Proverbs and Cached Judgments: the Rolling Stone

post by Annoyance · 2009-04-01T15:40:15.528Z · score: 15 (28 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 30 comments

People have long noted that individuals diagnosed as schizophrenic usually manifest disturbances of language, communication, and abstract thought.  One way to examine that disturbance is to ask patients to interpret various common proverbs, as psychiatrists have done since before the turn of the century.  (Interested readers can find a layperson-suitable discussion of this method's utility in the modern day at the following link: AAPL newsletter.)

Originally, patients' responses were evaluated by their correctness.  Now they're graded on their degree of abstraction.  Responses that understand the sayings literally or in simplistically concrete terms are generally considered to be signs of a failure to abstract, although illiterate or mentally challenged individuals also tend to respond that way, and individuals encountering a proverb for the first time are less likely to recognize its symbolic meaning.  It seems clear that cultural exposure to proverbial forms, to the idiomatic usage of phrases and scenarios, affects how we recognize such methods of communication.

But why was the 'correctness' criterion dropped?  Because perfectly normal people, whom no one would consider schizophrenic, often gave interpretations that wildly conflicted with what the interviewer considered to be the correct one.  Which interpretations were 'correct' depended heavily on the traditions and cultures that the listeners came from.

Let's consider a classic example of a proverb often given divergent interpretations:

The rolling stone gathers no moss.

People from societies where stability and slowly-developed connections are valued consider this saying to be a warning of the dangers of activity and change.  Without staying still, beautiful moss won't grow. People from societies where activity and change are valued, however, consider it to be a prescription for how to avoid decay and degeneration.  If you don't keep moving, you'll be covered by moss!

When asked to explain their interpretation, the value of moss growth is typically presented as desirable or undesirable, depending on the defended meaning.  But if you start out by asking people whether moss is something to seek or avoid, there's no clear preference outside of specific contexts.  People generally don't have aesthetic preferences either way; overall, people don't care.

So the symbolic meaning of the mossy growth doesn't determine how people interpret the saying; people invest the moss with meaning to justify the judgment they had already reached.  This is may be an example of what people at this site would call a 'cached thought'.  Rather than giving a reason for their judgment, people reply with rationalizations that have nothing to do with why they reached their conclusion.  Rather than thinking about why they decided as they did, people bring out a ready smokescreen.

What's the actual logical structure of the saying? Rational analysis sheds a great deal of light on the question.  The meaning can be stated in various ways, all equivalent.

Stability is required for the development of certain states.  Activity is incompatible with the development of certain states.  (Desirable/undesirable) states can be (encouraged/prevented) by (engaging in/avoiding) (necessary precursors/incompatible conditions).

The saying encodes a pattern that expresses a relationship, but the pattern is devoid of evaluation.  It's a blank screen upon which people project their pre-existing values and judgments.  To truly understand the proverb, it's necessary to recognize which aspects of our perception are the saying itself, and which are our own ideas projected onto it.

30 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by JulianMorrison · 2009-04-01T15:54:45.326Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Personally, I interpret it as "Mick Jagger isn't dead yet".

comment by Annoyance · 2009-04-01T15:58:24.478Z · score: 1 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Taking that as a serious comment:

If you consider the phrase "rolling stone" to be a pointer to the band, what reasons do you have for believing the saying indicates that the leader and primary identity of the band isn't dead?

Why did you reach that particular conclusion instead of, say, "Mick Jagger isn't maximally appreciated now because he's still alive"? Can you explain your reasoning to us in an explicit way that avoids the mossy pitfalls of retroactive justifications?

comment by JulianMorrison · 2009-04-01T21:23:10.716Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It isn't a conclusion, it's a pun. Laugh, it's funny.

As to the downvotes, I think people downvote because you read a whole lot of randomness into everything, and it's just confusing to answer you because what you say is so crammed with non-sequitur, that it's hard to reply other than "huh, WTF?". So people just say "too much bother" and downvote. At least, that's my guess.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-04-02T17:34:26.722Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"what you say is so crammed with non-sequitur,"

Hardly anything I say is non sequitur. I'd that nothing is, except there are probably occasional lapses.

I'll just have to work harder at being obviously obvious instead of obscurely obvious. :c(

Edit: One thought: I bet the people who complain of my being obscure respond similarly to the writings of Rebecca Borgstrom. I can't claim that I always interpret what she wrote correctly, but I usually perceive it clearly. Possibly I would qualify as a Borgstromancy practitioner.

comment by MBlume · 2009-04-01T20:29:58.467Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dead bodies decompose, and thus gather moss. However, there is an ambiguity. Does "a Rolling Stone" mean "any rolling stone"? In this case, clearly all members of the Rolling Stones, (including Jagger) are alive (or else cremated). However, if we simply mean "there exists a Rolling Stone, which gathers no moss," then we simply mean that not all the Rolling Stones are dead, though Jagger may be.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-04-01T16:36:08.774Z · score: 0 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd love to know why people voted the above comment down.

comment by gjm · 2009-04-01T21:37:39.861Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't downvote it, but doing so doesn't seem unreasonable to me: Julian's comment obviously wasn't serious, and it's hard to see how taking it seriously could be worth while.

