Information empathy

by Evan Rysdam 4mo30th Jul 20191 min read14 comments

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Epistemic status: Giving a name to a basic skill that some people exhibit and others don't, because I think that it's useful to keep track of who exhibits it and that giving it a name will help with this. See also: Historian's Fallacy, Theory of Mind (both Wikipedia links).

Edit: Down below, I was convinced that this is not a useful term because it is nearly identical in meaning to Theory of Mind, and that the latter can be substituted in whenever you would use this term. This post might still be worth reading if you don't know what that is, but please read mentally substitute the official phrasing for my coinage.


The experiment I'm about to describe may be apocryphal (links, anyone?), but it illustrates my point nicely. (Edit: down below, Raemon has linked the real experiment, which is slightly different but has exactly the same moral.)

In the experiment, a child is shown a box with a "trick" lid, such that when the lid is on the box it appears that there is a cookie inside, but when the lid is removed you can see that it is in fact empty. First, with the lid on the box, the child is asked what is inside. "A cookie," they answer. Then the lid is removed, and again the child is asked what is inside. "Nothing," they say. Finally, the lid is replaced, and the experimenter tells the child that they are going to show the box to another child, who has not yet seen the box with the lid off.

"What will the other child think is in the box?" the experimenter asks.

At this point, things can go one of two ways. Children beyond a certain developmental stage will say "she'll say there's a cookie", while children who have not yet reached this stage will say "she'll say it's empty".

I call this skill Information Empathy, and from what I can tell, the median age at which children develop it is 35.

Jokes aside, I feel like there have been actual occasions where somebody has been angry at me after I did X, where the primary reason for their anger seems to be neither that X happened to them nor that my doing X was careless negligent but rather that I did X knowing full well what the consequences were... even when they could see that that was not true.

Maybe this term will be useful for some of you.

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