How to signal curiosity?

by Wei_Dai2 min read11th Jan 201352 comments

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Personal Blog

At LessWrong we encourage people to be curious. Curiosity causes people to ask questions, but sometimes those questions get misinterpreted as social challenges or rhetorical techniques, or maybe just regular questions that you don't have a "burning itch" to know the answers for (and hence maybe not particularly worth answering). I sometimes preface a question by "I'm curious," but of course anyone could say that so it's not a very effective way to distinguish oneself as being genuinely curious. Another thing I sometimes do is to try to answer the question myself and present one or more answers as my "guesses" and ask if one of them is correct, since someone who is genuinely curious is more likely put in such effort. But unfortunately sometimes that backfires when the person you're directing the question at interprets the guesses as a way to make them look bad, because for example you failed to hypothesize the actual answer and include it as one of the guesses, and all your guesses make them look worse than the actual answer.

I've noticed examples of this happening to others on LW (or at least possibly happening, since I can't be sure whether someone else really is curious) as well as to myself, and can only imagine that the problem is even worse elsewhere, where people may not give each other as much benefit of doubt as we do around here. So my question is, what can curious people do, to signal their genuine curiosity when asking questions? Has anyone thought about this question already, or perhaps can recognize some strategies they already employ and make them explicit for the rest of us?

ETA: Perhaps I should say a bit more about the kind of situation I have in mind. Often I'll see a statement from someone that either contradicts my existing beliefs about something or is on a topic that I'm pretty ignorant about, and it doesn't come with an argument or evidence to back it up. I'd think "I don't want to just take their word since they might be wrong, but there also seems a good chance that they know something that I don't in which case I'd really like to know what it is, so let's ask why they're saying what they're saying." And unfortunately this sometimes gets interpreted as "I'm pretty sure you're wrong, and I'm going to embarrass you by asking a question that I don't think you can answer."

ETA2: The reason I use "signal" in the title is that people who do just want to embarrass the other person would want to have plausible deniability. If it was clear that's their intention and it turns out that the other person has a perfectly good answer, then they'll be the one embarrassed instead. So ideally the curious person should send a signal that can't be faked by someone who just wants to pretend to be curious.

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This post made me realize I've used "I'm curious" to preface questions when the only curiosity was about how the person would respond to the question, not about the answer itself.

When I admit my ignorance on a certain topic, upfront and clearly, it usually works for me and gets the other person to trust that my intent is to learn and not to challenge them.

You can generalize this to thinking about what other reasons people might have to ask the question that aren't nice and then signal that it's not those.

In this case you can come off as curious instead of smugly superior if you forfeit the superior position of having all the answers

Here's an experiment we could try: look at the "recent comments" feed, and do a text search on the question mark.

For instance, taking this link as starting point (because the most recent messages are biased by this very thread) we can count 67 occurrences of the question mark.

For a preliminary analysis I went through these discarding the ones in quotations, and built a list of question classes:

  • "challenge" questions like "how confident are you about this" - they are really intended to prompt the askee to ask the question of themselves
  • "clarification" questions - like "what did you mean by X"
  • "genuinely curious" questions - the first to seem so was "How does any particular agent go about convincing me that it's Omega?"
  • "mocking rhetorical" questions - like "Don't they know (...) this thing called 'social networking'? "
  • "hypothetical" questions - like "what would I think of an amateur who argues with me in the area of my competence?"
  • "question and answer" pairs - like "does that mean they are wasting their time there? Of course not..." - obviously rhetorical
  • "what if" questions - like "And what if you wanted to grow?"
  • "agreement seeking" questions - like "Agreed?"
  • "information-providing" questions - like "Anyone heard of Marblar?" (with a link, so we know the asker has heard of it)

Questions asked in the negative are often rhetorical (e.g. "Isn't the whole point of patents for people NOT to use them?"). Rhetorical questions are quite common but do not obviously dominate. We could push this a bit further and get some statistics.

I've considered a reversal test. Would it be feasible to signal non-curiosity instead of signaling curiosity? That is, encourage a norm that every time you were about to ask a non-curious question, you prefaced it with an explicit "I think you're a fake and I'm going to ask embarrassing questions"?

My first thought was "obviously that wouldn't work". But that's an interesting thought, why would I think that? Do I think that in fact most of the time when we ask a question it's to make the respondent look stupid?

