Observational learning and the importance of high quality examples

by casebash1 min read6th Apr 201413 comments

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There was a post (which I unfortunately couldn't locate) that argued that rationalists should aspire to more - that a successful rationalist should be able to master other skills too that make it obvious that being a "rationality master" is something to aspire to.

Several skills such as writing, speech craft and social skills are different from more procedural skills in that they are best learned by observational learning. Strong logic skills don't provide the same advantages here that they do in maths or science - in fact an intermediate level of logic is often a disadvantage as it leads to expecting other people to behave logically.

So if we wish to develop these skills as a community, we would need to develop a repository of examples with notes to explain what principles each example is intended to show. There might be some disagreement as to how applicable each principle is and whether a particular decision is correct - but it would still be far, far better than what else is out there. Unfortunately most communities on the Internet (ie. reddit.com/r/socialskills) end up with huge amounts of rather general advice. This advice is helpful in the beginning, but you quickly get to a stage where you have heard all of it before many, many times. But with examples, even people who are extremely talented may get something out of it.

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Yesterday I was in a two hour personal development workshop. Topic was about setting goals and making clear decisions to reach them. The person who gave the workshop that three years ago he was rather shy and had trouble standing in front of people. 3 years later after doing toastmasters and training in a specific coaching paradigm he's confident on stage.

He had his notes and performed the workshop from them. He talked about a few decisions such as making a decision to drink coffee or the decision to close the window of the room. 5 minutes later a person in the audience asks him to close the window and he just closes the window. He doesn't do anything with it because responding to it isn't plannable. He could used the situation to reiterate a point but he didn't. There were also other opportuniteis where he could have interact much better with what the audience gave him to make his point on a deeper emotional level.

Working with the present moment and responding do what's happening isn't something that you learn by reading a bunch of principles. It's very much about not being fixated on the principles and just going with the flow.

There was also a time where he put his hand into his trousers. He's a toastmaster. He knows that you aren't supposed to put your hand into your trousers. He probably gave feedback to other people at a toastmasters meeting about how it's bad to put your hand into your trousers in the past.

Knowing not to put your hand into your trousers doesn't seem enough. There seem to be deeper reasons of why human put their hand sometimes into their trousers while public speaking. I would call it generally emotional management.

If you have the wrong emotions while standing in front of a crowd doing public speaking than your body while give it off. There are things you can do to try to fake it but it still looks artificial. If you are a politician it's okay to look artificial on stage. If you look like you are powerful that's enough to get people's respect.

In low key social interactions looking artificial often isn't okay.

In pickup terms it's called inner game. It's important that various thought patterns about not being worthy of attention of other people don't trigger. It's important to feel at ease.

If you try to use a bunch of principles to decide when to laugh how loud at what joke, you aren't really enjoying the joke in the first place. Simply letting go of worrying about outcomes is hard. I personally often struggle with letting go. It's very easy to understand but hard to implement.

If social skills are best learned through observation, then why are they so unevenly distributed amongst people who aren't hermits?

Or rather, I think they are learned as a child the way language is learned. It's a subconscious process that occurs naturally when those skills are observed by a young child. However, with social skills at least, different people seem to plateau in their development at different places, and further observation doesn't always lead to further improvement.

Most people know someone with excellent social skills, yet that person continues to outperform them. There are several reasons this could be the case. The skilled person (S) might be using skills that affect observers who are not consciously aware of the skill and its effect. This could involve subtle actions, such as skillful use of body language, more involved psychological manipulation, etc.

In some cases, becoming aware of those strategies may help observers employ them as well. This seems to be the premise of a lot of PUA blogs, as well as social skill self-help books. However, one notable pattern I've observed in these social skill advice dispensing media is that they all instruct their audience to actually practice the actions they describe, whether it's complimenting five people a day, purposefully taking a bold stance in a meeting, or negging a hot girl. Whatever the quality of the specific advice, actual physical practice is usually emphasized. Social skills workshops and therapy seem to often be taught in with a repetitive "observe and repeat" pattern.

This makes sense, I think. Some socially awkward people are clueless about their faux pas, but many struggle with excessive self-consciousness, often "overthinking" the situation until anything they do comes out strained. A solution for this is to perform a skill so many times it moves from challenging to subconscious, or from System II to System I. Models do this, practicing their best smile until it's the one they make when the camera is on them.

Overall, I feel like social skills are far more procedural than observational for adults. One interesting subset of strategies involve observation and practice at the same time. Mimicking body language makes people like you more. Sort of similarly, people often become more skilled in many dimensions when they think of themselves as actors acting out the part of someone who has that skill. For example, the advice to "think like a trader" reduces loss aversion. I know people who find it easier to go into social situations as if they are a scene from a play they are acting out. I'm not sure what the long-term psychological effects are, but it does seem to help a lot in the short-term.

So, I'm skeptical that a database of exceptional examples and explanations (although fun to collect) would be useful to people who could not be more easily helped by general advice they can already find on the internet. A database of simple strategies that have been rigorously demonstrated to improve social skills might be worthwhile.

I'm guessing that the best way to learn would be through some sort of software that could converse with you and provide immediate, specific feedback about one's deviations from socially normal or optimal behavior, although such software might well lead to excessive stylistic conformity. Another option might be one that led an individual to local maxima give zir current style. I know this is sort of on the way.

Overall, I feel like social skills are far more procedural than observational for adults. One interesting subset of strategies involve observation and practice at the same time. Mimicking body language makes people like you more.

