Which Ideas are Overrated?

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” – George Box

There are some ideas which are true. “2+2=4” is an idea that is hard to doubt. There are also ideas which are false. “The moon is made of cheese” is wrong, no matter how you look at it. But most ideas are somewhat in-between—neither clearly true or clearly false, they may be true in some settings and false in others.

Consider the idea, “dogs are bigger than cats.” As a universal rule this statement is false. There are certainly some big cats and tiny dogs. As a statistical average, it is definitely true. Dogs tend to be bigger than cats.

The usefulness of this idea will depend, in part, based on the actual average difference between dogs and cats and how much cats and dogs vary. If dogs were bigger than cats in 99% of cases, this would be a pretty useful idea. If the relationship was only true 55% of the time, not so much.

Thinking about ideas this way, we can state that some ideas are overrated. They’re frequently brought out and believed in, but they’re far less reliable than most people give them credit. They may not be total lies, but they probably aren’t very useful as a whole.

Ideas I Think are Overrated

Here’s some ideas I think are overrated. Overrated in this sense is contrarian-by-definition. If most people think an idea is lousy, it’s probably not overrated. Instead, I’ll stick to ideas that I think are less useful than most people believe they are.

  • Generational differences. Aside from technological fluency and cultural acceptance to more liberal social norms, I pretty much disagree with any characterization of broad differences between Millennials, Baby Boomers, Gen X’s, etc. Pundits ignore the biggest difference between generations is simply age. The new generation will grow up, and when it has, it will start complaining about the next generation’s youthful failures.
  • Natural = good. There’s some truth here—fat-tail risks associated with newer compounds. But much of the perceived benefits of “natural” foods, medicines or manufacturing processes is illusory. Doubly overrated when the words “toxins” or “chemicals” are invoked.
  • Fall from childhood perfection. Whether it’s art, language learning, education, socializing, mindfulness or spontaneity, children are supposedly perfect creatures and adults are the corrupted state. While there’s certainly some flexibility children possess that adults don’t, I tend to think these are because adults have too many abilities, rather than the loss of childhood ones.
  • Different languages result in totally different thought patterns. “French is more romantic”, “German is more utilitarian”, “Eskimos have 6000 words for snow”. The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is probably false. Having learned multiple languages to the level where I can think in them, I’m further inclined to believe a lot of thinking isn’t really done in any language at all, as are most of our memories and experiences.
  • Human cultures are different deep down. There are differences between the average Chinese and French persons’ beliefs and attitudes. But once you strip away the superficialities of cuisine, language and environment and people are far more alike than different.
  • Going viral. Successful businesses and websites that took off after a chance hit tended to have good fundamentals which would have meant eventual success regardless. Viral traffic tends to be low quality and hard to respond to. The idea that successful things online succeeded because of chance, explosive growth is definitely overrated.
  • “X causes cancer”. Beyond the few obvious and powerful carcinogens (smoking, asbestos, radiation), most of the new studies suggesting something causes cancer probably only do so to a very small degree. Perhaps a statistically significant one, but probably not worth changing your behavior over.
  • Any investing scheme that tries to beat the market. An index fund is probably the best investment vehicle for 99.9% of people. Trying to beat the market consistently is something most professionals can’t do, let alone part-timers.
  • Bayes’ Rule. The world is divided into two types of people. Those who have never heard of Bayes’ Rule, and those who believe it is the secret of the universe. For the latter group, it doesn’t “solve” the problem of rationality, and the absence of known prior and conditional probabilities means it has fairly limited practical use.
  • Paying rent is throwing your money away. Sometimes owning is better than renting. But it’s plainly false that rent is wasting money while paying a mortgage isn’t simply because mortgage payments are finite. The time-value of money proves a perpetual outlay of future payments is only worth a finite amount today, plus renting offers liquidity and avoids diversification risks associated with owning.

