Apologies to those among you who had a negative experience with statistics somewhere along the way. I don’t mean to trigger any response. My thoughts today, however, rest firmly on the underlying principle in this statistical observation.

Regressing toward the mean offers the observer a warning: maybe you are looking at the wrong sample or maybe you are jumping to conclusions before you have sufficient facts. I see this happening everywhere these days, and it will, without question, cause all of us pain and suffering.

What Are You Basing Your Conclusions On?

I want to start with some basics here. A confounding experience I have (and one that leaves me feeling unsettled) is to be watching TV or listening to the radio (yes, I still do that) and being told that 1) the government is in chaos, 2) there is nowhere on the planet that is safe, 3) everybody hates one another, especially the Jews, and 4) the economy sucks. That is what I am being told.

Yet, every day I wake up in one of the most beautiful places on the planet, in a home that is structurally sound. While I have strongly-held opinions about my elected officials, I know they were elected and are representing, as best they can, my beliefs. I have friends who make my life richer. Some of them are Jews. Finally, I am blessed to have retirement income that I can count on because of Social Security and I have health insurance because of Medicare.

Give Me A Chance to Explain

Please do not jump to any conclusion that suggests I am not aware of my privilege, ignoring the plight of so many fellow humans. I note the chasm between my lived reality and what so many on this planet are experiencing now. This is an important variable that we need to take into consideration when making sense of whether we are facing certain annihilation or will have some chance of survival. But it is that initial, unquestioned leap of judgment that lies at the heart of regression to the mean.

It is a calculation error that amplifies the fact that we keep looking at the most extreme and assuming it is representative of the middle-of-the-road rest of us. That all-or-nothing premise is good for ratings and advertising dollars, but lousy for soothing the savage breast. It is poor sampling. It results in jumping to wrong conclusions.

Regression Toward Meanness

Statistics aside, I have also noticed that some folks are just getting meaner. There seems to be a lot of name-calling going on in certain political races. And there is an increase in graffiti, that to my eye will never be considered “Urban Art”. Symbols of hate plastered on public spaces designed to what? Intimidate? Mark territory?  Send a message?

The consequence of meanness is to wear away tolerance and steal hope. Pessimism becomes as catching as the flu. Strategies for managing these unwelcome and uncomfortable feelings often times just worsen the overall experience; we drink more, smoke more, isolate and avoid. That, in turn, reinforces our already-skewed conclusion that the world is going to hell and taking us along with it. And, since relief is not immediate or long-lasting, our outlook becomes hopeless.

Professor Adam Grant offers a number of practical solutions to this cycle. In a current FB meme, he is credited with saying the following:  “Strong relationships don’t need agreement; they need alignment. Agreement is having identical opinions; alignment is having shared values. Agreement is taking the same path; alignment is heading in the same direction. Closeness is a matter of commitment, not connection.” These are examples of ways of relieving our stress and opening to possibilities that there are not only other ways of thinking about things, but there is nothing to fear from exploring those alternatives.


One further observation, this rooted in developmental psychology: Periods of growth and change are, by definition, uncomfortable. If we haven’t developed healthy self-soothing strategies, or if we are unable to find moments of safety, our overall tolerance declines and we can become mean or short-tempered, or irritable. We are in such a moment of change/growth.

We tolerate these episodes of moodiness in the young (think “Terrible Twos” or “Teen-age Outrage”), and ascribe the cause of these often-destructive behaviors to some hormonal imbalance or brain delay. Yet these same behaviors are happening today between folks who we have a right to expect to act like adults. We must find better ways to correct their behaviors!

We Don’t Have to Regress

If I truly believe my government is in chaos, it is my job as a citizen to do something about it. I can show up at City Council meetings (they are on Zoom!). I can volunteer for neighborhood clean-up projects. I can donate time and money to candidates who will better represent my beliefs. I have to accept that not everybody agrees with me, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be headed in the same direction. And of course, I must vote!

I can be mindful about the resources I am using. I can look for ways to share. I can practice good stewardship of my corner of the planet. You may not agree that climate change is real, but we can connect around our shared values of wanting to preserve nature’s beauty for generations that will follow us.

I can admit that I want you to like me. It matters to me if you are unkind. It matters to me if I feel rejected or unloved. I can also admit that I am sometimes unkind, and I reject others, and I carry hatred and anger inside of me. I need to have the courage to explore where I learned those feelings and become willing to let go of my fear. I need to find ways to align with you in a mutually respectful way that is spacious enough for us both to be right AND wrong. I can change my mind.

We don’t have to act this way and we don’t have to tolerate it when others act out!  Because there is no underlying “cause”, we can choose to behave differently and reasonably expect a different outcome. We can call out prejudice and antisemitism by saying to people who are shouting, “Please stop yelling. I want to hear what you need to say, and I may not agree with you, but I can’t hear you when you are shouting.”

Correcting for Regression to the Mean

One way to challenge our own strongly-held belief systems is to ask, “How do I know this?  Why am I so certain?”  Adam Grant has a fun way to assess your approach to opening your own mind to a different way of thinking, as well as what might work best in persuading someone else to change their mind. Click here to take his quiz on How Often Do You Think Again.

Of course, one of the best ways to address meanness is kindness. First and foremost, being kind to ourselves, then to those closest to us, then to those who are in need, and finally to all sentient beings. This is known in Buddhist teachings as “Metta” or Loving Kindness. If you aren’t familiar with how it works, you can check it out here.

2 responses to “Regression Toward the Mean”

  1.  Avatar

    Regression to the mean is a wonderful concept and so appropriate to what is happening today. Thank you for this thought lesson!

  2.  Avatar

    As a physician, I am most comfortable caring for patients after I undertake a comprehensive assessment seeking info from multiple sources. A rational and acceptable plan of care is than possible that doesn’t eliminate uncertainties, but works to reduce potential uncertainties and is able to recognize and adjust to the unexpected. Politically, we need more comprehensive assessments of problems and work towards consensus on how to triage and manage problems. This requires much more listening and openness to non-traditional sources of information and expertise that may help us to be more effective with less waste of our limited resources. My lament regarding the current state of public discourse is the contentment with simplistic ideologic approaches to very complex problems, which doesn’t address root causes of problems because only a few of the roots are considered and only those for which your ideology has an answer. This isn’t good governance.