How to understand people better

post by pwno · 2011-10-14T19:53:31.932Z · score: 86 (89 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 164 comments
I’ve been taking notes on how I empathize, considering I seem to be more successful at it than others. I broke down my thought-patterns, implied beliefs, and techniques, hoping to unveil the mechanism behind the magic. I shared my findings with a few friends and noticed something interesting: They were becoming noticeably better empathizers. 

I realized the route to improving one’s ability to understand what people feel and think is not a foreign one. Empathy is a skill; with some guidance and lots of practice, anyone can make drastic improvements. 

I want to impart the more fruitful methods/mind-sets and exercises I’ve collected over time. 

Working definitions:
Projection: The belief that others feel and think the same as you would under the same circumstances
Model: Belief or “map” that predicts and explains people’s behavior


Stop identifying as a non-empathizer

This is the first step towards empathizing better—or developing any skill for that matter. Negative self-fulfilling prophecies are very real and very avoidable. Brains are plastic; there’s no reason to believe an optimal path-to-improvement doesn’t exist for you. 

Not understanding people's behavior is your confusion, not theirs

When we learn our housemate spent 9 hours cleaning the house, we should blame our flawed map for being confused by his or her behavior. Maybe they’re deathly afraid of cockroaches and found a few that morning, maybe they’re passive aggressively telling you to clean more, or maybe they just procrastinate by cleaning. Our model of the housemate has yet to account for these tendencies. 
People tend to explain such confusing behavior with stupidity, creepiness, neurosis or any other traits we associate with the mentally ill. With Occam’s Razor in perspective, these careless judgers are statistically the mentally ill ones. Their model being flawed is much more probable than their housemate going insane.  

Similar to the fundamental attribution error, this type of mistake is committed more often with people we dislike. A good challenge is to try understanding confusing behavior from individuals or sub-cultures you dislike. You’ll find yourself disliking them a bit less if you’re doing it right. 

Another challenge is to try and find the appeal in popular attractions/entertainment you dislike. For instance, if you dislike music videos, try watching a few until you get the “Aha” moment. Yes, that’s what it should feel like when you get it right.
As you’re able to explain more behaviors, your model of people becomes more robust, making you an overall better empathizer. 

Projection works, but not for resolving confusion

People’s intuition for how someone’s feeling is normally accurate—with more ambiguous cases—intuition needs conscious support. Unfortunately, most rely too heavily on the “put yourself in their shoes” mantra. You are not always like most people and can react very differently in the same circumstances. There’s already an inclination to project and putting yourself in their shoes rarely overturns initial judgments. If you’re confused about someone’s behavior, it most likely means projection hasn’t worked so far.     
Instead, build accurate models of people and figure out whether your model would’ve predicted such behavior. If not, gather reliable evidence proving what the person actually felt and tweak your model accordingly. Hopefully this is starting to sound a lot like the scientific method.

Understand yourself better

As mentioned above, projection normally works well (which is probably why humans are so inclined to do it). Projection, however, isn’t useful if you can’t predict your own reactions in another’s situation.

Catch yourself next time you experience an emotional reaction and try figuring out what network of beliefs caused it. As a personal anecdote, I tried to uncover the beliefs causing me to procrastinate on my work. I narrowed down the portions of work I had an emotional reaction to and discovered I believed I either didn’t have the skill or knowledge to complete the task. Now, when I try to explain other’s procrastination, I ask what part of the work they are having willpower issues with and determine their self-efficacy for those tasks. I was surprised to learn that others had the same beliefs causing their procrastination. Understanding yourself well can lend more non-trivial competing hypotheses. 

Caveat: If you’re very different from most people, then understanding yourself better won’t be as helpful. In this case, I’d suggest finding someone more typical to be your proxy. Get to know them well enough to the point where your proxy model can explain/predict behaviors in other typical people. 

Put others in YOUR shoes, that’s how they’re empathizing with you

We often find our empathy skills lacking when trying to explain others’ reactions to our own behaviors. We normally consider how we’d perceive our own behaviors coming from another person before acting—making questions like “Why did he think I didn’t want to see him last night?” or “Why was she so offended by my jokes?” hard to figure out off projection alone. 
Use the fact that most people project to your advantage. If someone’s trying to empathize with you, they’ll most likely project i.e. put themselves in your shoes. 

Imagine a man and woman on a date at a fancy restaurant and just about finished eating their meals. The waiter drops off the bill and the woman glances at the bill. She says enthusiastically, “Wow great food and for a great price too!” The man pays for the bill and moments later his mood shifts, becoming noticeably sadder and quieter.  The woman knew he’s more passive than her, but still confused by his behavior.

As it turns out, the man imagined himself describing food as having a “great price” and realized he’d say that about cheap food. The man brought her to the fancy restaurant hoping to impress her, but felt his attempt failed. The woman didn’t think the food was cheap, she thought it was reasonably priced given how good it tasted and the restaurant’s upscale reputation. If she thought the food was cheap, she’d explicitly say so. Since she knows he’s more passive, she could’ve inferred the man believes others are more or less as passive as he is. Thinking back to the incident, she should’ve considered how people would interpret her statement as if she had a reputation for being passive.

One lesson I’ve learned from this technique is that considerate people are more sensitive to inconsiderate behavior. Because they closely monitor their own behaviors, they tend to assume others are about as equally conscientious. When they determine someone’s behavior to be inconsiderate, they are more likely to interpret the behavior as a sign of dislike or apathy rather than obliviousness.  

Knowing others are projecting can help you learn more about yourself too. For instance, if you’re confused as to why your friends always ask “Is everything’s ok?” when you feel fine, consider that your friends may be observing certain behaviors they themselves would exhibit when uncomfortable. And maybe you are, in fact, uncomfortable, but aren’t consciously aware of it.   

The simplest explanation is usually correct

As you develop your mental model of people, you’ll notice models share a lot in common.  For instance, primitive motives like attraction, attention and status can explain the same behaviors exhibited in many people. These “universal” components to your models often yield more likely hypotheses. People are obviously more typical than they are not. 

Try to pick out which behaviors are consistently explained by the same mechanism in your models. For instance, it’s helpful to know that most submissive/dominant behavior is done out of status disparities, not some idiosyncratic personality trait. Your knowledge of how people interact with status disparities will offer a powerful starting hypothesis.

As you continue to merge your models together, you’ll be that much closer to a unifying theory of people! 

Build models of people, like a scientist

Start developing models of individuals and groups, which predict their behaviors under certain circumstances. Like a scientist, when the model proves to have low predictive value, tweak them until they do. Combining your models is a good approach.
Say you’re having trouble understanding why your brother does everything his new “friend” tells him to do. He’s never acted like that towards anyone before; your model of your brother is missing something. Fortunately, you’ve seen such behavior before, explained by a different model, the one of your co-worker. That model made you realize that, like your co-worker, your brother finds his new friend much higher status and feels lucky receiving his attention. Not only did you strengthen your brother model, you’ve also collected more evidence that such behavior is more likely status-related and less likely person-specific, making all your models more robust. 

Experience more

If I tried imagining what a professional soccer player feels like scoring a winning goal, I’d use my memory of the time I scored the winning goal at a pick-up soccer game and multiply my euphoria by some factor. Imagining what emotions someone would feel under circumstances you’ve never experienced isn’t easy. Your best approximation may depend on a similar circumstance you have experienced. Therefore, experiencing more means being a better empathizer. 

Empathy checklist

Here’s a short checklist of the different techniques to use whenever you’re confronted with confusing behavior. Run through the list until you feel confident about your conclusion. 
  • Put yourself in their shoes
  • Think of times you’ve been in a similar situation and explain your reaction
  • Can the behavior be explained by a more “universal” model than a person-specific one?
  • How are they empathizing with you, given they are projecting?
  • How are they empathizing with you, given what you know about how they perceive others?
  • What successful model have you used to explain similar behavior for similar people?
  • Is your conclusion affected by your attitude towards the subject?

164 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by EphemeralNight · 2011-10-11T03:01:32.882Z · score: 16 (32 votes) · LW · GW

Reminds me of my favorite response to a popular stopsign.


Alice: Mark, please tell Bob I'm not speaking to him.

Mark: Um...

Bob: I heard her.

Bob: I just don't understand women, Mark.

Mark: (twitch) Actually, that which you don't understand is Alice. But if you spent as much energy actually trying to understand Alice as you do blaming her gender for your lack of understanding, you'd understand her just fine and we wouldn't be having this conversation.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-10-11T06:45:39.147Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think this is probably usually not a mysterious answer to a mysterious question, though it could be. Bob would probably at least concede that women understand each other, and so are not made of mysteriousness. It's still the mind projection fallacy because he thinks it's something about women that he does not understand.

If women understanding each other doesn't prove they aren't made of mysteriousness, Bob's explaining to a man that he does not "understand women" implies that even a man might not know that Bob doesn't "understand women", implying with some assumptions about Bob's evaluation of Mark's self-reflectiveness that other men do understand women.

comment by EphemeralNight · 2011-10-11T07:54:29.309Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know, the whole "I'll never understand women!" excuse has always had a bit of a (Sacred?) Mystery smell to it, I thought.

"Why can't I understand Alice? Why did Alice behave this way?" "She's a woman!"

Calling it a Mysterious Answer seems apt to me.

One possibility is that Bob may observe that other men seem to understand the women they interact with, but to Bob it's magic. This looks like an example of the fundamental attribution error: Bob concludes that those other men have an intrinsic enduring "understands women" trait that he does not have.

I think there are two separate mistakes that Bob could be making, actually. 1. Bob thinks understanding Alice is beyond him because she's a woman. (Genuine confusion?) 2. Bob thinks women-in-general aren't understandable and therefore he shouldn't try to understand Alice. (Sexism?) The first seems like a simple case of lacking Narrowness. The second, I'm not sure.

comment by taryneast · 2011-10-11T19:05:59.724Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

or 3. Bob is too lazy to take the time and effort to understand Alice, and saying "I don't understand women" is a great excuse to never bother.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-10-12T03:57:52.901Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The third alternative is that Bob is looking for a semantic stopsign?

Reminds me of a guy who gives the same answer to all hypothetical questions: "There are always other options."

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-10-11T22:26:50.901Z · score: 4 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Usually, men in this situation repeatedly ask Alice what they did wrong, and Alice will adamantly refuse to say. Whatever they're doing wrong, it's not failing to take time and effort. How many times do you see something like this:

"What, what's wrong, Alice?"

Nothing.

"It ... doesn't sound like that. Really, what's wrong."

NOTHING. EVERYTHING'S FINE.

"Please, Alice. I want to know what I did. Just tell me."

...

comment by Kingreaper · 2011-10-12T15:28:17.819Z · score: 24 (24 votes) · LW · GW

Given as everyone seems to want to pile unjustified extra assumptions onto the scenario, here are several actual scenarios that I know have occured that took this form:

  1. Alice is angry/upset because of something Bob did. Bob is unaware of what he did, but has picked up on Alice's anger and wants to help her. a. Alice is trying to convince herself that it doesn't matter. -----b. Alice thinks Bob knowing what caused her anger will cause further problems.

  2. Alice wasn't actually angry/upset at all. Bob believed she was, but was incorrect. His repeated questioning has resulted in her getting angry; making him more confident that there is a problem.

  3. Alice is emotionally abusing Bob, manipulating him so that he will grovel for an explanation, such that when she tells him what she wants him to do, he'll be forced to do it.

  4. Alice is angry at Bob for something he did. Bob is aware what this is, but wants to pretend he isn't in order to be able to make Alice feel as though she's over-reacting

  5. Alice is angry/upset for reasons that have nothing to do with Bob. Bob is concerned for Alice's wellbeing, but Alice doesn't want to share.

  6. Alice is angry. Bob knows this, but Alice is actually, honestly, unaware of this fact.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-10-15T06:25:24.966Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

You leave out the fact that there is a common belief in women that "I shouldn't have to explain. You should just know." -- thereby rendering the need for explanation a further injury to the initial insult.