Actually, the factual analysis suggests that "question" is a more complex category than one might first think. There are many types of question, not all of them stemming from curiosity. Combining that with the reversal test, I conclude that there might be real value in coming up with sentence forms that convey the meaning "this is intended as a genuinely curious question", and encouraging their use in the community.

Whenever a conversant uses an extremely effective phrasing that conveys to me "I'm asking about/referring to X, and would only like you to think about X when answering/replying, because I am certainly not, in any way, referring to Y, Z, and D," it stands out to me and I'll (often ask for permission to) adopt that phrasing.

I think it would be an added bonus of a curiosity signal to have this trait.

Most prominent example: a friend used, "If I may," in an e-mail, which I requested to "make my own" - they allowed it, informing me they themselves had recently lifted the phrasing from someone.
\
Full formation: "[I]f [I] may, [I] suggest..."

But unfortunately sometimes that backfires when the person you're directing the question at interprets the guesses as a way to make them look bad,

I think you've left out context in your description of the problem, and part of the ineffectiveness of "I'm curious why ..." comes from not acknowledging the context.

From your description, it sounds like the context is a disagreement, where you're asking for an explanation of a person's position. To say "I'm curious why you believe X" turns the person you're asking into a curiosity, and fails to acknowledge the disagreement. Add the tone to the lack of honest acknowledge of the disagreement, and it starts to seem rather dismissive.

Instead. "You believe X. I believe not_X. This is why I believe not_X. ..... Why do you believe X?"

Acknowledge the disagreement. Frame it in symmetric terms. Put your cards on the table. Ask the other person to do the same.

Each step accomplishes something positive. I asked a question in that way once in a monthly political thread, and thought the responses were much more informative than I usually mange to elicit.

To say "I'm curious why you believe X" turns the person you're asking into a curiosity

Being curious about someone's reasons is bad because it turns them into "a curiosity"? I don't understand... If I'm curious about string theory, does that turn string theory into a curiosity? Obviously not, but what's the difference?

Thinking it over... Is it that the statement seems to be implying that I have no reason to learn their reasons except to satisfy an idle curiosity?

ETA: And here I was, thinking that by "I'm curious" I was indicating that I would value the other person's answers highly and was ready to change my mind based on their answers. Damn...

[-][anonymous]9y 4

Thinking it over... Is it that the statement seems to be implying that I have no reason to learn their reasons except to satisfy an idle curiosity?

To me it looks a bit as if it's not asking "what is the evidence for X?", but "what is wrong with you that makes you think X?"

Literally, it doesn't mean that, but your interpretation almost feels like an established idiom to me. Anyone else have the same feeling?

Add a glib, condescending, and dismissive sneer for full effect.

As I note below, it almost feels like an established idiom to me, but I'm on the fringe of the human distribution, so I'd recommend you look for more corroboration.

First, when you have a disagreement, people are likely to interpret what you say in a poor light.

I'd add that the people on Less Wrong are highly unrepresentative of most people. We like to think, we like to argue, we like to discuss ideas, we like intellectual back and forth. Most people just aren't like that, and particularly not with people like us.

Maybe most people feel threatened when asked to justify their beliefs. Because they can't do it. Because they can't separate a judgment on their ideas from a judgment on themselves - can't separate the sin from the sinner. Others are simply authoritarian types, and believe their higher status makes it rude and impertinent to question their beliefs.

We have a "find the truth" mentality. I don't think most people are like that. Ideas are signaling. To ask people to explain is to threaten to expose them as intellectual frauds. They don't share that value, but they feel the threat, knowing that others do, and in particular, you do.

I'm massively generalizing, and probably overstating the case, but I think there is truth in what I'm saying.

Some people just don't have the relationship to ideas that you do. And whether someone does or doesn't, they'll be hypervigilant to threat from your comments in the context of a disagreement. If it can be interpreted in a negative light, it likely will be.

If you're curious about someone else's emotions or perspective, first, remember that there are two ways to encode knowledge of how someone else feels: by having a description of their feelings, or by empathizing and actually feeling them yourself. It is more costly --- in terms of emotional energy --- to empathize with someone, but if you care enough about them to afford them that cost, I think it's the way to go. You can ask them to help you understand how they feel, or help you to see things the way they do. If you succeed, they'll appreciate having someone who can share their perspective.

As you often say, how about some examples of this happening?

Sometimes I ask questions that look rhetorical but aren't, and when I notice myself doing this I append something like "not a rhetorical question, I actually want to know" at the end.

How do you recognize when your question will be interpreted as rhetorical? ibid.

Experience? My main heuristic is something like "if I imagine someone saying this, do they have a smug look on their face?"

I'm reluctant to give some of the examples I have in mind, to avoid bring up past unpleasantness. Also I wrote this a couple of months ago, and forgot to make note of some the examples I had observed back then that in part made me write it. But what made me recall this draft and post it today was IlyaShpitser's comment that apparently interpreted my question as a defense of LessWrong.

I think it might help to do your questioning in private or at least in front of as few people as possible. Questioning is more likely to be social challenging questioning if its done in public rather than private.

The potential benefits from private questioning should be weighed against the cost of the information not being visible to others. I like to see Wei_Dai's questions and the responses they elicit. I think the public exchanges have significant value beyond the immediate participants.

Curiosity is an emotion. It's more than a mental strategy. Many humans are capable to get some sense of the emotions of other humans through a variety of nonverbal cues. Strongly felt emotions are good signals.

But even if you do your best to signal curiosity there are still situations where the other person could be embarresed by the question. In a lot of social situations you will suffer when you make other people embarresed even if you plausbily signal that you didn't intended to do so and the embarresement is just collateral damage.

Oftentimes the relationship you have with people matters a great deal. If you give someone a few times genuine positive compliements they will afterwards increase their trust in your good intentions .

I normally add "I am genuinely curious about this" to the end of inquiries of ambiguous intent.

Just remember that most social cues (light touching on the arm, facial expressions, intonation etc.) get lost over textual channels and spell out your intentions more verbosely and explicitly.

"I don't want to just take their word since they might be wrong, but there also seems a good chance that they know something that I don't in which case I'd really like to know what it is, so let's ask why they're saying what they're saying."

... seems fine, add in if it's "on a topic that [you're] pretty ignorant about". Since you're such high status around here, be cognizant of the fact that can be intimidating and that you asking out of not-knowing (as opposed to probably having a better, differing explanation) isn't exactly on the top of the list, unless you more explicitly put it there.

Word of the comment: Explicitly

[-][anonymous]9y 1

Signal with gesture (worried look) or words ('could you help me... ') that by explaining / demonstrating, the other person will be in a position of power and prestige as explainer / demonstrator.

If the other person can't explain it properly they might take that approach as an attack.

[-][anonymous]9y 1

Tangential: what's the difference between "signaling" and "indicating", and why does this post say "signal" rather than "indicate"?

(Perhaps "signaling" is American, "indicating" is British, and "blinking" is the colloquial term worldwide?)

Signal is a standard term in game theory applied in economics and evolution.

[-][anonymous]9y 2

It looks like "signal" essentially means "indicate credibly", then. In that case, it seems to me like we're trying to find methods of indicating curiosity, not of signaling curiosity, because I don't think we're specifically interested in methods that a non-curious person would find difficult to fake.

Then what about doing some research on the topic before answering a question and mentioning what you've found so far? That's difficult to do in a "live" talk in person, but on message boards, doesn't this constitute an unreasonable effort that a non-curious person wouldn't do?

[-][anonymous]9y 8

At first, I thought you were saying I should have done more research before asking my question in the first place. :D

Yes, that does indeed sound like it would be a way of signaling curiosity.

At first, I thought you were saying I should have done more research before asking my question in the first place.

In the context of this thread, that's a wonderful observation.

That pun was not intended.

I have never heard "blinking" used in a way even remotely similar to "signaling".

Me either, with the very slim exception of "turn signal" v. "blinker"...?

[-][anonymous]9y 3

Yeah, I was making a pun about turn signals.

"Signaling" is a term that we've given a more precise definition than the other two.

To signal something to a person or people is to evince that something on either a conscious or subconscious level. A signal can be understood by a party without them being cognisant of their understanding; contrarily one indicates in order to make another consciously aware of the indicated.

Simply, 'signaling' has more meaning than 'indicate', and in this context, broadens the scope of potential answers.

Although the phrases "indicate interest" and "signal interest" seem to contradict the above. They have equivalent meaning, though 'indicate' may nuance being more obvious in conveying one's interest.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

That seems to contradict the Wikipedia articles that Douglas_Knight linked (or, at least, say something totally unrelated to what they say). Where do you get that information?

That's how I've seen them used. I learned signalling and indicating's meaning in this regard through seeing them used in many contexts, so you may want to assign a low value to my statements.

I didn't notice anything in the Wikipedia articles that was contradictory of the above. To what do you specifically refer?

