Vanilla and chocolate and preference judgements

by Swimmer9638 min read18th Apr 201132 comments


Mind Projection FallacyCoordination / Cooperation
Personal Blog

Related to: 2-Place and 1-Place Worlds, Offence versus harm minimization.

Note: edited to replace 'value' with 'preference' as suggested by orthonormal.

Imagine you overheard two children having an argument over whether vanilla ice cream was better than chocolate ice cream. To you as an observer, it would be obvious that this kind of argument has no content. The children aren’t disputing anything measurable in the exterior world; they would agree with each other than chocolate ice cream contains elements from cocoa beans, and vanilla contains the extract from vanilla beans. Most adults wouldn’t have this argument at all, because it’s self-evident that if Mary says, truthfully, that she likes vanilla better than chocolate ice cream, and her husband Albert confesses that he prefers chocolate, then both of them are right. There is no contradiction; vanilla and chocolate are both neutral items until they come into contact with human tastebuds and human brains, at which point their positive or negative weighting is a fact about those brains, not about the substances themselves.

I think that this concept generalizes. Imagine that Mary and Albert are having an argument. Mary hates how Albert leaves papers spread across the kitchen table with empty coffee mugs on top. She wishes he would remember to put his clothes in the laundry basket instead of leaving them on the floor. She nags about it. Albert is helplessly baffled at why she thinks it’s such a big deal. He accuses her of being a nitpicker and a perfectionist.1

It’s hard to say that both of them are right, if each is hurting the other’s feelings. Again, though, their argument isn’t about anything factual. They both agree that there are papers on the desk and clothes on the floor, and that Albert is the one responsible. Where they diverge is the preference they place on this world-state.

Mary is a bit of a neat freak. She likes shiny floors and spotless counters, and she finds cleaning pleasant and relaxing. Seeing a cluttered countertop causes her a small amount of psychological pain. It doesn’t matter where she acquired this attitude; it’s so deeply entrenched in her mind that clean is good that she doesn’t even realize it’s a preference, instead of a fact.

Albert, in turn, has no particular opinion about a clean living space. It doesn’t bother him if the floors are clean enough to eat off, but it doesn’t bring him any particular happiness either. He just doesn’t notice his environment as much. However, he finds cleaning tedious to the point of pain. Left to his own devices, he would live contentedly in squalor.

To Mary, Albert seems incredibly lazy. After all, if cleanliness is so pleasant, and the act of cleaning really isn’t so bad, what except for laziness could keep her husband from holding up his end of the housework? It’s a health hazard, leaving all those dishes everywhere. Doesn’t it bother him?

To Albert, Mary seems obsessive and unreasonable. Why hold yourself to such high standards when it could be so much more rewarding to relax once in a while? It’s one thing for her to work herself to the bone keeping the house that clean, but she doesn’t have to, and she has no right to ask him to, that’s for sure.

These viewpoints are not contradictory. In a universe that contained no minds, a clean table and a cluttered table would both be neutral objects, but in the world-simulation that Mary’s brain builds, a cluttered table is obviously bad and cleaning is neutral. In Albert’s world, a cluttered table is neutral and cleaning is bad. Since they live together and each presumably wants the other to be happy.

If Mary and Albert were rationalists, Mary might say the following:

“Albert, you know that keeping a clean house has a large positive weighting in my utility function, but I know that stuff like vacuuming and scrubbing the bathroom is a big negative in your utility function. I want you to be happy; that means that my utility function includes a miniature copy of yours. Part of me wishes we could share the chores equally because that would feel fairer, but I know it wouldn’t be fair; I enjoy cleaning as a way to wind down at the end of a stressful day, but you don’t, and I don’t have the right to ask you to self-modify so that you would enjoy it. Since I’m too busy to do all of the cleaning by myself, would it be too much to ask for you to do 10% of it? That should balance out my desire for fairness with your lack of enjoyment for cleaning. Also, I know you like to spread out and making a mess when you’re working, so why don’t we say that the study on the second floor belongs to you and you can keep it as messy as you want as long as it doesn’t start to smell. In return, I want you to keep your clothes off the floor and please don’t leave your papers or your coffee-cups anywhere except the study. That shouldn’t be too much to ask?”

Albert has a few minor suggestions to make. Maybe he’s willing to do up to 15% of the cleaning, maybe he doesn’t mind mopping the floor and just hates vacuuming because it makes his ears hurt, maybe he wants to clarify that he doesn’t leave coffee mugs everyone on purpose, he’s just really forgetful and may need to be reminded once in a while. But because Albert’s a rationalist, too, the discussion goes smoothly. Maybe he even offers to try hacking his attitudes to cleaning so he doesn’t find it so unpleasant.

