One thing that recently just struck me is that people (including me) often have a strong intutive sense of the just world fallacy when it comes to personal traits. People assume that if somebody has some great strength they must also have a great weakness. That if they are really attractive, they must be an unpleasant person. If they are really smart, they must be lazy, or socially awkward etc. This just-world intuition also runs strongly counter to the very reliable finding in pscyhometrics of the ‘positive manifold’ – almost all positive traits correlate with each other. Not only is someone with a great strength not likely to have a great weakness, but they are in fact more likely to have other great strengths as well. Not only is the attractive person not more likely to be an asshole, but they are in fact more likely to be pleasant and agreeable. Despite this well established empirical facts, I think a lot of people’s intuitions (including mine) run the other way.

Now some of this is probably a way of rationalising envy, but I also believe that a much larger part could be due to selection effects. I have increasingly come to believe that we very rarely see the ‘true population’ but usually substantially selected samples of people in our daily lives. Assortativity and explicit selection is strong and ubiquitous in our society. And when there is selection, even a little bit, we can really start easily seeing spurious negative correlations appearing (see previous posts) in the traits being selected upon in the selected popuation. These spurious negative correlations can occur even with relatively weak selection and even when there is actually a strong positive correlation in the overall population. This especially happens when there is additive selection – i.e. to be selected in the group people need the sum of their traits to be above some threshold. Since most selection “in the wild” is likely additive (to do well at school you need to be either smart of hardworking but not necessarily both), then it seems likely that most people’s statistical experience of traits is heavily shaped by the spurious correlations caused by seleciton. Thus our “just world fallacy” intuitions may actually be satistically justified in the world we see.

This would have several interesting consequences, including people who live within a more heavily selected environment (such as fixed organisations such as schools, universities, corporations, monoculture professional or personal environemnts) end up having a much stronger sense of the just world fallacy than those who see more of the full distribution. Moreover, this would mean that the `fallacy’ is no longer an actual fallacy but just instead a statistical correlation that they have implicitly noticed, which holds true in most of their worlds and actually has pretty high predictive power. That is, if we assume that we are roughly average for our current environment (which a-priori is most likely), then if someone is substantially better than us at a skill or trait that our environment selected for, then it is actually more likely that they will be worse as measured on other traits that are also selected for.