"Life Experience" as a Conversation-Halter

post by Seth_Goldin · 2010-03-18T19:39:40.860Z · score: 11 (28 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 65 comments

Sometimes in an argument, an older opponent might claim that perhaps as I grow older, my opinions will change, or that I'll come around on the topic.  Implicit in this claim is the assumption that age or quantity of experience is a proxy for legitimate authority.  In and of itself, such "life experience" is necessary for an informed rational worldview, but it is not sufficient.

The claim that more "life experience" will completely reverse an opinion indicates that the person making such a claim believes that opinions from others are based primarily on accumulating anecdotes, perhaps derived from extensive availability bias.  It actually is a pretty decent assumption that other people aren't Bayesian, because for the most part, they aren't.  Many can confirm this, including Haidt, Kahneman, and Tversky.

When an opponent appeals to more "life experience," it's a last resort, and it's a conversation halter.  This tactic is used when an opponent is cornered.  The claim is nearly an outright acknowledgment of moving to exit the realm of rational debate.  Why stick to rational discourse when you can shift to trading anecdotes?  It levels the playing field, because anecdotes, while Bayesian evidence, are easily abused, especially for complex moral, social, and political claims.  As rhetoric, this is frustratingly effective, but it's logically rude.

Although it might be rude and rhetorically weak, it would be authoritatively appropriate for a Bayesian to be condescending to a non-Bayesian in an argument.  Conversely, it can be downright maddening for a non-Bayesian to be condescending to a Bayesian, because the non-Bayesian lacks the epistemological authority to warrant such condescension.  E.T. Jaynes wrote in Probability Theory about the arrogance of the uninformed, "The semiliterate on the next bar stool will tell you with absolute, arrogant assurance just how to solve the world's problems; while the scholar who has spent a lifetime studying their causes is not at all sure how to do this."


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Steve_Rayhawk · 2010-03-18T21:55:50.670Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If someone has made a claim that they have life experience and their opinion, that is an observation, so its significance as at least outside-view evidence can still be interpreted in Bayesian terms. That means there is still analyzable evidence on the table, so the conversation doesn't have to halt: you can quote their claim as an observation, and argue about its interpretation as evidence. "So then, what are the odds that people with your claimed amount of life experience would have your opinion if that opinion were true, versus if that opinion were false? Are there other things that might cause people with your claimed amount of life experience to have your opinion without its still being true?"

comment by Dagon · 2010-03-19T01:22:52.287Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As I've become an old fart, I've found myself using such statements occasionally. And I believe correctly. There ARE topics on which a large amount of difficult-to-communicate experience can make a difference.

To a wannabe bayesean like myself, I'd probably phrase it as:

"This topic is complicated and the evidence that changed my probability estimates over the last few decades is hard to communicate. I find it likely that you will accumulate such evidence as you experience more things, but I don't know how to speed that process up."

Of course, I wouldn't classify such a correspondent as an opponent, just as another truthseeker with a different set of evidence. Also, in many cases, if we agree on some basics, we can profitably disassemble the argument to find subcomponents on which we CAN respect each other enough to find agreement.

I don't mean to say that this isn't rude or annoying, just that sometimes it's correct. Pointing out to someone that they haven't updated (or updated sufficiently) based on your communication of belief is pretty much going to be rude. But so is the fact that you didn't update (sufficiently) when you learned this belief in the first place.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-19T02:27:12.925Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, turnabout is fair play. I'm not an old fart, but I've been in a position known for pleading inability to convey their knowledge to the unwashed masses until they they get roughly the same experience. Specifically, that of a graduate student (in control systems), working on a problem at the boundary of current knowledge.

I was very interested in learning what it would be like to get to a state where I literally could not explain the problem I'm working on to people far outside my field (though of course that was not why I went to grad school).

And you know what? It never happened. To an intelligent person, I was always capable of bringing them up to speed on the problem I was on and the related mathematical tools and formalisms. It certainly took some time as I had to fill in the gaps in their mathematical background, but absolutely not on the order of years. Maybe an hour or two instead.

I might one day find strong enough evidence to reverse my position, but for now, as best I can tell, the excuse of "you have to gain years of experience to understand my position" has been so overused, that it is extremely weak evidence whenever someone offers such a self-assessment.

I think what's happening is a combination of the "unwilling" and "unable" factors:

Unwilling: You take a deep hit to your status anytime you provide others with enough knowledge to obviate your sage wisdom.

Unable: If you haven't gotten into the programmer's mindset, you're all too quick to assume any problem has to be done manually and can't be converted into steps so simple that a machine could do it. "Nah nah, to play good chess requires special intuition, there's no way you can just break it down into a rulebook."

comment by mattnewport · 2010-03-19T05:34:01.673Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Many of the types of activities that people claim require years of experience to master and cannot be easily communicated are also the very types of activities that we currently have no good idea how to program a computer to master however.

