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 Alexander

According to drugabuse.com, 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 particular 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. Thesaurus.com lists these words as antonyms to "obsessive". ↩︎

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

  4. Thesaurus.com lists "extraordinary" as an antonym to "traditional". ↩︎

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

New Comment
10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:00 AM

It is an interesting exercise to take your extreme traits, and then transform them to the opposite statement about humanity.

For example, I am high on neuroticism, so the transformed statement would be: Compared to me, other people don't give a fuck about most risks, even the obvious ones. They are routinely careless and break things, and mostly feel okay about it. They accept disasters as "normal" and not think about them too much.

Looking at COVID-19 reactions... yeah, this explains a lot.

Nit: I think that sounds more like you're saying you're highly conscientious rather than neurotic, although maybe your statements leave out some of the details of your experience that lead you to say "neurotic". Of course, could just be you're both conscientious and neurotic in a way that makes it hard to tell them apart as separate dimensions.

Unfortunately, I am high on neuroticism but low on conscientiousness. So I usually just worry about things but don't do anything to prevent them. :(

In case of COVID-19, I wear the face mask religiously, but that is an exception, not the rule.

In the usual case, being aware of my low conscientiousness further increases my neuroticism, because I know that if I break something, I will procrastinate a lot about fixing it.

I'm high enough on conscientiousness to not fail, but not high enough on conscientiousness to succeed (or catch up to my neuroticism).

I'll claim that I'm decently skilled at modeling people and understanding them. It wasn't always like this. I'm different enough from the typical person my model of myself is not a very useful predictor of what other people are like for many socially relevant things (it's of course plenty useful if the reference class is not other human culturally like me but, say, animals). I had to put in a lot of work over decades to get to a point where other people have useful gears rather than being better modeled as black boxes to me.

The nice benefit of this is that I think I better appreciate how hard it is to understand others. Woe is the neurotypical person who is similar enough to others that they never notice they're making good predictions about most other people because their bad model accidentally works only because they are near the center of the distribution. They, perhaps rightly from their subjective experience, draw the conclusion that there are just some weird people out there they don't understand, rather than that their understanding of everyone is flawed even if it keeps making reasonable predictions in the situations they bother to check (sort of like Newtonian physics being fine so long as you don't go too fast or things aren't too big or too small).

(I found this via Pain is the Unit of Effort)

Some of this also describes me well.

  • Feelings of energy/wakefulness.
  • Excitement.
  • Increased attentiveness and concentration. - flow is my default mode
  • Feelings of euphoria. - or at least a high happiness set point

Can't say about reaction times. Also, curiosity is my most extreme trait too. 

I have joked at times about drugs being for people who don't have their endocrine system under control. I also get lots of work done. There is a difference though: I am playing it long term safe. I value family highly. I'm in between Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff I guess. This means that I don't go to extremes but find Goldilocks solutions.

About the disadvantages: I do have headaches and appetite suppression too but not anxiety or obsessive behavior. I do have a broken sleep rhythm. Over the years I have figured out most of the headache stuff but sleep stability stays elusive.

Hey how do I be you? The most I got was one time when I drank an energy drink and then I obsessed over a spreadsheet for 2 hours and then crashed after a total of 4 hours.

Thanks for this post.

Slight error. The Parable of Talents was a blog post published by Scott 'Alexander' on Slate Star Codex, not 'Anderson'.

Fixed. Thanks.