One theme for my blog that has developed over time is the way in which human limitations affect the way we conduct business.  The link below will lead you to some examples of my thoughts on the subject.

This week, I’d like to take the theme one step further and propose that human limitations not only affect the way we conduct business, but they also affect the way we look at and understand human behavior.

Allow me to explain.  On the recommendation of a few engineering managers at work, I recently read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  I enjoyed the book and thought that the core message was very important: introversion has as many, if not more, merits than extroversion.  However, throughout the book I kept getting caught up on one small detail: the author only discussed two personality types.  There was some lip service paid to this problem toward the end of the book, but through 350+ pages the author analyzed the behavior of the world’s population as if there were a grand total of two kinds of people: introverts and extroverts.

Think for a second about the vast diversity of human life in the world.  Seven billion people spread across seven continents, 196 countries, and hundreds of thousands of cities.  How many categories would you use to categorize the entire human race?  A hundred? A thousand? A million?  Whatever it is, it feels like the number should be pretty high, right?  Why do we let people get away with lumping all of the people in the world into just two categories?

The answer is: because it’s easy.

As humans, we generally don’t do too well thinking about more than a few things at one time and we have limited attention spans.  Susan Cain could have written her book examining each of the 800 different varieties of personality on the continuum between introversion and extroversion.  With more categories there’s no doubt her book would have been more accurate – the only problem is none of her readers would have been able to easily understand it.

I think it’s actually somewhat funny.  Our inherent human qualities, like only being able to concentrate on a few things at once, actually impede the way in which we’re able to examine our own human qualities.  Our human limitations affect how we understand our limitations.

This one really has me thinking.  Perhaps the remaining unsolved mysteries of the human body, such as the inner workings of the human brain, are unsolved precisely because of our own cognitive limitations.  On it’s own, this statement doesn’t seem too insightful – there are lots of things that remain unknown because of our collective cognitive limitations.  However, will we someday know everything or are there some things that are simply unsolvable given our current genetic makeup?

How about the grand unified theory?

How about what happens after we die?


Introverts, Extroverts and Human Limitations
  • Jason Trout

    I agree that simply lumping everyone into 2 categories of human personalities is easy, but i think the other reason she probably chose to simplify it was if she covered more ground of the spectrum (i see it with introversion and extroversion at opposite ends with people falling either at one extreme or the other…or anywhere in between) her book would have been a 15 volume series.
    As far as human limitations, it’s impossible to think that we’ve reached the pinnacle of human understanding in terms of things like the workings of the mind given the leaps being made on a daily basis in biotechnology and neuroscience. It’s unfortunate to say that without the help of technology, humans would probably never be capable of understanding certain things. But the fact that this technology is designed and created by humans is what keeps driving us forward toward generating new knowledge,, instead of committing certain things to a label of “mysticism beyond human understanding.”

    Does this rule out the possibility that one day, a piece of technology itself will design another more advanced piece of technology that can unlock certain mysteries we’ve failed to solve? Not necessarily….but hopefully before that happens, Sarah Conner can destroy SkyNet before the T-1000 gets to her…

  • I largely agree with Jason – there are merits to simplification, even as all simplification is incorrect.

    If the goal is to tease out the differences (benefits and advantages) between extroversion and introversion, it’s sufficient to shift people into two groups and examine the means.

    You assume that all other personality types/differences are randomly distributed (equally) between two groups. If they are random, they will have no bearing on the results of the analysis. This is the assumption used in ANOVAs – e.g. in medical studies.

    Examining interactions of variables is difficult and becomes factorially more difficult the more variables you add. One variable is easy; two is tricky; three is really hard; and more than three is almost impossible.

    Thus, simplify the analysis two one or two variables.

  • Andrew

    Hahaha – Thanks for commenting Jason. I love it.

    Great points about the limitations of statistical significance. I agree it’s much easier to have significant results (and larger pools) with fewer variables. Whenever we’re looking to do a study at work – step one is keep it simple.