Summary: pointing out a concept and giving examples.

When you learn about a thing, I claim that there are generally two kinds of information you get: 

  • Direct information: the direct, object-level information you get
  • Referential information: the information you get about other things in a similar reference class to the object-level thing

I think often the referential information value is substantial, and I tentatively suspect that people don’t account for it enough in their decisions. This post is just meant to point out referential information and the value of it.

Examples

  • Looking into the terms and conditions of a certain credit card, and how you go about setting it up
    • Direct info = information about this specific credit card
    • Referential info = information about how credit cards in general probably work
  • Specializing in chemistry
    • Direct info = chemistry knowledge
    • Referential info = what other STEM fields are probably like, how hard it is to become an expert in a field, how to go about becoming an expert in a field, how research within a field is conducted, how progress is generally made
  • Reading a paper from a field you know little about
    • Direct info = the specific stuff you read about
    • Referential info = some idea of what the frontier of the field looks like, the kinds of problems the field tackles, how the field tackles them
  • Talking in-depth about the details of a complicated but mostly unimportant social interaction with the other person involved
    • Direct info = what happened in that social interaction
    • Referential info = how other people work, how complicated social interactions can be, how useful digging into details about social interactions can be
  • Visiting another country or learning about a new culture
    • Direct info = learning about that country or culture
    • Referential info = learning how different a country/culture can be from your own
  • Learning a new language
    • Direct info = knowledge of how to read/write/speak the language
    • Referential info = what it is like and how difficult it might be to learn a new language

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This distinction is probably most useful when there is a risk that something was placed in a wrong reference class (so the referential information is mostly irrelevant). So you may feel like you have a lot of information about something, but actually maybe you have none.