Wednesday, February 18, 2009


If anyone reading the title for this post is expecting a review of Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, you're about to be disappointed.

This blog probably won't see too many things that current or timely. In this particular case, it's the story of how I came to appreciate the concept on a personal level.

For those unfamiliar with the term, wikipedia has a pretty good - and short - definition for "outlier":
In statistics, an outlier is an observation that is numerically distant from the rest of the data. Statistics derived from data sets that include outliers may be misleading.
Almost 20 years ago, I was a student at SUNY Brockport, nearing the end of my undergraduate coursework, majoring in psychology. One of my classmates was a woman about 13 years younger than me. She had mild cerebral palsy and controlled seizures. Except for the controlled seizures part (I've never had one), some of our motor issues were pretty similar.

Our experiences in public school were radically different. During the time that I was in elementary school, what special ed existed in my city was totally segregated - and almost a guaranteed ticket to a sheltered workshop or day treatment center.

Special ed was more established and better than that by the time my friend got into the system, but she still had to fight an uphill battle to convince everyone that she would - and should - be college bound.

Anyway, we were friends. She approached me one day regarding a final project she was doing for one of her psych classes. The set-up, as I recall, had to do with pressing one button when a control light went on - then having to hit a different button when a different light lit up randomly.

She wanted me to be one of the subjects.

That surprised me. As I understood it at the time, my reaction time was kind of quirky. I was kind of aware that parts of my brain operated at significantly different speeds. A lot of the ones having to do with reacting to surprises were the slower ones.

I objected on the grounds that I would skew the results of her project (not for the first time, I realized that the English language really needs the word "skrew" - a combination of skew and screw - to describe experimental results that are just very very wrong).

She wanted me anyway. She was emphatic and enthusiastic about it.

Cheerful people wear me down. I gave in.

I came in - I was her last subject. She asked me to hang out for awhile after the procedure.

When she came out to meet me, she had her results plotted. She was excited and cheerful.

"Well, I'm not going to use you, but this sure is interesting," she said.

She explained, laying out the graphing of responses. Pointing to a big cluster of dots on the left of the paper, she explained that these were the responses to the "control" light. My responses lagged a little, but still managed to stay within the fringes of the cluster of responses.

Then she pointed to a smaller cluster of dots to the right. She explained these were the responses of most people to the randomly generated light. Then she pointed a couple of inches to a small group of lonely dots.

"These," she said, "are your responses to the random stimulus."

I don't play video games, or any sort of "recreation" that depends on reaction time, coordination, motor skills. But the differences between me and other people seemed small.

And on paper, they were, most of the time.

Except for certain situations, where I become an outlier and skrewed data.

I don't want to give the impression this put me into some kind of funk. I hadn't changed, after all. I'd just been given a snapshot of some processes I was trying to understand myself.

Besides, I was with a persistently and annoyingly cheerful person. One of the most annoying traits of cheerful people is their ability to infect others with their cheerfulness. --Stephen Drake


Bob said...

I am a statistical data analyst. I hereby heartily endorse the use of the term skrewed.

I also have decided never to be a passenger if Stephen is driving.

Stephen Drake said...


To me, it's surprising that the word isn't in use already - I kind of expected you to tell me that it's a slang term used in the field.

As for my driving...

Like every driver I know with neuromotor issues, I have an excellent record as a driver. Part of the reason is that I know what my own challenges are and compensate.

In terms of driving, what that means is that I devote *all* of my attention to driving. Casual observation tells me that "neurotypical" drivers allocate substantially less than that to driving.

There are also certain driving situations I flat-out refuse to deal with - such as navigating the streets of a major city.