Those are just my picks, feel free to disagree in the comments. I’m also curious to hear your picks for overrated ideas—ideas which aren’t entirely false, but explain less than is popularly believed.

This post has also got me thinking about the opposite, underrated ideas. Which ideas offer a lot more explanatory power than people generally believe? My first round picks would be evolution, rationality as a simplifying model for human behavior and compound growth.

  • Brittany Ayers

    I am a linguistics student and I have to disagree with your assertion that language doesn’t influence experience. Now I am still in undergrad and the only evidence I will really offer is anecdotal at best (end of the semester is coming which means many looming due dates) but I would argue that just because someone can think in a language that is not native to them does not mean they fully understand the way a native speaker thinks and perceives the world. I recently made this mistake myself when I posited that a universal truth to be understood across all languages is something that is alive vs. something that is not. I was promptly smacked down. There are cultures that believe a rock has a spirit and thus is alive in that sense but through language use, some attribute life to that rock depending on what it’s doing. If it’s rolling, the verb to describe that action may in and of itself suggest being alive whereas if it’s sitting, the verb doesn’t. (Sorry if that got a little murky!) Another example is languages that use the same word to describe an animal whether it is dead or alive.

    Furthermore, we may learn a new language and come to understand when we are supposed to use certain words/conjugations/etc. but does that really mean we perceive the world in the same way as a native speaker? I’m sure you’ve heard the infamous example of how a certain shade of blue is seen in Russia as drastically different than other shades and yet, English speakers have a hard time telling the difference. There is also the example of an Amerindian tribe (I believe) who saw several shades of yellow that English speakers couldn’t differentiate but they saw blue and green as the same thing. Finally, speakers of Arapesh in Papua New Guinea cannot really see the difference between mirrored images. Although it’s obviously different to us (one is backwards, of course), to them it’s pretty much the exact same so they have trouble seeing it let alone verbalizing it. Long story short: it seems like we can learn the difference but I question whether or not we can truly understand it.

    Obviously this is not a universal rule but do I believe it’s mostly applicable? Absolutely.

    Back to work for me – love your articles and always look forward to seeing them in my RSS feed!!

  • Brittany Ayers

    I am a linguistics student and I have to disagree with your assertion that language doesn’t influence experience. Now I am still in undergrad and the only evidence I will really offer is anecdotal at best (end of the semester is coming which means many looming due dates) but I would argue that just because someone can think in a language that is not native to them does not mean they fully understand the way a native speaker thinks and perceives the world. I recently made this mistake myself when I posited that a universal truth to be understood across all languages is something that is alive vs. something that is not. I was promptly smacked down. There are cultures that believe a rock has a spirit and thus is alive in that sense but through language use, some attribute life to that rock depending on what it’s doing. If it’s rolling, the verb to describe that action may in and of itself suggest being alive whereas if it’s sitting, the verb doesn’t. (Sorry if that got a little murky!) Another example is languages that use the same word to describe an animal whether it is dead or alive.

    Furthermore, we may learn a new language and come to understand when we are supposed to use certain words/conjugations/etc. but does that really mean we perceive the world in the same way as a native speaker? I’m sure you’ve heard the infamous example of how a certain shade of blue is seen in Russia as drastically different than other shades and yet, English speakers have a hard time telling the difference. There is also the example of an Amerindian tribe (I believe) who saw several shades of yellow that English speakers couldn’t differentiate but they saw blue and green as the same thing. Finally, speakers of Arapesh in Papua New Guinea cannot really see the difference between mirrored images. Although it’s obviously different to us (one is backwards, of course), to them it’s pretty much the exact same so they have trouble seeing it let alone verbalizing it. Long story short: it seems like we can learn the difference but I question whether or not we can truly understand it.

    Obviously this is not a universal rule but do I believe it’s mostly applicable? Absolutely.

    Back to work for me – love your articles and always look forward to seeing them in my RSS feed!!

  • Matti

    Totally agree about the generational differences. I believe the word “millennial” was invented so you could talk about “kids these days” without sounding like an old fogey. Also, isn’t “entitled” just another word for “spoiled”?

