most of these char­ac­ter­is­tics come from skim­ming the Wikipe­dia ar­ti­cle on open­ness to ex­pe­rience. ↩︎