If Mary and Albert aren’t rationalists, though, they have a long way to go to reach that conversation. To each of them, it seems like the other is being pig-headed and deliberately blind about something obvious. Albert doesn’t realize that he’s making a preference judgement about tidiness versus messiness, let alone that he could change how he feels about it.

In the past year, I’ve started to realize how many of the arguments I have, or hear others having, are not about anything that can be measured. (Maybe this was obvious all along to most people; it wasn’t obvious to me.) Different minds work differently. I wish some of my friends would work out more and be fitter, because to me it’s really obvious that fitness is incredibly important and exercise is really not all that bad and you feel better afterwards and you focus better and sleep better…but that’s a preference judgement. I made it with my brain, with all its particularities, and even if it’s verifiably true for me (and I don’t know if I actually focus better after exercise or whether that’s just a biased perception) it may be verifiably false for other people. Maybe there are people who just feel tired and sweaty and grumpy after they work out. They might agree that it would be nice to be fitter, but they’re not making the same trade-off that I am, because the act of exercising, as separate from its long-term benefits, has a negative rather than a positive weight to them.

I don’t exercise because I judged it a rational thing to do; my mother put me on a swim team when I was eight years old and my body is so used to being worked hard in the pool every day that I get crabby if I don’t swim. That a particularity about my childhood and the way it affected the wiring in my brain. It might take someone else orders of magnitude more motivation to follow the same routine that I do, but that doesn’t mean they’re just being lazy and irrational when they don’t work out every day.

Ultimately, for me this means that if I want to go out and help someone because I think they’re making sub-optimal decisions, first I have to make sure my mental model of them is accurate, right down to their preferences and where they differ from mine. What might seem like ‘helping’ to me could be annoying interference to them, and it’s useful to know that in advance. If someone I know spends all their time writing poetry instead of going to the gym, and they fully enjoy that and would consider trading poetry-writing-time for gym-time to be an unreasonable and unnecessary drop in their quality of life, then that’s a true fact about how their brain works. It doesn’t have to be, and maybe their total happiness would be higher once they got used to getting out of the house; maybe they would find that exercise brought a wave of inspiration; but telling someone they’re wrong about their own preferences is not going to help them make that change.2

This applies to the arguments I choose to have, too. If I notice that a pet peeve I have is really a more complicated equivalent of vanilla vs. chocolate, it helps me to find it less irritating and bring it up less often. I don’t apply this method often enough in my daily life, but when I do, it snips a lot of needless conflict in the bud, leaving time for discussions and yes, sometimes conflict, over facts or over preferences that I really want to change people’s minds about.


1. Albert and Mary are loosely based on the dynamic between myself and my former landlady. She was the tidy one, as were most of my roommates; I was the messy one who apparently drove everyone crazy. It took me most of the year to realize how irrational I was being in the way I treated the whole issue. I did, and still do, value sleeping over cleaning, and my schedule is busy enough that there is a trade-off between the two, but I did sign the contract and agree to live in the house, and there was a certain implicit assumption that I would hold up the same standards as everyone else … and if I could do the year over, I would either live somewhere else or do a better job of cleaning, because according to my value system it isn't okay to treat other people's values as less worthwhile than your own.

2. They might not be right about their values; some people have remarkably poor models of what really makes them happy and what they find unpleasant, and another, more rational person might have a better model of them than they do of themselves.


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In a universe that contained no minds, a clean table and a cluttered table would both be neutral objects, but in the world-simulation that Mary’s brain builds, a cluttered table is obviously bad and cleaning is neutral.

In a universe that contained no minds, a table with an image painted on it that offends most people in this universe's US would also be a neutral object. As it stands, it would not be a good idea to keep such a table uncovered if you were expecting guests and wanted to maintain positive social status.

The same goes for a messy house. It may be a matter of subjective preference, but it's a subjective preference that a lot of people share. If someone prefers a messy house to the labor of cleaning it up, they may inadvertently send the signal that they do not care about the aesthetic preferences of others, just as they would if they preferred not showering to the annoyance of showering.

Furthermore, a messy house, if allowed to become messier over time, will eventually become more difficult to navigate. Even if movement isn't blocked or made hazardous, finding objects becomes a matter of mind-reading, as there is no longer an expectation that they will be returned to a specific place. Coordinating tasks also becomes more difficult - if there's no place for dirty laundry and dirty dishes, ensuring that everything gets cleaned efficiently becomes a matter of approximation. Clean dishes are a preference insofar as not having cockroaches and ants is a preference. Clean laundry is a preference insofar as having a higher probability of keeping a job is a preference.