  • Matti

    Totally agree about the generational differences. I believe the word “millennial” was invented so you could talk about “kids these days” without sounding like an old fogey. Also, isn’t “entitled” just another word for “spoiled”?

  • centre21

    I have to disagree with two of your “overrated” ideas you’ve posted here – generational differences and human cultures are different deep down – and both for basically the same reason, when you get down to it.

    Solid Concept #1 – Generational Differences
    There are hard and clear differences between generations and the ideas and principles they generally hold dear. And the reasons for these are easily understood: the world keeps changing, and every generation has their formative years in a vastly different world than the generation before them. My parents’ generation marveled at the portable transistor radio. This was one of the (as we would refer to it) “insanely great” technological advances of that time. My generation was raised with the escalation of the Personal Computer and the Internet. Millennials don’t know a time before laptops, music downloads, and Social Media. And with each successive generation, they become more and more removed from understanding how the previous generations managed to stay alive as long as they did. Have you ever said, “How did people in the LIVE without ?!?” I know I have, and I’m sure most, if not all, of your readers have too.
    But, of course, it’s beyond just technology; it’s the world in which these generations were living, in terms of socio-political views and beliefs. Many call the people who lived through WWII, “The Greatest Generation”, but I disagree, because they were a generation of rampant racism, sexism, child abuse, homophobia, and general ignorance about people and how the world works. The Baby Boomers were the first to see live images of war, and that had a profound effect on their world view. But they also saw a man walk on the moon, so they were filled with a general sense that anything is possible, so they took the first steps to break the shackles of the limited, traditional, Conservative thinking of their parents’ generation, and start with new ideas about equality for all. My generation took the ball and ran with it (being brought up in the world that our parents were creating) and started looking deeper. We also were presented with new and exciting technology, leading to more efficient ways to share information, helping to create a more informed society. The fall of the Berlin Wall and better relations (at the time) between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were our “anything is possible” moments, so we too were filled with extreme hope for the future. The Media is painting Millennials in a bad light (of course, they’re also providing a lot of material to use as examples), and we’ll see where they’ll want to take the world next.
    This subject is much more deep and complex than can be addressed in the comments section of a website/blog, but the point is that to dismiss the concept that there are differences between the generations as “overrated” is to turn a blind eye to the events and innovations that helped shape that generation.

    Solid Concept #2 – Human Cultures are Different Deep Down
    Many of the same reasons I’ve listed concerning differences between the generations can also be applied to differences between Human Cultures. Geography, climate, natural resources, religion, history, government, social norms, contributions to the World and Human History all contribute to shaping how a certain group will view, not only how the world IS, but also how it should be. Life in one section of the world can be, and is, very different from another part of the world, even if, on the surface, those areas appear to be very similar. All the above factors get into a People and can have almost DNA-altering effects on the group as a whole. And as I said before, to dismiss all these factors and their ability to shape a culture out-of-hand is a forced ignorance on a grand scale.

  • bobango

    I agree with you on most of these items. I disagree with you on Bayes Theorem. Humans are verifiably poor at judging base rates. They are also, for evolutionary reasons, immediately responsive to heuristics such as the availability heuristic: if something is salient, it is “available” as an explanation. I run a medical education company. One of the major hurdles in educating both physicians in training and the public about clinical evidence is the common tendency to confuse causation with salience. So, a newspaper article on some fluke outcome or a testimony from a prominent athlete carries more weight with the typical viewer than a formal study that talks in terms of probabilities instead of certainties. It happens all the time.

  • centre21

    I have to disagree with two of your “overrated” ideas you’ve posted here – generational differences and human cultures are different deep down – and both for basically the same reason, when you get down to it.

