Original post:  http://bearlamp.com.au/against-the-five-love-languages/

You are in a relationship, someone made some objection about communication, you don't seem to understand what's going on.  Many years later you find yourself looking back at the relationship and reflecting with friends.  That's when someone brings up The Five Love Languages.  Oh deep and great and meaningful secrets encoded into a book.

The 5 languages are: 

  1. Gifts
  2. Quality time
  3. Words of affirmation
  4. Acts of service (devotion)
  5. Physical touch (intimacy)

Oooooh if only you had spent more energy trying to get quality time, and less effort on gifts that relationship could have been saved.  Or the other way - the relationship was doomed because you wanted quality time and they wanted gifts as a show of love.  

You start seeing the world in 5 languages, your coworker offering to get you a coffee is a gift.  Your boss praising your good work is words of affirmation.  You start thinking like a Man with a hammer.  Strictly speaking I enjoy man with a hammer syndrome.  I like to use a model to death, and then pick a new model and do it all again.

What I want you to do now is imagine you didn't do that.  Imagine we cloned the universe.  In one universe we gave you the love-languages book and locked you in a room to read it.  In the second universe we offered to run you through a new relationship-training exercise.  "It's no guide book on how to communicate with your partner, but it's a pretty good process", we lock you in a room with a chair, a desk, some paper, pens (few distractions) and order you to derive some theory and idea about how to communicate with your partner.

Which one do you predict will yield the best result?

When I ask my system 2, it is fairly happy with the idea that using someone else's model is a shortcut to finding the answers.  After all they pre-derived the model.  No need to spend hours working on it myself when it's all in a book.

When I ask my system 1, it thinks that the self-derived system is about a billion times better than the one I found in a book.  It's going to be personally suited, it's going to be sharp and accurate, and bend to my needs.


Which is going to yield the best result for the problem? Self-derived solutions to all future problems? Book-derived solutions for all problems?

I propose that the specific strategy used to answer the problem, depending on the problem (obviously sometimes 1+1 will only be solved with addition, and solving it with subtraction is going to be difficult), is mostly irrelevant compared to having the meta-strategy.  

In the original example:

My relationship has bad communication, so we end the relationship.

The meta-strategy for this case:

My relationship has bad communication, how do we find more information about that and solve that problem.

In the general case:

I have a problem, I will fix the problem.

the meta strategy for the general case:

I have a problem, what is the best way to solve the problem? 

Or the meta-meta strategy:

I have a problem, how will I go about finding what is the best way to solve the problem? 

I propose that having the meta strategy, and the meta-meta strategy is almost as powerful as the true strategy.  On the object level for the problem example, instead of searching for the book in the problem field that is the five love languages you could instead search for any book about the problem area.  Any book is better than no book.  In fact I would make a hierarchy:

The best strategy > a good strategy > any strategy > no strategy
The best book > a good book > any book on the topic > no book on the topic

You encounter a problem in the wild - what should you do?

  1. Try just solve the problem
  2. Try any strategy (with a small amount of thinking - a few seconds or minutes)
  3. search for a better strategy

Depending on the problem, the time, the real factors - the best path forward may be to just "think of what to do then do that", or it may be to "stop and write out a 10 page plan before executing 10 pages worth of instructions".

Should you read the five love languages book?  That depends.  What is the problem?  and have you tried solving the problem on your own first?

Meta: this took an hour to write.

My table of contents: lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/mp2/my_future_posts_a_table_of_contents/ (which needs updating)

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4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:24 PM

I have a few thoughts on various aspects of this piece.

On tone: seeming immediately disdainful of your object-level example is going to garner hostility right off the bat. I found myself going "Oh, come on, dude, they're helpful for a lot of people!" and I know you. We're friends, and I like you, and can generally assume that you're making arguments in good faith. I still had the hostile reaction to tone, even with all of that context.

On subject matter: I think there's a bit of typical mind here. While anyone who's talked to me about the subject knows my feelings on LW's tendency to over-embrace models, I still think they're useful. At the level of your specific example, I think that this advice kind of talks past people in the midst of many relationship problems. A model that immediately gets an important point across is invaluable. In this case, the point is that "The things you're doing might not be making your partner feel loved, and vice versa." Many people haven't ever realized that there are different ways to express love. Some people have disdain for certain types of expression, not realizing that such emotional needs are in the territory, not the map. This is a quick and dirty way to get that point across.

On suggesting that people generate models from scratch: I think this is a bad idea for many people until they're very, very good at checking themselves for typical mind biases. Most people aren't; I'm not. Modification of existing models at least exposes the designer to alien perspectives. If I'd sat down and tried to develop a model of relationships when I was sixteen, I would have left out the need for small gifts entirely. They don't mean much to me, and I would have remained disdainful of the idea. It would have been sad if I hadn't been able to recognize a partner's expressed need for small physical tokens, especially if the relationship was otherwise viable.

I've stuck to the love languages example here, but assume that I mean this sort of thing generally. I do have something to address on relationships themselves. When problems are obviously rooted in communication issues, trying to solve the problem on your own is only going to produce solutions that depend on your communication style! Most people aren't great at switching the entire emotional context from which their communications are generated. You aren't, I'm not, and I can only think of one or two people who have seemed to exhibit this skill.

An even more general note: Disdain for the existing literature is common on LW. It's understandable. This site exists in large part because of a scholarly gap. But I worry that we're too immediately contrarian, ignoring things that have worked while being imperfect.

Disdain for the existing literature is common on LW.

I want to point out that 5 love languages is not literature so much as pop psyc (in that it has no peer review). Humans are filled with noise and complicated cases. There is no reason why 6 love languages would not explain communication better than 4 would than 5 would.

Other than the fact that many humans agree with the book (leading it to be popular).

Science goes: generate theory test theory publish results

pop goes: generate theory publish theory let the public be the judge.

I am suggesting people do the more science-based iteration route than the pop-route.


Fair enough. I still think the risk of someone coming up with "The 1 Love Language" is high enough that outside sources are worth pursuing. Obviously "The Six Love Languages" would have sufficed in a similar way.

I think it can be useful to try out various different models and see how they work for you. I read various articles and books. Writing posts on LW about relationships is a bit like "we lock you in a room with a chair, a desk, some paper, pens (few distractions) and order you to derive some theory and idea about how to communicate with your partner" and I think that's also helpful for model building.