Why you are not (the average of) the people around you

The notion that we are the average of the five people we most associate with — now considered conventional wisdom — is based on a misapplication of a mathematical law so widely misused that its misapplication has a name (explained here, and also later on).

The idea originally came from the late Jim Rohn, the first mentor to a 17-year-old Tony Robbins. Like Robbins, Rohn was first an entrepreneur and second a motivational speaker. Their success came from their ability to shape and maintain perception to be the exact opposite.

That its been widely accepted, despite the extent of its illogic, speaks to the cognitive bias that shapes our beliefs. And the more credible the source of our belief, the larger the bias. Bias which seriously harms our judgement.

The lesson then has to be:

Make accountable the advice you follow by questioning the beliefs it relies on, particularly when it plays a part in your decision making. No matter the source of information, when something feels off — follow up

I never quite bought into the notion of external influence but I didn’t know why, it felt messy. That’s the clue. It didn’t take me long to uncover its untruth:

The representative heuristic; bad math:

The statistical law of averages simply says that a random variable will reflect its underlying probability over a very large sample, i.e. if you toss an unbiased coin 1000 times, heads will show up for 500 of them.

The gambler’s fallacy is a particular misapplication of the law which says that if you tossed a coin five times and got five heads, you are more likely to get tails on the sixth throw, i.e. the gambler believes that a particular outcome is more likely because it has not happened recently. Psychologists refer to this misjudgement in probability as the representative heuristic.

And its precisely the bias behind the notion that we are the average of the five people you are surrounded by.

Why should the five people you spend most time with right now influence who you are any more than the five people you spent most time with last year?

Or more importantly, the five people you spent most time with at puberty, when our neuroplasticity is much higher.

When the sample size is small, the likeliness of something happening is not representative of the likeliness when the sample size is large. In fact deviation from underlying probability, i.e. getting 100% tail on 4 throws, is more likely in smaller samples or being negative when you’re around positive people.

What’s actually going on; good math:

Our habits, behaviours and reactive patterns are fortified by deeply embedded neural networks — entrenched mostly during childhood — that engender our conscious thoughts.

That they are so deeply embedded explains why personal change is so difficult. Breaking a behavioural habits requires the same long term effort necessary for a smoker to successfully quit.

Internal thoughts > external talk

Whilst the people around us can make us think differently in a way that makes us feel positive, external influence can only ever by temporary. Only via influencing our habits — i.e. introducing us to something which we then incorporate into our daily life — can they have any influence at all.

Only to the extent that those around you influence your internal behaviours can they have any influence at all.

This is consistent with the essence of positive thinking theory — the constant observation of thought — and the definition of mindfulness as an internalpsychological process.

It’s also inconsistent with the anecdotal evidence of strength from adversity: victims of bullies are often extremely empathetic, failure breeds success, etc…

It is perfectly reasonable of course that conventional wisdom gets it so wrong: the self-help industry is sustained precisely because advice faces no accountability. And neither do inspirational quotes.

But this is good news: we can’t control who we surround ourselves with but we have the opportunity to change our thoughts every day. Paying attention to your internal behaviour instead of those around you is a certain route to achieve any desired change.

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