    Solid Concept #1 – Generational Differences
    There are hard and clear differences between generations and the ideas and principles they generally hold dear. And the reasons for these are easily understood: the world keeps changing, and every generation has their formative years in a vastly different world than the generation before them. My parents’ generation marveled at the portable transistor radio. This was one of the (as we would refer to it) “insanely great” technological advances of that time. My generation was raised with the escalation of the Personal Computer and the Internet. Millennials don’t know a time before laptops, music downloads, and Social Media. And with each successive generation, they become more and more removed from understanding how the previous generations managed to stay alive as long as they did. Have you ever said, “How did people in the LIVE without ?!?” I know I have, and I’m sure most, if not all, of your readers have too.
    But, of course, it’s beyond just technology; it’s the world in which these generations were living, in terms of socio-political views and beliefs. Many call the people who lived through WWII, “The Greatest Generation”, but I disagree, because they were a generation of rampant racism, sexism, child abuse, homophobia, and general ignorance about people and how the world works. The Baby Boomers were the first to see live images of war, and that had a profound effect on their world view. But they also saw a man walk on the moon, so they were filled with a general sense that anything is possible, so they took the first steps to break the shackles of the limited, traditional, Conservative thinking of their parents’ generation, and start with new ideas about equality for all. My generation took the ball and ran with it (being brought up in the world that our parents were creating) and started looking deeper. We also were presented with new and exciting technology, leading to more efficient ways to share information, helping to create a more informed society. The fall of the Berlin Wall and better relations (at the time) between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were our “anything is possible” moments, so we too were filled with extreme hope for the future. The Media is painting Millennials in a bad light (of course, they’re also providing a lot of material to use as examples), and we’ll see where they’ll want to take the world next.
    This subject is much more deep and complex than can be addressed in the comments section of a website/blog, but the point is that to dismiss the concept that there are differences between the generations as “overrated” is to turn a blind eye to the events and innovations that helped shape that generation.

    Solid Concept #2 – Human Cultures are Different Deep Down
    Many of the same reasons I’ve listed concerning differences between the generations can also be applied to differences between Human Cultures. Geography, climate, natural resources, religion, history, government, social norms, contributions to the World and Human History all contribute to shaping how a certain group will view, not only how the world IS, but also how it should be. Life in one section of the world can be, and is, very different from another part of the world, even if, on the surface, those areas appear to be very similar. All the above factors get into a People and can have almost DNA-altering effects on the group as a whole. And as I said before, to dismiss all these factors and their ability to shape a culture out-of-hand is a forced ignorance on a grand scale.

  • bobango

    I agree with you on most of these items. I disagree with you on Bayes Theorem. Humans are verifiably poor at judging base rates. They are also, for evolutionary reasons, immediately responsive to heuristics such as the availability heuristic: if something is salient, it is “available” as an explanation. I run a medical education company. One of the major hurdles in educating both physicians in training and the public about clinical evidence is the common tendency to confuse causation with salience. So, a newspaper article on some fluke outcome or a testimony from a prominent athlete carries more weight with the typical viewer than a formal study that talks in terms of probabilities instead of certainties. It happens all the time.

  • Daniel

    I agree with most of these. But I don’t agree with the investing idea that trying to beat the market is overrated. I do agree that for most people, index funds are a solid investment vehicle since it requires little effort and produces consistent returns over long periods of time. But it being impossible to beat the market is one of the biggest myths on Earth. Go watch The Big Short for an easy example.

    There are many investors, most notably Warren Buffet, who are able to consistently beat the market. And they aren’t just lucky or black swans. Most investors who are able to beat the market use some form of a strategy called value investing. The crux of it is this: If you go to a garage sale, and you see a nice coat, it’s possible you may know that it’s worth far more than the owner is willing to sell it for. You buy it on sale. If you’re knowledgeable about houses, it’s possible that you can find a home on sale and sell it for a big profit. It happens all the time. So knowing this, do you believe that there could ever be an occasion where a company is on sale? This is how value investors beat the market consistently.