I usually find that this is what needs to be bypassed early on if any real communicating progress is to be achieved. Generally speaking I resolve this by making it perfectly clear that if the injured party is unwilling to communicate the injury, they are not "allowed" to require redress in any form. Including being angry -- thereby making them the party that is acting in the wrong, and requiring them to make amends. (This usually makes me quite "unreasonable" and causes a bigger blow-up than was necessary, but it gives me a vehicle towards more successful resolution after that initial blow-up and furthermore prevents similar scenarios from arising again. Mainly because I will have firmly estabilshed that that belief is not valid with regards to me. Those whom are capable of learning instead of just adding to their cached beliefs will have better relations with me.)

comment by shminux · 2011-10-15T07:09:53.038Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yep, seen that many times. Happens with men, too, just not as often. And I think that your approach is quite sensible, if you can see it through.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-10-15T11:18:11.048Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

As rare as it seems others find this to be true, I've found that being an ass on a routine basis is actually quite useful. Makes people tolerant of the dickish things you do and far more greatful for the helpful things you do. Of course, as with everything, there's an art to pulling it off.

comment by Kingreaper · 2011-10-12T15:36:04.684Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

As a side note: in several of these scenarios I saw, Alice was male. In several, Bob was female.

comment by DavidAgain · 2013-08-13T14:57:37.345Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted. The general phenomenon is interesting, the gendered aspect could also be interesting, but is also potentially a big distraction. In my relationship, I am definitely often Alex. Although my girlfriend is better at being Bob than most men are, including me (in terms of resolving the issue in a way that we're both happy with, not 'winning the conversation').

comment by abamf · 2011-10-18T21:58:49.424Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

In my experience this sort of conversation tends to act very much like a cached behavior on the both sides of the conversation

comment by wedrifid · 2011-11-07T04:14:00.998Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Relevant

comment by jdgalt · 2011-11-07T01:52:57.180Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to me that even a completely unprejudiced person in Bob's shoes may very well rationally decide that it's not worth the trouble to try to understand Alice's problem. Indeed, I've yet to be convinced that empathy is worth the effort required to achieve it in more than a handful of cases.

When this sort of thing has happened to me, I've said more or less "I'll be here if you decide you want my help with whatever it is," and then turned my back. It seemed to me, then and now, that any other response would have been a complete waste of time and effort.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-11-07T02:06:35.751Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I guess that depends on how much Bob cares about Alice...?

comment by Armok_GoB · 2011-10-29T18:35:44.722Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
  1. Alice is angry at Bob for something he did. Bob is not aware what this is. Alice thinks Bob is aware what this is, but wants to pretend he isn't in order to be able to make Alice feel as though she's over-reacting. Neither of them are capable of even imagining this might be the situation.
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-10-12T15:25:27.750Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW · GW

Some possibilities about what Alice is thinking:

One possibility is that being understood intuitively feels so good that actually explaining what one wants feels like settling for something grossly inferior. There are cultural ideas about what true love is like that can be really destructive, and aren't any living individual's fault. It would, of course, be nice if people had better sense than to fall for such stuff, but this may be expecting clear communication from the universe, and I don't think it's reliable about that. Sometimes the universe won't even show it's angry until it drops an anvil on your head.

Another is that women are sometimes trained to not be clear about what they want-- it isn't nice. I can't be sure how common this is, but I've got a streak of it myself, and I've heard other women complaining about it. Having the conditioning is extremely unpleasant (if you want to ask for something but have a high internal threshold to get past to try), and I think the conditioning can produce a background fund of anger which isn't about the current situation.

I don't know whether it was necessary to explain this in such detail, but sometimes I get the impression that a lot of the men here are aware of that sort of conditioning in themselves, but don't realize women might have a variation of it.

comment by taryneast · 2011-10-12T14:49:49.632Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Copying my example from another reply:

Let me build on this hypothetical example to explain why she does that:

Bob has clearly done something wrong. Alice is currently in a highly emotional state and recognises that she is likely not able to talk reasonably about what has happened without either becoming very angry or extremely upset and crying.

Therefore she really doesn't want to talk about it right now.

Bobs insistence on demanding all the answers right now is not helping her highly emotional state and is, in fact, just adding to her feelings of anger and panic... given that clearly he did something wrong, she believes he has no right to currently dominate the timing of when she discusses this highly sensitive issue (whatever it is).

But right now, she is too emotionally fraught even to be able to say that without shouting... so she just blocks.

The best thing for Bob to do is to courteously withdraw for a little while until Alice calms down... then to return at a later date when she's clearly had some time to reflect... and ask then.

comment by Kingreaper · 2011-10-12T15:18:40.047Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I've seen this scenario occur several times where Bob HASN'T done anything wrong. Alice is annoyed for some reason, and is passive aggressively taking it out on Bob, and Bob wants to solve the problem that's causing them both to suffer.

The assumption that it's Bobs fault is entirely unjustified from the scenario presented.

comment by taryneast · 2011-10-12T15:35:31.200Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, quite right - in which case it is a power-play, pure and simple.

I just wanted to present an alternative to show that it's not always so cut and dried.

comment by Kingreaper · 2011-10-12T15:39:16.440Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What makes you so sure anyone's playing for power in my scenario?

Bob is attempting to solve a problem that's causing both Alice and Bob suffering.

Alice may be playing for power, or she may not want to burden Bob with her personal problems, and may be honestly unaware that she's causing Bob to suffer.

comment by taryneast · 2011-10-12T15:53:31.493Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

passive-aggressive behaviour is a power play.

If Alice is being passive-aggressive (as you stated) then she is trying to be manipulative... in this case(as you stated) by causing Bob to suffer when he has (as you stated) done nothing wrong.

She is punishing him for having done nothing. This is a power play, pure and simple.

A non-power play solution to the problem would be for Alice to sit Bob down and explain why she's so upset, or just to say that she doesn't want to burden him with her personal problems and can he please stop bothering her about it? or similar...

comment by Vaniver · 2011-10-12T15:34:32.113Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Therefore she really doesn't want to talk about it right now.

What if Alice does want to talk about it right now, and is using this to gauge the depth of Bob's remorse? "Hm, he only asked three times then gave up. I guess he doesn't really care."

comment by taryneast · 2011-10-12T15:50:57.933Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, that may also be an alternative reading.

I never said my own hypothetical was the only way to read it... just offering an alternative viewpoint of what could be happening, to make sure we have more than one hypothesis here.

One should not assume that there is a power play involved... one should not assume that there is not a powerplay involved. One should not assume that Alice wants Bob to stop pestering her... one should not assume that Alice wants Bob to pester her...

One should consider all of these as possibilities... and then figure out which one is actually reality.

I was just offering a possible "inside view" to show that "power play" was not the only feasible option available.

comment by taryneast · 2011-10-12T15:03:47.741Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Note: generalisations from personal experience and anecdote follow:

men in my experience, are generally not as sensitive to emotional nuance as women, and only tend to ask "what's wrong" if the woman has made it very clear and obvious that the man has done something wrong through emotionally-laden body-language. From my experience, men don't realise that women actually have to wildly accentuate their body-language before their men "get it" - thus, byt he time the man actually does "get" that they did something wrong - the woman has already worked herself up into a state of anger and may no longer wish to actually talk about whatever it is anymore.

By contrast, women will often pick up on when they've upset another woman much quicker (through subtler body-language cues) and women (being used to having that noticed) find men unusually insensitive... and thus get more upset with them because they seem to not notice when they've "done something wrong" without being explicitly told.

It's part of "female culture" that you shouldn't need to tell another person when you're upset... the other person should "just know" by noticing these cues. Amongst women, that's usually the case. However - men are generally not as well "trained" on female body-language cues as other women are... and therefore don't pick them up, and therefore actually have to be told... in words.... that the woman was upset by some action. For a woman this is very frustrating.

Note: that I am referring to a perceived "average" here - some men are very capable of noticing these cues and some women are not very capable...

Also note: I am not actually agreeing that any of this is a "good idea" to do... just explaining what actually generally goes on in the female mind when the given hypothetical example is actually happening.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-10-12T15:29:56.123Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I defy your claim that women "usually" say "nothing's wrong". Can you substantiate the implicit claim that this is what the majority of actual women do (apart from your own anecdotes)?

This is certainly something that actual women do often enough for it to be a noticed part of the general culture. (Google "women nothing's wrong" and find hosts of examples.) Going from the majority of actual women to the usual woman whose man complains he can't understand women is a difficult transition to make- obviously those groups should have some systematic differences.

Indeed, it appears a common explanation for this is that the woman is testing the man: does he care enough to draw out why she's upset? If that's the case, advice given elsewhere in this tree to back off and give her time would backfire. (If that's the case with this particular scenario, though, then Alice would probably start talking about it during one of the questions. The sticky part is how far the man has to probe, and when the man should decide to leave it alone vs. be persistent.)

By comparison, I'll use my own experience with men to counter your claim that men "usually ask what's wrong".

That experience seems in line with the scenario SilasBarta posits. For the woman, it's frustrating that the man doesn't understand the message she's sending; for the man, it's frustrating that he doesn't understand the message she's sending. The communication breakdown is that neither of them seems willing or able to use the language the other is using; the woman is unwilling to explicitly articulate the problem and the man is unable to implicitly understand the problem.

(Typically, I see unwilling as easier to fix than unable, and I suspect that's true in this case. I'll talk more about that later.)

So, is the man "lazy"? Well, he's certainly putting in time and effort attempting to fix the problem- which to Silas is evidence that he's not lazy. One solution method is for him to create an effective model of Alice, which requires getting training in female culture, which requires a lot more time and effort than just asking her what's wrong now. But it seems to me that 'laziness' is not the reason why Bob doesn't choose that method- he probably doesn't know that's something he can do. (It may even be the case that he can't. Perhaps even after hundreds of hours of training Bob will be unable to correctly parse signals sent by Alice.)

Now, why is Alice unwilling to explicitly talk about why she's upset? Perhaps Bob is quick to dismiss reasons Alice thinks are significant. Perhaps Bob has different standards of proof than she does. Consider: "I don't think Carol likes me." "Did she say she didn't like you?" "No... but she crossed her arms at me." "But that could mean anything!" Alice crosses her arms at Bob.

If that's the case, then Bob might be able to make Alice more willing to talk by being more willing to listen, and slower to judge.

Alice's reasons for being upset could be embarrassing for a variety of reasons. Maybe Alice is mad at Bob because she had a dream that Bob did something mean to her. (Yes, this actually happens.) She can't just stop being mad at him, but she can't explain why she's mad because Bob will think it's crazy. In cases like this, Bob can't do as much.

comment by taryneast · 2011-10-12T15:46:51.685Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This is certainly something that actual women do often enough for it to be a noticed part of the general culture.

Oh certainly - I never claimed that it was not present (or even common), I was reacting to Silas use of the word "usually" which implies that a majority of women do this, possibly a majority of the time.

I just find this attitude a little negative - as nasty as women suggesting that "all men are lazy" - which I do not agree with... though I have certainly seen many examples of it happening... and it's another meme that I'm sure you can google for to find plenty of examples ;)

Actually, you might notice that I edited my original comment to remove the wording you've replied to, as on further thought I decided it was just a bit too reactionary. I changed what I was saying purely to the anecdotal discussions about how women often perceive men... based on their own maps of how people "should behave" or "should notice" them emotionally.

Again - not agreeing with that - I believe such views are laden with map-territory issues.

It took me personally a long time to realise that "he isn't being insensitive... he just hasn't learned the same cues I'm used to and he probably has lots of cues that I persistently fail to notice"

In cases like this, Bob can't do as much.

Agreed - in some cases there's a kind of emotional mexican stand-off - where both partners are unable or unwilling to take the steps necessary to solve the problem.

I also agree that in this case, Bob is not being lazy, though perhaps he's not acting in an optimal fashion (or perhaps he is, but Alice is not). I offered my original "number 3" as just another possibility - not "what all men do", after all :)

comment by fubarobfusco · 2011-10-13T06:48:24.058Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"Noticed parts of general culture" are often wrong. They're called stereotypes or prejudices.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-10-13T13:35:44.427Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

It's not clear to me that prejudices are worthless evidence. It seems to me reasonable to take stereotypes as your prior and update on evidence rather than taking maxent as your prior.

If there's evidence out there I should be updating on, I'd love to hear it.

comment by TimS · 2011-10-11T23:00:31.537Z · score: -7 (19 votes) · LW · GW

Silas,

The man in your hypothetical is not trying to understand Alice. He's trying to dominate the conversation. He may not consciously understand what he's doing, but that's what's happening.

Alice saying "Nothing" implicitly includes the message "I don't want to talk about it right now." Alice is engaging in a different relationship failure mode if (1) the issue is important to her, but (2) she never finds a time to discuss it. But that failure mode is independent and distinct from the failure mode of the man in the hypothetical.

EDIT: Ok, dominate has a lot of connotations that I didn't intend. Let me restate: Bob is not trying to understand Alice. He's trying to win the conversation. As others discuss both, the thesis that Alice was also trying to win the conversation is plausible. But I don't rate it likely without more information about Alice.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-10-11T23:13:40.783Z · score: 8 (12 votes) · LW · GW

You confidently characterize the man's comments as an effort to dominate. Why are you not equally cynical about Alice's motives? Why do you not conclude that her comments are part of a strategy to dominate in this domain of their relationship? Why not say "She may not consciously understand what she's doing, but that's what's happening."?

Personally, I am inclined to be less cynical about both their motivations.

comment by HughRistik · 2011-10-12T08:57:17.940Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why are you not equally cynical about Alice's motives?

That's a good question. Here is my cynical analysis of Alice's potential psychology. I think there is a lot of room to read a power-play on Alice's part (though that says nothing about whether it is justified or not).

comment by wedrifid · 2011-10-12T06:46:34.121Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You confidently characterize the man's comments as an effort to dominate. Why are you not equally cynical about Alice's motives? Why do you not conclude that her comments are part of a strategy to dominate in this domain of their relationship? Why not say "She may not consciously understand what she's doing, but that's what's happening."?

