Maps vs Buttons; Nerds vs Normies

by Bound_up6 min read28th Dec 201723 comments


Cached ThoughtsCommunication CulturesConversation (topic)

It took me the longest time to see through the illusion that was "rational" discussion.

The setting: A friend and I exchange inquiries about each other's beliefs about X.

The result: the friend would give a number of answers that allowed me to piece together their view of X. An astounding percentage of the time, even a majority, perhaps, one of their answers would contradict another. So, I point this out. My friend, after hearing an explanation, agrees it is a contradiction. We move on, me convinced that I had contributed to their work (the work I assumed that others, not just myself, engaged in: namely, piecing together as accurate a model of reality as possible), only to find, weeks or months later, that on discussing X again, they still gave the same contradictory answers as before, with apparently no memory of our past discussion.

Or discussions. This pattern has repeated up to 4 times (that I've bothered to keep track), my interlocutor agreeing with my corrections, and then showing no sign of having even heard of them down the road.

My whole above description of "the result" is faulty in a subtle way, one that undermines the entirety of it. Here's what was really happening, expressed from my friend's perspective.

The (real) result: A friend and I were discussing X. They showed respect for me by asking me to express myself on it several times. At some point, they dared to point out, rather like a pedantic schoolboy, that there was a sort of inconsistency between my expressions and the forms we studied in textbooks on logic. They were not rude, though, so I graciously acknowledged the rather dry, uninteresting observation, after which we happily continued our conversation. I had thought for a moment that they wished to challenge me, but all seemed to be rather well-resolved, so I forgot the particulars of the incident, only taking with me the general, updated state of our relationship, including, for example, the points that my expressions were generally respected, but that my friend was willing to make some small challenges if they felt like it, though also willing to move on after I was gracious in response.

Or something like this, perhaps. And this key difference I call the map vs the button idea.

I, and other nerds, are conceptual cartographers, attempting to piece together a map of reality. I've often wondered how I seem to update my map so consistently, since I make no specific effort to remember any alterations or additions I deem worth making. Shouldn't I be forgetting them? Maybe I should dedicate some time to writing down and reviewing these precious insights!

But I've since realized that my map is very personal to me. I am well-acquainted with its pieces, which are interconnected in many ways. So long as I swap out one piece at a time, while maintaining mostly the same interconnections with the replacement piece, I seem to remember such changes very easily.

When you ask me what my beliefs on some subject are, I consult my mental map, and I produce for you, on the fly(!), a description of what the map says. How do I answer your inquiry? I deduce my answer to your question by referring to my map.

Two points:

  1. This produces conceptually consistent answers, as consistent as my map is, which is to say, very, since I constantly compare its pieces against each other.
  2. My expressions, my answers to questions, are often clunky and unwieldy, since I've constructed them on the fly. If you're like me, you might wonder why this should make my answers any clunkier than anyone else's, for surely this is what everyone does, right? Herein lies a clue to the great insight.

Now the contrast. Others are not making maps. I think of them rather as like a big wall of buttons. Push a button, and a slip of paper comes out. When I ask such a button-type person a question, I am pushing a certain button, and they, without even thinking, spit out the coresponding piece of paper (there is some relatedness here to the idea of "cached thoughts" as Eliezer Yudkowsky spoke of them. You could well say that these people are mostly just vast collections of cached thoughts).

Where do they spend their effort, if not on map-making? On the following:

  1. Reading your reaction to their slips of paper (their answers).
  2. Re-writing and refining the writing on the papers. The higher your status, the more your reaction to their slips of paper compels them to change them.

Some important differences that flow naturally out from these two different methods and focuses:

