In the dawn days of science fiction, alien invaders would occasionally kidnap a girl in a torn dress and carry her off for intended ravishing, as lovingly depicted on many ancient magazine covers. Oddly enough, the aliens never go after men in torn shirts.
Would a non-humanoid alien, with a different evolutionary history and evolutionary psychology, sexually desire a human female? It seems rather unlikely. To put it mildly.
People don't make mistakes like that by deliberately reasoning: "All possible minds are likely to be wired pretty much the same way, therefore a bug-eyed monster will find human females attractive." Probably the artist did not even think to ask whether an alien perceives human females as attractive. Instead, a human female in a torn dress is sexy—inherently so, as an intrinsic property.
They who went astray did not think about the alien's evolutionary history; they focused on the woman's torn dress. If the dress were not torn, the woman would be less sexy; the alien monster doesn't enter into it.
Apparently we instinctively represent Sexiness as a direct attribute of the Woman object, Woman.sexiness, like Woman.height or Woman.weight.
If your brain uses that data structure, or something metaphorically similar to it, then from the inside it feels like sexiness is an inherent property of the woman, not a property of the alien looking at the woman. Since the woman is attractive, the alien monster will be attracted to her—isn't that logical?
E. T. Jaynes used the term Mind Projection Fallacy to denote the error of projecting your own mind's properties into the external world. Jaynes, as a late grand master of the Bayesian Conspiracy, was most concerned with the mistreatment of probabilities as inherent properties of objects, rather than states of partial knowledge in some particular mind. More about this shortly.
But the Mind Projection Fallacy generalizes as an error. It is in the argument over the real meaning of the word sound, and in the magazine cover of the monster carrying off a woman in the torn dress, and Kant's declaration that space by its very nature is flat, and Hume's definition of a priori ideas as those "discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe"...
(Incidentally, I once read an SF story about a human male who entered into a sexual relationship with a sentient alien plant of appropriately squishy fronds; discovered that it was an androecious (male) plant; agonized about this for a bit; and finally decided that it didn't really matter at that point. And in Foglio and Pollotta's Illegal Aliens, the humans land on a planet inhabited by sentient insects, and see a movie advertisement showing a human carrying off a bug in a delicate chiffon dress. Just thought I'd mention that.)
It's not about what the bug-eyed monster considers sexy. It's about what the human reader considers sexy.
I ask you again - what is the other option? How can we deal with the world other than via "mind-projection?" I claim that you do it too, you just do it in a more sophisticated way. Do you have an alternative in mind?
As always, there's the difference between "we're all doomed to be biased, so I might as well carry on with whatever I was already doing" and "we're all doomed to be somewhat biased, but less biased is better than more biased, so let's try and mitigate them as we go".
Someone really ought to name a website along those lines.
Yeah, I can't help but think that in many cases there is no implied inference that the alien especially desires the woman, but rather that the reader is especially affected by the fact that the abductee just happens to be an attractive woman. (King Kong would be an exception.) It's the same reason that we rarely if ever see the alien carrying a cow instead; not because of its preferences, but because we wouldn't be especially apprehensive about the cow's fate.
If there's a bias here, it's one generated by the desire to tell interesting stories. Projection happens, but I don't find this example terribly compelling.
I take your point about the mind projection fallacy, but actually in the particulars I may have to slightly disagree.
Consider these themes:
Furries Anime tentacle rape Bestiality/zoophilia etc etc etc...
In other words, we already know that there can be humans that find stuff either slightly human but modified, or increasingly alien to also, ahem. "tweak" them.
I bet somewhere either the author of that story (with the plant) that you mentioned, or some reader somewhere found that story particularly enjoyable, or at least the notion of it.
So, it does... (read more)
If I assume that others have minds like mine I surely would also assume they "project" the same properties, so calling them "mental projection" is not likely to make this error go away. Conversely if I establish that a certain property is a real, non-projected property of an object, that doesn't entitle me to assume that it will be perceived by an alien with a different evolutionary history. After all, humans only perceive a tiny percentage of the actual properties of objects. So I think that the "mind projection error" and the "all minds are alike" error are quite different.
Good post. I have a feeling I've read this very same example before from you Eliezer. I can't remember where.
PK: I think Eliezer made the same point in "Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgement of Global Risks"
At least, I think that's the one.
The aliens and monsters are stand-ins for the traditional fear: men from the other tribe. Since cross-tribal homicide and rape/abduction are quite common, it is no surprise that our Sci-Fi creations do the same thing.
We share an evolutionary history with different animals on earth. There could be attractive properties in animals that give us a similar representation of sexiness as they do to their own species. Same reason we find you will find different creatures finding other creatures cute e.g. humans to dogs and gorilla to human.