    Now you might be thinking that this type of investing is too hard to understand or that it takes too much time. While definitely more time consuming than just picking an index fund, many value investors say it only takes a couple hours a week. I highly recommend reading anything about Warren Buffet and specifically his partner Charlie Munger to get a sense of this. There’s a great podcast called InvestED that teaches this stuff as well that is an excellent intro to Warren Buffet style investing.

  • Daniel

    I agree with most of these. But I don’t agree with the investing idea that trying to beat the market is overrated. I do agree that for most people, index funds are a solid investment vehicle since it requires little effort and produces consistent returns over long periods of time. But it being impossible to beat the market is one of the biggest myths on Earth. Go watch The Big Short for an easy example.

    There are many investors, most notably Warren Buffet, who are able to consistently beat the market. And they aren’t just lucky or black swans. Most investors who are able to beat the market use some form of a strategy called value investing. The crux of it is this: If you go to a garage sale, and you see a nice coat, it’s possible you may know that it’s worth far more than the owner is willing to sell it for. You buy it on sale. If you’re knowledgeable about houses, it’s possible that you can find a home on sale and sell it for a big profit. It happens all the time. So knowing this, do you believe that there could ever be an occasion where a company is on sale? This is how value investors beat the market consistently.

    Now you might be thinking that this type of investing is too hard to understand or that it takes too much time. While definitely more time consuming than just picking an index fund, many value investors say it only takes a couple hours a week. I highly recommend reading anything about Warren Buffet and specifically his partner Charlie Munger to get a sense of this. There’s a great podcast called InvestED that teaches this stuff as well that is an excellent intro to Warren Buffet style investing.

  • Mark

    I think you’re underrating natural = good. The incentive behind sticking to natural food is to remain as close as you can to the foods our ancestors ate. We know that eating fruit won’t get in the way of a long healthy life, we don’t know the same for hot pockets, or other foods with invented ingredients. By that reasoning, it’s prudent to stick to eating foods we know to be healthy. Now obviously this heuristic has been overused to hell, and most claims of “natural” are marketing, but the idea motivating it is reasonable. It’s the same reasoning that implies you should avoid artificial sugars and refined grains.

  • Mark

    I think you’re underrating natural = good. The incentive behind sticking to natural food is to remain as close as you can to the foods our ancestors ate. We know that eating fruit won’t get in the way of a long healthy life, we don’t know the same for hot pockets, or other foods with invented ingredients. By that reasoning, it’s prudent to stick to eating foods we know to be healthy. Now obviously this heuristic has been overused to hell, and most claims of “natural” are marketing, but the idea motivating it is reasonable. It’s the same reasoning that implies you should avoid artificial sugars and refined grains.

  • Bianca

    I disagree with the idea of not comparing yourself with other people to protect your confidence. Constantly comparing yourself with other people can give you a potentially clearer idea of your strengths, weaknesses, true and false beliefs, right and wrong behavior and other useful information. In a competitive environment, you could watch just how far away you are and how much you need to catch up. Comparing yourself is a pretty vague concept as comparing yourself as being a bad thing can be mistaken for comparing for useful purposes. Imagine a person with social anxiety, noticing that seem to converse much more easily and seems to be really bothered by this. He brushes it off, thinking that comparing yourself with other people is simply just a bad idea. There will always be people who are better than you. Who cares? And he would be stuck in a never ending loop of comparing yourself, brushing it off, without ever looking to others for improvement.

    To really protect your confidence and reach the root cause of the problem when comparing yourself to much better people is simply to always compare yourself to people who are much worse at the same time. The guy with social anxiety can at least do simple things like talk to the cashier at the mall and talking to people he is close to like his family while others would be afraid of even this. He’d still realize that he’d be near the worse end of the spectrum, but still not the worst. This seems to create a greater awareness of where you are and what you would do to solve it.

