Information empathy

post by Evan Rysdam · 2019-07-30T01:32:45.174Z · score: 14 (16 votes) · LW · GW · 14 comments

Epistemic status: Giving a name to a basic skill that some people exhibit and others don't, because I think that it's useful to keep track of who exhibits it and that giving it a name will help with this. See also: Historian's Fallacy, Theory of Mind (both Wikipedia links).

Edit: Down below, I was convinced that this is not a useful term because it is nearly identical in meaning to Theory of Mind, and that the latter can be substituted in whenever you would use this term. This post might still be worth reading if you don't know what that is, but please read mentally substitute the official phrasing for my coinage.


The experiment I'm about to describe may be apocryphal (links, anyone?), but it illustrates my point nicely. (Edit: down below, Raemon has linked the real experiment, which is slightly different but has exactly the same moral.)

In the experiment, a child is shown a box with a "trick" lid, such that when the lid is on the box it appears that there is a cookie inside, but when the lid is removed you can see that it is in fact empty. First, with the lid on the box, the child is asked what is inside. "A cookie," they answer. Then the lid is removed, and again the child is asked what is inside. "Nothing," they say. Finally, the lid is replaced, and the experimenter tells the child that they are going to show the box to another child, who has not yet seen the box with the lid off.

"What will the other child think is in the box?" the experimenter asks.

At this point, things can go one of two ways. Children beyond a certain developmental stage will say "she'll say there's a cookie", while children who have not yet reached this stage will say "she'll say it's empty".

I call this skill Information Empathy, and from what I can tell, the median age at which children develop it is 35.

Jokes aside, I feel like there have been actual occasions where somebody has been angry at me after I did X, where the primary reason for their anger seems to be neither that X happened to them nor that my doing X was careless negligent but rather that I did X knowing full well what the consequences were... even when they could see that that was not true.

Maybe this term will be useful for some of you.

14 comments

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comment by elephantiskon · 2019-07-30T05:56:23.620Z · score: 12 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Why should we say that someone has "information empathy" instead of saying they possess a "theory of mind"?

Possible reasons: "theory of mind" is an unwieldy term, it might be useful to distinguish in fewer words a theory of mind with respect to beliefs from a theory of mind with respect to preferences, you want to emphasise a connection between empathy and information empathy.

I think if there's established terminology for something we're interesting in discussing, there should be a pretty compelling reason why it doesn't suffice for us.

comment by Evan Rysdam · 2019-07-30T06:06:08.487Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The context I see this being used in is when you need to accuse somebody of not exhibiting it. It seems like it would usually be too broad to say that somebody is acting as though other minds don't exist; I think this narrower term is more likely to come in handy (your first reason).

comment by Dagon · 2019-07-30T14:12:14.197Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I strongly recommend against making up new terms for cases where you intend to accuse someone of it. Those are exactly the times when a distraction about terminology will derail the actual information content.


comment by Evan Rysdam · 2019-07-30T15:13:15.088Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I see your point. I forgot to say that I think this term would also be useful for explaining to others what fallacy a third party has committed, which would not suffer from this issue, but that's stopped being relevant as I think I've become convinced that Theory of Mind means the same thing after all.

comment by Ruby · 2019-07-30T14:05:05.662Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My impression is that Theory of Mind, as a technical term, means exactly the thing you've defined. I was about to comment saying the existing term, to me, is fine (and is perhaps better).

comment by Evan Rysdam · 2019-07-30T15:14:18.391Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I've just read the Wikipedia page again, and I think you (and elephantiskon) are right. I'm going to edit the post to redirect others to this conclusion.

comment by Raemon · 2019-07-30T02:37:22.179Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I think this is an important concept. I have a longer post that's been brewing for years about this, tackling some of the ramifications of this for group coordination.

The Sally Anne test is the thing you're thinking of.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sally%E2%80%93Anne_test

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-07-30T04:14:23.058Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

… the primary reason for their anger seems to be neither that X happened to them nor that my doing X was careless, but rather that I did X knowing full well what the consequences were… even when they could see that that was not true.