I'm a little skeptical of appeals to experience but it does appear that there are certain skills that humans can master through practice but that they cannot easily explain in words. Over time computers are chipping away at the boundaries of problems that require special human intuition but there do still appear to be genuine skills that cannot currently be easily taught or expressed in software.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-19T14:29:43.304Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps chess was a bad example, since it's not the human that contains Deep Blue's rulebook. But this excuse is used for more than just difficult AI problems; it's used for justifying moral intuitions, research inscrutability (like I thought I would see in grad school), and professional skills (like medical diagnosis, on which fairly simple expert systems beat out real doctors, and which analysis of images actually has extremely simple algorithms doctors didn't know they were using).

In the majority of cases, it's a simple matter of refusal to do the introspection necessary to identify what it is you're actually thinking, and/or an unwillingness to take the hit to status (either because you lose your mystique or because you open yourself to scrutiny you don't feel you deserve). "You" in the general sense, of course.

To give a particularly apt example, I was a libertarian for a long time before I first encountered rational justifications for laws and taboos regarding sex. And it's because their proponents aren't doing the introspection necessary to find these more general arguments.

The very fact that people found my point on homosexuality insightful, and that Morendil had never encountered the crucial underlying issue, despite (what I find to be) a sincere commitment to understanding it, is proof that a huge class of people (on a major debate, no less), were unjustifiably appealing to this inability to explain. That needs to stop.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-03-19T15:26:25.353Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

While I don't disagree with your general point, I think there are many cases where it's not just a failure to introspect that makes it difficult for people to explain insights or skills that come from experience. Introspection just doesn't work very well in such cases.

Your medical examples highlight this. The fact that doctors have difficulty explaining exactly what they are doing when they perform a diagnosis is not fixed simply by a bit of introspection. Reverse engineering the process or independently developing an algorithm with comparable performance is not trivial.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-19T15:48:05.803Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

IIRC the biggest barrier, by far, to algorithmizing the doctor-priest class's intuitional method of analyzing CAT scans, diagnosing, etc. was impediments by doctors themselves and their organizations, not the inherent difficulty of identifying the algorithm.

I think there are many cases where it's not just a failure to introspect that makes it difficult for people to explain insights or skills that come from experience. Introspection just doesn't work very well in such cases.

I accept that one might not be able to convey the experiences that lead to the insight, but one should be able to state the insight ex cathedra so that relevant counterarguments (those not dependent on having gone through the exerience) can be identified.

A characteristic example from the general population might be, "Hey, until you've actually lived through a plane crash like I have, you'll never understand why I'm so skeptical about aviation safety protocols." Well, no. Such an experience might give me a fear of flying, but that fear would be irrational. The fact that someone can't directly impress that terror upon you does not substantiate their conclusion, and so the experience differential is irrelevant.

comment by thomblake · 2010-03-22T18:39:40.624Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hey, until you've actually lived through a plane crash like I have, you'll never understand why I'm so skeptical about aviation safety protocols.

Chinese Neo-Confucian philosopher Cheng Yi suggested not only that this sort of thinking was reasonable, but indeed that the "personal experience" sort of knowledge (sometimes "genuine knowledge") is superior, especially for moral behavior.


comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-22T18:45:43.165Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Heh, yeah, that Cheng Yi sure missed the mark, eh?

Wait -- what was your point, again? :-/

comment by thomblake · 2010-03-22T19:35:43.403Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My response to your obvious question was the ::shrug::. I try to let loose my esoteric knowledge where it seems appropriate, even though I didn't see much of a point this time.

Perhaps, "Even respected philosophers have gotten this wrong."

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-23T03:38:54.877Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh. Sorry, I misunderstood. Carry on! :-)

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-19T16:48:20.199Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mind you, I do suspect the point you raise, while valid enough to consider, is nowhere near most (intolerant) people's true rejection of homosexuality.

Agree with you that "you'll get around to my view" could often be a reflex defense disguising "I know that I'm right but I can't be bothered to examine my real reasons".

comment by MatthewB · 2010-03-20T14:59:17.426Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd also like to point out that many Homosexuals wish to have children (in one form of reproduction or another)... At least today this is the case. I cannot say if it has always been the case though.

However, you are correct. It wouldn't matter, as most people's objections to homosexuality are based upon fear and disgust. Pity that...

comment by wnoise · 2010-03-19T03:27:26.763Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe an hour or two instead.