  • Bianca

    I disagree with the idea of not comparing yourself with other people to protect your confidence. Constantly comparing yourself with other people can give you a potentially clearer idea of your strengths, weaknesses, true and false beliefs, right and wrong behavior and other useful information. In a competitive environment, you could watch just how far away you are and how much you need to catch up. Comparing yourself is a pretty vague concept as comparing yourself as being a bad thing can be mistaken for comparing for useful purposes. Imagine a person with social anxiety, noticing that seem to converse much more easily and seems to be really bothered by this. He brushes it off, thinking that comparing yourself with other people is simply just a bad idea. There will always be people who are better than you. Who cares? And he would be stuck in a never ending loop of comparing yourself, brushing it off, without ever looking to others for improvement.

    To really protect your confidence and reach the root cause of the problem when comparing yourself to much better people is simply to always compare yourself to people who are much worse at the same time. The guy with social anxiety can at least do simple things like talk to the cashier at the mall and talking to people he is close to like his family while others would be afraid of even this. He’d still realize that he’d be near the worse end of the spectrum, but still not the worst. This seems to create a greater awareness of where you are and what you would do to solve it.

  • Bianca

    I also forgot to mention that often looking at your own skill in a single weakness may still result to a lack of confidence. Emphasizing your strengths as well as your own weaknesses may work well. It may also be a good idea not to chase perfection and simply learn to be satisfied with how you are now.

  • Bianca

    I also forgot to mention that often looking at your own skill in a single weakness may still result to a lack of confidence. Emphasizing your strengths as well as your own weaknesses may work well. It may also be a good idea not to chase perfection and simply learn to be satisfied with how you are now.

  • Klaus Madsen

    Good post, and a very central idea that it would do a lot of people good to understand better. Generalizing is important in order to understand the world, but understanding when generalizing doesn’t help you is key.

  • Klaus Madsen

    Good post, and a very central idea that it would do a lot of people good to understand better. Generalizing is important in order to understand the world, but understanding when generalizing doesn’t help you is key.

  • Nathan Glenn

    I think the relationship between language, culture, and thought is unclear and very over-expounded upon. I highly recommend Guy Deutscher’s book “Through the Language Glass,” which is a history of linguistics quackery/Sapir-Whorf and also an honest look at how language influences thought (in not-so-profound, seems-obvious-later ways). Though cultural differences are fading somewhat with globalization and of course humans are all humans, I still think cultural differences are important in the context of communication and politeness. “Polite Fictions” is a fantastic one on Japanese/American cultural misunderstandings (which I think are fading with the westernization of Japan).
    The whole colors thing is a red herring. So what if Russians have two kinds of blue? We can all perfectly well see that Twitter blue and Facebook blue are different, but in our culture we don’t differentiate.

  • Nathan Glenn

    I think the relationship between language, culture, and thought is unclear and very over-expounded upon. I highly recommend Guy Deutscher’s book “Through the Language Glass,” which is a history of linguistics quackery/Sapir-Whorf and also an honest look at how language influences thought (in not-so-profound, seems-obvious-later ways). Though cultural differences are fading somewhat with globalization and of course humans are all humans, I still think cultural differences are important in the context of communication and politeness. “Polite Fictions” is a fantastic one on Japanese/American cultural misunderstandings (which I think are fading with the westernization of Japan).
    The whole colors thing is a red herring. So what if Russians have two kinds of blue? We can all perfectly well see that Twitter blue and Facebook blue are different, but in our culture we don’t differentiate.

  • Scott Young

    That’s more a vote for unprocessed than “natural”.

    The latter is used most egregiously with things that are very unlike what our ancestors consumed. Since everything is made of chemicals and all synthetic compounds start with “natural” ingredients, the entire concept rests on the incorrect foundation most people have that synthetic stuff and “natural” stuff is fundamentally different.

  • Scott Young

    That’s more a vote for unprocessed than “natural”.

    The latter is used most egregiously with things that are very unlike what our ancestors consumed. Since everything is made of chemicals and all synthetic compounds start with “natural” ingredients, the entire concept rests on the incorrect foundation most people have that synthetic stuff and “natural” stuff is fundamentally different.

