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1 Aug

The Typical Mind fallacy

The Typical Mind fallacy is making the mistake of thinking that everyone else in the world thinks like you do and sees things like you see them, i.e., complacently sliding into a belief that everyone shares a ‘typical mind.’

This fallacy also leads to other fallacies like the Fundamental Attribution Error, where you can quickly jump to making biased and overconfident conclusions about other people's nature and experiences based on whatever little you've seen of them.

Think of a person you know well — like your partner or a close friend. How would you define their ‘character’? What traits would you say are fundamentally them? Now try imagining that person in different situations.

How might they act if they missed their flight to an important meeting?

What would they do if they found an injured animal outside their door?

What would they do if they lost their keys or dropped their phone down a staircase?

For a close friend, you can easily imagine how s/he would behave. We all do this; we make assertions about a person’s character, then we expect those things to carry over to every area of their lives. We label someone as 'smart', or 'sensitive' or 'friendly' or 'dishonest' or 'calm' or countless other labels. Then we expect that someone we label as ‘smart’ in one area will be smart in every area. Or that someone who is ‘calm’ in one situation is calm in all situations.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is a logical fallacy. It is our belief that the way people behave in one area carries consistently over to the way they behave in other situations. We underrate the influence of circumstances and how they can impact people's behavior and falsely attribute their behaviour to their innate characteristics and personality instead.

Believing that a single action can ‘speak volumes’ about someone’s character is a tempting way to approach understanding others. Yet, this advice doesn’t translate to reality. It’s impossible to know if someone will be a good partner based on a single action.

More often than not, when you're making a fundamental attribution error, you're also indulging in the ‘typical mind’ fallacy; you're projecting what you would do in a certain situation and contrasting it what the other person did to make a judgment about them, while assuming that you know the entirety of the context in which they made their decision.

The typical mind fallacy can lead you to make bad product decisions: you might think what you like about the product is what everyone likes.

(Gokul Rajaram has a great thread on why startups shouldn't have one large customer early on when they're looking for product-market fit and should instead try getting 10 smaller customers. An exercise for you would be to read it and see how it connects to the Typical Mind fallacy.)

It can lead you to make bad hiring decisions: you might be prone to hiring people who are just like you, which can lead to developing collective blindspots within the company.

It can lead you to be less empathetic and generally dismissive of any point of view that doesn't match your own.

But there's a way you can solve for this. And many people in the world do solve for it — not by voluntarily trying to practice thinking against this fallacy, but by experiencing totally different people, cultures, and situations where their existing mental models of the world stopped working. To survive in the situation, they had no choice but to leave their existing worldviews aside and be open to learning newer ones from the people around them.

Having said this, the polar opposite of the Typical Mind fallacy is the Atypical Mind fallacy, where you are under the impression that no one has the same mind or thoughts as you — that you are unique. But if everyone was totally unique, no products or processes would be possible at scale!

Cultivating good product- and people-sense, then, is navigating your way between these two extreme ends of the spectrum. Not everyone is the same or inhabits the same context and culture as you do. And not everyone is fully unique either; there are patterns of human behaviour that are more or less consistent across larger scales and great products leverage these existing behaviours and incentive structures to create wealth.

Your job is to put yourself in situations where your preconceived assumptions and notions about how people act are thoroughly challenged and tested. Unless your predictions fail and your failures cost you, the learning will hardly stick. And perhaps, the best way to get over these fallacies is to indulge in them and make some expensive mistakes, till you finally learn to be more open.

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