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comment by ExCeph · 2017-11-05T17:07:25.242Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've been afraid that most people lack abstract reasoning for quite some time. Thank you for describing the phenomenon so clearly. However, I also fear that you may be underestimating its biggest consequence in your life.

I strongly suspect that the biggest consequence of people lacking abstract reasoning isn't that different methods are required to explain concepts to pattern-matching people, but rather that most of the systems and institutions around you have been designed by people who have or had poor abstract reasoning skills, and that this will continue to be the case unless something is done about it.

The further consequence is that these structures are only equipped to deal with situations that the designers could conceptualize, which is limited to their immediate experiences. Unprecedented situations, long-term or large-scale effects, or immediate effects that they simply have not yet learned to notice are all ignored for the purposes of design, and this results in problems that might have been avoided, maybe even easily, had abstract reasoning been applied towards the project. These sorts of problems are the bane of my existence.

Following from this, I advocate for teaching abstract reasoning, if possible, from an early age. (Ensuring that most people possess such thinking skills is my central life purposes for the foreseeable future.) I believe it is likely possible, but have not yet compiled evidence or a formal argument for its feasibility. At the very least, I believe it is worth a try, and have been working on a project to address the situation for some years now. For elaboration on why I believe it is important, I refer to my response to this post:

comment by [deleted] · 2017-11-06T12:25:39.080Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was mostly referring to my day-to-day life.

If we are talking about systemic effects, this makes much more comprehensible a wide class of social structures. However, this isn't only about leaders not having abstract reasoning. For instance, even if leaders have abstract reasoning, they still have to deal with people who don't: hence the usual pedagogy in classes.

(There is this post on SlateStarCodex where Scott says he tried teaching with the creative self-discovering pedagogy he wanted, but saw by himself that the classical boring pedagogy was the one actually working.)

I also advocate teaching abstract reasoning as early as possible. However, I disagree about the standard suggestion of teaching boolean-logic / set-theory. I think we have to go a level meta-er and teach formal proof theory, model theory and paradigms of logic in general. (Short description of the project.)

comment by CronoDAS · 2017-11-06T02:58:33.433Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How do you tell the difference between someone skilled at abstract reasoning and someone who is not?

(I thought the point of doing similar math problems over and over was so that you would memorize the algorithm to solve them and not forget it.)

comment by ExCeph · 2017-11-07T04:42:31.942Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just to add some more examples, I frequently pick up on some of the following things in casual social situations:

  • Use of textbook biases and logical fallacies
  • Reliance on "common sense" or "obviousness"
  • Failure to recognized nuanced situations (false dichotomies)
  • Failing at other minds
  • Failure to recognize diminishing marginal returns
  • Failure to draw a distinction between the following concepts:
    • Correlation and causation
    • Description and norm (is and ought)
    • Fact and interpretation
    • Necessary and sufficient
    • Entertaining an idea and accepting it

What distinguishes someone who has not learned how to think abstractly isn't just that they make these mistakes, but that when you call them on it and explain the principle to them, they still don't know what their mistake means or how it could weaken their position in any way. A good counterexample or parable usually helps them see what they're overlooking, though.

comment by [deleted] · 2017-11-07T07:52:37.388Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you pinpointed a better observable difference than I did in my answer. Most of the items in the list are implied by the failure to recognize situation.

Trying to clear that nuance with non-reasoners is an excruciating process. What reasoners would want to do is introduce the reasoning, see if the interlocutor got it, and try to apply it in the current situation. This rarely works.

They won't try to understand the reasoning (if they do, it'll be symbolic, painfully slow and they won't be able to draw connections), and will instead pattern-match on what you just said. Possibly with an other totally unrelated dynamic ("This is why you make alliances !"). There is simply too much noise, too many things to pattern-match for them to recognize the right one if you didn't convey it through an example making the dynamic especially salient.

comment by [deleted] · 2017-11-06T12:43:22.626Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Telling the difference

I mentioned several observable differences between two individuals of these classes. If you need a more fundamental one, I think it'll be quite tautological, but I can try.

