Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Illusion of Transparency
Thursday, October 25th, 2007
In searching for something about overcoming bias in the selection of experimental subjects, I came across this:
The illusion of transparancy
October 20, 2007
Illusion of Transparency: Why No One Understands You
In hindsight bias, people who know the outcome of a situation believe the outcome should have been easy to predict in advance. Knowing the outcome, we reinterpret the situation in light of that outcome. Even when warned, we can’t de-interpret to empathize with someone who doesn’t know what we know.
Closely related is the illusion of transparency: We always know what we mean by our words, and so we expect others to know it too. Reading our own writing, the intended interpretation falls easily into place, guided by our knowledge of what we really meant. It’s hard to empathize with someone who must interpret blindly, guided only by the words.
June recommends a restaurant to Mark; Mark dines there and discovers (a) unimpressive food and mediocre service (b) delicious food and impeccable service. Then Mark leaves the following message on June’s answering machine: “June, I just finished dinner at the restaurant you recommended, and I must say, it was marvelous, just marvelous.” Keysar (1994) presented a group of subjects with scenario (a), and 59% thought that Mark’s message was sarcastic and that Jane would perceive the sarcasm. Among other subjects, told scenario (b), only 3% thought that Jane would perceive Mark’s message as sarcastic. Keysar and Barr (2002) seem to indicate that an actual voice message was played back to the subjects.

Keysar (1998) showed that if subjects were told that the restaurant was horrible but that Mark wanted to conceal his response, they believed June would not perceive sarcasm in the (same) message:
“They were just as likely to predict that she would perceive sarcasm when he attempted to conceal his negative experience as when he had a positive experience and was truly sincere. So participants took Mark’s communicative intention as transparent. It was as if they assumed that June would perceive whatever intention Mark wanted her to perceive.”
(The above wording is from Keysar and Barr 2002.)
“The goose hangs high” is an archaic English idiom which has passed out of use in modern language. Keysar and Bly (1995) told one group of subjects that “the goose hangs high” meant that the future looks good; another group of subjects learned that “the goose hangs high” meant the future looks gloomy. Subjects were then asked which of these two meanings an uninformed listener would be more likely to attribute to the idiom. Each group thought that listeners would perceive the meaning presented as “standard”.
(Other idioms tested included “come the uncle over someone”, “to go by the board”, and “to lay out in lavender”. Ah, English, such a lovely language.)
Keysar and Henly (2002) tested the calibration of speakers: Would speakers underestimate, overestimate, or correctly estimate how often listeners understood them? Speakers were given ambiguous sentences (”The man is chasing a woman on a bicycle”) and disambiguating pictures (a man running after a cycling woman), then asked the speakers to utter the words in front of addressees, then asked speakers to estimate how many addressees understood the intended meaning. Speakers thought that they were understood in 72% of cases and were actually understood in 61% of cases. When addressees did not understand, speakers thought they did in 46% of cases; when addressees did understand, speakers thought they did not in only 12% of cases.
Additional subjects who overheard the explanation showed no such bias, expecting listeners to understand in only 56% of cases.
As Keysar and Barr (2002) note, two days before Germany’s attack on Poland, Chamberlain sent a letter intended to make it clear that Britain would fight if any invasion occurred. The letter, phrased in polite dipliomatese, was heard by Hitler as conciliatory - and the tanks rolled.
Be not too quick to blame those who misunderstand your perfectly clear sentences, spoken or written. Chances are, your words are more ambiguous than you think.
Keysar, B. (1994). The illusory transparency of intention: Linguistic perspective taking in text. Cognitive Psychology, 26, 165-208.
Keysar, B. (1998). Language users as problem solvers: Just what ambiguity problem do they solve? In S. R. Fussell and R. J. Kreuz (Eds.), Social and Cognitive Psychological Approaches to Interpersonal Communication, 175-200. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Keysar, B., & Barr, D. J. (2002). Self anchoring in conversation: Why language users do not do what they “should”. (2002). In T. Gilovich, D. W. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment. (pp. 150-166). Cambridge University Press.
Keysar, B., & Bly, B. (1995.) Intuitions of the transparency of idioms: Can one keep a secret by spilling the beans? Journal of Memory and Language, 34, pp. 89-109.
Keysar, B., & Henly, A. S. (2002). Speakers’ overestimation of their effectiveness. Psychological Science, 13, 207-212.
Posted by Eliezer Yudkowsky at 07:49 PM in Standard Biases

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Google found the actual meanings of “the goose hangs high” (the future looks good), and the reason it means that (there is a goose in the larder, therefor you will not starve), and “to go by the board” (to be completely destroyed or overthrown), but not the reason behind it. What do “to come an uncle over someone” and “to lay out in lavender” mean?
Posted by: chesh October 20, 2007 at 08:05 PM

I’ve heard things like this before. This is one reason why it’s a good idea to run your writing by someone else before you “publish”; you can get a better idea of whether what you wrote actually says what you wanted it to.
Posted by: Doug S. October 20, 2007 at 08:18 PM