That's often too long to be reasonable, of course.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-20T23:32:06.480Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In some contexts, yes; in others -- like where they claim it's extremely important for you to believe, and took them years to get there -- it's quite a high rate of return to convey that information to you in an hour, and eminently reasonable to do so.

Also, I strongly suspect that most people in research positions haven't truly made their knowledge part of themselves, and so they couldn't ground it in its ultimate purpose (i.e. show how it relates to the rest of the world and show relevance to a layperson) even if they were given infinite time.

(Yes, I know I link that article a lot, because it's good.)

If I were wrong, you wouldn't see people so often fumbling through their explanation of how to use calculus and statistics properly in their fields, and you'd see researchers more often breaking down their problem into a purely mathematical one and hand it off to the experts at that. I remember reading an article recently that showed how ecologists have just now gotten around to using the method of adjacency matrix eigenvectors (i.e. PageRank) to identify crucial species in an ecosystem.

comment by MatthewB · 2010-03-20T15:06:41.750Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am not sure what to make of this, because I do think that many times the "When you get to be my age..." argument is often used to shut down an opponent. But... I also think that at times it has merit.

For instance, I don't know of a single one of the fellow art students who could understand the argument for needing to do 500 tracings a week when the instructor told us "At the end of the semester, you will understand why you needed to do them. At least, those of you who do them will understand why"

And, he was right, yet most of us were angry that he could have communicated this more effectively had he tried. However, if he had done a better job of telling us why we needed to do 500 tracings a week, it is likely that fewer of us would have done the 500 tracings a week (also supported by past evidence of when he used to give a fuller explanation to his classes. We could see in both the grades and the classes' work that they had not put in their time)... So, in that case, there was a motivational factor to have us gain the experience on our own, instead of trying to gain it through proxy.

BTW, the reason that we did 500 tracings a week was much like the whole Karate Kid "Wax On", "Wax Off" thing... So that our bodies would learn the motions of drawing, leaving our brains free to think about composition or morphology of the image on which we were working. Except that it was long before the movie ever came out.

comment by Dee · 2010-03-25T12:07:47.426Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would love to get some examples on how "life experience" in general is necessary for an informed and rational opinion on a subject. The examples in these comments seem to relate to not "life experience" but specific experience (i.e. doing tracings, playing chess, etc.) Yet people seem to think that "life experience" in general adds "something" and that further conversation on the subject cannot substitute for it.

As someone whose peer group is generally much older than me, I can say from comparing myself to others that "life experience" doesn't add to your knowlege or intelligence or mental development, past a certain age. What it does add is context. As you get older, your context shifts--certain things that you thought were important no longer are important and certain things become more important. I think it's explaining this context shift that is so difficult (but not impossible!)

For instance, my younger self had serious worries about her relationship that now seem trivial. This is because I've learned that communication and trust are much more important to having a healthy relationship than physically being close to someone. And this context shift comes from simply life experiences in dealing with people.

comment by MatthewB · 2010-03-27T08:23:40.615Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sports... That requires a form of Life Experience in order to gain an informed set of opinions on the subject.

When playing something like Soccer/Football, the basic skills may be imparted through training, yet the ability to successfully play with others on a field is going to take experience in learning how the whole of a team interacts both with you and against you (speaking in third person).

Another area where I understand that Life-Experience is not to be communicated is in the field of certain types of military, paramilitary or intelligence gathering activities. Like Art, there are basic skills which must be learned through your typical learning patterns, yet the application of those skills is something that I learned (in VERY hard and dangerous situations) only through life experience. My would be peers tried to tell me, and warn me as best they could. Told me that there were various situations that would come up for which there was no fixed answer, no set play, and that only having a set of basic skills that were honed as well as could be would save my pitiful ass once I found myself in those situations (fortunately for me, I recalled the words of my art teacher "You won't know why you are doing these things until after you have done them.")... And, since I had paid attention to the basic skill set needed, I was able to put it to good use to save my skin and that of others when the time came. It was only by life experience that I learned about the communities and personalities involved. Those are things that cannot be learned from a book.

Just like on a sports field, there are personalities and the character of the moment that arises in a play that cannot be taught, and must be learned through doing.

Even doing those tracings that I mentioned. We got something out of that that the other students who didn't put in their time would spend years to learn, and it was something that even a full explanation by our instructor wouldn't have taught us (as we all realized after having done what we were told). We learned that we needed to have a reflexive ability to react in order to be able to take in a situation, rather than having to concentrate upon things that should be instinctive, and thus miss out on an opportunity to learn something we would miss otherwise.

comment by RobinHanson · 2010-03-21T12:00:00.510Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You should declare your age here, and whether you have ever known so much more about anything, relative to someone else, that this might have been a valid claim for you to make in a conversation.