Find a person you want to test, find a domain that person isn't acquainted with. Define a dynamic in that domain without giving instances of said dynamic. Then, have that person reason about an instance where that dynamic applies. The ease with which that person can do so will be indicative of their skills in abstract reasoning.

I thought the point of doing similar math problems over and over was so that you would memorize the algorithm to solve them and not forget it.

If you have a hard-time understanding the algorithm abstractly, then you'll usually switch to root-learning. But for most maths until high school graduation, there is a clear reason making the abstract algorithm work, from which it can be deduced. However, most people have a hard time grasping it, and usually train to mimicate the algorithm instead.

There are things you have to learn by-heart, though (multiplication tables). Even though it doesn't have to be through root-learning, it's still more about training a pattern-matching algorithm than understanding the underlying process.

comment by kvas · 2017-11-06T23:44:10.921Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This reminded me of this post. I like that you specifically mention that reasoning vs. pattern-matching is a spectrum and context-dependent. The advice about using examples is also good, that definitely worked for me.

Both posts also remind me of Mappers and Packers. Seems like all three are exploring roughly the same personality feature from different angles.

comment by [deleted] · 2017-11-07T08:48:37.358Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I admit I dislike the first post you linked.

  • I don't think that nerds have "real beliefs" (I don't think humans are fit for real beliefs, including stuff like "1+1=2"). I think their rationalization is more resistant. Abstract reasonings are an other kind of mental back-up, but they shouldn't be taken as the true ones.
  • I don't think people understand expressed beliefs as social affiliation. If you ask them, they say they don't.

However, I like the part where beliefs are "cached-responses", even though it misses the interaction part of beliefs and attitudes (ask someone if they are generous, chances are they'll say yes, and act more generous in the near future).

I didn't know the "Mappers and Packers" link, thanks. I've heard of "Vertical" and "Horizontal" people for that dichotomy, but "Mappers" and "Packers" sounds much better (explicit is better).

I see "Mappers" and "Packers" as distinct personality traits, rather than opposite. Like, the opposite of using abstract reasoning isn't collecting evidence, it's simply not using abstract reasoning.

I do think there is some kind of dynamic at play where, if you suck at pattern-matching, you'll try to overcompensate with abstract reasoning (think of all the nerds trying to model social interactions with their rules-based system). And conversely, if you suck at abstract reasoning, you'll get filtered out if you can't compensate with good pattern-matching.

comment by Portodiovilla · 2017-11-06T21:31:55.262Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Empirically, I agree with you that some people seem uninterested in or incapable of discussions involving abstract reasoning. It seems like some people have a framework for understanding the world that is highly dissimilar to mine, and which I would not call abstract reasoning. Yet how can one call these people non-reasoning? Is abstract reasoning not a fundamental part of the human experience?

I just can't understand what it would be like, what it would feel like from the inside. Have you broached this idea with your test subjects (who are presumably non-reasoning, under this framework)? How do they react to being told they cannot reason? Reasoning seems to me to be a deeply internal, personal process, one that is difficult to identify from the outside. Are these people really incapable fo reasoning, or do they just not know how to do it / that they can do it?

Think of more everyday examples. Making a grocery list. Planning your day. Reacting to what your friends say/do. Thinking about the future. These things require reflection, they require thought. Is this insufficient as abstract reasoning? What is the demarcation between a concept which requires abstract reasoning and one for which either abstract reasoning through symbolism or pattern matching would suffice?

comment by ExCeph · 2017-11-08T04:28:21.602Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Based on my understanding of the wide variety of human thought, there are several basic mindsets which people use to address situations and deal with problems. Many people only use the handful that come naturally to them, and the mindsets dealing with abstract reasoning are some of the least common. Abstract reasoning requires differentiating and evaluating concepts, which are not skills most people feel the need to learn, since in most cases concepts are prepackaged for their consumption. Whether these packages represent reality in any useful way is another story...

To use your examples, planning one's day takes an awareness of resources, requirements, and opportunities; an ability to prioritize them; and the generation and comparison of various options. Some people find it difficult, but usually not because they don't already have all the concepts they need. It is certainly conscious thought, but it does not deal with the abstract. This is organization mindset.