That seems about right. But entirely within the realm of normal social behavior. Being able to understand such dynamics does not make them any more sinister. The point about "she may not consciously understand, but" is good. And if she does understand then I will not judge her for being obnoxious, just for being obnoxious but ineffective.

Personally, I am inclined to be less cynical about both their motivations.

comment by HughRistik · 2011-10-12T09:02:51.736Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

And if she does understand then I will not judge her for being obnoxious, just for being obnoxious but ineffective.

Ah, but who says she is being ineffective? That depends on her goals (see my reply to the parent). If her goal is to piss off Bob, and/or make him feel guilty and/or make his start getting apologetic, then she is already doing well. She's already got him to admit that he has done something wrong without making any explicit accusations (assuming he is being sincere, not sarcastic). Who says her goal is relationship harmony? Some people prefer drama.

Humans were selected for having reproductively successful relationships, but not all successful mating strategies involve harmony.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-10-12T10:17:06.985Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, but who says she is being ineffective?

Me. You will notice (or, rather, I would usually expect HughRistik to notice) that the quote is explicitly conditional on the technique being a an overt self aware strategy. And I really do assert that if I was a self aware scheming manipulator that I could do better. Frankly it is an amateur move. A more talented or more experienced bitch (using the term in a technical sense to whatever extent that is possible) would sneer at the though of being so crude.

Humans were selected for having reproductively successful relationships, but not all successful mating strategies involve harmony.

I agree. War, rape, infanticide, murder and even being a pain in the ass are highly viable strategies. Learning how to be a pain in the ass productively is a highly recommended life skill.

comment by HughRistik · 2011-10-15T01:37:07.848Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Very well, I concede that there could be more powerful self-aware plays.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-10-11T23:40:06.362Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

The man in your hypothetical is not trying to understand Alice. He's trying to dominate the conversation.

This set of sentences is strange to me. It's almost as it's implied that if a statement is an attempt to gain power or dominate a conversation, it's impossible for it to also be an attempt to understand.

I partially agree with you in that I think the man's move might be a power grab, but I think your characterization of power-grabs as attempts to "dominate" (have overwhelming power) is wrong.

I think that the woman's response might also be a power-grab, Likewise the man's response to that. Each of these is very, very weak evidence of an attempt to dominate.

comment by TimS · 2011-10-12T00:20:35.833Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

At the level we're talking about, making a power grab seems inconsistent with attempting to understand, at least from Alice's point of view. Is she wrong?

That said, the possibility that Alice is intentionally aiming for the relationship failure mode I described above is very plausible.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-10-12T00:35:48.529Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is she wrong?

Yes. She would be correct that finding a sufficient motivation for a speech act reduces the chance each other possible motivation is intended. But there is no reason a single act couldn't have two sufficient reasons behind it.

Also, to speak of emotions being in conflict or contradicting is confusing. The actions each emotion impels might be in conflict or physically or logically impossible, but to have multiple emotions is not a mysterious paradoxical state to be in, regardless of the emotions.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-10-11T23:14:30.961Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The man in your hypothetical is not trying to understand Alice. He's trying to dominate the conversation. He may not consciously understand what he's doing, but that's what's happening.

Um, perhaps? It's pretty clear that Alice is putting Bob in a no-win situation. If he gives her space, then he doesn't care; if he tries to ask her what's wrong, he's clueless (or dominating the conversation).

Indeed, under your interpretation Alice saying "nothing is wrong" rather than "let's not talk about it now" is an out-and-out lie. It's not clear that Bob inferring that Alice is repeatedly lying would reflect better on Bob.

If Alice said "let's talk about it later" and then Bob insisted that this get hashed out now, then you would have a point. But as is this example doesn't reflect poorly on Bob.

comment by Jack · 2011-10-11T23:32:34.378Z · score: 4 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Alice is not "lying". You cannot reduce human communication in these circumstances to the explicit meaning of words. When someone says "nothing is wrong" when everyone involved realizes something is wrong then their intent is not to deceive.

Why doesn't Alice just say "lets talk about it later"? There are plenty of plausible reasons-- she may not know if she wants to talk about it later, she may not want to get into a fight about when they talk about it, she may want Bob to figure it out for himself, she may expect some kind of cost involved in her being the first to state the problem, she may not know what she wants and would prefer to have him just shut up so she can think for a moment. That her reasons for saying "Nothing" are potentially ambiguous to Bob might be unfair to him... but she is not "lying".

comment by Vaniver · 2011-10-11T23:44:22.111Z · score: 9 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Alice is not "lying".

If by this you mean "Alice would explode at being called a liar," then I agree.

You cannot reduce human communication in these circumstances to the explicit meaning of words.

Communication is the transfer of information from speaker to listener: while I cannot reduce intent to the explicit meaning of words in this case I can reduce actual transfer to the explicit meaning of words (and a bit extra). The man in question is likely to be literal-minded, otherwise he would have picked up on the hint. (Men tend to be more literal than women.) Alice is the one who has an easier path to avoid communication breakdown.

she may not want to get into a fight about when they talk about it

They are in a fight about when they talk about it, and she is the one that elevated it from discussion to fight.

she may want Bob to figure it out for himself

This habit is not conducive to relationship success.

comment by Jack · 2011-10-12T00:48:42.281Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

If by this you mean "Alice would explode at being called a liar," then I agree.

No, I mean she is not saying "Nothing" with the intent to deceive Bob into thinking that, in fact, nothing is wrong.

Communication is the transfer of information from speaker to listener: while I cannot reduce intent to the explicit meaning of words in this case I can reduce actual transfer to the explicit meaning of words (and a bit extra).

No. You really, really can't. You are ignoring the information Bob receives from her tone of voice and body language. Bob may be literal minded but he is obviously not so literal minded as to miss this information. If he were he would not have insisted on that Alice tell him what is wrong.

Bob: "What, what's wrong, Alice?"

Alice has already communicated to Bob that something is wrong with her body language, facial expressions or tone of voice.

Alice: Nothing.

But from the context that follows we know that Alice's body language and tone of voice did not express the same thing. And Bob realizes it when he says "It doesn't sound like that."

Bob: "It ... doesn't sound like that. Really, what's wrong."

From Alice's perspective this is a bit smug. She is thinking "I fucking know it doesn't sound like that". It is debatable at this point what Bob should have said, sometimes asking again will get an answer. But he knows that something is wrong and that she is not saying what-- it is reasonable to expect a socially competent person to by now understand that what she really means is something like "I don't want to talk about it, at least not now.

Alice: "NOTHING. EVERYTHING'S FINE."

Alice is clearly pissed. Apparently she is yelling. And Bob clearly knows it. And Alice knows that Bob knows it. So Bob has certainly concluded that Alice means something else than literally "Nothing is wrong". And then...

Bob: "Please, Alice. I want to know what I did. Just tell me."

Bob has clearly figured out Alice is saying something like "I don't want to talk about it, at least not right now." He is now assuming he did something wrong and begging to be told what it was. But why is he persisting? He should already know that she doesn't want to talk about it at the object level and doesn't want to talk about it at the meta level. Yet by trying to talk about it on the meta level he is going against her wishes and starting a fight.

Now what Bob should do is just let it alone for an hour and see if she want to talk about it then. He has the right to not put up with her attitude if she won't tell him what he did. I wouldn't want to hang out with Alice when she is in this mood and if she expects him to without her explaining herself then he can reasonably say "I'm not putting up with the silent treatment all afternoon. Either tell me whats up or I'm gonna go do something else."

As for whether or not Alice ought to expect Bob to figure it out-- it may or not be a good habit -- but Alice wanting that and trying to communicate it is not lying.

And while communication is extremely important not everything needs to be turned into a huge, dramatic discussion or debate. Alice may know she'll be over it in a little while but starting a fight would lead to week-long estrangement. I don't know which of them is "right"-- I'm not sure that makes to talk about since these aren't real people and there is not actual problem. I am not in agreement with TimS that Bob is trying to dominate Alice... I just think he's being stupid.

comment by HughRistik · 2011-10-12T08:40:01.010Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately, Silas' original example is under-specified, so there are many different situations that could lead to it, or potential power plays on both sides. I'm going to make a guess that the scenario (in Silas' imagination) occurred because of something Bob did or didn't do that Alice didn't like.

Alice is fuming, and she very much wants Bob to know. She feels that Bob should know better. That's why she won't tell him what it is. She wants him to figure it out for himself, and apologize to her. If he asks what is wrong as if he doesn't know, and she has to tell him, then she admits that there was ambiguity in the original situation, or lack of knowledge on his part, that completely or partially exculpates him.

Alternatively, she might agree that there are exculpatory factors, but she still want to see if he will now realize what he did wrong and apologize without her having to spell it out for him. This approach might be especially important if he forgot something (maybe their anniversary), and she wants to see how long it will take him to remember.

Another possibility might be that she doesn't want to tell him what he did wrong because she doesn't want to look accusatory or nagging. So instead she just blast accusatory nonverbal communication at him until he understands that he is supposed to start admitting guilt.

If Silas is imagining the same scenario that is evoked in my mind, Alice is not trying to disengage from communicating with Bob all; she is trying to show her displeasure with him, and get him to (a) admit that he is at fault, and possibly also (b) apologize to what he is at fault for without her having to explain it, proving that he has either "learned his lesson" or that he isn't trying to "play innocent."

This interpretation leads me to agree with you that Alice is not lying, and that she is using implicit communication, but I think she may be doing it even more than you realize. Note that I take no position about who is in the right or in the wrong.

From Alice's perspective this is a bit smug. She is thinking "I fucking know it doesn't sound like that".

Yes.

But he knows that something is wrong and that she is not saying what-- it is reasonable to expect a socially competent person to by now understand that what she really means is something like "I don't want to talk about it, at least not now.

If Bob has good reasons to expect that she is unhappy with him, then it's not clear at all that she really doesn't want to talk about it.

Alice: "NOTHING. EVERYTHING'S FINE." Bob has clearly figured out Alice is saying something like "I don't want to talk about it, at least not right now." He is now assuming he did something wrong and begging to be told what it was. But why is he persisting?

Under the scenario I'm imagining, it's obvious why he persists. He doesn't believe that Alice is serious about not wanting to talk, based on the context, body language, and tone of voice. He interprets her communication to mean "I don't want to talk about the thing you did wrong unless you stop playing innocent about it and start groveling." That's why he starts groveling by admitting that he did something wrong... That might satisfy Alice, or she might want him to guess or admit exactly what he did wrong without her having to explain it.

In heated arguments, people often say and do things that they don't mean, or to test the reaction of the other partner. Alice could be sincere that she doesn't want to talk, but she could also be testing to see if Bob cares enough to find out what she is unhappy about, or if he will admit full culpability and apologize.

And while communication is extremely important not everything needs to be turned into a huge, dramatic discussion or debate.

Some personality types feel differently.

Alice may know she'll be over it in a little while but starting a fight would lead to week-long estrangement.

Wait, what makes you think that Alice isn't trying to start a fight? She could be defending a Schelling Point.

Depending on the nonverbals, her behavior could be an excellent way to start a fight, while pretending that Bob is the one instigating it by pestering her. If she really didn't want to start a fight, she could either hide her displeasure better, or making it sound absolutely cold and serious that she doesn't want to talk. The fact that Bob is following up with questions suggests that he thinks she is trying to either start a fight, so he tries to roll over on his belly by asking what he did.

I am not in agreement with TimS that Bob is trying to dominate Alice... I just think he's being stupid.

This only way Bob is being dominating is if he knowingly did something majorly fucked up or abusive, and is pestering Alice and playing innocent while trying to cope with it. Short of that, there actually may be good contextual reasons for Bob to believe that Alice wants to continue communicating with him, but just wants him to take an apologetic role, or (if they both know she is upset by something other than him) a supportive role. If Alice is using passive-aggressiveness to try to put him into an apologetic and groveling role, then she is the dominating one (of course, whether this is justified depends on context). Unless Bob is obviously in the wrong, then he is being stupid by letting her get away with this power play, which gives her an incentive to get upset in the future any time she wants concessions from him.

Of course, this is only one possible reading of the situation; I just suspect that it's a bit closer to what Silas intended that most of the other readings.

comment by Jack · 2011-10-12T09:07:48.801Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And while communication is extremely important not everything needs to be turned into a huge, dramatic discussion or debate.

Some personality types feel differently.

Alice may know she'll be over it in a little while but starting a fight would lead to week-long estrangement.

Wait, what makes you think that Alice isn't trying to start a fight?

Incidentally, I offered these interpretations because they were the right answers in particular instances where a girlfriend said "nothing" when there obviously was something. At least these are plausible interpretations if I believe our later conversations about why she said "nothing". For these explanations the line by line interpretation is a little different-- she is upset enough that it is hard not to show it or perhaps she is torn about whether or not to show it. Perhaps she just wants Bob to feel a little bad about it. Perhaps Bob is more observing than we have so far given him credit for. When she yells at Bob in her last line she is yelling at him because she is annoyed by his instance on talking about it, not trying to be obvious about being hurt regarding the object-level matter.