Telling someone that they just lack enough experience to appreciate some point is, if true, extremely valuable info. If it seems reasonable to end the conversation after receiving such info, then why shouldn't the conversation end at that point? The issue isn't Bayesian vs. not, but how easily could they communicate all the specific data on which their overall judgment is based.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-22T18:01:01.656Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm 28, and I can't recall ever having to use this excuse while believing it to be a valid response. (And I reached my grad school conclusion Seth mentions when I was about his current age.)

This may be selective memory, so I could be wrong. The closest I've come on here was when I expressed shock at Alicorn's suggestion of "Why don't you just meet women on the internet?", but I could have given an answer had not HughRistik given a thorough one shortly thereafter.

In non-argumentative contexts, when I'm trying to explain something, I'll usually say, "I could explain this, and I'm sure you're capable of understanding it, but it would take a while to explain it" -- and then of course do so if they want to and I have the time. If there are steps in the explanation I don't understand, I admit it.

If I ever appeal to experience, I give an explanation of what insight that experience gives so that my opponent will be able to identify counterarguments.

Perhaps you could count my sensitivity to noise, and how I can't explain that to someone who doesn't have the same conscious experience of noise, but I can at least explain its effect on me.

To everyone, my advice would be:

1) Your job isn't as hard as you claim.
2) If you can't explain it, that says more about your own understanding of it than its actual complexity.
3) You can probably convey more knowledge than you expect.

comment by Seth_Goldin · 2010-03-22T17:07:45.115Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Prof. Hanson,

I'm 22, and haven't encountered an opportunity where I thought to use this claim. There are probably instances where it would have been factually appropriate for me to do so, but I'm not inclined to make this point, because it seems to me like a cop-out.

Maybe I would have difficulty in explaining something highly technical or specialized to someone with no background, but crying "life experience" doesn't seem to be the proper response. It's far too vague. I would find it more appropriate to direct my debate partner to the specialized or technical material they haven't studied to understand why my position might be different.

The problem is that nebulously appealing to "life experience" doesn't even grant how the debate partner is uninformed. It's as if the person with more "life experience" is on such a higher level of understanding that they can't even communicate how their additional information informs their understanding. Like Silas Barta, I'm skeptical that even the most informed and educated people would ever be simply unable to explain the basic ideas of even the most difficult material. When this claim is not used to try to explain how their training or experience leads them to a different conclusion, I suspect that more often than not, their differing position isn't actually about any specialized training, just that their line of argumentation has run out of steam.

In critiquing postmodernism, Noam Chomsky wrote, "True, there are lots of other things I don't understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want."

comment by RobinHanson · 2010-03-22T22:06:15.551Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well most 22 year old are much less likely to have learned so much about something that they find it very hard to explain it to another adult. It isn't usually that one can't point in the direction of the basic idea, it is that your audience doesn't find such general pointing to be very persuasive.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-22T22:18:57.006Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But you should be capable of more than just "pointing in the direction of the basic idea"; you should be able to explain the full idea, from its layman-level foundations, all the way up to its bordering on humanity's collective knowledge. If you can't do that, well, start brushing up on your field's grounding, because you've probably overcompartmentalized.

comment by RobinHanson · 2010-03-22T22:38:28.101Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For most real things that someone has learned over a lifetime, it just isn't feasible to explain most of what they know and why in any modest conversation. One can point in that direction quickly, but the whole shebang is just way way too much to explain.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-22T22:47:55.589Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But the advantage of it being a conversation is that you don't have to explain all of it. Rather, you take as large inferential steps as you like, and when you get to the point where someone thinks your reasoning is too hasty or otherwise unjustified, they can stop you and point out the unsatisfying part, and you can explain that part in greater detail.

Also, you needn't tell the full experiential content when making your point; just say, e.g., "Over this time I concluded that it is important to have several close friends". If your conversation partner already accepts that part of the chain, then of course you don't need to list all the experiences that led up to that conclusion. But if they don't, then you can start to say how your experiences support that sub-point, going into greater detail as necessary.

That's assuming, of course, you actually know how it all fits together.

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-22T17:33:00.353Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Prof. Hanson,

Wow, that's formal.

comment by Seth_Goldin · 2010-03-22T17:53:08.338Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, I am an undergrad right now, at least for a couple more months.

comment by Jack · 2010-03-22T22:13:48.156Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am too, but this is the internet not a classroom. Call him "Robin" or "dude" or "listen man", whatever.

comment by Seth_Goldin · 2010-03-22T23:38:08.086Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I know you two are joking, but I will take this opportunity to point out that I really do appreciate the culture of humility on Less Wrong. It's Yudkowsky's eighth virtue. I am aware of my profound ignorance as a mere 22-year-old undergrad.