Reacting to what one's friends say and do in social situations is usually one of two related mindsets: dealing with people similar to oneself takes intuition, and usually does not call for much imagination. Feeling out the paradigms and emotions of a less similar person requires a blend of both. That leads to an appreciation for differences, but doesn't help with hard rules.

Thinking about the future doesn't require abstract reasoning, if it's just extrapolation based on past experiences, or wishful thinking blended from experiences and desires. Serious predictions, though, should have an understanding of causality, and for that, abstract thinking is necessary.

Mostly pattern-matchers make decisions based on what they think is supposed to happen in a situation, based in turn on past experiences or what they've heard, or seen on TV. They accept that things won't always work out for them, but they sometimes don't how to learn from their failures, or they learn an unbalanced lesson.

From a pattern-matcher's perspective, things just sort of happen. Sometimes they have very simple rules, although people disagree on what those rules are and mostly base their own opinion on personal experience and bias (but those who disagree are usually either obviously wrong or "just as right in their own way"). Other times things have complex and arcane rules, like magic. A person with a high "intelligence" (which is implicitly assumed to be a scalar) can make use of these rules to achieve impressive things, like Hollywood Hacking. With ill-defined limits and capabilities, such a person would be defeated either by simply taking out their hardware or by a rival hacker who is "better". The rules wouldn't mean much to the audience anyway, so they're glossed over or blurred beyond recognition.

Does that help with visualizing non-abstract thought?

comment by [deleted] · 2017-11-07T09:04:23.835Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You asked a lot of good questions. Indeed, this is only an introductory post. This comment might be long (I actually managed to make it short). I might use it for a follow-up post. I assume you are interested in the answers.

Is abstract reasoning not a fundamental part of the human experience?

I don't think so anymore. I think me believing so was a case of typical mind fallacy.

I just can't understand what it would be like, what it would feel like from the inside.

I really like that part. Because this dichotomy actually enables me to understand how it feels from the side. Until now, I used personal models similar to this, that worked in some situations, but were obviously not representatitve of the inner thoughts of people.

Now, I model it as "How would you understand this / react to this if you had this set of experiences, worked your 'inconscious pattern matching' so that you can do the required things, and can only use limited reasoning ?". And this works. And this is highly similar to what people describe.

Have you broached this idea with your test subjects (who are presumably non-reasoning, under this framework)?

Talk with any non-nerd and ask them questions about their interiority. About why they have some particular beliefs. About how they make life choices.

How do they react to being told they cannot reason?

This is not how it's framed. It's more like "This isn't abstract reasoning that led you to most of your core beliefs, and this isn't through abstract reasoning that you make most of your choices.". And they are like "Eh.". They see it as symbolic logic. They react the same that you would react to someone telling you that you don't formal-proof all your life-choices.

They are right in reacting this way, most nerds don't win at life more than other people. People with good pattern-matching skills in social situations do.

Are these people really incapable fo reasoning, or do they just not know how to do it / that they can do it?

I think you can train. I have a friend who's bad at abstract reasoning. But he was interested in understanding things. He trained a lot. He still doesn't "look" smart, but he has the right attitude and got much better since I knew him.

However, if you aren't interested in Truth, and aren't already gifted with it (not as an innate thing, like, your environment and education play a part too), I think this isn't really interesting to most adults.

Like, you don't need abstract reasoning to live a cozy life.

Think of more everyday examples.

These everyday examples are really good questions. My answer is simple, and horrible:

  • Symbolism wouldn't suffice. Even if it would, they wouldn't trust it (this is not a bad thing).
  • Pattern matching doesn't suffice.

That's why most people don't react in an intelligent way, this is why people make particularly bad choices about the future. If planning the day/making the grocery list requires more than checking-up a mental list because of a particular occasion, they'll more likely fail.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2017-11-07T22:00:58.056Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think what you are seeing is a consequence of different levels of postformal developmental complexity (at least within particular domains). You might be interested in Michael Commons's work on developmental psychology as I think it can explain much of what you're seeing and help you develop developmentally targeted methods of communication since that seems to be of interest to you.