Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lean explanations

Andrew Gelman reports on psychology research:
How do we think about the intentional nature of actions? And how do people with an impaired mindreading capacity think about it? ...

Machery argues that (most) people see intentionality in settings with a "trade-off between a cost and a benefit." ...

Knobe seems to think that the crucial factor at play is something to do with morality
The experiments show that people give sharply different opinions about the intents of others in hypothetical scenarios. Some unconvincing explanations are given by psychologists.

I believe that there are two kinds of people on the world -- those who look for rich explanations of the behavior of others, and those who look for lean explanations. These differences become apparent whenever you talk about intentions or motivations of others. This terminology comes from Baron-Cohen here.

The above link has a simple scenario about a man buying a smoothie, and asks subjects about his intent. People give sharply differing answers. Some leap to a complex analysis of what the man was thinking, and others stick to simple facts. Neither is necessarily correct.

The rich explainers will argue that they are more perceptive, and responding to subtleties that the lean explainers are overlooking. The lean explainers argue that they are following the objective facts, and that the rich explainers have made some dubious inferences.

These two modes of thinking appear to be deeply ingrained, and most people seem to reject the validity of the other mode. Often someone finds a rich explanation, and denies that any other explanation is possible. Even when confronted with another explanation, he will assert some intuitive feeling that his explanation is correct, without being able to say why.

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