Alternatively, is this a plea for the Skinnerian, egalitarian abolition of honorifics, as from Walden Two?

comment by cupholder · 2010-03-23T13:13:52.488Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I look at it this way: because people choose their own usernames on this site, referring to them by their usernames is a safe choice. (For instance, I'm perfectly happy when other Less Wrong posters refer to me as 'cupholder,' even though for all they know I'm a janitor, or a professor of psychometrics at Arizona State, or Douglas Hofstadter or the president of the US.)

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-23T19:24:28.189Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I put the odds of you being the current President at significantly less than one in 1.4 billion.

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-23T00:03:35.247Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No joke (and I don't know about Walden Two).

The norm on this forum is to leave out any form of address from nearly all comments and replies to people's comments, so your addressing Robin as "Prof. Hanson" stuck out glaringly.

In the context of this discussion, it seemed as if you'd interpreted Robin's request as a "status transaction" and decided to respond in kind. The honorific foregrounds Robin's academic credentials and downplays the (tacitly assumed) norm that this blog is a conversation among peers, where evidence and argument are sought more than assurances of authority.

Humility, as I understand it from the Twelve Virtues pamphlet, isn't about comparing yourself to others. It is about comparing yourself to who you will become.

comment by Seth_Goldin · 2010-03-23T00:19:31.445Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Noted, thanks.

comment by Document · 2010-03-23T02:07:22.040Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For what it's worth, titles look too formal to me too, but naked first names look exaggeratedly friendly or diminutive; initialisms look more natural. Abbreviated or one-syllable first names are in between.

Edit: On further thought, that doesn't really relate to the topic of modes of address. I'm with Morendil that they're usually redundant here.

comment by MatthewB · 2010-03-21T12:13:04.380Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This was the basic gist of the earlier response that I made... Only, ironically, I could only recount it as an anecdote.

I have to give it to my art instructor though, because his lesson on gaining personal experience has really carried over into other fields well. His comments ended, temporarily, the conversation until we had gathered the requisite skills and experience to understand both his position and what we were doing. After we finished the assignment (and consequently the semester), those of us who did the work then could understand his reasoning far better than those of the class who had not done the work.

comment by Jack · 2010-03-19T22:45:44.297Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What about "You just can't understand what it is like to be an x in this society." where x is some gender, race or other social classification?

comment by Bo102010 · 2010-03-20T14:00:20.208Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Such sentiments are obviously nefarious when used as a conversation-halter or as an excuse for bad behavior, but can often be true.

For example, you and I probably just can't understand what it's like to be in a violent relationship (if you think "Why don't they just leave?", then you don't get it). Counselors who work with such people don't get it either, and helping them involves recognizing this fact.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-20T23:54:08.951Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For example, you and I probably just can't understand what it's like to be in a violent relationship (if you think "Why don't they just leave?", then you don't get it).

Like a lot of relationship-clueless males, I have long thought that, and I accept that I therefore don't "get it". But really, whose fault is that? To me, this looks like Yet Another Case of a large group of people, for reasons of status, not applying the introspection, or the imagination of others' perspectives, that's necessary to articulate the error in "Why don't you just leave?"

If I were to take the perspective of a battered wife and make a genuine effort to articulate the flaw in that thinking, based on the real Silas Barta's best understanding of the psychological and sociological dynamics, I would say something like this:

"You do not see how much I have to lose by leaving this relationship. While I have suffered violently at the hands of my husband, he is still the best father I can expect my children to have, and my children are far more important to me than anything else.

"Furthermore, as a woman, for well-understood evolutionary reasons, I have a much stronger fear of abandonment and associated harm, which would be triggered by such a drastic measure as terminating the relationship. Also, because my husband is so smart, strong, and influential (part of why I was attracted to him in the first place), I fear reprisals from leaving him, and for me to risk ceding sole control of the children to him would put them in danger as well, which, again, I can't allow to happen."

There, that didn't require you to have been in a violent relationship to appreciate, now, did it?

DISCLAIMER: I obviously don't know if that correctly represents what goes through a battered wife's mind (or otherwise generates her emotions), but it's my best guess, and consistent with the oft-claimed inability to explain it. And, of course, it only handles the case of a marriage with children involved, not other common cases like bf/gf.

Counselors who work with such people don't get it either, and helping them involves recognizing this fact.

What? I suspect women who have "been there" are likely to be counselors, and would certainly understand.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-06-17T03:22:39.079Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To pop in 3 months after the fact: I'm a man and I was once in an abusive relationship, which I left for reasons unrelated to the abuse.

Nancy hit the nail on the head when she emphasized the effect of emotional abuse; the reason I didn't "just leave" that abusive relationship was that I had been convinced that it wasn't in my best interest. (I'm making a conscious effort here to not generalize from my experience, though I suspect that the situation was fairly typical.) The most devastating psychological tactic my abuser used was convincing me that in each conflict that led to physical abuse, I was to blame. If I had only behaved better (by, say, not voicing a disagreement in front of our friends), then the violence wouldn't have happened; it didn't matter that I wasn't the one that escalated things to that level. After all, I started it.

By refusing to let me walk away from an argument without admitting fault (using violence, if necessary), my abuser then ensured that every conflict ended with another grievance that could be used as ammunition in later arguments. If I tried to go back on my previous admittance of fault on the grounds that it had been coerced, then the problem became that I was lying in our arguments because it was convenient.

I think that one of the reasons that it's so hard to "just leave" an abusive relationship is that abusers taboo criticizing them. And if you have an opinion that you can't speak aloud to anyone (because abusers often cut off the ability to have private conversations with friends, because if you ever want to do anything without them you're demonstrating you don't love them), it becomes very hard to feel confident enough about that opinion to act on it. Abusers can just throw lots of bad arguments at you as to why they're and you're wrong, and trying to argue is just further proof of your unworthiness. They win on volume, not by being anything that resembles rational.

In an atmosphere of abuse, it's very hard to find the will to leave. If I hadn't had other reasons for leaving that relationship, I'm afraid I'd still be trapped in it today. And it's worth noting that I'm smarter/more rational than most people. (I really dislike how arrogant that sounds, but I can't think of a better way of formulating the idea without equivocating.)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-03-21T01:16:35.412Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haven't been in a violent relationship, but I've read a fair amount on why people frequently don't leave.

One piece is that physical abuse is commonly accompanied by emotional abuse-- the abuser keeps saying that the abusee is to incompetent to live on their own and too unattractive to get another mate. It's not uncommon for people who feel they are in an inferior position, whether because of violence or just because the other person sounds very certain, to accept that sort of assessment.

There are women who stay because the man is the best father they think they can find, and leave when they realize he's abusing their children.

I'm being gender-non-specific for most of this because, while men are apt to have more financial resources to leave and perhaps less reason to fear extreme violence, the emotional dynamics aren't too different.

Sometimes the abuse has built up slowly. People can be very bad at judging how bad a situation has become, especially if the problems are intermittent.

Sometimes the abuser is inconsistent-- alternating abuse with intense apologies and/or affection. This can make the abusee confused, especially if they've bought into the idea that "love" excuses everything. Not just the abuser's claims of loving them, but that they feel love for the abuser means that the abusee shouldn't care about their own quality of life. This isn't just personal pathology, it's part of the culture.

Also, abusers are apt to isolate their victims from friends and family, thus making practical and emotional help with leaving less likely.

While it's fading, it's not uncommon to believe (sometimes for religious reasons) that family stability should completely trump personal quality of life.

It's financially difficult to leave.

Abusers are apt to become more violent (sometimes to the point of murder) when they feel abandoned.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-21T02:15:42.411Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, that's a helpful summary. (And, regarding the topic, I don't that explanation requires one to have been abused to understand.)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-03-21T02:32:46.637Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're welcome.

I agree that it isn't necessary to have been abused to understand, but there are different kinds of understanding.

There's the "that makes sense to me" sort of understanding, and there's the appreciation of feeling, detail, and implication which comes from living through a thing.

I think "you just can't understand" has a least a few sources. One is giving up if the second sort of understanding can't be conveyed. One is not yet having a confusing and painful situation clear in one's mind. Another is dealing with people (and they aren't rare) who ask painful questions without listening to the answers.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-21T02:50:48.043Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I largely agree. Using your terminology, my dispute is with those who refuse to attempt to convey the first sort of understanding, simply because they can't convey the second sort of understanding. (Or, more generally, those who use the impossibility of passing on a high, unreachable standard of understanding, as a reason to make no attempt to communicate it to a weaker standard.)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-03-21T03:20:49.067Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This living with people thing is complicated.

I make a hobby of explaining things and I'm fairly good at it. I just came up with my two kinds of understanding theory when I wrote that comment.

I don't think it's reasonable to expect most people to have a handle on what sorts of understanding there are. If anyone knows of a system which includes the idea, please let me know.

What I'm hoping is clear is that if someone tells you "you just can't understand", it may be more about their ability to explain or willingness to expend patience rather than an absolute barrier.

The practical and emotional reasons why people don't leave abusive relationships aren't a secret-- I can believe you thought you had to figure it out for yourself (and thank you for trying--- many would have just stopped at the idea that those who don't leave are weak or foolish) because the "you can't understand" contingent implied strongly that there were no sources of information to be had.

