Early in high school, the girl I had a crush on started going out with a friend of mine. I sat down and wrote all the possible outcomes of their relationship, assigning each a percentage of probability. I never showed her my calculations, but I consoled myself with the certainty that the relationship was doomed. After all, I had proved it.
My bias was obvious, of course. However, I was also guilty of reification – the mistaken belief that meaningful numbers could be assigned to abstractions like the probability of a relationship lasting.
Looking back, I can only plead wishful thinking and over-confidence in my own intellect.
However, I am far from the only person to fall prey to reification. For instance, as Stephen Jay Gould points out in The Mismeasure of Man, IQ tests as they are used today presuppose that intelligence – usually labeled g – is a concrete entity that can measured as easily as the length of a person’s foot. In fact, as Gould points out, statistical analysis can make g appear and disappear at will, a sure indicator that it does not exist. Yet for over a century, the future of millions of children in North America has been determined partially by their IQ scores.
In the same way, many online dating sites attempt to match people by asking them questions about their habits, tastes, and preferences. By comparing your answers with other people’s, the sites claim to be able to find a match for you. The sites’ implicit claim is that the concept of attractiveness or compatibility – or incompatibility, since it is often given a value as well – can be reduced to a percentage.
Unsurprisingly, most people find the results only the roughest guide to compatibility. Aside from obvious differences such as being an atheist and a practicing Catholic, a high percentage of compatibility gives little indication of who will be attracted to whom. In fact, I have met more than one person who refuses to date someone with whom they are supposed to have 90-100% compatibility, because, counter to the implied prediction, they have found themselves uninterested in such alleged soul mates.
I have heard of at least one person who tries to get around such limitations by keeping their own records of what they think of the people they meet online. Unfortunately, though, do-it-yourself reification is no more reliable than the institutionalized version. To rely on either is to base decisions on figures with only an imaginary significance – and, in do-it-yourself reification, to have a naively exaggerated faith in your own powers of analysis. That’s fine if on-line dating is a hobby, but otherwise you might just as well rely on your horoscope.
Reification is just as much a fallacy as a non-sequitur or a post hoc argument. However, just because it deals with abstractions doesn’t mean that it’s harmless. So far as clarity of thought is concerned, it can be a serious danger.