[-][anonymous]9y 0

Neither the game theory article nor the economics article mentions consciousness or subconscious-ness, and the biology article, although it links to the article "unconscious communication", also gives a definition that is irrelevant here:

In biology, signals are traits, including structures and behaviors, that have evolved specifically because they change the behavior of receivers in ways that benefit the signaller.

On the other hand, all of the articles imply that, by definition, a party who possesses a trait is more likely to signal than a party who does not possess the trait; thus, signaling is credible (to some degree).

So it would appear that the usage you have seen is at odds with the actual definition of the word.

I admit that my understanding of the word's definition is heavily colored by its use here and on Overcoming Bias.

However, I will note the Wikipedia article does hint at the possible duplicity of signalling that I have implied.

The sender observes his own type while the receiver does not know the type of the sender. Based on his knowledge of his own type, the sender chooses to send a message from a set of possible messages M = {m1, m2, m3,..., mj}. The receiver observes the message but not the type of the sender.

Thus the receiver determines the probability that the signal has a credible basis. A sender sufficiently skilled at manipulation could fool the receiver into believing a false signal. More relevantly, an insufficiently skilled signaller of curiosity would be unsuccessful in overcoming a receiver's probability distribution weighted heavily against the signaller having genuine curiosity.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

I'm tempted to propose that the definition on that Less Wrong wiki page be removed from it, on the grounds that it doesn't match the Wikipedia definitions. Unless most people on Less Wrong know exactly what the word means (or most articles that use the word give a correct definition of it), I suspect that it would be better us to stop using it.

It's probably because we recently had an article about a key definition of "signalling" (doing things that only make sense if you have the 'signalled' property, like thinking for 5 minutes to ask especially good questions if you're curious), so it was fresh in the mind.

The first thing that comes to mind is to just state that you do not know the answer, with the implication you dislike this state of affairs, but not phrasing it as a question. This also has the bonus that someone else you didn't expect might chime in with the answer. Basically, provide an opportunity for any of multiple different people to show of by answering, with each individual one having plausible denyability in thinking someone else would respond. If possible, try doing this in a way and place such that there actually ARE more than one person that could have been expected to answer.

what can curious people do, to signal their genuine curiosity when asking questions?

Should the signal be easy or difficult to fake? With difficulty usually come some costs.

Easy: "I don't know X. Do you have any reliable information on X?"

Difficult: "I am not sure about X. My previous research suggests that . Do you have any reliable information on X beyond this?" -- Problem: the other person is primed by what you said.

the person you're directing the question at interprets the guesses as a way to make them look bad,

Okay, I'm curious (sorry!): how do you figure out that was your interlocutor's interpretation? Do they come right out and say so? (I'm guessing not.) Do you infer that from their tone in subsequent messages?

Do you have specific recent cases in mind?

The attitude I try to project is "I'm open to changing my mind on this, but I'll need more solid grounds; please help me out".

Here's an example of how I asked the question on the Good Judgement Project, when I made a forecast that was radically contrarian compared to the team's. The question was "Will at least one individual be convicted of the July 2011 killing of Iranian nuclear physicist Darioush Rezaeinejad by an Iranian court of law before 1 January 2013?".

Either I'm going to get a lousy score on this question, or the team is. If I don't change my forecast, that is. So this seems worth discussing.

For the question to resolve true, there has to be not just a report of an unspecified set of arrest, but an actual arraignment and trial of one or more individuals and a conviction, for this specific murder (i.e. not Roshan's). What makes you 2/3 sure these will all happen in the question timeframe?

I'm not even sure that someone being convicted for merely "being involved" in the assassination would count (e.g. someone who stood lookout but didn't pull the trigger).

I'm ready to revise my forecast if and when a trial is announced, ideally with details of what the charges are and who is accused.

Curiosity is an urge to create the mental model of a phenomenon. Think of satisfying curiosity like doing science: when you do it ad-hominem, ask for the informed consent:

Is it okay to ask you __ for the purpose of X?

X = "verifying your position", "making sure that what you are proposing is possible, because I can't believe it yet", "satisfying my desire for certainty about this phenomenon of which I am so uncertain as to have the wildest range of possibilities to consider" etc.

"Please, please, please tell me! I must know"

Perhaps too dramatic for your taste, but it should get the job done.

Overly dramatic, sounds patronizingly sarcastic

I would guess that the approach would be seen as very aggressive by a person who can't provide a satisfactory answer to the question.