There is, however, another possibility. Now, I do not mean to gainsay your account of any situations you have actually found yourself in, but rather to note the possibility of a superficially similar, but critically different, scenario—namely, one in which your accuser knows, indeed, that you did not apprehend the consequences of your action… but believes that you should have known, and that the fact of your ignorance itself constitutes a blameworthy act of negligence.

A special case of this pattern is the idea that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” (that is, ignorance does not absole an offender of liability).

The reason for holding, and enforcing, a norm like this, should be obvious: because to do otherwise would create an incentive to be ignorant of whatever facts that, if known by a perpetrator, would cause them to be knowingly transgressing. This, in turn, incentivizes (or, more precisely, fails to properly disincentivize) wrongdoing, by removing the usual penalty.

Anger, then, stems from the sense that someone is trying to “get one over you”—to evade responsibility, and to be able to act wrongly without fear of punishment—by cultivating ignorance, and by failing to make the effort to learn the rules/consequences/etc.

It is important to distinguish between such cases, and cases of mere lack of “information empathy” (a.k.a. “theory of mind”); in the former sort of case, the accuser is in the right, and the transgressor (though unwitting) is in the wrong.

comment by Evan Rysdam · 2019-07-30T04:53:58.937Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW
critically different, scenario—namely, one in which your accuser knows, indeed, that you did not apprehend the consequences of your action… but believes that you should have known, and that the fact of your ignorance itself constitutes a blameworthy act of negligence.

Ah yes. My phrasing was weak, but this is what I meant by:

that my doing X was careless

I admit, my memories of these situations are hazy. They're from my childhood, and nowadays it doesn't really happen because the filter I place in front of my friend group doesn't allow this sort of person through (e.g. the kind who actually fails to exhibit information empathy, not the kind who enforces the "ignorance of the law is no excuse" norm). The specific person I have in mind is the sort who might semi-consciously decide to enforce that norm, but then take it to an unwarranted extreme, blaming others for things they couldn't possibly have known not to do. Then again, they are also somebody I may be biased towards finding faults in. It's possible this has rarely/never actually happened to me, but I figured the term is still a good one to throw out there.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2019-07-30T04:04:14.405Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Jokes aside, I feel like there have been actual occasions where somebody has been angry at me after I did X, where the primary reason for their anger seems to be neither that X happened to them nor that my doing X was careless, but rather that I did X knowing full well what the consequences were… even when they could see that that was not true.

Upvoted for the term, but how do you know lack of information empathy was the primary cause, not something such as a subconscious motivation to blame someone for X (either to deflect attention away from their own contributions to X, or to put you in social debt to them) and "you did X knowing full well what the consequences were" allows them to blame you more than "you did X because you were careless"?

comment by Evan Rysdam · 2019-07-30T05:00:22.698Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Good call. I guess when I say:

I call this skill Information Empathy, and from what I can tell, the median age at which children develop it is 35.

what I'm really referring to is not the skill of being able to do this in a neutral situation like the Sally-Anne test that Raemon linked — which I dearly hope almost everybody is able to do — but rather the skill of being able to do it even when they are motivated not to. Maybe I should have framed this as a cognitive bias instead of a skill.

comment by Raemon · 2019-07-30T04:59:39.850Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My expectation is that this varies. My subjective experience when I've been on the "angry person" end of this is something like:

a) yes, I'm motivated to stay angry for the sorts of reasons that you describe

b) the mechanism by which I (sometimes/usually/hopefully?) successfully step out of the "unwarranted anger" state is by focusing on the fact (or, exploring whether it seems accurate) that the other person couldn't have actually known the the thing. And in some cases, when I nonetheless feel the need to be angry at _something_, try to shift that anger towards "the universe".

(If the angry person isn't trying to cooperate, none of this may matter. But information empathy has felt relevant in my experience towards updating to emotional states that I endorse)

comment by shminux · 2019-07-30T02:37:19.989Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Reminds me of people getting mad at their partner for something said partner did in a dream the person had. Never underestimate human capacity of ignoring logic and evidence.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-07-30T02:32:30.239Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You already had the theory of mind link