Friday, August 12, 2011

The Fallacy of Aggregating Experiences

A cursory observation of the busy streets of New York would reveal a multitude of satisfied people going about their rather enjoyable lives. Everyone seems to have places to see and people to meet, and most people seem to be comfortable with their fortunes. Though one would occasionally notice a beggar sitting on the floor, a blind man calling for help, or a vagrant missing a limb, these few outliers are not numerous enough to substantially reduce the average standard of living. Reports of tragedy frequently sprinkle the radio waves, but the volume of these adverse occurrences pale in comparison to those reported in the annals of history. When the modernized world is taken as a whole it is quite clear that people living in the twenty first century are living far better lives than those of their ancestors.

Making a comparison between the standard of living from one generation to another or from one population to another requires zooming out of individual biographies and instead observing the panorama of collective experiences. Selecting one individual from each population would not be sufficient to fulfill the purpose of collective comparison. It would be possible that those randomly chosen individuals would not be a fair representation of the rest of people. Therefore, large pools of people must be gathered, and special parameters and statistics must be calculated in order to gain insights into overall levels of well being. These numbers can then be compared with various populations and generations in order to glean valid conclusions. Essentially, for comparison purposes, it is the aggregate experiences that are important and not the individual ones.

Sampling and statistics generally follow the anecdotal observation that people are enjoying a far better standard of living today than ever before. However, although these sampling techniques work well to compare populations, the information gleaned may be misused, and result in false conclusions. The aggregate numbers seem to describe the aggregate feelings of populations. However, though aggregate feelings may look good on paper, they are never experienced in actuality. A population is not its own sentient being. Only the individual people can experience happiness or misery. Aggregating all the happiness or misery of a few people does not result in a more happy or more miserable population. Because the experience is localized to the individuals, it is not possible for a fantastic level of aggregate happiness or misery to be reached. Therefore, these aggregating techniques must be looked at as nothing more than calculations of the probability of any given individual being happy or miserable. A valid conclusion would give better odds for picking a person with a high standard of living out of a modern population than out of an ancient population. Though these conclusions are informative, they seem a lot less meaningful.

The fallacy of aggregating experiences is commonly used to compare populations and to evaluate tragedies. Economic indicators of prosperity are taken as signs that people are all happy, but economic indicators of recession are indicative of people that are all depressed. It is common to conclude that times of economic prosperity are better than times of economic slumber. One would often look back in the history books and pity those time periods of hardship and envy those periods of plentiful. But this conclusion is not valid. The population doesn't receive a dose of endorphins or feel a thrill of economic prosperity, and the economy is not crying when the unemployment rate climbs. Rather, individuals cheer when they close a deal, and workers sob when they lose their jobs. The probability of being in one state or another is effected by the population measures, but the individual experiences are still localized. People who close million dollar deals in the middle of recessions are no less elated than they would have been in the middle of an expansion. Similarly, homeless people are not interested if unemployment fell to near zero. Experiences of pleasure or misery are dependent on the conditions of the individuals. To consider aggregate data to be an experience of the population would be committing a fallacy.

The broad observation of standard of living may be useful for calculating probabilities, but it doesn't paint a picture of any aggregate feelings. The few individuals that live in abject poverty cannot be ignored. Their experience of frustration is no less real than the beggars of previous generations, and the prosperity of others doesn't average out their pain. The tragedies of lost loved ones reported in the news are no less painful for their relatives than those who witnessed mass murders in the past. Experience is in the minds of individuals, and experiences cannot be aggregated for better or for worse.