A man holding a sign with a vile message on it stood at a busy intersection, his face weathered by rage. His voice was hoarse as he shouted hateful things about a group of people who had never tried to hurt him.

The man could hear a child reciting her multiplication tables a few feet away at the bus stop (“Two times five is ten. Two times six is twelve…”). She was a member of the group he hated, so he had to stuff away the automatic thought that the concentration-crinkle on her brow was cute.

As a man on a mission, he remained true to his cause and didn’t allow the hardworking child to stop him from spreading his message of division and derision. Yet, he found it difficult to tune out the little girl who was now working her way through the “nines.”

Suddenly, the girl stuttered, “Nine times twelve is…Nine times twelve is…”

Her eyes were closed and her feet were tapping the ground as she searched for the answer. Her effort and determination were impressive and adorable.

“Nine times twelve is… Nine times twelve is…”

The man, his hate weakened by the wonderful child, couldn’t stand to see her struggle so, “Damnit it’s 108! Nine times twelve is 108!”

Even though his voice was filled with anger, the little girl looked at him sweetly and said, “Thank you, mister!”

At that moment the bus pulled up to the intersection and the girl stepped into it.

The man kept himself from cracking a smile. Looking as mean as ever, he hated himself for helping the undeniably lovely little girl.

Is this a good story or a bad one? The man was saying terrible things about others. That’s bad. He also helped a child remember her multiplication tables. That’s good. The little girl was working hard on her homework. That’s great. She was doing so by herself on a public street, leading us to wonder why she was alone with no one to help her. The story is a complicated one.

Averages and Individuals

The world is a complicated place that we often try to talk about simply, to our detriment. When we talk simply about complicated things, we develop a distorted picture of reality. “Oh, that large group of people, they voted for that person for the same reason.” No large group of people acts in the same way for the same reason. “Men are one way, women are another.” Not all members of a gender behave, look, or sound like stereotypical members of that gender. We humans are complex creatures and our social interactions are incredibly intricate. Human behavior—all human behavior—is caused by a complex combination of biological and environmental influences; when examined carefully, there is never a single cause that explains why someone acts a certain way. The world is just not that simple. Oversimplifying things causes us to miss out on nuance and blinds us to the many causes that lead to any effect.

Because the world is so complex, it becomes important to understand the contrast between average differences and individual differences. Averages give us an idea of what may be typical for a group, they do not set a rule that cannot be broken by individuals. Learning about averages helps us make sense of a complicated world by giving us an idea about what is common, usual, and ordinary while leaving open the possibility of individuals being significantly different from the average member of their group. For example, men, on average, are taller than women. This is a scientific fact. Yet, every day we see women and men who are well above or below average height.

Differences and Discrimination

When I first expanded my private practice, I interviewed ten women and four men and hired seven women and two men. Two of the reasons why this happened are that mental health providers are disproportionately female and there were particularly strong female candidates that year. This did not happen because I have some sort of gender bias against men or gender preference for women.

It is common to hear people talk about differences between groups with the underlying assumption that these differences must exist because of malicious discrimination (e.g., racism, misogyny, bigotry, etc.). Discrimination plays a role in society but it is most definitely not the cause or always a significant cause of between group differences. Sometimes, as is the case with average height, differences are the result of biological factors. Other times, discrimination plays a powerful part in creating between-group differences. The causes of between group differences in important areas such as scholastic achievement and income and poverty are many. One problem with assuming that between group differences are the primary result of discrimination is that this oversimplification hides a complicated web of causal factors that contribute to the disparity. Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. We will be better able to solve society’s problems when we combat these complex issues with thoughtful, multifaceted solutions that treat their many causes. 

Risk Factors and Resilience

Research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) including abuse (i.e., emotional, physical, & sexual), intimate partner violence, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation/divorce, and having an incarcerated household member has shown that these factors influence health, income, and other opportunities later in life; yet, the relationship between ACEs and life outcomes is more complicated than it seems.

ACEs, like all risk factors, increase the likelihood that a problem will occur, they do not guarantee that the problem will occur. For example, we know that divorce runs in families but it is not guaranteed that children of divorced parents will one day get divorced, too. Furthermore, the absence of a risk factor does not guarantee that someone will avoid a problem. After all, we all know people who have gotten divorced even though their parents stayed married.

The latest research on ACEs reveals how complicated the relationship between these risk factors and life outcomes can be. Merrick et al. (2018) revealed that, on average, almost 62% of people reported experiencing at least one ACE during childhood (m = 1.57), with 38% reporting that they experienced two or more ACEs. There were differences in the average number of ACEs experienced by members of different groups based on race, income, sexual orientation, and some other factors; however, no group was spared from an average ACE score less than 1.22. Interestingly, average ACE scores for college graduates (m = 1.23), the employed (m = 1.58), and those with an income greater than $50K per year (m = 1.39) show that overcoming hardships is common and that success is achieved by many who had rough experiences during childhood.

Studies like Merrick et al. (2018) show how complicated the world can be. Of course, in response to the fact that ACEs are all too common, we need to find ways to prevent them. This is critical. The study also shows that it is common for people to make it through tough times and accomplish much in this world. This gives us reason to encourage those who have experienced hardships and remind them that people can persevere, solve problems, and learn to thrive in our complicated world.