  • Scott Young

    But that’s the issue–we don’t know the base rates, so Bayes’ Theorem is far less useful outside of contexts where we have statistics. I’m not saying it’s useless, just overrated as being the key idea to human rationality.

  • Scott Young

    But that’s the issue–we don’t know the base rates, so Bayes’ Theorem is far less useful outside of contexts where we have statistics. I’m not saying it’s useless, just overrated as being the key idea to human rationality.

  • Scott Young

    That people describe things differently in different languages is indisputable. That’s what languages are.

    The strong version of the Sapir/Wharf hypothesis would argue that having a language prevents a person from thinking about things in a certain way. In this sense, I think the most proper explanation for color examples is that the person doesn’t have sufficient experience with particular colors, so their language didn’t develop a word to distinguish those concepts. The causal difference here is therefore cultural not linguistic.

    I mean, if you were to really take that idea seriously, you’d have to argue that new cultures wouldn’t be able to think about any foreign concept that wasn’t in their language to begin with. Since cultural exchange is common (and when a language lacks a word, it borrows or invents one) this clearly isn’t what is happening.

    My personal stance on this is that languages aren’t particularly deep, cognitively-speaking. That most of our thoughts and mental processes are *not* encoded in any language, but make references to linguistic objects when we need to speak to other people (or ourselves). If much of the mental processing is not done in any particular language, it limits the effects that purely linguistic conventions can have on thought.

  • Scott Young

    That people describe things differently in different languages is indisputable. That’s what languages are.

    The strong version of the Sapir/Wharf hypothesis would argue that having a language prevents a person from thinking about things in a certain way. In this sense, I think the most proper explanation for color examples is that the person doesn’t have sufficient experience with particular colors, so their language didn’t develop a word to distinguish those concepts. The causal difference here is therefore cultural not linguistic.

    I mean, if you were to really take that idea seriously, you’d have to argue that new cultures wouldn’t be able to think about any foreign concept that wasn’t in their language to begin with. Since cultural exchange is common (and when a language lacks a word, it borrows or invents one) this clearly isn’t what is happening.

    My personal stance on this is that languages aren’t particularly deep, cognitively-speaking. That most of our thoughts and mental processes are *not* encoded in any language, but make references to linguistic objects when we need to speak to other people (or ourselves). If much of the mental processing is not done in any particular language, it limits the effects that purely linguistic conventions can have on thought.

  • Brittany Ayers

    I’m not just talking about literally using different words to describe concepts but rather the way words shape our understanding about things.

    The Sapir/Wharf hypothesis isn’t completely sound but that doesn’t mean it lacks all merit. (And I apologize if you that’s not what you were getting at.) The color argument you used would stand true if, for example, the Native American tribe I described had never witnessed either the color green or blue but I think it stands to reason that they likely did experience it and yet they still didn’t make a distinction between the two because it wasn’t as relevant as, say, the color yellow. Unfortunately this isn’t a question we can ask as most Native American languages are dying out and their ways of viewing things are wildly different now than they were when their languages first came about.

    I’m not saying new culture can’t think about foreign concepts but I do believe they understand them differently. Imagine trying to explain the internet to an isolated tribe in the middle of a forest. You may learn their language and be able to describe the concept but their understanding of their own vocabulary will shape the way they understand what you say to them. With time and experience, that may change but it will be a learned process, not an innate one and will likely improve with successive generations. Put a computer in front of this same group of people, without explanation, and their understanding of what it is will likely be vastly different from how a village thousands of miles away would understand it. A good example is the Kayapo tribe in Brazil and their experience with cameras. Eventually they learned the name of the camera and the parts and how it worked, etc. etc. but their initial understanding of what it did was shaped by 1) their cultural beliefs and 2) their access to their language. When the photographer said he would take a picture, because of their language understanding, the phrase for taking a picture was the same phrase for taking a soul. I’m sure you can guess which phrase came first and it’s not a far stretch to imagine that initially these people believed a camera would take their soul. They now understand the difference (or aren’t worried about their souls being stolen) but it had to be learned over time and obviously it initially carried negative connotations.