Of course, this is only one possible reading of the situation; I just suspect that it's a bit closer to what Silas intended that most of the other readings.

I suspect Silas may have posted the comment without knowing or having a specific intended reading. Or he might be speaking as someone who has been a Bob in the past and genuinely isn't sure how to interpret Alice. I also think by rendering Alice's motivations explicit where making her too calculating. I suspect "nothing" often comes out just because it seems like the easiest thing to say at the moment not because of any well thought out strategic considerations.

I agree your interpretation is plausible, though.

comment by TimS · 2011-10-12T02:02:33.545Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm coming to realize that dominate is too strong a word for what I'm trying to say. I think Jack made basically the entire point I'm trying to make here. My only criticism is that "stupid" is a very broad description of Bob's failure. Is there a more precise way of stating Bob's error?

This conversation is a lot like that moment in Top Gun. "I object" "Overruled." "I strenuously object!" That's not going to work. Why should Bob expect it to work?

comment by Vaniver · 2011-10-12T01:14:30.316Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No, I mean she is not saying "Nothing" with the intent to deceive Bob into thinking that, in fact, nothing is wrong.

Did I claim deceit? "Nothing" is inaccurate. (I understand that labeling an inaccuracy a 'lie' is a political statement.)

Notice that, by TimS's interpretation, she actually is attempting to deceive him- she hopes that he believes the lie that nothing is wrong so that she won't have to discuss the issue now. If you want to question whether or not deceit is involved, bring it up with TimS.

You are ignoring the information Bob receives from her tone of voice and body language.

Mmm, I think that's in there (as signified by the "and change"). It also depends what level we're looking at. If we assume that Bob gets message 1: "Alice is mad" from her body language, then he asks her what's wrong, and he gets the message 2: "nothing is wrong," then he could suspect it is a falsehood solely from its mismatch with message 1. (This is probably made easier by a "falsehood" tag hung on message 2, but it isn't necessary.)

Yet by trying to talk about it on the meta level he is going against her wishes and starting a fight.

Notice that any judgment about when the fight started is a political statement. Could we not say that Alice started the fight when she went against Bob's wishes and didn't explain what was wrong?

it is reasonable to expect a socially competent person to by now understand that what she really means is something like "I don't want to talk about it, at least not now.

Is it reasonable for Alice to assume that Bob is socially competent, particularly when it comes to this understanding?

Alice is clearly pissed.

About what?

Bob and Alice clearly both have deficient models of each other. I get that, and the things Alice could be pissed about. You don't need to explain basic human interaction to me (though both Bob and Alice could use some help). The problem is that, in this example, Bob wants to fix his model and Alice doesn't put any effort into fixing her model. (Remember, the original contention was over taryneast putting forward the suggestion that "Bob is too lazy to take the time and effort to understand Alice." SilasBarta concocted this hypothetical to suggest that the laziness of understanding is the other way around for many couples. TimS argued that Bob's lack of laziness was actually a vice.)

but Alice wanting that and trying to communicate it is not lying.

Alice wanting that and not being able to communicate it effectively is fixable, though. If your man is too literal to pick up on your hints, tell him directly!

Alice may know she'll be over it in a little while but starting a fight would lead to week-long estrangement.

In which case try out "I'll get over it, give me some time." (If it's true, start with "It's not anything you did.") If pressed, respond with "Talking about it will just make me madder, and I'd like to not be mad as soon as possible."

comment by Jack · 2011-10-12T01:56:27.807Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Did I claim deceit? "Nothing" is inaccurate. (I understand that labeling an inaccuracy a 'lie' is a political statement.)

Yes. It is inaccurate. It is inaccurate in the same way sarcasm in inaccurate. Calling what Alice says a lie is about as inaccurate as calling sarcasm a lie. Maybe we should taboo "lie". We agree it is literally false and agree that it was not deceit. That leaves me not seeing what it was Alice did wrong (beside being suboptimal in her communication skills). She hasn't seemed to commit a transgression since literally false statements are routinely acceptable as long as they are not part of a deception.

Notice that, by TimS's interpretation, she actually is attempting to deceive him- she hopes that he believes the lie that nothing is wrong so that she won't have to discuss the issue now. If you want to question whether or not deceit is involved, bring it up with TimS.

I'm not really concerned with what TimS thinks-- lots of people have that covered. I'm sorry if this feels like I've put you in a double bind-- having to say she is lying to dispute TimS's position but also having to dispute my position that she was not lying (wasn't my intention).

Notice that any judgment about when the fight started is a political statement. Could we not say that Alice started the fight when she went against Bob's wishes and didn't explain what was wrong?

Conceivably. Personally, I think expecting people to be prepared to explain themselves immediately is unrealistic if not unfair. But note I also added that I don't think Bob can be expected to put up with Alice's attitude for an extended period of time if she is not prepared to talk about it.

Is it reasonable for Alice to assume that Bob is socially competent, particularly when it comes to this understanding?

Shrug. This is information that hasn't been stipulated one way or the other. But obviously a plausible explanation for the whole scene is that Alice thinks Bob is socially competent on this matter when he in fact isn't.

The problem is that, in this example, Bob wants to fix his model and Alice doesn't put any effort into fixing her model. (Remember, the original contention was over taryneast putting forward the suggestion that "Bob is too lazy to take the time and effort to understand Alice." SilasBarta concocted this hypothetical to suggest that the laziness of understanding is the other way around for many couples. TimS argued that Bob's lack of laziness was actually a vice.)

It can be the case that Alice is to blame for Bob not understanding her. It can also be the case that he is to blame. I have no idea how to evaluate that. I agree that if Alice is getting upset a lot and never saying why-- and if she is getting upset about is not something Bob ought infer with a bit of empathy-- then she is to blame for Bob not understanding her. Again, I don't agree with TimS.

People here are projecting their truth fetishes (which I share) onto the rest of the world. Not ever map correction needs to be made right away and often they disappear into irrelevance. Not everyone has the same high verbal intelligence as this crowd and it isn't fair to expect them to be able to put into words exactly what someone did wrong.

Alice wanting that and not being able to communicate it effectively is fixable, though. If your man is too literal to pick up on your hints, tell him directly!

Reasonable. Or break up with him if you need someone who can pick up on the hints. Alternatively, if your girl wants you to pick up on hints learn to pick up on them or break up with her. Or the two of your could find some sort of compromise.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-10-12T02:55:10.417Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe we should taboo "lie".

Good suggestion!

But obviously a plausible explanation for the whole scene is that Alice thinks Bob is socially competent on this matter when he in fact isn't.

I suspect that the typical mind fallacy is the primary cause of men and women not understanding each other.

People here are projecting their truth fetishes (which I share) onto the rest of the world.

This strikes me as an overgeneralization. In this particular scenario, an agent is attempting an ineffective strategy, which could be fixed by being explicit (Bob's strategy is also ineffective, but the path for Alice to improve is less ambiguous. As I pointed out in my first comment, since Alice determines the success or failure of Bob's strategies, she can decide to turn any strategy he tries into a failure). There are comparable numbers of people defending Bob and defending Alice, which suggests the truth fetishists (of which I am not one) may not be sizeable enough to stand for all people here.

comment by Jack · 2011-10-12T03:00:59.713Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are comparable numbers of people defending Bob and defending Alice, which suggests the truth fetishists (of which I am not one) may not be sizeable enough to stand for all people here.

I was paying attention to upvotes but those seem to have evened out since I wrote that.

As I pointed out in my first comment, since Alice determines the success or failure of Bob's strategies, she can decide to turn any strategy he tries into a failure).

The part where Bob looks at fault is when he keeps repeating the strategy that has already failed.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-10-12T01:18:48.401Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It is generally understood that a false statement is only a lie if the intent or expectation is that it be understood as a true statement. We have other words for different kinds of false statements: "fiction," "joke"... By saying "lie," "deception" was understood.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-10-12T01:41:20.109Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It is generally understood that a false statement is only a lie if the intent or expectation is that it be understood as a true statement. We have other words for different kinds of false statements: "fiction," "joke"... By saying "lie," "deception" was understood.

This is, of course, a social convention, but the application of "generally" to the subject at hand is questionable. Notice also that I was responding to someone who interpreted Alice as attempting to deceive Bob, which is not necessarily the case.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-10-12T00:00:42.532Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

They are in a fight about when they talk about it, and she is the one that elevated it from discussion to fight.

This is true, but as it is different from other fights about when to talk about it, the point stands. She escalated to a particular form of fight at a particular time for reasons she partially understands and partially doesn't understand.

Alice is engaging in a different relationship failure mode if (1) the issue is important to her, but (2) she never finds a time to discuss it. But that failure mode is independent and distinct from the failure mode of the man in the hypothetical.

Possibly this isn't failure for both or either of them, though such things usually are. They do things, those actions have consequences, and we can judge those consequences against their stated preferences, idealized preferences, revealed preferences...whatever.

So for:

But as is this example doesn't reflect poorly on Bob.

I think it reflects poorly on whoever is losing utility. I'm not too interested in apportioning blame among for example a mugger, his abusive parents, the guy who he mugged in the dark alley, the engineer who should have put a light there, etc.

ETA: I changed my mind to arrive at a similar position. It's not that behavior reflects poorly on people dependent upon the loss of utility that the behavior causes. Behavior less than what an entity expects to cause them the most utility (however weighted and whatever it is, including the right to e.g. be scope insensitive) reflects poorly on their character, and expectations divergent from those a perfectly rational agent would have reflect poorly on their minds.

So someone is still nuts if he or she fervently believes that if he or she enters a car that has a vowel on its license plate, the car will spontaneously explode even if this belief saves his or her life; and if one day a meteoroid unexpectedly drops out of the sky and kills you, giving you huge negative utility, that doesn't make you somehow dumber than the people outside around you.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-10-12T00:16:58.022Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is true, but as it is different from other fights about when to talk about it, the point stands.

Which point? As I understand it, Jack gave a large number of plausible reasons why she might respond the way she did. I selected the two most self-destructive and criticized them. It's still true that they're plausible reasons, and so in that sense "the point stands," but they aren't reasons that should be cultivated.

I'm not too interested in apportioning blame

Then it's not clear to me why you're posting in this tree? If you go up to the root, taryneast posted blaming the man for being lazy; then Silas posted about blaming the woman for being uncommunicative; then TimS posted about blaming the man for being domineering; then I posted blaming the woman for being unhelpful/dishonest; then Jack posted blaming the man for not understanding women; then I posted blaming Alice for not understanding her audience.

Perhaps you're trying to move from 'blame' towards 'consequences,' and sure, I support that move. But I don't think the comment tree as is will move very easily.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-10-12T01:09:42.481Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Which point? she may not want to get into a fight about when they talk about it Jack's point is that among the plausible reasons to want to avoid the subject is a desire to not have the fight associated with the subject. That her strategy involves picking a different fight doesn't take away from the point that she has plausible fight related reasons for not talking.

Then it's not clear to me why you're posting in this tree?

Weeding is part of gardening.

But really, Silas posted about the man not being to blame for lack of communication, so I can stand behind that. I also thought it a description of fact without necessarily involving blame when you described the woman as putting the man in a no-win situation. So I didn't read that as you blaming her. I read your next sentence as blaming her, but on a different topic, as "out-and-out lie" implies a lot of judgement. I may or may not agree with Jack's next comment, depending on what he meant by "lie". She communicated poorly on the crystal-to-mud clarity scale, using a literal falsehood that had a relatively high likelihood of conveying the truth, for a literal falsehood. I don't see any moral problem with that as such.

So I find myself agreeing with whoever is defending a character, it gives me a coherent side in each sub-part of the argument.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-10-12T01:29:58.580Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think you have some formatting errors with the start of your comment.

Jack's point is that among the plausible reasons to want to avoid the subject is a desire to not have the fight associated with the subject. That her strategy involves picking a different fight doesn't take away from the point that she has plausible fight related reasons for not talking.

I see how Alice's strategy is different; I don't see how the subject of the fight is different. In example 1, Bob says "let's talk now" and Alice responds with a subtextual "no." In example 2, Bob says "let's talk now" and Alice responds with a textual "no, how about later?" Is that enough for you to call it a different fight?

comment by Jack · 2011-10-12T00:53:00.694Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

To be clear my main point was just: "Alice is not lying". She may well be uncooperative and self-destructive but she is not lying. Whether or not she is being uncooperative or self-destructive is not obvious to me from the skeleton dialog. It would be dependent on details we don't have-- though I think it is likely her chosen path is not ideal. I think the man is being a bit dense and uncooperative by the end but he is not obviously in the wrong. Please interpret my comments as disagreement with precisely what you said not as support for TimS's comment or signifying that I blame or care about blaming one party or the other.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-10-12T01:11:20.081Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Have you tabooed "definition" without tabooing arguments from definition?

comment by Jack · 2011-10-12T02:48:01.639Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Heh. Almost. I've replaced definition with conventional speaker-meaning and am arguing from conventional speaker-meaning.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T01:57:15.760Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Alice is not lying.

So, hypothetical: if we were both standing outside under the clear blue sky and I said to you "The sky is green" you would say I was not lying? Assume we are speaking English, that both of us have working color vision, etc.

comment by Jack · 2011-10-12T02:10:49.178Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'd be trying to figure out from your tone, body language, facial expressions etc what was going on. Is pedanterrific just being weird? Has he gone crazy? Have I gone crazy? Is he trying to performatively illustrate a position on the unknowability of qualia? You've made it sort of difficult by providing an example of an obviously false statement wherein there is no other information about what you're doing-- but I certainly don't feel compelled to call it a lie.

Consider sarcasm.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T02:15:16.043Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I guess where you and I differ is that I don't consider those mutually exclusive. If I'm stating something which I know to not be true, I'm lying. I may also be doing other things (e.g. stating a prearranged signal like "the eagle has landed"), but all that - "being weird", "performatively illustrating a position" etc. - doesn't mean I'm not lying.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-10-12T02:25:07.710Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I, for one, understand that the definition of lying you are choosing to use here is simply "making false statements." It does not make sense to argue over what definition is "correct." I do want to be sure you are aware that many people understand lying to be "intending to deceive," particularly when things are morally charged, and you would be wise to taboo "lie" when this is relevant.

As a matter of curiosity: pursuant to your particular definition of lying as you were using it above, would you call making a true statement with the intent that it deceive and the knowledge that it is likely to do so "a lie" or "not a lie"?

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T02:48:33.777Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It does not make sense to argue over what definition is "correct."

I certainly hope that's not what it looked like I was doing.

I do want to be sure you are aware

Oh, I am. I was just curious about Jack's specific definition.

As a matter of curiosity: pursuant to your particular definition of lying as you were using it above, would you call making a true statement with the intent that it deceive and the knowledge that it is likely to do so "a lie" or "not a lie"?

In point of fact, I would call that a "deception", not a "lie". So, [a statement made with intent to deceive] = a "deception", and [a statement of something that is known to be false] = a "lie". So the two qualities are independent of each other. (Incidentally, [a statement of something that is false, but thought to be correct] would be a "mistake".)

I wonder whether the legal system considers "making a true statement with the intent to deceive" perjury?

comment by dlthomas · 2011-10-12T03:15:27.562Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I certainly hope that's not what it looked like I was doing.

It looked like what was generally happening - I'm not interested in meting out blame for it.

I do want to be sure you are aware

Oh, I am. I was just curious about Jack's specific definition.

Good.

As a matter of curiosity: pursuant to your particular definition of lying as you were using it above, would you call making a true statement with the intent that it deceive and the knowledge that it is likely to do so "a lie" or "not a lie"?

In point of fact, I would call that a "deception", not a "lie". So, [a statement made with intent to deceive] = a "deception", and [a statement of something that is known to be false] = a "lie". So the two qualities are independent of each other. (Incidentally, [a statement of something that is false, but thought to be correct] would be a "mistake".)

Alright, interesting. FWIW, I can go either way on that one.

I wonder whether the legal system considers "making a true statement with the intent to deceive" perjury?

To some extent, wouldn't this amount to most defenses when the accused is guilty? This seems like a bad idea, unfortunately.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T03:22:10.204Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder whether the legal system considers "making a true statement with the intent to deceive" perjury?

To some extent, wouldn't this amount to most defenses when the accused is guilty? This seems like a bad idea, unfortunately.

You lost me. (Pleading "Not Guilty" when you are guilty isn't perjury because it's not under oath, but I don't see what that has to do with "making a true statement with the intent to deceive".)

Also, you only need the > at the beginning of each paragraph.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-10-12T03:27:59.903Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Generally, statements made in the defense would be made with the intent that people draw the conclusion that the defendant is, in fact, not guilty. A guilty defendant could then not legally testify at all.

Also, you only need the > at the beginning of each paragraph.

Gracias.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T04:02:03.177Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A guilty defendant could then not legally testify at all.

Well, there's a reason people plead the Fifth.

Y de nada.

comment by Jack · 2011-10-12T02:54:54.383Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder whether the legal system considers "making a true statement with the intent to deceive" perjury?

Googles ...

The third element of a perjury offense is proof of specific intent, that is, that the defendant made the false statement with knowledge of its falsity, rather than as a result of confusion, mistake or faulty memory.

Though I suppose this wouldn't protect someone from prosecution for sarcasm.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-10-12T03:04:28.430Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You wanted the previous page. Yes, for perjury, the statement must actually be false.

comment by Jack · 2011-10-12T03:07:10.719Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, you're totally right. I misread the parent.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-10-12T03:17:32.822Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No worries.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T03:23:41.509Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For what it's worth, I'm not actually sure what I was going for there.

Edit: Yeah, that was probably it.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-10-12T03:29:23.644Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I assumed "curiosity"

comment by Jack · 2011-10-12T02:25:55.888Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah. I mean-- usage sometimes differs. I don't want to make this exactly a definition debate. But look at how Vaniver used the word:

Alice saying "nothing is wrong" rather than "let's not talk about it now" is an out-and-out lie. It's not clear that Bob inferring that Alice is repeatedly lying would reflect better on Bob.

That usage suggests to me a meaning of liar that implies deceit (though Vaniver later said he didn't mean to imply that).

I do think it would be a social/linguistic error to respond to weirdness, joking hyperbole, or sarcasm with with "Liar!" or similar variant in a sincere tone.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T05:42:46.723Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I do think it would be a social/linguistic error to respond to weirdness, joking hyperbole, or sarcasm with with "Liar!" or similar variant in a sincere tone.

Generally I prefer "Get thee behind me, Prince of Lies!" or possibly "You should be a statistician!" if I'm feeling particularly vindictive.

But I get your point.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-10-12T02:12:59.705Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Do you intend to persuade your interlocutor that the sky is in fact green? If not, then you are not lying.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T02:18:30.502Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Okay. So, what word do you use to describe the act of "stating things which you know to not be true"? Or does your variant of English not have a word for that act?

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-10-12T02:20:09.473Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Such an act has different names in different contexts. In your scenario, what motivated your statement that the sky is green?

comment by dlthomas · 2011-10-12T02:26:34.063Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Alternatively, if you need to sum up the action in any context, the phrase "stating things which you know to not be true" suffices...

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T03:53:19.213Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It does, doesn't it? Fancy that.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T02:30:29.208Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see how that is supposed to matter. But because I'm curious, some hypothetical situations:

My motivation was to find out how my interlocutor would describe my statement.

Assume that you don't and can't know my motivation, as is commonly the case in the real world.

It was due to a random causeless quantum fluctuation, similar in theory to the idea of a 'Boltzmann brain', which acted on my neurons in a such a way as to output that statement and make me rationalize it as my idea.

comment by Jack · 2011-10-12T02:42:02.736Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see how that is supposed to matter.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/meaning/#GriPro

meaning which can be thought of as the conjunction of two claims: (1) facts about what expressions mean are to be explained, or analyzed, in terms of facts about what speakers mean by utterances of them, and (2) facts about what speakers mean by their utterances can be explained in terms of their intentions.

Propositional theories of meaning fail precisely because they have a great deal of trouble accounting for situations where our words don't match our intentions.

Intention always matters.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T02:58:11.208Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Intention always matters.

What does it say about me that my first instinctive response was "I'm a consequentialist, not a virtue ethicist."

comment by lessdazed · 2011-10-12T03:05:27.254Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It's not good enough to just be a consequentialist rather than a virtue ethicist. You have to be a conequentialist for the right reasons or it doesn't count.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-10-12T03:40:45.430Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Intentions are physical facts about brains. If you care about those particular physical facts, then you can be a consequentialist who cares about intentions.

Often, some of the physical facts that determine whether a certain word applies to a certain situation happen to be physical facts that fall under the heading of "intentions".

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T03:56:33.575Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's just... if "intention always matters" when choosing which word to use to describe someone else's actions, you spend an inordinate amount of time not knowing how to describe something while you gather data on the other agent's intentions, data which may not ever be definitive. That seems to rather miss the point of language.

comment by TimS · 2011-10-12T02:38:35.528Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

When an actor says, "I am Hamlet, prince of Denmark" is he lying?

If yes, then why is there a negative connotation in the word lying?

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T03:05:34.136Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

When an actor says, "I am Hamlet, prince of Denmark" is he lying?

Well he's certainly not telling the truth, and he's (probably) not honestly mistaken, so sure.

If yes, then why is there a negative connotation in the word lying?

I'm not exactly sure I'm qualified to answer that, but if I had to speculate... because it's easier to accidentally mislead people by assuming they know you're not telling the truth than the opposite, and because it's valuable to society to pretend rigorous truth-telling is more laudable than it really is (i.e. "honest" has an unreservedly positive connotation, despite the fact that there are common social situations in which it is terribly impolite to actually be honest). Does that make sense?

comment by shminux · 2011-10-13T00:02:25.369Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Role playing can hardly be considered lying, as the latter usually implies an intent to deceive.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-13T01:00:03.600Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I am aware that this is the common understanding, yes. Apparently my definition is rather idiosyncratic.

comment by TimS · 2011-10-12T23:50:45.829Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This sounds vaguely like the idea once prevalent in legal proceedings that actors were not trustworthy as witnesses because their skill acting in plays showed that they could commit perjury undetected by the jury.

That theory is no longer accepted in law. And I think the modern understanding - that actors are no more or less likely to be dishonest than any other citizen - is the more rational position. Is society's modern view wrong?

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-13T00:53:06.273Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Uh... well first of all, I don't see what any of those things have to do with each other. To put my objections in some kind of order:

  1. The idea that actors' skill at lying is a reason to distrust their testimony is ridiculous. Juries, and people in general, are much worse lie detectors than they believe themselves to be. The bar is set so low that probably only really, unusually bad liars are ever caught by that method.

  2. That said, experience and skill at acting probably does generalize into skill at other forms of lying - that seems intuitively true, and it's certainly been the case in my experience, so I have no reason to doubt it.

  3. The unrelated claim of whether actors are equally likely to be dishonest as anyone else is also a terrible indicator of their reliability under oath. Presumably people who perjure themselves have a compelling reason, such that a constitutional tendency toward honesty wouldn't do what the threat of jailtime did not.

  4. That said, I have no idea whether actors are more, equally or less likely to be dishonest than the general population. I'm not sure how you'd go about testing that hypothesis, either.

Does that about clear it up?

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-10-12T02:11:24.434Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Alice is not "lying".

If by this you mean "Alice would explode at being called a liar," then I agree.

No, he means that Alice fails to satisfy the literal definition of lying, in that she is not intending to deceive. That is, she does not mean for the man to conclude that there is in fact nothing wrong.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-10-12T02:36:30.508Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

No, he means that Alice fails to satisfy the literal definition of lying, in that she is not intending to deceive.

Emphasis mine. My dictionary contains four instances of "lie" as a noun; #3 applies, and #1 (the one you're using) applies under the interpretation espoused by the person whose comment I was responding to (i.e. TimS suggested she wants him to conclude, for now at least, that nothing is wrong).

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-10-12T03:36:14.511Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you have read TimS correctly, then we agree that she was lying. But your reading of TimS doesn't look very plausible to me. Alice's not wanting to talk now doesn't convey the message that nothing is wrong now.

comment by Jack · 2011-10-12T02:51:09.457Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think what TimS probably meant was that she wants him to act, at least for now, as if nothing is wrong. But I probably shouldn't have jumped on you for criticizing him (I was not focused enough on the context, ironically).

comment by TimS · 2011-10-12T00:10:27.451Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Communication is the transfer of information, but social conventions still exist. And those social conventions provide context so that the spoken words include implicit statements.

I'm certainly not trying to say the the conventions are efficient. And lack of communication efficiency is bad for relationships. And sometimes, the social conventions are really opaque.

But when you say someone is lying, that's an accusation that a norm has been violated. And I don't think that Alice has violated any norm (social or otherwise). She may not be trying to maximize the viability of her relationship with Bob, but that's a separate issue.

And my only point was that Bob's explicit request for Alice to say what's wrong is not really trying to understand Alice.

Finally, I want to point out that our conversation is very meta. Alice may not be interested in having this kind of conversation. Most people aren't. And when the social conventions are very opaque, this sucks for Bob if he's not good at figuring out social conventions. Further, if Alice is trying to make the convention opaque, or hiding behind to uncertainty to jerk Bob's chain, that doesn't say good things about her.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-10-12T00:39:25.475Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

And my only point was that Bob's explicit request for Alice to say what's wrong is not really trying to understand Alice.

It seems like you're using Alice's perspective to identify Bob's intentions. Since they're having this fight, I don't think that's a reliable model to work off of. Bob wants to clear up his confusion, and he's confused about Alice. Alice sees Bob's attempt to clear up confusion (what's there to be confused about?*) as dominating the conversation- obviously she doesn't want to talk about it!