I've seen the "if it bothers you, clean it" approach taken, and it quickly leads to a Tragedy of the Commons situation. Everyone can make a mess individually, but the cost is shared. Conversely, anyone can clean, but the social benefits go to everyone.

Likewise, negotiating with personal utility functions in mind simply gives an advantage (in terms of time spent on cleaning) to the person who dislikes cleaning. If cleaning is seen as a way of dealing with the collective harm of a mess, saying "I don't like it or care, so I shouldn't have to do as much as someone who cares about it" makes as much sense as saying "I don't mind the smell of smoke, so why can't I smoke in the house just because you dislike it? What if I only smoke in the house 50% of the time? Isn't that a compromise?"

A heuristic that works well in cases of shared harm, I think, is to give each person responsibility over minimizing harm in some specific area. In other words, "you clean the bathroom, I clean the kitchen, and our own bedrooms will be as dirty or clean as we like."

That said, all of this assumes that nobody prefers being surrounded by scavenging arthropods. Having once, some time ago, lived in such a messy way that a colony of pillbugs moved into my room to live off of the debris, I can vouch that they were pretty cute. But practically speaking, they had to go.

FWIW, I've lived with people whose actual preferred level of mess-to-live-in was different.

That is, it wasn't that everyone agreed that X level of neatness was better but some people didn't feel like doing the work, it was that person A wanted X level of neatness and was uncomfortable at Y level, and person B wanted Y level of neatness and was uncomfortable at X level.

At least, that's how it seemed to me. I suppose if I started out with a stronger prior in favor of the people-prefer-X-level-of-neatness theory, I might find it more plausible that B was either signaling dishonestly or genuinely unaware of their own preferences. (The latter was A's theory about B, expressed as "If they just live in a neat house for a while they'll see how much better it is!")

That said, both X and Y were noticeably cleaner than the scavenging-arthropods stage.

person A wanted X level of neatness and was uncomfortable at Y level, and person B wanted Y level of neatness and was uncomfortable at X level.

I've had a similar experience of somebody wanting a (small) amount of mess. The explanation was that if a house didn't look 'lived it' it wasn't really home, and therefore not a conformable place to live.

I actually am such a person, if anyone wants to ask relevant questions. I grew up in a very messy house - my father didn't care, and my mother was disabled enough to have trouble keeping on top of things - and I find living-places that are too clean to be anxiety-inducing.

I expect my best friend's son (now 6 months old) may grow up this way. They live with her mother-in-law and I have never in my life seen so much stuff in one house. The overall impression is of abundance rather than clutter, but there's still a lot of clutter. It's the kind of house where a student like me goes empty handed and leaves with a bag full of food and old clothes to try on and extra Tupperwares.

I have lived with people whose natural level of cleanliness is (a) comparable to mine (b) nevertheless rather awful when I look at it slightly afresh (c) we both realise this (d) we have some difficulty acting on it anyway.

Share houses are a good reason to become a terminal misanthrope, at least for a while.

Well, yes... there's that, too. There are reasons I don't live that way anymore.

"I don't mind the smell of smoke, so why can't I smoke in the house just because you dislike it? What if I only smoke in the house 50% of the time? Isn't that a compromise?"

The analogy is good, but I don't think it maps exactly. Second-hand smoke is clinically proven to have negative health effects, whereas mess (in terms of clutter, at least, not filth to the point of arthropod infestation) causes no physical harm. I think that's why I feel strongly that it's NOT okay to smoke in the house as a compromise, but that it should be okay to compromise on cleaning standards.

Arthropod are adorable. ^_^

I don't like to bad messes for other reasons, but I see no disadvantage to roaches, ants, pillbugs, or other free pets and protein sources unless it's that kinds that bits hard enough to hurt.

The same goes for a messy house. It may be a matter of subjective preference, but it's a subjective preference that a lot of people share.

Apparently one my roommates and landlady all shared and I didn't. I like clean countertops and clean dishes and I would not like pill-bugs in my room (I almost always did my dishes and I don't leave food or dishes in my room for more than 24 hours) but papers on the desk and clothes on the floor don't bother me at fact, I think I find them vaguely comforting. Messy is not necessarily the same thing as dirty. I think most people don't like dirty, but some people are more okay with messy.

If someone prefers a messy house to the labor of cleaning it up, they may inadvertently send the signal that they do not care about the aesthetic preferences of others, just as they would if they preferred not showering to the annoyance of showering.