Actually, googling on "why doesn't she leave" turns up quite a bit, though some of the first few hits says it's the wrong question.

comment by Bo102010 · 2010-03-21T02:51:49.863Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are many variations on a joke the goes like this:

A physicist, engineer, and mathematician are each captured by Omega and placed in sealed rooms with canned food, but no can openers. The physicist sketches the can and derives where the weakest point is, strikes the can, and opens it. The engineer looks up the weak points of the can in a table of cans, strikes it at the appropriate place, and opens it. The mathematician is found later, nearly starved, mumbling "assume the can is open!"

Suggesting "Why don't you just leave" is like suggesting "assume the can is open." The problem is getting to a point where leaving is viable (mentally, emotionally, etc.).

I don't mean to say it's impossible to "get it," but that you, me, and most counselors who are in a situation to professionally assist people probably don't.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-21T03:12:43.651Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The situation with abusive relationships is not analogous to the joke because it is not obvious to people who ask, why there would be such barriers to leaving a relationship (i.e. why such an assumption would be unjustifiable). People who ask "why don't you leave" are typically not aware of the usual barriers, nor do they have any reason to be aware of those barriers.

Furthermore, the question often comes up in cases where one party did leave, but kept coming back. So no, I don't see how the joke is helpful or how it shows poor assumptions.

comment by MrHen · 2010-03-18T21:06:15.788Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Experience can provide an excellent dummy check to make sure there isn't an obvious counter-argument or flaw in something that you are unable to see because you haven't seen it yet. There is much to be said from simply going out there and trying the theory; the results of trying are experience. When you can translate your experience into Bayesian terms you have succeeded.

I have no problem with deferring to someone who has more experience than I do as long as I trust their methodology. Once that trust is gone I start doubting the truth of their experience. I don't think their experience says what they think it says; they haven't translated it correctly.

Sometimes in an argument, an older opponent might claim that perhaps as I grow older, my opinions will change, or that I'll come around on the topic. Implicit in this claim is the assumption that age or quantity of experience is a proxy for legitimate authority. In and of itself, such "life experience" is necessary for an informed rational worldview, but it is not sufficient.

If there is a high rate of conversation as people grow older than it makes sense to predict that you will come around eventually. People here tell me the same thing about my religious beliefs. The consensus is that as I grow older in the Way of Bayes I will eventually identify as atheist. I don't think this implies the proxy that you mention. Quantity of experience isn't legitimate authority but if I (a) predict you will change and (b) predict that I am unable to exact the change but rather (c) the change will happen on your own accord sometime in the future than I have no reason to talk to you. Telling you my prediction is halting the conversation, but the real conversation halter is whatever is causing you not to switch now.

But really, in the end, I do agree with you. I ran out of time and had to cut this comment short. Sorry.

comment by xamdam · 2010-03-19T02:26:41.608Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Semi-seriously, "life experience" is where I thought priors come from.

comment by ata · 2010-03-19T02:51:44.541Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It becomes a conversation-halter when they don't tell you what their relevant life experience is (or why it's evidence for their position). In that case they're just saying "I'm older and wiser, someday you'll understand". It may turn out to be true in some cases, but it is not reasoning.

I've had this experience a few times when arguing with my dad. Not very recently, mainly when I was a teenager. I knew little if anything about real rationality at that point, but even then it seemed very wrong to me. I was thinking (when it was too late for me to say it, o'course), "Can't you just respond to my arguments as though it were someone your age saying it?" and "If that's what you think, then why didn't you just say that at the beginning? It sounds like you're only saying it now because you can't think of an actual response." and so forth.

comment by arundelo · 2010-03-19T03:55:03.109Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Can't you just respond to my arguments as though it were someone your age saying it?"

Good idea.

"[...] It sounds like you're only saying it now because you can't think of an actual response."

Even if you think your conversation partner might be arguing in bad faith, saying so is likely to make them more defensive and less open to changing their mind, so it should probably be saved as a last resort.

comment by ata · 2010-03-19T04:14:09.217Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even if you think your conversation partner might be arguing in bad faith, saying so is likely to make them more defensive and less open to changing their mind, so it should probably be saved as a last resort.

True, that's more the sort of thing I'd just think to myself.

comment by xamdam · 2010-03-19T03:07:21.966Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Continuing the devil's advocate line, I do not think it's reasonable to expect someone to give you their log of relevant experience. Experience does something like train a neural network (literally in this case) and the training data is often thrown away.

