Don’t Feed the Outliers

I taught a lesson about statistics towards the end of the year. It was one of those rare lessons in our curriculum where the material directly and easily relates to the real world.

I introduced the term “outlier” to the students and explained how data points far removed from the rest of the information can skew the results. As an example, I shared with them the startling (at least to me) figure I had read that morning – the average U.S. wedding now costs upwards of $28,000. Gulp.

We discussed selection bias; the survey was administered on wedding websites, already narrowing the selection pool to people more likely to invest in a pricey wedding. Then, we analyzed the impact of the Kim Kardashians of the wedding world, who reportedly spent 12 million on her last wedding.

The students immediately saw how those rare but insanely weddings not only inflate the national average, but also garner more attention and consideration than the more mundane affairs. The median wedding cost, which is far more resistant to outliers, is closer to $15,000. Still not cheap, but certainly much more attainable.

We naturally pay attention to outliers. The unusual captures our gaze out of a sea of familiar. The stand outs demand consideration in both awareness and response.

And by diverting our attention to the unusual rather than the ordinary, we may inadvertently be feeding the outliers.

Sometimes that extra attention is meritorious, nurturing rarity that excels in some way, much like the process of natural selection. If your partner rarely acknowledges your birthday in a way you prefer, by all means make a big deal out of the time when he/she got it right. By attending to these interactions, you may be able to increase their frequency, thus nudging the average towards the ideal.

But sometimes the outlying characteristics do not deserve the extra regard, and the wooing of them only serves to form a false perspective and a skewed response. If your partner is normally responsive and is overly dismissive one week, it may serve you better to be patient rather than to focus on the unusual behavior. Of course, some behavior is so outside the accepted spread, that it requires immediate reaction.

In a reductionistic stance, relationships can be distilled into a series of data points, comprised of interactions and responses. When considering your relationships, be careful not to put too much emphasis on the outliers. The patterns are much more important than the occasional point off the beaten path.

And if any of you ever plan a 12 million dollar wedding, please send an invite. I’d love to experience that outlier for one day! 🙂

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One thought on “Don’t Feed the Outliers

  1. Sadly the things that get the most attention often skew peoples perception of what the “norm” is. Then when people compare themselves to their belief in what normal is, they find themselves lacking.

    I think this is a big issue with self image, and also with peoples understanding and appreciation of their own relationships.

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