If their friends who they have over have higher cleanliness standards, then maybe. Otherwise...most of my friends live in messier houses than I do, and it doesn't bother me at all. Maybe we'll get tidier as we get older and fussier.


Actually, I have nothing substantive to add to this, but I remember you expressing a preference for comments over silent upvotes, so I figured I'd comment by way of indulging that preference.

Which, come to think of it, is even relevant to this post.

Thank you for the tip - I upvoted the main post, but I hadn't been planning to post a comment.

Actually, this reminds me of a bit in Generalizing From One Example - that should probably be listed as related.

Considering this, I'll chime in with the fact I wish I could upvote it twice.

What good rationality can do on a "personal" or "human" level is definitely a great subject, and that's a huge part of why I liked this post so much.

But one thing I was just wondering about is, given how bloody much of our fiction is dependent upon characters believably behaving in very stupid ways, how exactly would stories have to change if they involved reasonably rational characters living in reasonably rational worlds?

I mean, would 'romantic comedy as we know it' even be able to exist like that, for example?

It's that, "Utopia is a great place to live, but a horrible place to write stories about" thing again, aint it? Does that have to be true, I wonder?

I bet one could write a rationalist romantic comedy. "Do they like me or don't they like me?" translates pretty easily into "I'm uncertain about whether they like me, and this is causing me distress."

And even perfect Bayesians can get confused by cases of mistaken identity once in a while.

It doesn’t matter where she acquired this attitude; it’s so deeply entrenched in her mind that clean is good that she doesn’t even realize it’s a preference, instead of a fact.

Still a fact, just more complicated one.

See also: 2-Place and 1-Place Words.

Fair enough, but it's a fact about her, not a fact about the table or the floor.

Everything is a fact about great many things. It's a fact about her, and a fact about table, and a fact about evolutionary history, and a fact about fusion in the long-dead stars. What makes a certain event a fact about a specific idea for us is usefulness of information gained about that idea, not just existence of a certain relationship between an idea and the event.

Okay, I'll try to clarify what I mean. If Mary did not exist, the table could still be messy; that's a fact about the table. But with no one to observe it, the messiness wouldn't be bad. The badness of the table being messy is a fact about how Mary perceives messiness...which is why the same table, with the same messiness, could be "not-bad" through someone else's eyes, i.e. Albert. Obviously it's a fact about the table in that the table has to exist, and be messy, in order for Mary to think it's bad, but you can't describe it by only describing the have to describe Mary's brain too.

Is there any way I can make this clearer in the article?

A while ago, Bryan Caplan considered the Albert and Mary scenario and concluded that Albert was right:

That's my feeling too. Luckily I'm a girl, and I'm fairly messy, and hopefully I'll marry a man who's at an equivalent level and we won't have to go through that battle.

My rule of the house is 'if it bothers you, clean it up' specifically to avoid calling others lazy.

Why is the post written in a non-standard font? Because it happens now and then, somebody may already noticed the reason and see a way to fix it. The font isn't too bad (except it is different from the font of the comments), but at least in my viewer (Firefox on Ubuntu 10.10) there are no spaces around words written in italics, and that is really annoying.

Perhaps it was pasted in from a M$ Office document? The HTML source includes the following:

<div style="margin: 0cm 0cm 10pt; text-indent: 36pt;" class="MsoNormal">
<span style="font-family: Calibri;">...

Guilty. I noticed the italics thing. It wasn't like that when I was writing it in the Word document.

AFAICT, the italics have no spaces around them because you didn't type them in the Word document. Yes, it looks fine in Word, but only because the M$ renderer places a lot of blank space around italicized text.

When I went back to edit it, there were spaces around the italics...I know there were spaces because I could delete it. When I re-submitted, it again looked like there weren't any spaces. So I added two spaces around each italic word. Hope that's an improvement.

I do not like the term "values" here. Values to me refers to an abstract, subjectively objective, moral principle rather than a concrete, objectively subjective, psychological fact.

You could be talking about instrumental values, but it's really the fundamental underlying psychology that you want to be talking about.

Fair point. To me, I think the term 'value' feels concrete, but evidently it's confusing the point for you. What term would you use, other than 'fundamental underlying psychology?'

"Preference" might be better in connotation, although equivalent in denotation. People outside of Less Wrong tend to think of the utility of a clean house as more of a 'preference' and the utility of a human life as more of a 'value'.

emotional response?

I'll second orthonormal and suggest "preference" (although "value" seems just as good).