It's Not About The Nail

post by eapache (evan-huus) · 2020-04-26T23:50:55.973Z · score: 28 (19 votes) · LW · GW · 8 comments

[This is hardly original; I’m documenting for my own sake since it took so long for me to understand. Cross-posted from Grand, Unified, Crazy.]

There’s an old saw, that when a women complains she wants sympathy, but when a man hears a complaint, he tries to solve the problem. This viral YouTube video captures it perfectly.

Of course it’s not strictly limited by gender, that’s just the stereotype. And the underlying psychological details are fairly meaty; this article captures a lot of it pretty well for me.

I’ve known about all this for a long time now, and it’s always made sense at a sort of descriptive level of how people behave and what people need. But despite reading that article (and a good reddit thread) I’ve never really understood the “why”. What is the actual value of listening and “emotional support” in these kind of scenarios? Why do people need that? Well I finally had it happen to me recently when I was aware enough to notice the meta, and thus write this post.

I now find it easiest to think about in terms of the second-order psychological effects of bad things happening. When a bad thing happens to you, that has direct, obvious bad effects on you. But it also has secondary effects on your model of the world. Your mind (consciously or subconsciously) now has new information that the world is slightly less safe or slightly less predictable than it thought before. And of course the direct, obvious bad effects make you vulnerable (not just “feel” vulnerable, although normally that too – they make you actually vulnerable because you’ve just taken damage, so further damage becomes increasingly dangerous).

Obviously sometimes, and depending on the scenario, the first-order effect dominates and you really should just solve that problem directly. This is what makes the video so absurd – having a nail in your head is hard to beat in terms of the first-order effects dominating. But in real versions of these cases, sometimes the second-order effects are more significant, or more urgent, or at the least more easily addressable. In these cases it’s natural to want to address the second-order effects first. And the best way to do that is talking about it.

Talking about a problem to somebody you have a close relationship with addresses these second-order effects in a pretty concrete way: it reaffirms the reliability of your relationship in a way that makes the world feel more safe and predictable, and it informs an ally of your damage so that they can protect you while you’re vulnerable and healing. But of course you don’t accomplish this by talking directly about the second-order problem. The conversation is still, at the object level, about the first-order problem, which is why it’s so easy to misinterpret. To make it worse, the second-order problems are largely internal, and thus invisible, so it’s easy for whoever you’re talking to to assume they’re “not that bad” and that the first-order problem dominates, even when it doesn’t.

Working through this has given me some ideas to try the next time this happens to me. At a guess, the best way to handle it is to open the conversation with something like “I need you to make me feel safe” before you get into the actual first-order problem, but I guess we’ll see.

8 comments

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comment by William Walker (william-walker) · 2020-04-28T22:38:44.714Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Now we can launch into the "I could fix this in ten seconds if you'd stop lamenting it for ten seconds" discussion ;)

Never did understand why that Cimmerian would hang around listening to the lamenting for hour after hour... barbarians are strange.

comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2020-04-27T21:20:49.989Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are problems which are never meant to be solved. Like living with a mad dependent relative or something like that, which makes "me" want to take out a metaphysical knife and wound the listener's very soul for not having been there.

(I personally am very lucky in life.)

...so I kinda have a special mind unit to slash at inside my own head. Whining at my husband does happen, but he has this great "yeah, and here we are, gosling" hug thing which makes most everything bearable.

comment by IceMan88 · 2020-05-03T01:49:30.265Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd like to add here (not in defense of the woman or whatever the video implies in a negative tone) that removing the nail itself might have more problems than if you just left it in for the time being. And in an realistic scenario, why exactly would you remove a nail from your forehead without proper medical attention or professionals around? That's just stupid. I myself was the recipient of several negative sources of attention some years ago from former friends (keyword: former) regarding some issues I had in the moment with living with some bad roommates. The cons outweighed the pros of living with them but I wasn't remotely in a good enough spot to move out or even find new roommates due to a lack of decent income, savings, and depression issues. They would pitch to me a slew of ideas for extra income, all of which required considerable investment of time and money with no real guarantee it would give back in due time.

I did make this known many times and they elected to say that I was being an idiot, lazy, and just trying to fish around for attention. I knew exactly what I had to do at the time, but at the moment I just didn't have the opportunity to do so and thus I was only looking to vent.