Additionally, there has been cases where dolphins attempted to sexually engage with humans. An intelligent alien will have a shared ancestry and therefore will not have sexiness representations from "sexual properties" exhibited in earth's creatures.
There is of course, the Red Dwarf episode "Camille" with the alien who appears as the projection of whatever you find sexiest.
I'm sure the historians of the recent "Imagining Outer Space, 1900-2000" conference would have a good time with analyzing the various pop cultural strands that came together to produce rote images such as the above cover.
PK: This example is also part of Eliezer's "Hard AI Future Salon" lecture (starting at 1:35:33).
"Hard AI Future Salon" lecture, good talk. Most of the audience's questions however were very poor.
One more comment about the mind projection fallacy. Eliezer, you also have to keep in mind that the goal of a sci-fi writer is to make a compelling story which he can sell. Realism is only important in so far as it helps him achieve this goal. Agreed on the point that it's a fallacy, but don't expect it to change unless the audience demands/expects realism. http://tvtropes.org/ if full of tropes that illustrate stuff like that.
Lior: good point.
The subject of human/alien sex was disposed of rather thoroughly by Larry Niven in "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex".
Speaking of interspecies vs intraspecies reproductive fitness evaluation - a human may judge a member of its own species (from a distant end of the genetic spectrum, i.e., whitest of the white vs. blackest of the black) less desirable than some hypothetical alien species with appropriately bulbous forms and necessary orifices or extrusions.
It's certainly not just sci-fi writers who go for this sort of reasoning. I knew a theology professor who would make mistakes like this on a consistent basis. For example, he would raise questions about whether there was an evolutionary pressure for babies to evolve to be cute, without even considering the possibility that we might evolve to find babies cute. It struck me as being much worse than the sort of unthinking assumption that goes into Attack of the Fifty Foot Whatever sci fi stories, since his preconceptions were actually hindering him in fairly serious attempts to understand the real world.
URL is dead for me: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.40.8618 says "This url does not match any document in our repository."
I don't know what document that link originally pointed to, but this document contains one of Jaynes's earliest (if not the earliest) descriptions of the idea.
Oh, this has been around since Genesis 6. At least.
But... then... why do zombies eat brains? As anthropomorphism, that's pretty disturbing.
[Incidentally, I just saw King Kong 1976 and was utterly amazed at how h-nt-- it was. I had no idea.]
I know this is incidental, but I am dying of curiosity about the story of the Plant-Guy/Human-Guy... would you mind giving the reference ?
Is "the world is full of people" an example of the mind-projection fallacy? (Compare to "we can both recognize the pattern 'person' at a high-level in our multi-leveled models of levelless reality")
I just thought the Less Wrong community should know that a few minute ago, I was having trouble remembering the name of this fallacy, but I vaugely remembered the content of this post. So, I decided to use the search engine on this site to find this. I typed in "sexy," and this is the first thing that came up.
I recall reading a book on Asperger's syndrome in my school library which had an activity in it that is supposed to conclude weather or not a child has 'Theory of Mind'. This is what I immediately thought about while reading this article.
Here is a version of the test, check it out. http://www.asperger-advice.com/sally-and-anne.html
If a bunch of aliens were to start capturing bunch of humans (and other terrestrial animals) for food, or slave labour, or what ever, it would be rational for males to go after the aliens with sexy human females first. The torn clothing would likely be widespread, and selection by torn clothing (as torn clothing improves ability to select for sexiness) may also be rational when one wants to maximize the sexiness of mates that one takes for rebuilding the human race.
It is a great example, but one cannot beat the metaphor to death. There are also artistic conventions which develop and self-reinforce (re Manga / Anime) as well as marketing forces - re Why do all female superheroes have giant breasts?
The strength of the metaphor is not that a rational analysis of alien / monster motivations leads the average fan-boy to conclude aliens intend to copulate with abducted females, but the unconscious projection of the fan-boy onto the alien / monster, and of course who would you grab then?
...what was the name of that story?
This is an inappropriate accusation to make about Kant in particular: he was explicit that space (in all its flatness) was a necessary condition of experience, not a feature of the world. He could not be more adamant that his claims about space were claims about the mind, and the world as it appears to the mind.
He was wrong, of course: non-euclidian geometry thrives. But this isn't the mind projection fallacy. This is the exact opposite of the mind projection fallacy.
I know these sequence posts... (read more)
Oddly enough, the aliens never go after men in torn shirts.
One exception: Troma's Monster in the Closet, where the monster does indeed fall for a guy. The movie is a real gem.
Optical illusions might be a good example of this. Ex. http://www.buzzfeed.com/catesish/help-am-i-going-insane-its-definitely-blue#.hfZoPkgjK
People are freaking out over what color the dress "really is". They're projecting the property of "true color" onto the real world, when in reality "true color" is only in their mind.
The way I think about it: