Home > musing > Magic pill thought experiment

Magic pill thought experiment

January 14, 2014

First of all I want to thank you guys. I’m feeling incredibly lucky that, when I asked for comments and ideas, both for my book and for the “Public Facing Math” panel, you guys delivered immediately and impressively.

You guys are the best!

Next, here’s the ridiculous thought experiment I’m cooking up this morning, inspired by this recent Room For Debate focusing on fessing up about cosmetic surgery and this recent New Yorker column by Matthew Hutson about nonconformity as a signal of status.

So, imagine there’s an very inexpensive and very accessible “magic pill” that makes you appear incredibly average. It doesn’t do anything to your health, just your appearance, which is key – we don’t want to conflate the issues of appearance and health. And let’s assume it works for 5 years and then stops. It doesn’t have side effects.

And as we know, average is in a certain sense quite beautiful, if this graph of the “average face of women” in a bunch of countries can be believed (more info here and here). But of course, it’s also not very interesting, being totally average.

So here’s the thought experiment: three questions.

First, would you take the pill?

Second, would you hang out with other people who took the pill?

Third, considering your answer to the second question, would you take the pill?

I’ll give you guys a moment to think about this…


OK, here’s what I think. At first I thought I might take the pill. I mean, it wouldn’t be so bad to live behind a mask of averageness. I’d be bland but attractive, it might be nice. Never worry about a bad hair day, which truth be told I don’t really worry about much now.

But then again, I immediately realized I’d rather hang out with people who refused the pill. I mean, they’d be more interesting for sure, right? They’d be strangely not insecure. They might even be proud of pimples and asymmetries, in a world of everyone looking super perfect. I’d definitely want to hang with them.

But then would they want to hang with me? On second thought, I wouldn’t take the pill because it would matter more to me to signal interestingness than to be considered attractive, especially if attractiveness was cheaply gotten.

What about you guys? This might be the dumbest post I’ve ever written but for some reason I like this thought experiment, and when I’ve asked different people they never give me the same answer, and so far nobody agrees with me.

One last thing. I think the entire game changes if the pill only lasted for 12 hours.

Categories: musing
  1. Christina Sormani
    January 14, 2014 at 6:48 am

    If it was my choice, I would not take the average pill and I wouldn’t choose who I hung out with depending on whether they took the pill. If I felt that it was expected at work, either by colleagues or students, and it would affect my ability to command respect, then I would take the average pill but be annoyed that I felt forced into it. This is pretty much exactly the same as my feelings about wearing makeup which I wore in the past to look older and more professional.


  2. Etienne
    January 14, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Your problem seems to be a mix of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and of the Mean/Median paradox. It reminds me of the famous Groucho Marx quote: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”


  3. Elliot Grant
    January 14, 2014 at 9:31 am

    I wouldn’t dream of taking the pill, even thouh it might move me up rather than down the attractiveness scale. First, I don’t like taking any pills unless they’re necessary. Your hypothetical pill isn’t. Second, and more fundamentally, how I look is part ofmy personal identity and history. So I couldn’t wear a toupee even thouh I’d prefer not to be bald.


  4. January 14, 2014 at 10:20 am

    Nonconformity isn’t a signifier of status. The ability to be openly nonconformist with minimal consequences is a signifier of status. So the affluent would stop the plastic surgery stuff if it became really cheap, because it would no longer be a badge of status and how much one can spend. And, no. I would not choose average.


    • cat
      January 14, 2014 at 11:46 am

      You nail the noconformity/status relationship and then miss the mark on the fact the affluent have plastic surgery to conform to the current standards of beauty of the affluent and since these standards are always changing they must do what it takes to conform and anyone wishing to break into ‘affluent society’ who doesn’t conform must do what it takes to conform.


  5. cat
    January 14, 2014 at 11:56 am

    I would not take it and I wouldn’t take care if anyone else took it with one big exception. I probably would not become romantically involved with someone on the pill and I would be uncomfortable if my current partner went on the pill.


  6. Becky Jaffe
    January 14, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    I must have unwittingly taken this pill at some point. My version of the pill seems to be lasting a lifetime, however. This explains a lot!

    While being average is a blow to the ego in a culture that values exceptionalism, coming to terms with our own mediocrity is prerequisite for feeling empathy for other people and for developing humility, an undervalued value.


  7. January 14, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    I’d only take the pill if a very large percentage of the population took it. If socializing with this large percentage depended on taking it I’d eventually fold and take it. If 99% of people wore “uniforms” I’d probably wear one too.


  8. suevanhattum
    January 14, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    Wouldn’t do it. (Don’t die my hair, tattoo, pierce, or wear make-up, either.) If it were for a day, I might try it out of curiosity, like I played with henna.


  9. January 14, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    I’m neither above average nor stunningly original, but I am atypical, which most of us are, in one or more ways. The person whose traits line up with mathematical averages in all ways would, in the aggregate, be in a minority. Even if we were all average in all ways, there would be some variation, and thus new averages for every trait on which we kept tabs. The more people were taking the pill, the more torn I would be. I would probably vacillate between rebelling and conforming–perhaps to survive. Deadening the self in order to stay alive. The urge to differentiate and the desire to belong are both very strong, but, if one has to do a conformist song and dance in order to seem to belong, then one’s true self does not really belong. Being one’s true oddball self holds the best chance of finding fellow oddballs. It’s really the least lonely and least deadening of the options. I’m not sure we’re not actually talking about how we actually respond to actual pressures and “invitations” to conform and “belong”.


  10. a
    January 15, 2014 at 1:55 am

    i would definitely take it. yes, most of those average faces I find attractive, and I’d like to be more attractive. it is really hard being an involuntary single, which i have been for all my life…i first noticed the pain at my 5th grade dance. I am short for a guy – 5’4″. i don’t have much of a dynamite personality to make up for it, either.

    for the second question, I guess i wouldn’t want to hang out with those who took the pill because maybe the only ones who take the pill are the unattractive ones (like myself), and so after 5 years they return to being unattractive. as opposed to after 50 years…i am reminded by a haunting sentence i once read…that apart from those who die suddenly, we are all destined to become become a dying, decrepit animal.

    Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
    Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
    Oh, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
    Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!


  11. January 15, 2014 at 2:10 am

    There is an interesting set of books aimed at middle schoolers called Uglies, Pretties and specials which takes this type of premise to a dystopian extreme. As a librarian I needed to read it to be in the pulse of our students and it was surprisingly good. Worth a (quick) read


  12. Tom
    January 15, 2014 at 6:48 am

    19th c French statisticians spent time trying to identify l’homme quotidien…the time would have been better spent trying to find l’homme modalité…

    NYr article is interesting…but the hoodie is a status signal only in opposition to traditional corporate behavior. Within “hoodie” corporations and startups, it’s conformist behavior. Do we really believe for a second that their employees do not experience the same procrustean social demands for conformity to group norms as exist in the traditional entities?


  13. January 15, 2014 at 11:22 pm

    I am of above average attractiveness (or at least think I am, which is just as good), so I would not take the pill. I don’t think I would decide not to hang out with people because they did take the pill, although I understand that reasoning. That strikes me a little too much as being anti-conformist for the sake of being anti-conformist rather than actually being nonconformist. I don’t really see the appeal of taking the pill for 12 hours, unless maybe it was to make you a little less visible for a while, so people wouldn’t approach you in a crowd or something. For that, though, I think a pill that made me male instead of average female would be much more effective.


  14. Mr. McKnuckles
    January 17, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    If attractiveness is having a completely average face (a view which I subscribe to – I didn’t want to find these faces pretty, but I have to admit they are smokin’), then even people who are of above average attractiveness could improve their looks by taking the pill. In other words, the more bland than most become completely bland when they take the pill.

    Another factor that affects the game – does everyone who take the pill suddenly have the same face? Or does it merely sand down the edges, making your face bland. A world where everyone looked the same and a world where everyone is equally attractive are two different things.


  15. January 20, 2014 at 10:30 am

    From Kurt Vonnegut, another approach to averaging things out:



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