*Consider the emotional reaction that some women have when the man doesn't know what the issue is about- "he should know (without telling)." While the first part is spoken, the second part is clearly the message- if the important thing were knowledge transfer, she would say what the problem is!

But when you say someone is lying, that's an accusation that a norm has been violated.

Thanks for playing along! Notice that this has been a demonstration of social conventions, as alluded to:

It's not clear that Bob inferring that Alice is repeatedly lying would reflect better on Bob.

It is incontestable that Alice is providing verbal content that is the opposite of the information she believes. Can that be labeled a "lie"? Well, that depends on consequences, not the definition. The label of 'lying' is one she would hotly deny- despite it being literally true- because of the subtext involved. If Alice is labeled a liar, then her status-seeking strategy (conscious or unconscious) has failed- and so she'll probably double down by exploding. The convention is for Bob to not challenge Alice on that because it rarely ends well for either of them.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-12T01:45:45.193Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The convention is for Bob to not challenge Alice on that because it rarely ends well for either of them.

Man, if there were one piece of social advice I would give to my younger self...

comment by shminux · 2011-10-11T23:57:09.931Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I wish I could upvote this more...

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-10-12T00:03:52.407Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Yep, TimS, begging Alice to explain to him how he can treat her better while she refuses to say anything helpful whatsoever is an example of the man simply trying to selfishly "dominate the conversation". (???)

comment by taryneast · 2011-10-12T14:47:04.547Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Let me build on this hypothetical example to explain why.

Bob has clearly done something wrong. Alice is currently in a highly emotional state and recognises that she is likely not able to talk reasonably about what has happened without either becoming very angry or extremely upset and crying.

Therefore she really doesn't want to talk about it right now.

Bobs insistence on demanding all the answers right now is not helping her highly emotional state and is, in fact, just adding to her feelings of anger and panic... given that clearly he did something wrong, she believes he has no right to currently dominate the timing of when she discusses this highly sensitive issue (whatever it is).

But right now, she is too emotionally fraught even to be able to say that without shouting... so she just blocks.

The best thing for Bob to do is to courteously withdraw for a little while until Alice calms down... then to return at a later date when she's clearly had some time to reflect... and ask then.

comment by cousin_it · 2011-10-12T15:23:33.867Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I don't mean to indict Alice, but maybe evolution gave her these sincere emotions to make her behavior achieve the same results as a power play. "Understandable" is how "self-serving" feels from the inside. Of course that also applies to the actions of males, including this comment of mine ;-)

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2011-10-11T08:48:24.982Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Saying "I don't understand X" is not a mysterious answer per se, just reflecting lack of one's knowledge.

But there is a chance that Bob has a mental model containing a mysterious answer, which generated this specific response. The model could be like "it is not possible for a typical man to understand women". Such model would give a mysterious answer to Alice's behavior, and to prevent falsification it would provide a possible exception for Mark (or anyone else, if necessary).

So we need more information from Bob, what exactly is his model. Does he believe that his "not understanding women" is caused by not enough knowledge or experience yet, or that there is some fundamental problem that prevents him from ever making a better model?

comment by TimS · 2011-10-11T12:21:32.003Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

By social convention, "I don't understand women" includes the implicit term "And learning more about women does not pay off at what I consider reasonable effort."

I agree that statement is implicit and not a necessary part of the spoken utterance, but it is almost always there. Consider the very similar statement (by a non-nerd) "I don't understand math." It's substantially the same issue.

comment by Mercurial · 2011-11-17T18:42:46.326Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

This is utter gold. Thank you for posting this!

Not understanding people's behavior is your confusion, not theirs

I agree soooooooo much on this point.

I teach math courses for college students who want to become elementary teachers. The course I'm currently teaching is arithmetic - not that they can't do arithmetic, but there are a lot of things that often confuse kids that teachers just don't understand are confusing unless they've been told about them. For instance, there's a difference between partitive division ("Johnny has 10 apples and wants to give them to each of his 5 friends; how can he do so most fairly?") and quotitive division ("Johnny has 10 apples and wants to make bags of 5 apples; how many such bags can he make?"). When division is explained as "equal sharing" and then the teacher teaches the quotitive long-division algorithm, it confuses kids. But most teachers seem to default to the theory that if they explain something they think they understand and their kids don't get it, then that's a display of the kids' stupidity.

The mantra I have to tell, pretty much every single day in these classes, is that everything anyone does is sensible to them at the time they're doing it. What practically defines empathy, in my mind, is the ability to perceive that sensibility and make sense of the person's behavior in light of that.

And yes, I completely agree, it's a skill that can be practiced and learned. A thousand times, yes!

Instead, build accurate models of people and figure out whether your model would’ve predicted such behavior. If not, gather reliable evidence proving what the person actually felt and tweak your model accordingly.

[...]

Start developing models of individuals and groups, which predict their behaviors under certain circumstances. Like a scientist, when the model proves to have low predictive value, tweak them until they do.

This.

Caveat: If you’re very different from most people, then understanding yourself better won’t be as helpful. In this case, I’d suggest finding someone more typical to be your proxy. Get to know them well enough to the point where your proxy model can explain/predict behaviors in other typical people.

This is one of the very few places where I'm not sure we agree. I agree, someone who is really different from others will have a harder time getting the empathy ball rolling. But I still think self-understanding is utterly critical. It's the only way you can control for projection.

For instance, when I was a kid my father tended to be very judgmental. He would point out what was wrong with the way others were doing something and get physically tense about the issue, sometimes even marching up and fixing it himself. For years I assumed this was because he couldn't stand the stupidity he saw in others. But as I came to understand myself better, I realized that that's why I would do something like that. My father knows that IQ 100 is actually pretty dumb, but it's actually the imperfection that bothers him, not the lack of intelligence. I had to realize that I was projecting my own motives onto him in order to stop doing so long enough to get where he was coming from.

There's also the fact that some people identify with being unusual or different, but such people usually exaggerate their differences more than is justified. However, that isn't something that introspection can detect. So I would still say that self-understanding is really critical for empathy, if for no other reason than to understand to what degree projection is reliable or unreliable for a person who self-labels as "different."

Use the fact that most people project to your advantage. If someone’s trying to empathize with you, they’ll most likely project i.e. put themselves in your shoes.

This is clever. I often forget to do this. Thanks!

The simplest explanation is usually correct

I think I understand what you're getting at here, and I generally agree. I just want to emphasize that simplicity is relative. To me, the simplest explanation for why Lady Gaga so highly values "fighting for who you are" is that she's an Enneagram type Four. But describing what that means and why that constitutes an explanation actually requires a fair amount of time and verbiage. It's simple to me only because I'm familiar with what it means for someone to be a Four.

experiencing more means being a better empathizer.

Absolutely.

Thank you for posting this!

comment by pwno · 2011-11-27T23:44:12.855Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Glad you liked the post.

This is one of the very few places where I'm not sure we agree. I agree, someone who is really different from others will have a harder time getting the empathy ball rolling. But I still think self-understanding is utterly critical. It's the only way you can control for projection.

I agree, I should've emphasized that finding a proxy is supplementary to self-understanding, not an alternative.

There's also the fact that some people identify with being unusual or different, but such people usually exaggerate their differences more than is justified.

Very much agree. This issue is especially prominent in societies that idealize individualism. Looking back, I think I should've edited out the caveat, not because I disagree with my past self, but because it may inhibit some readers from questioning their self-proclaimed differences.

comment by cousin_it · 2011-10-11T10:09:54.635Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I'd really like to know some basic, repeatable exercises that build empathy and social skills. Changing your everyday behavior to incorporate little bits of training here and there is not very effective. It's like wanting to get fit and deciding to walk a little faster whenever you need to get somewhere, instead of joining the gym. Or wanting to be a musician and deciding to hum along to songs more often, instead of getting a tutor.

comment by isaacschlueter · 2011-10-14T23:58:59.963Z · score: 19 (19 votes) · LW · GW

Great points in this article. I noticed in high school that I had difficulties in this area, but rather than approach it with this conceptual pwno has, I sought out training regimens more like what you describe.

I can't say that they've been super effective. I still come across as a bit "off" a lot of the time, but they've certainly helped. YMMV, of course.

  1. If you're single (or, at least, not locked down), join a dating website (or a few). Don't try to find the love of your life. Just try to go on as many first dates as you can. Try to learn as much as you can about the other person, and practice empathy techniques. This is good because people tend to have very little tolerance for odd behavior, and will be experiencing a lot of odd uncertainty, curiosity, excitement, etc., themselves. Make it your goal to learn about them, and build a model of this new person.

  2. Take a foreign language. This is good because it's regular, safe, and you'll have to interact and converse with a bunch of people. Since you're all struggling, people tend to let their guard down, and the conversation topics are usually pretty basic (what's your name, where do you live, how many pets do you have, blah blah blah) so it's not distracting. I'm studying ASL now. Sign language is particularly good because facial/body language is such a huge part of the language, so it can build a lot of control and awareness.

  3. Take a dance or martial arts class. Empathy is a very physical activity, and it can be incredibly instructive to learn how to trust your instincts and respond to another person's body in real time. While, of course, it happens in the brain, it's not the sort of problem that (in my experience) I can "think my way out of".

  4. Tell the people closest to you that you've come to realize that this is something you need to work on, and that they seem pretty good at it, and ask them to a) call you out on it when you seem to act oddly, and b) to be patient and helpful if you ever ask them how they're feeling at random times. Most people will be flattered and happy to help. Then actually use their help! Resist the urge to be defensive if they correct you on something, and repeatedly check your model of how you think they're feeling if you're unsure. (Make sure to tell them that it's ok to tell you to stop, if it bugs them. You don't want to push people away in your quest to be more empathic!)

  5. When you're speaking with people, try to figure out how they're feeling, and state it as a tentative sentence. Throw in "And you're happy about this" or "that makes you sad" or "you're mad at me about something" in conversation, if it seems like that's true. In therapy, this is called making "process comments" -- comments that just state what's happening, and don't try to add explanation or judgement. They'll correct you if you're wrong, and give you more information if you're right. It's an incredibly powerful technique, and much more difficult than it sounds.

  6. Keep a log. At the end of each day, write down how someone you know was feeling, and how it made you feel, and what physical sensations made you aware of these feelings. Especially: make a note of any time when someone's behavior surprised you, or someone you know who is consistently surprising. This means that you're not reading them properly.

  7. Remind yourself frequently that no one is the villain of their own story. So, while they may in fact be a villain any number of reasons, thinking of them as such will not help you understand them.

  8. A lot of overcoming a lack of empathy is simply a matter of overcoming a fear of interaction as such. If you wear a watch or carry a book with you everywhere you go, stop. Every time you're at a bus stop (train station, etc.), ask someone what time it is, and make put-up comment. If you make them smile, you get a point. If you don't, make a note of it in your journal and try to think of why that might have been. Did they seem annoyed? Startled? Tired? What messages were you sending that might have made them felt that way? How could you have misinterpreted their reaction?

I learned a lot from doing door-to-door sales once upon a time, but I would not recommend that. As helpful as it was for getting over my lack of empathy and social skills, it was a horrible experience overall.

comment by greenfox · 2011-10-15T13:35:12.194Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Great suggestions. I like the suggestions of using dates and classes as behavior labs. I'd like to add one comment, though, on point number 5:

'When you're speaking with people, try to figure out how they're feeling, and state it as a tentative sentence. Throw in "And you're happy about this" or "that makes you sad" or "you're mad at me about something" in conversation, if it seems like that's true. In therapy, this is called making "process comments" -- comments that just state what's happening, and don't try to add explanation or judgement. They'll correct you if you're wrong, and give you more information if you're right. It's an incredibly powerful technique, and much more difficult than it sounds.'

Personally, I'd be very careful with making statements about another person's feelings in this format. If your read of their emotions is wrong, this can come across as forming snap judgements and being unwilling to listen to them about what they are actually feeling. Even more frightening, I've found that when other people state things about my own emotional state, I tend to become confused about what I actually am feeling, wondering if I actually did have an unconscious motive driven by the emotions they point to. I suspect this is more likely to be problematic when the person making the statement is perceived as higher status. On the other hand, if the status difference is reversed, the statement may sound presumptuous.

Instead, I'd suggest using language that shows ownership of your own perceptions "I get the sense that you're upset about something..." or "You seem happy to me." Or present the observation as a question "Are you angry about what happened?"

Your mileage may vary, of course.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-10-15T14:35:04.236Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

I've had very mixed results with this technique. Some people respond to it very positively, others very negatively. The same is true of asking targeted questions (e.g., "Are you angry...?") or open-ended questions (e.g. "How do you feel about that?") or asserting my own observations (e.g., "You seem angry to me").

Face to face, I can usually figure out with some tentative probing which approach works best before I commit to one. But the safest tactic I've come across, and the one I generally use on the Internet (where I cannot tell who is listening to me or how they might respond), is sticking to related statements about my own experience (e.g. "That would anger me") and avoiding the second person pronoun altogether.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2011-10-15T19:31:07.229Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

and the one I generally use on the Internet

I can barely read people's feelings at all on the Internet, or in any text-based medium really. So I tend to avoid discussing their feelings at all unless it's in response to them bringing up feelings and describing it themselves.

I'm pretty good at reading body language and facial expressions it in real life (well, I can place people quite easily on a spectrum of 'relaxed' to 'uncomfortable', and it's sometimes harder to tell what particular kind of uncomfortable they are feeling, i.e. sad vs frustrated vs angry). What I find works well is "summarizing" what they have said and then adding one comment at the end that is my interpretation or observation, if I have one. Most people I know respond well to this; I find that even if I've interpreted their feelings wrong, they are eager to go deeper into the conversation and correct me, rather than getting frustrated and walking off. Which is ultimately what I want: more conversation time, about more topics, so that I have more data for my 'model.'

comment by isaacschlueter · 2011-10-16T06:09:03.245Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, that's why I mentioned that it's much more difficult than it seems. There are two negative reactions I've encountered: The first is a "yeah, no $#!+, what are you, autistic or something?" The second is, "No, why would you even think that? Are you autistic or something?"

So, yeah... use with caution. It's a technique that can be a little weird, but when you're finding yourself completely without any clue what's going on inside someone else, and you really need to know, just throwing out your best guess (or whatever you do know, even if it's not the full story) almost always gets some reaction that will give you more information. I've learned that process comments must be made tentatively; half-question, half-validation.

Another thing I forgot to mention: Non-Violent Communication. Get this book and read it. http://amzn.com/dp/1892005034 It's full of things that sound obvious. So read it again and again.

Most people, in most situations, have a strong desire to tell you how they feel, what they're interested in, etc. Learning how to let them do this is very powerful. A lot of what passes for empathy is just a matter of not inadvertently shutting people down before they get a chance to tell you what they're feeling.

I've realized over the years that I habitually made a ton of mistakes that NVC explicitly calls out. Noticing these mistakes is hard. Changing them is harder. It's a worthwhile enterprise.

EDIT: A slight correction: "you're angry" is not technically a "process comment" unless it's bloody well obvious that the person is angry. "You're speaking loudly" or "you just smashed the table" would be process comments (assuming that they are true.)

comment by lessdazed · 2011-10-16T07:15:26.319Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I recommend Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.

comment by isaacschlueter · 2011-10-16T19:12:33.440Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Looks useful, thanks for the tip!

comment by thomblake · 2012-01-13T15:47:11.297Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I learned a lot from doing door-to-door sales once upon a time, but I would not recommend that. As helpful as it was for getting over my lack of empathy and social skills, it was a horrible experience overall.

I'd second that in particular.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-10-11T19:57:40.943Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I don't have a handy exercise regimen, but I'll toss in my two cents.

An exercise I often do in this space involves explicitly looking for symmetry: if I am judging someone for doing X, I look for and articulate ways in which I also do X; if I am feeling aggrieved because Y has happened to me, I look for and articulate ways in which Y has also happened to other people. I doubt it helps build empathy directly, but it helps me curtail some reflexes that seem incompatible with empathy.

Another involves building models of worlds in addition to people: if someone is behaving in a way that seems inconsistent with how the world actually is, I try to work out in some detail how the world would have to be for their behavior to make sense... or, rather, what the minimal changes would have to be. It seems like something that ought not make a difference, and yet it does: the way I approach someone who I model as operating in a fictional world where everyone is a dangerous threat, for example, is different (and much more compassionate) than the way I approach someone who I model as being frightened of everyone.

Taking a step back... I find it's helpful to remember that every time someone seems to be doing or saying something unconscionably stupid, or thoughtless, or evil, or otherwise behaving in ways that I want to classify as other-than-me, that's an opportunity to instead practice empathy and compassion. (I don't mean to suggest here that one ought to practice empathy and compassion in such cases; I don't think that's a useful claim to make in this context.)

comment by Swimmer963 · 2011-10-11T20:03:05.951Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Taking a step back... I find it's helpful to remember that every time someone seems to be doing or saying something unconscionably stupid, or thoughtless, or evil, or otherwise behaving in ways that I want to classify as other-than-me, that's an opportunity to instead practice empathy and compassion.

I think this is an excellent point. From most people's own point of view, they never do anything stupid, thoughtless, or evil. Everything is justified as the best or only course of action that anyone they consider reasonable could take when put into the same circumstances. If you look at what they're doing and judge it to be stupid, thoughtless, or evil, and you don't understand how they could see it otherwise, then your model of them is incomplete. This method has almost always worked for me in terms of figuring out the missing bit of my model, and usually works for reducing frustration. (Sometimes my own emotional response is still "I know I'd do exactly the same thing in your place, but it's still freaking annoying!")

comment by thomblake · 2011-10-11T20:14:40.084Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"I know I'd do exactly the same thing in your place, but it's still freaking annoying!"

That's okay, I'd be annoyed in your place too.

comment by imonroe · 2011-10-14T21:02:57.093Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with this point as well, and I think it bears emphasizing.

Awhile ago, I had a series of conversations with a friend who was having problems with people in her workplace. She would complain along the lines of, "I just can't believe that X would just shuffle a problem over to my desk. It was X's responsibility to solve the problem; X must be trying to get me in trouble with the boss."

Or similar formulations.

It gradually became clear that her go-to modality was to think that if other people aggravated her, it was because they were doing it on purpose.

I pointed out to her that practically nobody in the world enjoys maliciousness, meanness, etc. and that, given the choice of ascribing a person's actions to maliciousness, when it was just as plausible that the real motivation was thoughtlessness, misunderstanding, or ignorance, one should only opt for maliciousness if there's a number of REALLY GOOD REASONS to think the person would behave that way.

Ultimately, we all want to get along with those around us. Usually, when we don't, it's misunderstanding to blame.

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-08-13T08:02:24.498Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, sometimes people really are out to get you. My brother's immediately senior co-worker at Goldman Sachs once admitted to deliberately trying to sabotage his work. The co-worker was indeed behaving quite game-theoretic-rationally, though; the way Goldman Sachs works, it was likely that exactly one of them would soon lose their job.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-10-12T13:54:04.302Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes.

I also find it can help with communication. That is, when I decide I want to talk to someone about the annoying behavior (which I don't always, of course) the opening tack of "I notice you doing X, which is something that I do more often than I'd like and really irritates me when I do it, so I'm kind of sensitized to it" is often both entirely true and a useful way of shortcircuiting the usual adversarial dance that starts that sort of conversation.

comment by Clarica · 2011-10-11T16:50:32.678Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I like to watch movies and decide who is the smartest person, who is the most compassionate person, and who is the meanest person. And then ask myself: Why? Some mean behavior is actually an irrational self-protective response, for example.

comment by Kingreaper · 2011-10-12T11:57:30.884Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The problem is the repeatability. Social skills, by their very nature, require interaction with people. And people are unpredictable; at least, until you have good enough social skills :p.

The closest I can come to an exercise regime suggestion* is to go into bars, coffee shops, or other gathering places; and look around for a person (or people) who seems bored, lonely, or otherwise in need of company.

Go up to said person(s) and greet them in a manner you deem appropriate. If it works; you just correctly judged someone's state, you approached them in an acceptable manner, and you now get to converse with them (giving you practise on other social skills). If not; consider why not? Did you misread their state? Did you approach them in an unacceptable manner? What should you try differently next time?

*(and something I actually did, that seemed to help me personally: in fact I met my girlfriend due to this practise)

comment by EphemeralNight · 2011-10-13T05:32:55.434Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

How did you manage to do this without garnering a reputation as that weird person who always starts conversations with random strangers, who you shouldn't bother responding to because the only reason he's talking to you is because you happened to be there when he was?

comment by Kingreaper · 2011-10-13T08:32:06.884Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I live in Manchester, England.

There are 2.6 million people in this city. I didn't need to actively avoid becoming known, it would have been extremely difficult to become known.

Also: had I gained a reputation for talking to random strangers, why would that have been a bad thing? The person I approach knows I approach random strangers; they are one.

Being known as a person who tries to chat up random people may be a problem*. Being known as a person who tries to chat to random people isn't. In fact, if anything, I've earned status for it.@

*You're seen as having low standards, and therefore the fact you're interested in someone no longer puts them in an exclusive group. Oh, and you may end up viewed as a slut.

@I have friends with low social skills, who find it too scary to approach people they don't know. The fact I do so gives me a certain amount of esteem in their eyes.

comment by EphemeralNight · 2011-10-13T09:46:12.851Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're seen as having low standards, and therefore the fact you're interested in someone no longer puts them in an exclusive group.

Why would this apply to romantic forays but not other types of social overture? It seems like it(becoming known as a person who tries to chat up random people) would happen no matter what you actually talked about.

comment by Kingreaper · 2011-10-13T12:41:19.444Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Why would this apply to romantic forays but not other types of social overture?

The fact that chatting to random people merely means you're willing to let anyone be one of your acquaintances

In general, being someone's acquaintance cannot be considered an exclusive group to begin with, so there was no exclusivity to be lost.

It seems like it(becoming known as a person who tries to chat up random people) would happen no matter what you actually talked about.

If you only rarely* make a sexual or romantic pass it is unlikely that people would view you in such a way. Especially if you approach people who are not of your preferred gender, etc..

*[when you find someone who is actually particularly attractive to you, after you've gotten to know them a bit]

comment by pwno · 2011-10-11T15:46:33.187Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

There are "empathy challenges" all around you. Whenever you observe or interact with someone, really try to understand why they behaved the way they did - feel it on a gut level. Feeling confident about your conclusions is key. Keeping a checklist similar to the one in the post is helpful to keep in mind when confronted with these challenges.

However, without actually interacting with people, entering relationships or reading about social dynamics, your models of people won't be entangled with reality. My advice is more about how to be an active learner given you are doing these things.

comment by cousin_it · 2011-10-11T17:06:46.384Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

There are "empathy challenges" all around you.

There are also physical challenges all around you, but going to the gym is still a better idea. I find it easier to get better at something if I can practice every little sub-skill repeatedly in a short period of time with immediate feedback. I realize your advice doesn't fit that mold, but I'd still like to find some advice that does :-)

comment by eugman · 2011-10-13T21:29:06.135Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

May I suggest learning microexpressions? There's an app for the android I use and after a few dozen trials, I can noticeably read emotions better. By increasing the accuracy and timeliness of the emotional feedback you get, you can learn from real-life situations much better.

comment by dbaupp · 2011-10-16T10:03:30.259Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Do you have a link for that app?

comment by eugman · 2011-10-16T11:41:20.019Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Here it is.

comment by taryneast · 2011-10-11T19:08:07.177Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Method acting perhaps?

comment by pwno · 2011-10-12T06:30:44.528Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Running around the block is a good start :)

I might write a follow-up post with the kind of advice you're looking for.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2011-10-11T13:34:54.966Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Many parts of nursing school are a giant exercise in building empathy :) Also, volunteering at social events can be really good. I found volunteering at church events helpful, but you may not want to do that.

I suppose you could do the equivalent of "getting a tutor" if you have a friend who is much more empathetic than you are, and willing to teach you. Actually, it would be useful to have a structured system for that kind of thing...

comment by TimS · 2011-10-11T12:18:21.012Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I found it helpful to listen to speeches at retirement parties for what the person leaving was good at, and trying to emulate that virtue.

comment by kilobug · 2011-10-11T09:40:12.508Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I'm wondering how much reading fiction can help with that. I never really thought about it before reading HP:MoR which uses the argument quite extensively, but I do feel that my ability to understand others was greatly improved by the fact that, since early childhood (I remember being like 8 or 9 and spending a whole afternoon just devouring a book) I read a lot of fiction (mostly sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, and a bit of thrillers too).

Reading fiction, especially as a child, forces you to put yourself in the shoes of other people (usually the hero(es) of the book), which will vary greatly from book to book, and to make models of people (both the heroes and the secondary characters) to try to guess what will happen later in the book. It gives some kind of mental flexibility about understanding people, a bit like stretching gives flexibility to your muscles. And it does it much more efficiently than a movie to me, first because books can much more easily than movie speak about what's happening inside the head of the character (how he takes his decisions, what he feels, ...) and because a book gives you much more time to think about it than a movie.

Also, I think role-playing helps too. Even before playing "official" RPGs like D&D with dices and stats and everything, as a child, I was often "role-playing" in an intuitive way with my siblings, so putting myself in the shoes of someone else.

Those two may have a drawback : they may tend to lead me to have stereotyped views of others, to fall more easily to the halo effect, since often (but hopefully not always) the heroes have lot of qualities together, and the villains lots of flaws together.