1) That’s why Deidre (then Donald) McCloskey wrote in (I believe), “The Rhetoric of Economics” (JEL 1983), that, “If the reader says something is unclear, it is unclear.”2) The recent Rush Limbaugh imbroglio is consistent with the point about inferring meaning. The political leanings of the commentors guided their inerpretation of his words.
Posted by: Acad Ronin October 20, 2007 at 11:27 PM

Humor seems the most difficult. Once I taught a guy from Sweden English. One day he read an article in the newspaper to me and could tell me what it meant– no problem.When we got to the comics page… the humor didn’t translate at all.I still don’t know why the difference was so marked.
Posted by: douglas October 21, 2007 at 12:36 AM

Certain kinds of academics use this to justify a rhetorical technique: they simply say they do not understand what you say, and they keep repeating this for any statements that do not fit with their standard method. For example, in a community uses formal statistical techniques, they say they cannot understand any argument for a probabilistic conclusion that is not expressed as a formal statistical test.
Posted by: Robin Hanson October 21, 2007 at 04:51 AM

Robin, could you give a bit more detail?
Posted by: Scholar October 21, 2007 at 09:33 AM

I’d have to hear the voice mail message to believe what you’re saying. In my daily life, when one of my friends says, “That’s great. Just great” it’s totally clear whether he’s being sarcastic or not. Because he intends to sound sarcastic, and changes his inflection.
Now in this case the message was the same, so the inflection didn’t carry any content. But the subjects were told Mark was leaving a message for his friend. So it’s a reasonable assumption that Mark is using an inflection that his friend will recognize as sarcasm. I would assume that unless, as in the second case, they told me he was trying not to show sarcasm.
Posted by: Noumenon October 21, 2007 at 11:53 PM

Noumenon, one of the experiments (I think Keysar 1994) showed that, when people read in text that Mark left a voice message (that is, the experimental subjects themselves did not hear a spoken message, only read about Mark leaving one); or alternatively read in text that Mark left a written note; then they were equally likely to judge that June would identify sarcasm. In other words, the modality of text versus speech made no difference to their expectations.
Posted by: Eliezer Yudkowsky October 22, 2007 at 12:19 AM

Okay, then, that’s just weird. To me there’s obviously not enough information in a text message to tell sarcasm that way. Even a voice message wouldn’t be enough for someone who didn’t know Mark, like the restaurant manager.
I can’t really imagine myself in this scenario any more. My takeaway is that some people are dumb about text messages (or were in 1994 before the smiley).
Posted by: Noumenon October 22, 2007 at 03:03 AM

If they were told Mark left a voice message, it would be rational to assume June would identify sarcasm, because it would be rational to assume that Mark left it in a sarcastic tone (or not) if he intended sarcasm (or not). Though the written note case shows that’s not what’s really going on, unfortunately.
Posted by: Nick Tarleton October 22, 2007 at 09:37 AM

Hi Marty hereBack in the Bush we have many words to describe our environment that is mostly sand. The words are always the same but how we say the word describes what we mean example one click then word Danger under the sand maybe snake!Loud click then soft click then word slow rolling sand wind from the south face not good for hunting now. Click pop hand over our mouth then word means to hot for traveling best to go around. The word never changes or the meaning will be lost in enemy? Environment it is very important meaning is always understood life depends on meaning so I am confused about phone message Why not just say food was not good why leave meaning hanging to interpretation? This is not honest say the truth the person listening did not make the food so I say he should be honest. Or I, am I misunderstanding something in the article?
Posted by: Marty October 23, 2007 at 11:58 AM

I believe the reason for saying the opposite of what you mean is so that you and your friend can say, “We’re clever. Others would not perceive our nuanced tone and would stupidly think we meant what we said.” In the bush, don’t people sometimes make the sound for “snake” when there is no snake, just so they can laugh and mock the person who foolishly believed there was a snake?
Posted by: Noumenon October 23, 2007 at 01:35 PM

Chesh, lay out in lavender means “displayed in the best possible light” according to If you google “out in lavender” or “laid out in lavender”, you get more hits.
Posted by: Whit October 23, 2007 at 02:21 PM

Dear Whit, yes,when there is no real danger like at a party the youngsters may play everyone knowns it is harmless. Never in the bush this would be very bad manners to frighten for a laugh beside what pleasure is gained by such unkind act to me that is a foolish game and being mean is not showing cleverness. Marty
Posted by: Marty
October 23, 2007 at 03:58 PM

Marty, where specifically are you from?
Posted by: TGGP October 23, 2007 at 09:46 PM

It should have been perfectly obvious to Julie that I was being (a) sarcastic, (b) sincere.
Posted by: Mark October 24, 2007 at 12:30 AM

Talk about clever — Mark illustrates this entire post in one sentence! He points out all these readings:
It should have been perfectly obvious to Julie that I was being sarcastic. (sarcastic)It should have been perfectly obvious to Julie that I was being sarcastic. (sincere)It should have been perfectly obvious to Julie that I was being sincere. (sarcastic)It should have been perfectly obvious to Julie that I was being sincere. (sincere)
and the point of the post is that you really can’t tell from the text which way he means it or how he really felt.

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