I think the crucial question is finding the distinguishing property of the two kinds of life experience.

comment by ata · 2010-03-19T03:17:22.992Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That may be true, but that doesn't make it valid reasoning. You should only use it with an explicit acknowledgement that your intention is to end the conversation (perhaps in a manner similar to that proposed by Dagon), without pretending that it is somehow an argument in its own right.

And even then, it should be used very sparingly. I'd be suspicious of any belief I hold if I can't remember why I hold it (if "the training data [was] thrown away").

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-03-18T20:53:24.734Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And Jaynes got it from Russell who got it from Shaw who got it from Yeats...

comment by MBlume · 2010-03-19T17:11:20.143Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

...who got it from Agnes?

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-03-19T22:52:51.502Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not to mention Giovanni Battista Morgagni.

"For those who have dissected or inspected many, have at least learn’d to doubt when the others, who are ignorant of anatomy, and do not take the trouble to attend to it, are in no doubt at all."

comment by djcb · 2010-03-20T12:47:13.625Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, while life experience may be a fallacious argument to win an argument; but at the same time there may really be some things learnt over the years that are simply hard to explain. This is sometimes mirrored by younger people who think that precisely because they are not blinded by life experience, they can see things clearer.

The problem to state this all in strictly Bayesian terms is that so much of the reasons why we think A or B is implicit are only accessible through intuition. Thus, in a discussion it may be quite hard to make all knowledge common. In practice, nobody is a strict Bayesian, people's opinions will be based on implicit assumption.

One interesting thought experiment to think of this: suppose you could meet your younger self, say 5-10-20 years ago; and let's say that you already were a fairly rational person then. How hard would it be to convince your younger self of the things of you think differently now than you did back then?

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-18T23:08:14.834Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

FYI: This was previously posted in the open thread, and had a good follow-up discussion, IMHO.

comment by MBlume · 2010-03-19T05:49:32.454Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

While I agree with your post, I would recommend that you reread it with an eye toward lawful sentences which mean what you think they mean.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-18T20:57:16.543Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not entirely sure that this is worthy of a top-level post, but it certainly is an interesting pattern. "Logically-rude" is probably the largest objection to this kind of behavior, though - some facts are genuinely hard to defend in analytical terms, despite being empirically true, and some fraction of those will be among those which people come around to as they grow more experienced.

That said, in many cases you are probably exactly correct - the argument is not a factual description of the case, but a soldier to field on their side.

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-18T21:23:32.243Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not entirely sure that this is worthy of a top-level post

It seems marginal to me. In its favor, it is an idea that should be said out loud. But it should be better supported.

I think this article would benifet from some real world examples of people playing the "life experience" card in support of a wrong position, or that "life experience" conveniently tends to support policies that favor those with lots of "life experience" at the expense of those with less. Or if, by some improbability, the "life experience" argument is only ever made in support of correct positions, then it would still be good to illustrate how a more detailed argument, entangled with the actual issue being discussed, is more likely to convince the other than an appeal to general "life experience".

comment by scotherns · 2010-03-19T10:38:07.086Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have a recent example - discussing cryonics with my father-in-law. He supported my choice to do it, but is convinced that when I reach his age I will feel differently about it.

Personally, I would have thought that adding on another 25 years of precious experience and accumulated physical damage would make me more likely to want to preserve/fix myself.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-18T21:26:25.081Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes - I believe yours is the correct analysis.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-19T14:14:45.036Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see this drifted down to -2 at some point - I would be curious to hear why it was downvoted.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-06-13T08:17:07.750Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Experience predicts better decision making.

"Recognition-primed decision (RPD) is a model of how people make quick, effective decisions when faced with complex situations. In this model, the decision maker is assumed to generate a possible course of action, compare it to the constraints imposed by the situation, and select the first course of action that is not rejected. RPD has been described in diverse groups including ICU nurses, fireground commanders, chess players, and stock market traders. It functions well in conditions of time pressure, and in which information is partial and goals poorly defined. The limitations of RPD include the need for extensive experience among decision-makers (in order to correctly recognize the salient features of a problem and model solutions) and the problem of the failure of recognition and modeling in unusual or misidentified circumstances. It appears to be a valid model for how human decision-makers make decisions. Overview

The RPD model identifies a reasonable reaction as the first one that is immediately considered. RPD combines two ways of developing a decision; the first is recognizing which course of action makes sense, and the second, evaluating the course of action through imagination to see if the actions resulting from that decision make sense. However, the difference of being experienced or inexperienced plays a major factor in the decision-making processes.

RPD reveals a critical difference between experts and novices when presented with recurring situations. Experienced people will generally be able to come up with quicker decision because the situation may match a prototypical situation they have encountered before. Novices, lacking this experience, must cycle through different possibilities, and tend to use the first course of action that they believe will work. The inexperienced also have the tendencies of using trial and error through their imagination.""