In Taboo your words Eliezer talks about how confusion occurs when people are using the same word to mean something different. Refusing to use the word in question can help with the discussion. He mainly focusses on philosophical debate but it’s a technique which works in everyday life too.

I came across an example of this. Alex claims that he makes decisions logically. Bob disagrees.

I’m fairly sure they were talking about two different things but I couldn’t think of a way of explaining this quickly enough. I realised afterwards I should have thought about defining their alternative perceptions of “logically” with their opposites.

I think for Alex the opposite would have been “haphazardly” and for Bob the opposite would have been “emotionally”.

“Logically” is loaded up with good karma and I think that this was the main cause of the argument. Alex feels Bob is unfairly robbing him of all the good karma. Bob thinks Alex is unfairly claiming all the good karma. In reality Bob is just trying to stop Alex claiming one bit of good karma (being able to make decisions unemotionally).

Now had Alex and Bob realised this I’m not sure it would have dissolved the disagreement but they would have been arguing about the same thing. If they had figured this out (or I had explained it to them) the argument may have got worse - use the technique with caution.


Tabooing your words takes effort. I submit a sub-tool to help if you’re in a hurry – try to think of the opposite of what you mean.

This won’t always help. In the classic tree falling in the woods argument I can’t think of opposites for the concept of “sound” which would help. However, in more day-to-day experiences I suspect the richness of language would be more likely to bear fruit.

It is probably most helpful when you have to think fast in conversations where the participants are less likely to be willing to take the time to use the full taboo your words technique.


2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:07 PM
New Comment

In the board game Guess Who the maximally informative bit to get from your opponent is one that cuts the remaining search space in half. IE construct a set of queries that turns the candidates into a binary tree. I think of the connotation space of words the same way. The space of meaning is super high dimensional. One of the way to cut the space down quickly is to use lots of contrasting opposites built into words and language patterns.

I like this framing, especially as it gracefully handles the way that communication isn't like Guess Who -- you have priors that don't look like "uniform over the following N possibilities", your payoffs for actually finding the answer might be nonconstant depend on what the answer is, some resource limitation might make the maxi-p(win) strategy different from the optional discriminator -- but once you start thinking about how you'd win a game with those rules, strategies for smarter search suggest themselves.