Interpersonal Communication

Today, I'd like to take a look at interpersonal communication. Namely, I would ask you to think about controversial issues on which you disagree with someone. For the sake of argument, let us suppose that you are actually interested in talking to someone about the issue. And, further for the sake of argument, let us suppose that by "talking" I mean actually carrying on an open, good-faith conversation.

For such a conversation to take place, you and your conversation partner would need to meet a few basic requirements. (1) You would have to speak the same language. (2) You would have to agree on the same basic definitions of words. (Believe it or not, points (1) and (2) are not necessarily always both true.) (3) You would have to have the communicative means to facilitate the discussion; in other words, you would either have to be in the same room, or have access to a phone, email, Skype, whatever.

We can assemble a good, reasonable list of such requirements, but one of them is not immediately obvious. That is, You would both have to be capable of understanding each other. You might be tempted to assume that if two people speak the same language and agree on the same definitions of words, then the two of you must certainly be capable of understanding each other.

Not so, for reasons outlined recently by Lubos Motl. Regarding that recent viral video of a woman who apparently did not understand the concept of miles per hour, Motl writes:
But if someone asks how long does it take to go 80 miles if your speed is 80 miles per hour, you must combine a huge number of words, something like 17 words, and the interrelationships between all of them matter. Since the blonde doesn't have enough memory in her CPU – one needs at least 100 bytes to do so – she just tears the complicated sentence to pieces and starts to instinctively reply to the pieces.
 Motl goes on to express the following wisdom, in his inimitable and politically incorrect way:
Of course, even if the blondes could remember the whole sentence – 17 words or so – they would probably lack the functions in their CPUs that are needed to convert the words into the actual information and reprocess the information so that it is replaced by an equivalent information, and so on. Math is tough and thinking is hard, especially if you need to design and manage your thinking and algorithms yourself. That's why we may see that by their proclamations, these women articulate lots of misinterpretations of the propositions they have heard. For example, if you say that it takes 1 hour to drive 80 miles if you drive 80 miles per hour, some of them believe that you are also automatically saying that your speed is 1 mile per minute regardless of your speed :-), especially because an hour has 80 minutes and a mile is the same thing as a minute, which is exactly what she wanted to disprove. Well, you're not saying anything of the sort but with the limited resolution of the blondes, they may think they are. It's because you are saying that "the problem is easy" and their misinterpretation is the only way how they can imagine that things could be easy; they're actually not able or willing to remember and process the thing that you are actually telling them.
An even more irreverent story I heard came from my mother, who told me one time long ago that some people believe it is impossible for two people to carry on a conversation if there is a 12-point difference in IQ between them. I won't comment on the validity of such a claim, I merely present it as a theory held by some.

Nevertheless, I believe Motl's core analysis is a true one. I think that certain topics are very complicated, and that not all of us are well-enough-equipped with the tools of ratiocination to be able to process all of the various nuances and form them into a single essence.

Now, in some cases the "problem" with your conversation partner is not that the person lacks sufficient computational power. Rather, in many cases, the other person simply refuses to consider all of the factors involved in the conversation.

For example, an advocate of socialized medicine is not prone to considering the economic detriments of tax increases, because such a person has already previously concluded that rich people should be charged more money than they currently are. Therefore, while the economic impacts of tax burdens are objective facts, they are not important facts, according to those people who wish to exclude such things from the conversation.

So there are two factors at play: The inability to compute all of the information involved, and the unwillingness to compute all of the information, even if it can be computed.

These two factors are - in my opinion - the two most important obstacles when it comes to interpersonal communication. Overcoming them requires both patience and good faith. When it comes to controversial topics, both patience and good faith tend to be in very short supply.

And that, friends, is why controversies remain controversies and arguing about controversial things with people who flat-out disagree with you is a futile endeavor.


  1. I actually hadn't seen this video before. What's funny is that although they stopped the commentary on it, the video is still on YouTube. The husband didn't want to have a conversation with his wife, he just wanted to make fun of her, which isn't just a positive thing in terms of interpersonal communication, especially when you're going to make fun of her in as public a forum as YouTube. Where's the good faith in that?

    What's even funnier, though, is this response video, which I'm not even sure is serious... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alkX2l92eRg&feature=endscreen&NR=1

    1. When I saw that video, that was my first reaction, as well. I think the husband probably comes off much worse than the wife.

  2. In the moment one is unwilling to understand they are incapable of understanding. But, if one is unwilling long enough, does one become permanently incapable? Perhaps.

    That guy was a jerk and that girl should really take a moment to figure that out. Note however that her ability to get places on time is likely not effected by this 'handicap' of hers. Information on how long it takes to get places is readily available to her through other sources, so calculating it has limited value (to her at least).

  3. Ryan, I migrated here from your comments on the lack of dialogue in Marginal Revolution. I thought this would interest you. It's Jonathan Haidt on why liberals and conservatives fail to communicate, about 18 minutes. http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html

    1. Hi Paul. Thanks for the link. My wife and I just discovered a whole backlog of Ted talks on our Netflix account. I'll be sure to add this one to the top of the list! I should be able to get to it by the weekend.

      Thanks for reading. :)

  4. Thank you for sharing with us! Good luck!
    Brooke Wells