Do any of you have a pointer to some deeper study about the link of reading fiction (especially as a child) with the ability to empathize with/understand others ?

comment by Swimmer963 · 2011-10-11T13:13:37.805Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I read a lot as a child too, but it was writing that I've found has motivated me to develop more complete models of people. Whether it was my mom's detailed criticism of early stories that I wrote (included the dreaded "that's awfully implausible, sweetie"), or the fact that writing gave me incentive to go out and talk to people or try new things in order to have something to write about, that's where a lot of my motivation came from to develop better empathy.

Aside: I think a surprising number of my life decisions boil down to wanting to understand people better (whether "just because" or in order to be better at other things.) Example case: choosing to study nursing instead of physics. Despite my mother's insistence that I would be "an incredible academic", there was a part of me that always chimed in: "You're already good at school/studying/learning/etc. You're terrible at people skills. People skills are more important than study skills for writing good stories. Can you imagine how awesome your people skills would be after 10 years of being a nurse? There you are!"

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2011-10-11T15:17:57.952Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Example case: choosing to study nursing instead of physics

Whoa, that's a serious career decision based on that one consideration. Do you feel particularly deficient in this area or attribute greater importance to it than average? It's not like physicists don't talk to each other at all.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2011-10-11T19:59:17.127Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

It was a decision based on multiple factors, including the likelihood that I would find a job after graduating, the likelihood that I would enjoy my day-to-day work (my father hated academia, and our personality is similar enough that I considered this evidence about me, too), and the likelihood that I could be good at my job. (I may not be intelligent enough to be a really good physicist. Then again, I may not be capable of learning enough people skills to be a really good nurse, either...)

comment by shminux · 2011-10-11T18:30:16.038Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Judging by my interaction with a number of physics profs of both genders I had to deal with as a grad student, quite a few of them could definitely use some extra empathy. Probably goes both ways and is not restricted to physics.

comment by Ben_LandauTaylor · 2013-08-13T14:28:10.994Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Your mom sounds awesome.

comment by ESRogs · 2011-10-16T07:39:40.221Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It sounds like you really want to be a writer...

comment by Swimmer963 · 2011-10-16T09:51:32.345Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

What I say to most people is that I already am a writer. I've completed a number of novel-length stories. I'm just not a published writer yet.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2011-10-12T19:26:22.760Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

On the topic of believability, perennial advice from the acting classes I have taken: "What does your character want?"

comment by secondarmor · 2011-10-16T05:41:08.727Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

People tend to explain such confusing behavior with stupidity, creepiness, neurosis or any other traits we associate with the mentally ill. With Occam’s Razor in perspective, these careless judgers are statistically the mentally ill ones.

Words cannot express my appreciation of less wrong for getting this clearly stated.

comment by majus · 2011-10-18T15:45:08.579Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I am trying to be more empathetic with someone, and am having trouble understanding their behavior. They practice the "stubborn fundamental attribution error": someone who does not in fact behave as expected (as this individual imagines she would behave in their place) is harshly judged (neurotic, stupid, lazy, etc.). Any attempts to help her put herself in another's shoes are implacably resisted. Any explanations which might dispel harsh judgement are dismissed as "justifications". One example which I think is related is what I'll call "metaphor blindness". A metaphor that I expect would clarify the issue, the starkest example of which is a reductio ad absurdum, is rejected out of hand as being "not the same" or "not relevant". In abstract terms, my toolkit for achieving consensus or exploring issues rationally has been rendered useless.

Two questions: does my concept of "metaphor blindness" seem reasonable? And...how can I be more empathetic in this case? I'm being judgemental of her, by my own admission. What am I not seeing?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-10-18T16:03:17.524Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I will tentatively suggest panic-- she feels so much at risk from other people's negative opinions that she feels she can't afford to cut them any slack. This may help you feel more kindly toward her, but I don't know if it will help you deal with her. Does she have any good points that you can see?

comment by DavidAgain · 2013-08-13T15:23:35.503Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If I udnerstand what you mean, I used to see 'metaphor blindness' in a lot of people. But I think it's more about how much people wall off the relevant bit of the metaphor/analogy from the general tone. I see this a lot in politics, on all sides, and I don't think the 'metaphor blind' people are just deliberately misunderstanding to score points. It may be not being able to separate the two, or it may be a feeling on their part that the metaphor is smuggling in unfair implications.

For instance, on same sex marriage (a good case for me to observe this because I'm instinctively pro- and the cases I'm looking at are metaphor-blindness by people who are also pro-), two arguments come to mind

1) Pro-SSM argument 'Marriage should be allowed as long as there is consent between the two people'. Counter-analogy 'But on those grounds, incestuous marriage or polygamy should also be allowed' 2) Pro-SSM argument 'If you don't like gay marriage, don't get gay married'. Counter-analogy: "Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that ‘no one will be forced to keep a slave. Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?” (this one is a direct quote from a Cardinal)

In these cases, the general response from pro-SSM people has been 'I can't believe you're comparing gay marriage to incest/slavery'. Because the toxicity of the comparison point overwhelms the quite focused analogy in both cases. People often feel the same when you try to convince them of something by analogy, particularly if they feel like you are trying to show that they are wrong by intellectual force rather than just taking them along with you. It took me awhile to adjust to this one: I just felt everyone else was [i]wrong[/i], and at a gut level I still do, and prefer arguing with people who take analogies in a narrow sense. But eventually, in line with the post above, you can't repeatedly, reliably, have failed communications with the rest of society and consider everyone else to be the aberration.

comment by Jiro · 2013-08-13T18:30:06.743Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

On the other hand, using such "toxic" comparisons is valuable because due to their very toxicity, everyone believes the same thing about them. You can't argue "but on those grounds, slurping your soup would be permissible"--after all, some people do think that slurping your soup is permissible, so on those people, the analogy would fail, and some other people have no opinion on soup-slurping and will insist that you prove that it's not permissible before they'll accept it in an analogy. Godwin's Law, which is a variation on this, has a similar problem: often a Hitler comparison is the best kind of comparison to make because everyone agrees about Hitler.

comment by DavidAgain · 2013-08-14T09:01:29.724Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Indeed. Which is why I like having discussions with people who follow the same ruleset as me and engages with metaphors in that pure, stripped-down way. It saves a hell of a lot of time. But there are lots of things that save time in communication that do not make for good communication in general.

comment by Mercurial · 2011-11-17T18:05:05.869Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Two questions: does my concept of "metaphor blindness" seem reasonable?

Possibly. But since we're on the topic of empathy, I'd like to emphasize that definitely among the most treasured practices I've found is finding a way to understand why what the other person is doing is sensible to them. Even if I can't see the reason, it's there. So, it's really critical to remove every hint of a judgmental tone even from one's own mind when trying to understand another person. (You can turn it back on later, but while in the process of empathizing it seems to be critical not to evaluate.)

Assuming you're accurate and this person really can't "see" metaphors, I think the next question to ask is, "What is it like to experience the world with this metaphor blindness?" Or more generally, "Why does this person's actions make sense?"

In this respect I take a page from Buddhism. I find that my ability to empathize with others is tremendously greater if I can (a) understand in what sense their negative behavior arises from some kind of suffering and (b) cultivate a wish that they weren't suffering (which is what many Buddhists mean by "compassion"). I simply don't do this to "end the karmic cycle of death and rebirth"; instead, I do it because I've found that it enriches my life and helps me understand others tremendously better.

For what it's worth!

And...how can I be more empathetic in this case?

Again, in your position, I would ask myself "In what sense does this person's behavior make sense?" As I wrestle with this question, I know I've hit on a viable hypothesis when everything suddenly becomes clear and I no longer feel any sense of judgment or frustration with the person.

In this case, I wonder if you might be conflating two different issues. Empathy is a matter of understanding another person's experience from their point of view, but it sounds to me like your concern is with the fact that this person doesn't seem to abide by basic laws of reason. In particular, you say:

In abstract terms, my toolkit for achieving consensus or exploring issues rationally has been rendered useless.

It might be that exploring issues rationally isn't a driving desire for this person like it is for you. If it is - that is, if this person identifies with being reasonable and objective despite not being so from your perspective - then this person's behavior is a loud signal of their suffering. For instance, the harsh sense of rejection of others as stupid, incompetent, useless, etc. really strikes me as a distancing behavior. The fact that they reject arguments against their arguments as "irrelevant" also seems like a way of choosing to cling to the value of their arguments, as though their sense of self-worth is somehow tied up in their ability to believe those arguments - which, again, seems to suggest a fear of letting others get too close. So the question I would gravitate toward is, "Why does this person need emotional distance from others?"

(Based on way too little information, by the way, I have to wonder if the person you're describing is an Enneagram type Five at Health Level 6. If so, they'll also tend to have a nihilistic attitude toward the world, as though nothing really matters. Not depression per se, but a sense of pointlessness to life and a kind of irritation that others are so stupid as to be blind to said pointlessness. They'll also be driven to impress upon others how intelligent and unusual they are, and will often gleefully share uncomfortable truths that disturb others' sense of the world being okay. If that doesn't describe the person to a 'T', though, then disregard this suggestion!)

You might find that you have to distinguish between having rational conversations with this person on the one hand and coming to a rational consensus on the other. Someone who uses the cloak of logic to hide from others isn't likely to be open to logic as a way of opening up to others, so you're fighting the emotional brain on that one. But if you can "get" why they feel like their distancing behavior makes sense, you might be able to use your understanding to help them relax a little bit and choose courses of action for whatever you're talking about that make sense. They might need to justify it in weird ways you disagree with, but I think the actions people take are generally more important than the reasons they tell themselves for why those actions make sense.

Does that help?

comment by khafra · 2011-10-18T16:06:58.376Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Your current model of her is a person who completely lacks empathy. Trying to put yourself in the shoes of someone unable to put themself in someone else's shoes sounds insoluble; there must be some way to change the parameters of the problem.

comment by Peacewise · 2011-10-30T22:07:12.125Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Seems to me you are facing a person who lacks both logic and imagination, be wary that you don't commit the fundamental attribution error yourself about her! I too have a relationship with a female who displays the same characteristics you describe.

Ask yourself what's her buy in for understanding things the way you are presenting them - its plausible that she doesn't have a buy in, that she believes that accepting what you've got to say will in fact lessen/harm her in some way. It's quite possible that in her life thinking that way has been very useful - are you willing to take that away?

How much patience have you got? It's a long tough road.

Some things that have worked for me. Occasionally encourage her frustration, even to point of tears, because at that point she is more willing to open her mind to a different way of thinking. It's truth that in a sense we are manipulating her, from her perspective, who are we to do so, what's our reason for doing this, you'll have to have very sure answers for those questions.

Be positive, be consistent, keep showing that there is a difference between how she thinks and who she is, she needs some distance between the mistakes she makes and her self esteem and self efficacy. If she can create that distance for herself, she'll be more inclined to create that distance for others.

Model the thinking and behaviour you believe is useful, show the benefits - and costs.

Keep in mind that her situation is part of the issue, changing her situation will give her more ability to experience how if situations change people's responses change, she gets to experience for herself how the fundamental attribution error functions... that's been the most effective way I've helped.

comment by Grognor · 2011-10-12T03:33:01.207Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I have absolutely nothing to add except praise, so here is praise.

Thank you for writing this. I will be memorizing its points and using them.

comment by Ender · 2012-01-22T01:39:01.073Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I like your suggestion to learn to learn to like things. If anyone is looking for things to learn to like, these are some nice ones.

Ligeti's etudes (and other 12-tone music); www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0qoue0JbbU

This piece by Charles Ives; www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBU_XzWZNtc

Plays! You don't need to buy hundred-dollar tickets to fancy Broadway shows; community theater productions are often comically horrible in movies, but I've only seen good ones in real life (I did just put drama in a group with Ligeti etudes and cowboy music, but not because it's really weird).

comment by Bill_McGrath · 2012-01-22T01:55:09.091Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted for reccommending Ligeti! I'm working on a thesis about Ligeti for my degree in composition, he's a marvellous composer.

If I may offer one slight correction: Ligeti's Etudes aren't 12-tone compositions; they're atonal, but written according to rules of his own devising rather than using the rows and permutations of 12-tone/serialist music. I don't think he wrote any serialist works after he left Hungary.

That said, I haven't examined all of the etudes in detail so I could be wrong.

comment by MaoShan · 2011-11-20T06:17:52.234Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the article, I have been considering doing that very thing for years, not out of a desire to connect with humans though, but to understand them and their behavior. Now that I know that it is a viable concept, it's time to make my own Field Guide to Human Interaction.

comment by medomai · 2011-10-18T16:14:44.911Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I found this article very helpful, thank you. It helped convince me that giving people the benefit of the doubt is almost certainly the best option and that being straightforward with people in my life will make things simpler. I'll make effort to memorize these methods. Thanks for writing!

comment by Armok_GoB · 2011-10-29T18:28:37.956Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This post just deals with explaining observed behaviours. Not only is that rarely useful, there is a much easier way to do that: just ask them.

I can not remember a single occasion where I've failed to explain an observed behaviour. At least in my case, the problem is noticing behaviours in the first place, and an inability to read facial expressions.