  1. Mapmaking nerds give more consistent answers than button people, since they view their map as a whole, each part being compared against the others, whereas the slips of paper are not judged (even in part) by how well they match other slips of paper, but rather they are judged according to the reactions that they evoke in the audience.
  2. Button people give much more eloquent, refined, and most of all, socially advantageous answers than mapmakers, and do so with less apparent difficulty or searching for words, analogies, descriptions. This improvement in delivery comes from the fact that they don't have any thinking to do on the fly; they're just repeating the same thing as always (have you ever heard people who always give, word-for-word, the same commentary or response to some particular issue which may be brought up?), so their answer comes out smoothly and immediately. (Indeed, if a question does not exactly ask something they have a prepared response for, they may well give one of their rehearsed lines, anyway, considering the cost of imprecisely answering less than the cost of having to stop and, you know, think about how to answer. Less chance to err, you see) Also, since the answer has, effectively speaking, been "practiced" many times in the past, and has been refined over time as ideas come to them, or as they seek to ameliorate negative reactions, there is greater eloquence and ease of presentation. (It occurs to me that this may also explain why the "best" answers according to this kind of system, especially when addresssing highly controversial issues, are sometimes as unclear and meaningless as possible. Suppose a piece of your answer offends people A, so you take it out. Then, another piece offends people B, so you transform it into something inoffensive, and so on. Eventually, you end up with an answer that gives everyone generally positive feelings, without pissing anybody off, but which is so devoid of content that not only was it not deduced from a map of reality, but the whole method of deducing replies by consulting models could never produce it, so incoherent and meaningless is the expression! That is, a nerd, looking at their map and reporting what they saw, would never produce such a statement, because it is not the kind of statement that comes from trying to describe how something works or how it is. Rather, these meaningless niceties are the kind of statement that come from trying to appease and impress people with the content and presentation of your social signals. Statements which embody these social goals to this extreme degree sound so completely different from the ones that nerds use to communicate actual ideas, that the illusion is broken, and instead of thinking their interlocutor is reporting on their personal map when they're not (as was my common error (see 1st paragraph)), a nerd is likely to just give a blank stare and ask for clarification (I feel this is whole aside is somewhat unclear, but if you're me, or like me, I hope it has a ring of familiarity to it), receiving only more incoherent niceties in response (since there is no content to be brought into focus) until they or the interlocutor tires and abandons the project).

Belief(1) shall refer to the kind of thing a nerd says when asked what they believe. It is as accurte a report of their model of reality as they can give on the fly.

Belief(2) shall refer to the kind of answer a normal, social person gives when asked. It is as nice (to their in-group, anyway) and as impressive a statement on the subject as they so far know how to give. It's very much like whipping out the verbal version of a pretty bauble to gain ooh's and aah's (attention and status).

And so I say, belief(1) =/= belief(2).

In a very real sense, normal people just don't even have beliefs(1)! More precisely, if we're talking about things where they don't need to be factually right in order to prosper, if we're talking about politics, religion, philosophy, etc., they don't have beliefs(1) at all.

At the same time, they sustain a convincing illusion of having beliefs(1) (not that that's on purpose or anything; thinking in terms of beliefs(2) is their natural instinct), because when you say "what's your belief on gender equality", they immediately produce a nice shiny answer that definitely sounds like it's saying something about the nature of reality.

The natural but mistaken thing to do is treat what is an automatic, unthinking, knee-jerk, instinctive attempt to impress and to signal which groups they owe fealty to as instead an attempt to describe some part of reality, merely because all of the words in their response sound like a description of a part of reality. That's the error.

So, nerds talk in beliefs(1), normal people talk in beliefs(2), and the result is that both sides commit mutual faux pas and talk past each other. Nerds are constantly embarrassing themselves according to social rules, and normal people don't have any ideas worth listening according to nerd rules.

The specifics of these errors can be deduced once you realize that each side sees their own methodology as so natural that they assume the other side is also using it, but are doing so incompetently. So nerds think normal people are failed nerds, rather than successful normal people, while normal people think nerds are failed normal people, rather than successful nerds.

Normal people think nerds are trying to signal and impress (and failing pathetically and amusingly) and nerds think normal people are trying to make models of the world, and epic fail so hard as to be incapable of discussing any subject beyond four sentences without contradicting themselves. And so on.

If you're a nerd, you might read all this and think I'm being hard on normal people (how can you say such awful things about them as that they're not logically consistent and that they don't ponder before answering questions?), while if you're a normal person reading this (haha, jk), you might think I'm awful hard on nerds (how can you say such mean things as that they don't care what others think and are incapable of properly expressing themselves?). This phenomenon occurs again because both sides are judging everybody by their own standard, not recognizing that others have other standards and succeed very well by them.

One last note. I've spoken as if people are in one camp or the other, but it's really more of a spectrum. Even more precise, it might be correct to say that people are on a spectrum of nerdy/normal for each specific topic they care about. Frankly, very few humans manage to be nerdy about politics and religion, even "nerds." People who are nerdy in many ways suddenly turn into political animals, social thinkers, when you bring up anything controversial. And a normal person might well become nerdy and actually try to learn how some thing really works if they happen to be interested in it for some reason.