In short, that time in my life was my own nail in my head and I didn't want to start working on removing it without proper support from people who were willing to understand my situation as well as overcoming my other problems first. And I think that's just what a lot of people may not consider when looking at that video first, especially judging by some of the comments I've seen down there...

comment by abramdemski · 2020-04-29T01:45:49.033Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But it also has secondary effects on your model of the world. Your mind (consciously or subconsciously) now has new information that the world is slightly less safe or slightly less predictable than it thought before.

Are you saying that there's a bias to over-update in favor of the world being bad? And that talking it out helps correct for that?

I would guess:

  • Sometimes people over-update, but people under-update too; not clear which direction the overall bias would be if any.
  • Over-updating might cause one to run to one's allies for more support, but doesn't usually cause one to seek reassurance of the kind that corrects for the bias; e.g. someone doing this would find reassuring words like "you'll make it through this" reassuring, but wouldn't be explicitly seeking them out -- there's no reason to specifically seek evidence in one direction, that doesn't make sense
  • On the other hand, people might play at over-updating in order to get sympathy and reassurances. This (not-necessarily-conscious) tactic can put one in a better position in a group dynamic, as others attempt to make you feel better.

Talking about a problem to somebody you have a close relationship with addresses these second-order effects in a pretty concrete way: it reaffirms the reliability of your relationship in a way that makes the world feel more safe and predictable,

Is it reaffirming something that already should/could be known (so perhaps helping mitigate a bias)? Or is it really gathering important new information?

Gathering new information can make sense: even long-established partnerships can go sour, so it totally makes sense to gather information on how strong your partnerships are. And it also might especially make sense when you've discovered a new problem or updated toward the world being a bit harder to deal with in general.

And it also makes sense that this would end up being a weird indirect kind of conversation to have, since just asking "is our partnership strong?" is not a very good signalling equilibrium -- too easy to just say "yes".

(Not saying that's the actual answer, though. I think perhaps there are yet more complexities here.)

comment by eapache (evan-huus) · 2020-04-29T11:09:57.167Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I’d say there’s a strong tendency to over-update just because of recency bias.

comment by abramdemski · 2020-05-01T19:17:44.938Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, I see. But to what extent is recency bias irrational vs just a good prior for the world we live in?

comment by Alexei · 2020-04-27T20:48:14.537Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I’ve been aware and working on this dynamic for many years now, but I haven’t thought about it from this perspective. It feels pretty helpful! I think the underlying assumption is “of course I can deal with the first-order problem myself. But it would be helpful to not worry about the second-order effects while I do it.”

comment by Isnasene · 2020-04-28T22:47:43.900Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Admittedly the first time I read this I was confused because you went "When a bad thing happens to you, that has direct, obvious bad effects on you. But it also has secondary effects on your model of the world." This gave the sense that the issue was with the model of the world and not the world itself. This isn't what you meant but I made a list of reasons talking is a thing people do anyway:

  • When you become more vulnerable and the world is less predictable, the support systems you have for handling those things which were created in a more safe/predictable world will have a greater burden. Talking to people in that support system about the issue makes them aware of it and establishes precedent for you requesting more help than usual in the future. Pro-active support system preparation.
  • Similar to talking as a way re-affirming relationships (like you mentioned), talking can also be used directly to strengthen relationships. This might not solve the object-level problem but it gives you more slack to solve it. Pro-active support system building.
  • Even when talking doesn't seem to be providing a solution, it still often provides you information about the problem at hand. For instance, someone else's reaction to your problem can help you gauge its severity and influence your strategy. Often times you don't actually want to find the solution to the problem immediately -- you want to collect a lot of information so you can slowly process it until you reach a conclusion. Information collection.
    • Similarly this is really good if you actually want to solve the problem but don't trust the person you're talking to to actually give you good solutions.
  • Even when talking doesn't seem to be providing a solution, talking typically improves your reasoning ability anyway -- see rubber duck debugging for instance. Note that literally talking about your problems to a rubber duck is more trouble than its worth in cases where "I'm talking about my problems to a rubber duck" is an emotionally harmful concept
  • People are evolved to basically interact with far fewer people than we actually interact with today. In the modern world, talking to someone about a problem often has little impact. But back in the day, talking to one of the dozen or so people in your tribe could have massive utility. In this sense I think that talking to people about problems is kinda instinctual and has built in emotional benefits.