    It seems like you’re talking about the act of thinking itself and not the process of understanding things in which case, I agree with you but I have to believe that our understanding of language shapes the way we think of things.

  • Brittany Ayers

    I’m not just talking about literally using different words to describe concepts but rather the way words shape our understanding about things.

    The Sapir/Wharf hypothesis isn’t completely sound but that doesn’t mean it lacks all merit. (And I apologize if you that’s not what you were getting at.) The color argument you used would stand true if, for example, the Native American tribe I described had never witnessed either the color green or blue but I think it stands to reason that they likely did experience it and yet they still didn’t make a distinction between the two because it wasn’t as relevant as, say, the color yellow. Unfortunately this isn’t a question we can ask as most Native American languages are dying out and their ways of viewing things are wildly different now than they were when their languages first came about.

    I’m not saying new culture can’t think about foreign concepts but I do believe they understand them differently. Imagine trying to explain the internet to an isolated tribe in the middle of a forest. You may learn their language and be able to describe the concept but their understanding of their own vocabulary will shape the way they understand what you say to them. With time and experience, that may change but it will be a learned process, not an innate one and will likely improve with successive generations. Put a computer in front of this same group of people, without explanation, and their understanding of what it is will likely be vastly different from how a village thousands of miles away would understand it. A good example is the Kayapo tribe in Brazil and their experience with cameras. Eventually they learned the name of the camera and the parts and how it worked, etc. etc. but their initial understanding of what it did was shaped by 1) their cultural beliefs and 2) their access to their language. When the photographer said he would take a picture, because of their language understanding, the phrase for taking a picture was the same phrase for taking a soul. I’m sure you can guess which phrase came first and it’s not a far stretch to imagine that initially these people believed a camera would take their soul. They now understand the difference (or aren’t worried about their souls being stolen) but it had to be learned over time and obviously it initially carried negative connotations.

    It seems like you’re talking about the act of thinking itself and not the process of understanding things in which case, I agree with you but I have to believe that our understanding of language shapes the way we think of things.

  • Scott Young

    I think the key point I’m driving at is that if you took two hypothetical people that had nearly identical cultures, except one had a certain linguistic feature X and another didn’t, that it would noticeably impact their ability to think about things.

    My feeling is that the causation is much stronger culture -> language than vice versa. Many cultures lack certain terms or grammatical features perhaps because their environment makes them unnecessary or under-valued. However, if that were to change and there suddenly became a need for such things, they would do what all cultures do and simply invent new linguistic tools to meet the new demands.

    Saying that people from vastly different cultures think differently, or that they have different beliefs/concepts goes without saying. The question is how constraining are linguistic differences on those beliefs and concepts, such that a fluke of having the wrong grammatical system or vocabulary could interrupt certain thinking or ideas.

    I’m open to the possibility, but stated as such, I think it’s pretty weak.

  • Scott Young

    I think the key point I’m driving at is that if you took two hypothetical people that had nearly identical cultures, except one had a certain linguistic feature X and another didn’t, that it would noticeably impact their ability to think about things.

    My feeling is that the causation is much stronger culture -> language than vice versa. Many cultures lack certain terms or grammatical features perhaps because their environment makes them unnecessary or under-valued. However, if that were to change and there suddenly became a need for such things, they would do what all cultures do and simply invent new linguistic tools to meet the new demands.

    Saying that people from vastly different cultures think differently, or that they have different beliefs/concepts goes without saying. The question is how constraining are linguistic differences on those beliefs and concepts, such that a fluke of having the wrong grammatical system or vocabulary could interrupt certain thinking or ideas.

    I’m open to the possibility, but stated as such, I think it’s pretty weak.

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