Often that's true. Mimicking body language is about imposing intimicy with the other person. It's possible that the other person doesn't want that intimicy and then you can trigger resistance.

It's like physical intimicy. There are studies that suggest a woman is more likely to say yes when asked to dance when the person doing the asking touches her. If you take that as a lesson to touch woman as much as possible to make them like you, you are going to creep out a few women.

Furthermore mirroring someone else's body language is a low status signal. For that reason most of the pickup folks don't do it.

I would not recommend that someone who doesn't really know what he's doing starts making a conscious effort to mirror other people's bodylanguage in the wild based on internet or book advice.

It's a useful tool for doing hypnosis but it takes some calibration to know when to use it and when not.

Can you give an example or evidence of how mimicking is a low status signal (besides when their body language shows low status)? I hadn't heard this before.

If you mimick another person you are following them. They are leading. If you observe a bunch of friends who have strong rapport with each other you can tell which person has the highest status in the group by seeing who leads the body language and who follows.

If you sit in a meeting or university seminar and are bored it can be interesting to just observe how different people are reacting to the body language of each other.

I meant more like a study that showed this? Because if you are mimicking confident body language effectively, you should begin to both feel and look confident. Also, copying someone can signal empathy and good listening, not that they are the leader. Complementing body language can be more damaging (i.e. if someone is displaying aggression, you complement with submission, or vice versa). I think the danger of mimicking is accidentally mimicking low status body language, but this might be unlikely since we usually pay more attention to confident, success people with attractive body language.

Historically the idea of going and mirroring people's bodylanguage comes from NLP. Formulated roughly 20 years before someone in psychology got around to testing it. The idea might even be older and was popularized in NLP. In therapy context it makes sense.

At the start people like pickup people like Ross Jeffries who preached speech seduction used NLP ideas like that. After a lot of practice and trying different things the pickup crowd came to the conclusion that it's a bad idea to mimick the body language of a girl that one wants to seduce.

The girl might like the guy because he's a good listener but she's not interested on a sexual level. Pickup people than speak about how nice guys don't get laid but end up in the friend zone. In not saying that everyone should take the pickup paradigm as his default roadmap to social interaction, but be aware what you are doing.

Context is important for communication. If you simply want to be accepted into a group than using bodylanguage that shows that you follow others in the group is alright. If you go into a job interview signaling that the person you are talking to is the boss makes sense. Different rules apply when you want to be a leader.

Looking at body language from a perspective of a study like the one you point towards that misses the point of language. We use language to react differently in different situations. The idea of walking around and constantly saying: "I'm confident. I'm confident" would be silly.

Because if you are mimicking confident body language effectively, you should begin to both feel and look confident.

If your mental attention is on mimicking body language I think there's a fairly good chance that you won't feel completely confident. If you already feel confident, why mimick the body language of another person to make them like you? The high status person doesn't need to change his body language to make the other person like them but rather wait for the other person to change their body language to their own.

Expecially for someone not used to it, it will also drain a lot of attention that's better used elsewhere. If you want to be a good listener I wouldn't recommend to focus on mirroring but on putting your attention on where feelings arise in your body in reaction to the words you are hearing.

If the words of the person I'm speaking with touch my heart I might even put my hand on my heart to be more present to the feeling.

I searched a bit on google studies but couldn't find any that investigated the issue of status effects of mimicking. Reading studies can be useful, but it's important to be aware of the questions that are asked.

I think the key to understanding body language is to actually practice. Be aware of what people around you and yourself do with their bodies.

Interesting feedback.

When I said that it is learnt observationally, I mean that if someone simply tells you something, eg. that you should use social touching (http://www.businessinsider.com/habits-of-incredibly-charming-people-2014-4?IR=T), it doesn't give you enough information to be able to integrate it into your habits. You'd want to actually see other people using that technique, then you might be confident enough to try it yourself without worrying that you were doing something inappropriate. Now you could try and write a description of what situations it works and what situations it doesn't - but that would be very hard to enumerate and the instructions would be very hard to follow. But if you just show someone a few situations, they'll probably be able to figure it out.

So, I was talking about observation vs. description - I wasn't talking about the trade-off between time spent observing and time spent practising.

[-][anonymous]8y 5

This is one in a whole bunch of posts I've seen on here to the effect of "the community should band together and create this cool thing."

Historically, has this ever worked?

Seems like by definition the people who are on here a lot (and therefore likely to see the post) are the people who are either:

  1. Posting a lot to promote some cool project they're already working on. or
  2. Posting a lot because they tend be types who are big on talk and small on action.

It doesn't seem like either type would be great to recruit to build a new project. Rather, if this is something you think is valuable, I'd work on creating it yourself.

In the longer term I might - I didn't actually expect anything to come of this post. But there's just so many ideas of projects that I have that it is worthwhile to put ideas out there and see what criticisms people have and the general level of interest before I decide what to work on.

There was a post (which I unfortunately couldn't locate) that argued that rationalists should aspire to more ...

Mandatory Secret Identities

I remember reading that one - but I thought there was another one...

There was something of this in "Twelve Virtues of Rationality" too, for instance :

Study many sciences and absorb their power as your own. Each field that you consume makes you larger. If you swallow enough sciences the gaps between them will diminish and your knowledge will become a unified whole. If you are gluttonous you will become vaster than mountains. It is especially important to eat math and science which impinges upon rationality: Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory, decision theory. But these cannot be the only fields you study. The Art must have a purpose other than itself, or it collapses into infinite recursion.

Also, check Go Forth and Create the Art!