(In particular, I think those who have concluded that you're being downvoted willy-nilly because people think you're a troll and want to punish you are going beyond the evidence, unless they have other reasons.)

comment by Annoyance · 2009-04-02T17:37:12.147Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Julian's comment obviously wasn't serious"

If the Internet has taught us nothing else, it's taught us that there is no position or statement sufficiently ludicrous that no one will offer it seriously.

Item for item, I've gotten into more trouble dismissing contributions as meant trivially when they were meant seriously than vice versa. As a result, I assume people mean what they say unless any potential meaning stretches even an extended presumption of good sense.

comment by SoullessAutomaton · 2009-04-02T21:42:39.752Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Item for item, I've gotten into more trouble dismissing contributions as meant trivially when they were meant seriously than vice versa.

This is an understandable behavior, and I sympathize, but beware of overcompensating for it. Both mistakes are heavily penalized socially, for better or worse.

If you suspect, but are not certain, that something was meant humorously, consider replying in a way that can be interpreted either seriously or as carrying the joke further. Explicitly acknowledging either alternative is generally unwise.

comment by Cyan · 2009-04-02T00:58:43.392Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Annoyance wrote:

I'd love to know why people voted the above comment down.

gjm, what alternative hypothesis other than punishment would you propose to explain 3 down votes on the above-quoted comment?

comment by gjm · 2009-04-02T01:16:53.909Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If by "the above-quoted comment" you mean "I'd love to know [...]": I see no evidence that that has had three downvotes, nor did I make any comment on its merit (it was its grandparent that I commented on), and I therefore have no idea why you'd be asking me that question.

If you mean the one that begins "Taking that as a serious comment": one obvious alternative hypothesis is that three people thought something like "What a silly response: obviously Julian didn't mean what he said seriously, and taking it seriously neither advances any interesting conversation, nor adds humour of its own. It's therefore an instance either of bad thinking or bad judgement or both, and it is not the sort of thing I want to see more of here on Less Wrong."

comment by Cyan · 2009-04-02T01:36:26.816Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If by "the above-quoted comment" you mean "I'd love to know [...]":

Yup.

I see no evidence that that has had three downvotes...

The evidence is gone now, but it did have a score of -2 when I wrote my first comment on this thread.

nor did I make any comment on its merit (it was its grandparent that I commented on), and I therefore have no idea why you'd be asking me that question.

Ah, I see. When you wrote that you thought I was going beyond the available evidence, you weren't referring to the score of the "I'd love to know [...]" comment. I was referring to it, and I thought you were too.

If you mean the one that begins "Taking that as a serious comment": [etc.]

I have no problem with any of that.

comment by gjm · 2009-04-02T01:55:35.858Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the root of our misunderstanding is that in the sequence

  • Annoyance: blah blah blah
  • Annoyance: blah blah the above comment blah blah
  • you: blah blah the above comment blah blah

I took your "the above comment" to refer to Annoyance's first comment (the same one as he meant when he used the same phrase) whereas you were referring to his second (the one you were replying to).

For what it's worth, I have an alternative hypothesis for the downvotes on Annoyance's second comment too (though not as compelling as the one I have for his first): at least three people hate it (here and on other sites like Reddit, Hacker News, etc.) when people complain about getting downvoted, and perceived Annoyance's second comment as a complaint. (That perception may have been influenced by other interactions with Annoyance, but that's not the same thing as punishing him for those other interactions.)

comment by Cyan · 2009-04-02T02:33:04.180Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a reasonably plausible hypothesis -- I'm glad I asked. This is my first experience with rated comments, so I wasn't aware that was common.

A search for other people who have commented about receiving down votes turned up this thread. It seems karma-punishing is common too.

comment by SoullessAutomaton · 2009-04-02T21:58:56.536Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That perception may have been influenced by other interactions with Annoyance, but that's not the same thing as punishing him for those other interactions.

I will confess to a certain degree of, pun unintended, annoyance with some of his previous comments. However, it seems to me that downvoting the comment in question (the second one, about downvotes) is unfair. Given that a downvote conveys very little information in itself, requesting additional feedback on the reason for a downvote ought to be perfectly acceptable as a method of interpreting the feedback.

I think the voting system would benefit from one or more of a few modifications:

  • Limiting downvotes per user, to restrict grudge downvotes

  • Allowing downvotes only on comments you've replied to (no downvote without an reason, in other words)

  • Enforce a social standard that requesting clarification on downvotes is acceptable

  • Replace voting with a sliding scale of quality instead of up/down, and for every user who has previously voted on a comment that views a thread, treat that as a vote for 50%/average/&c.

comment by thomblake · 2009-04-03T17:05:03.465Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have voiced my disagreement with this elsewhere, but I must reiterate that I am not in favor of restricting downvotes to comments you've replied to. Replying to a troll, for instance, is the wrong thing to do.

Also, that unnecessarily makes upvoting easier than downvoting. I happily downvote any comment that I think doesn't add anything to the discussion at hand, and it already takes up too much of my time.

If limiting downvotes sounds reasonable, upvotes should be limited accordingly. And the automatic upvote to one's own comments should be included under that limit. Though I'm altogether against such limits.

comment by SoullessAutomaton · 2009-04-03T18:26:15.650Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have voiced my disagreement with this elsewhere, but I must reiterate that I am not in favor of restricting downvotes to comments you've replied to. Replying to a troll, for instance, is the wrong thing to do.

Good point. I retract that suggestion.

And the automatic upvote to one's own comments should be included under that limit.

The automatic upvote to one's own comments is slated to be removed, with the stated intent to normalize comment scores to a baseline of 0. There's an issue entered in LW's Google Code issue tracker for this already.

comment by Cyan · 2009-04-01T18:59:08.843Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Based on the fact that the above comment is at -2 right now, it looks like at least three people (or the person(s) owning three accounts, anyway) have decided to hammer every comment of yours they notice.

I'm not sure about the community norms for this situation. Are down votes meant for punishing perceived troll-ish comments, or for all comments by perceived trolls? (Let the record show that I personally think this treatment of you is an abuse of the karma system.)

comment by jimrandomh · 2009-04-01T19:04:00.042Z · score: 0 (16 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're right about that. Since I don't approve of voting on comments based solely on who posted them, I have gone through Annoyance's post history and distributed blind up-votes, to counter one of the people who did the same with down-votes.

Perhaps there should be a limit to the number of times a user can vote a particular user's comments in the same direction.

comment by JulianMorrison · 2009-04-01T21:24:08.111Z · score: 7 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That does sound like 100% textbook classic "reversed stupidity".

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-04-01T19:07:59.744Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're combating what you perceive as insincere voting with insincere voting? Would it not be better to vote up those comments which you feel add to the site?

We could really do with a median-based voting system, like the one I proposed here.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-04-02T17:39:18.766Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"You're combating what you perceive as insincere voting with insincere voting?"

It seems to me that people willing to vote insincerely will have a disproportionate effect, since it's lots easier to vote yes or no willy-nilly than to only express yourself rarely after due deliberation.

comment by SoullessAutomaton · 2009-04-02T22:15:40.949Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

We could really do with a median-based voting system, like the one I proposed here.

I agree in general, and as an occasional python programmer I would consider implementing the idea in the LW code if the administrators like it.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-04-01T16:03:11.542Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is not what a cached thought is. You are describing a rationalization. Returning a cached thought carries no implication of rationalization; rationalization, typically, requires new thinking.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-04-01T16:35:49.677Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If people are repeating what they were told when they asked others what the saying meant, does it count as a cached thought then?

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-04-01T17:16:32.195Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, the original reply is a cached thought. The invented rationalization is not, unless they heard it at the same time.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-11T09:24:46.344Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

unless they heard it at the same time

I'd expect anybody who is told what the proverb means to be told why it means that too.

comment by loqi · 2009-04-01T16:49:28.380Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What's the actual logical structure of the saying?

forall S. forall M. r(S) => not(g(S, M))

comment by botogol · 2009-04-01T16:11:46.371Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It all goes to show that

what's grist to the mill is nose to the grindstone.

comment by caiuscamargarus · 2009-04-02T18:49:10.758Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Looking for new information in proverbs, this one in particular, seems wrongheaded to me. Both interpretations are equally plausible (and I wonder what it would mean for an interpretation to be "correct" in this case, except in context), and its metaphor is so removed from its literal content that it can do absolutely nothing to inform the issue: anyone who is convinced by this proverb is doing it wrong. Its meaning depends heavily on what you bring into it (though it does express a relationship, as Annoyance says, which isn't a blank screen). Given that, I don't see a problem with assigning whichever meaning you prefer in order to use it for yourself (and for others, if its meaning is clear from context) as a shorthand for your stance on long-term attachments.