The fallacies of comparison: How to learn together and avoid panic

Photo: Which way should we go? Preparing the best route to climb a mountain with the University of Edinburgh Hillwalking Club. Credit: Thomas Bak

In this extra post, Thomas Bak and Brittany Blankinship, from the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, explore – through three ‘fallacies of comparison’ – how the tendency to judge ourselves against others can spark anxiety and hinder our learning with one another.

Learning together can be one of the best, most productive, and, at the same time, most enjoyable experiences of learning. It can open our eyes to new insights and unexpected yet helpful ways of understanding things. It can benefit from complementary knowledge and the skills of different students. It can support, strengthen, and console. It can lead to long-lasting friendships.

But it can be also a problematic experience, generating insecurity and fear. Comparisons with others can make us feel incompetent, lazy, or not good enough. Anxiety, even if unwarranted, can be contagious – and not all suggested solutions might turn out to be helpful.

Learning together and comparing each other’s work is probably as old as learning itself. Certainly some of the best university memories of both authors were sessions of joint learning, leading ultimately to quite satisfactory results. However, with the advent of social media and platforms such as WhatsApp, and their widespread use during the COVID-19 Pandemic, both communication and comparison took new dimensions. Whereas before one needed to arrange meetings and then travel to each other’s homes (or other places such as cafés or the library), now a single click can put us in touch with each other. Messages come in all the time, and it is difficult to ignore them. The boundaries of university work-related discussions have blurred and no longer take place only when on campus or studying with peers.

Areas in which communication and comparison can play a particularly important role are research projects, such as dissertations, at every stage – from the choice of topic to the final write-up and submission. It can be very helpful to learn from each other: to exchange tips, useful articles, links, and other materials. It can be reassuring to learn that others might have similar problems as us and learn from their solutions. But social media, WhatsApp groups, etc., can also become a source of insecurity, anxiety, and even panic. In our experience, this is often due to three fallacies, and avoiding them might allow us to get the best of our chat groups, while avoiding the worst.

The speed fallacy can arise when we compare how far other students are in their projects and compare it with our own progress. Projects can be very different, not only in their topic but also in the distribution of the difficulties across time. In some, the most difficult bits come at the very beginning: developing new tests, piloting them, and making sure they work. In others, the greatest challenge lies in the recruitment of participants or other ways of collecting the data. Others still, often those projects which had a relatively easy start as they were based on already available data, might pose considerable challenges during data analysis. So, the fact that one project is more advanced than another does not mean that it is more promising, let alone more successful. They don’t run the same route. Those who seem to be behind at the beginning might well end up being the first in the end.

The number fallacy is based on the extremely widespread yet incorrect assumption that more is always better, that quantity outweighs quality. The fact that the other person has more papers in their literature review, more data points in their results, more graphs, tables, and words in their write-up does not make their work better and ours worse. It is the quality that matters and not the quantity. Less data can lead to more careful analysis and more insightful consideration of all the contributing factors. Producing less words can be the result of clear and concise writing, reflecting intellectual maturity, making us focus on the relevant bits rather than trying to include everything indiscriminately.

Finally, often related to the number fallacy, the complexity fallacy results from the belief that the more complex things are, the better. This can apply to the design of the study, multiplying groups and conditions, to the data collection, trying to include as many variables as possible, or to the analysis, using the most complicated quantitative and qualitative methods available. The result is that instead of doing simple things well, we might end up doing complicated things badly. Firstly, increasing complexity can mean increasing methodological challenges, requiring knowledge, skills, and time. While going beyond what we know and can do is a laudable approach in learning, it might not be the best strategy if we end up not understanding what we are doing and why, and hence fail to explain it clearly to those who will be marking our work. But secondly, also in terms of complexity, more is not always better. The most appropriate method depends on the questions posed and the data available. Sometimes, the simplest method might be the best.

While group learning can be a great source of joy and both personal and academic development, it is important for students to remember that comparisons are rarely, if ever, one-to-one. By avoiding these three fallacies, students may hopefully bypass (or at least minimize) insecurity, anxiety, or even panic and instead reap the benefits of learning together with peers.

photograph of the authorThomas Bak

Dr Thomas Bak studied medicine and trained in neurology and psychiatry in Germany, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. In 2006, he joined the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences (PPLS) at The University of Edinburgh. His research and teaching, across all continents (except Antarctica), focus on language and the brain, in particular on cognitive effects of language learning and bilingualism. However, he has also had the recent experience of being a student himself, having graduated in May 2022, after a two-year course, as an accredited Blue Badge Tourist Guide for all of Scotland. This experience allowed him to observe effects of social interactions on learning from students’ as well as from lecturers’ perspectives. Twitter: @thbaketal.

photograph of the authorBrittany Blankinship

Brittany Blankinship is a PhD student at The University of Edinburgh, submitting in August 2022. Her PhD is entitled, “Multilingualism in Later Life: Natural History and Effects of Language Learning”. Her work is interdisciplinary, combining neuroscience with linguistics and quantitative with qualitative methods. After her PhD, Brittany will be starting a Lectureship in Data Science at the Usher Institute. Twitter: @BrittNeuroPsych.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *