Oh Baby – What neonatal variation can teach us about labels

It’s funny the things you remember through the haze of sleep deprivation that accompanies a new baby.

When #2 was born, we started to realise that babies aren’t all the same, and they have their own personalities and preferences just like adults. One thing I remember very clearly from that time is an interesting comment someone made (sorry, I have no idea who – sleep deprivation) about how we react to different children. The gist of it was that when you have two boys or two girls, you notice all the things about the second child that make it different from the first. “A used to do X, but B seems to prefer Y”, you say.

But – and this is the interesting bit – guess what happens when you have one boy and one girl? It appears that most people in that situation notice the same differences, but they interpret them differently. Now, they say “girls do X, boys prefer Y.” Rather than seeing it as two different babies having different personalities, they generalise it into a statement about fundamental differences between the sexes – they know they have one of each, so that’s the obvious explanation for the variation they’ve observed.

I don’t know if anyone’s actually studied this – I’m not sure if it’s important enough to be worth studying – but it instinctively feels right to me. I know that if #2 had been a girl, I would have been very strongly inclined to see any differences from #1 as a product of her sex, rather than simple variation in personality. Everything that didn’t fit my expectations from #1 were a cause of confusion, and a different sex would have been a natural explanation to reach for.

I wonder if we have a tendency to generalise in other contexts, based on obvious and available distinctions. It’s quite easy, through a combination of this sort of misattribution and a hefty dose of confirmation bias, to reach the conclusion that “atheists are like this”, “Christians are like that”, or “agnostics are like the other”, because the only (or most obvious) examples of a certain trait share a certain belief system.

That’s not necessarily the case, obviously – our experiences of any group are very limited, and when we spend most of our time associating with people in one group, our experience of other groups is necessarily going to be heavily weighted towards the noisiest members of those groups. The important thing is to realise what we’re doing, remember the “Parents’ Fallacy”, and try to prevent our instinctive reactions from running away with us.

But that’s easier said than done.


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

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