So here's a dynamic I find myself in sometimes:

I've just explained a problem to a friend / family member and they offer advice that feels plain wrong.

Normally this leaves me either:

  • trying to somehow make the advice fit (it doesn't)
  • or deciding maybe this person is not as great as I thought they were (They’re pretty great so I’m not crazy keen to do this either)

Here's hopefully, pointing at a third alternative.

What might be going on: When I hear another persons problem. What this brain tends to do is run a simulation of my friend in that situation. Yet, the complexity of my human friend is much greater than my simulation of them. There's bound to be a bit of compression.

I've heard, how humans store faces is that we have a default face template. And then to minimise storage cost a new friend's face is stored as lots of "deviations" from that default [1].

I'd be pretty surprised if something similar isn't going on with my models of other people. When I imagine a friend, they're basically me but with a few tweaks. Oh yeah, Sally doesn't like noise or John's real tidy.

Here instead are some intuitions behind other people being super weird:

People may take anywhere between five minutes and forty minutes to shower. They may wash their hair daily, once a week, or not at all. They may wash their bodies thoroughly, only clean the parts that look dirty, only clean certain parts (such as the armpits or genitals), or just stand under the water. They may use a loofah, a sponge, or nothing. They may bring in a comb to comb out the conditioner. They may sing. They may zone out. They may jerk off. They may bathe instead, and bathing may involve reading a book or bath bombs or lighting candles and drinking a nice bottle of wine or bubble bath or none of those things at all. The one thing that is consistent is that everyone thinks the way they shower is the way normal people shower.

  • what common universals are you missing? Synesthetics often don't realise everyone else isn’t seeing the colours too. People don't realise they're colour blind until they see (or don’t see) one of those number patters.
  • When you move in with friends, you find all of these funny rules. Oh you put the salad dressing in the fridge, "you recycle that?" etc.
  • Turns out that most people's typing strategies vary wildly [2]

If you have a sample size n = 1, comparisons are tricky. It doesn't seem too absurd that we've learned to process / navigate the world through many custom concepts, rules, experiences & strategies.[3][4]

Basically other people are aliens sometimes.

Coming back to the problem above, this appreciation of other folks strangeness allows me to not discredit this other person who is trying to help me :) or discard their advice, losing useful info in the process.

"Take the person with the comment". As to how to do that. more research needed, suggestions welcome.

If you're trying to assist another alien, reporting the evidence and not the theory may prove useful.


[1] This is also how some encodings work.

[2] typing article here.

[3] I'm told Circling gives you insight into how other peoples internal experience is weirdly emotionally different from yours. "This other person has a whole world behind their eyes, wonder what it's like to live in their ontology"

[4] See brienne's explanations of living within autism.

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I've just explained a problem to a friend / family member and they offer advice that feels plain wrong.

Exactly. That's the typical situation atypical (and often the rest of us) find themselves in. Wanting to fix others by giving the obvious (to us, and often to them) advice that rarely comes across as a new insight. The issue is so pervasive, there are books written about it. The popular series "How to talk so [X] will listen and listen so [X] will talk" is one of many. Giving unsolicited advice is generally is both the most natural and the least helpful thing people do. You can probably catch yourself doing exactly that when someone talks to you about their issues. Notice it :)

What helps best is something much harder, something very few people have a gift for, but something that can be easily learned: active listening. The idea is very basic: imagine that person in that person's situation, including their mindset. This is different from imagining yourself in their situation, since you are a different person! Eliezer calls it an internal model of that person. Once you can do that, you can imagine, though not necessarily feel their pain, their struggles, what makes them do the things they do.

The best first reaction after you run the model is expressing empathy: saying, in your own words, what their situation is, what they are likely feeling, thus validating their emotional struggles.

The next useful step is generally asking a good smart open-ended question or two, clarifying the situation, helping them see their situation from a new angle, basically finding a question that would help them get unstuck, mentally. Then go back to step one. Rinse and repeat until the thoughts, feelings and the circumstances are clear in their mind.

Finally, and optionally, you can ask what they think their options are, and pros and cons of each, and so on. Maybe even suggest something they may have overlooked and ask what they think about those. Often asking what they might suggest to someone in a similar situation is also not a bad angle. We suck at having the outside view on our own situation, and suggesting the person tries that angle themselves can do wonders. "Optionally" is because if you do enough cycles of the first two steps, it might not be needed. People are generally not stupid, and once the tangled web of thoughts and feelings is sorted, they see the solutions that would work for them.

Hope this helped :)