Others’ Views Are Detail

In Jan ’09 I wrote:

This is now my best account of disagreement. We disagree because we explain our own conclusions via detailed context (e.g., arguments, analysis, and evidence), and others’ conclusions via coarse stable traits (e.g., demographics, interests, biases). While we know abstractly that we also have stable relevant traits, and they have detailed context, we simply assume we have taken that into account, when we have in fact done no such thing.

New data suggests a different view:

The results of 4 studies suggest that when individuals mentally construe an attitude object concretely, either because it is psychologically close or because they have been led to adopt a concrete mindset, their evaluations flexibly incorporate the views of an incidental stranger. However, when individuals think about the same issue more abstractly, their evaluations are less susceptible to incidental social influence and instead reflect their previously reported ideological values. …

The results of these four studies appear quite robust: They held for a variety of political and social attitude objects (including general issues and specific policies related to four different and important topics: organ donation, euthanasia, illegal immigration, and universal health care), and they emerged across different types of evaluative responding (overall attitudes, voting intentions, and elaboration positivity) as well as different manipulations (temporal distance and two direct manipulations of construal level). …

Whereas local evaluations serve to guide responding in the here and now by flexibly incorporating incidental contextual details, global evaluations can help to guide action at a distance by consistently reflecting a person’s core values and ideals, which are likely to be shared within important relationships or groups. (more)

Here’s my tentative reading of this.  We pay more attention to messy detail in near far, relative to far view. On any given topic, we see our core values and explicit reasons as big important central influences on our opinions, whereas we see the opinions of others more as incidental detail.  So we think we should listen to random other people more on small detail topics, and less on big important topics.

Random others are little people, you see, which are fit for little topics.  But they are just not big and important enough to influence us on big important topics; only big important things should do that. Like big explicit reasons. This makes us tend to disagree greatly with most others on what we see as big topics, though much less on millions of small detail topics, like “there’s another tree.”

Perhaps it makes sense to keep random others from influencing our core values (which are about us), but on questions of fact (which are about the world out there), most folks seem to make the huge mistake of vastly underestimating the info contained of others’ opinions, relative to the info contained in their own explicit reasons. Yes there may be people and times when others’ opinions really do contain relatively little info, but most folks are far too quick to assume that this applies to them now.

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  • komponisto

    Yes there may be people and times when others’ opinions really do contain relatively little info, but most folks are far too quick to assume that this applies to them now.

    On the other hand, your theory also helps explain instances of the opposite error, and we shouldn’t overlook this. For example, people who would have no qualms about criticizing the decisions of a president, Congress, or the Supreme Court are often unduly reluctant to question jury verdicts in criminal cases — despite the fact that the latter involve ordinary people without any particular training or expertise in making such judgements.

    This paradox is somewhat explained by supposing that criminal cases are viewed as details unimportant to one’s worldview, and thus considered in near mode — with the result (according to this post) that folks are more deferential to the opinions of others. By contrast, larger-scale government decisions involve Big Issues, and are considered in far mode, so that people tend to see their opinions as part of their identity and are consequently more attached to their explicit reasons and less affected by disagreement.

    So, even on this way of viewing things, there are two sides to the coin, and one can err in either direction.

  • http://timtyler.org Tim Tyler

    The evidence for a “huge mistake” doesn’t seem very compelling. If people are signalling to you in a manner that makes you inclined to change your beliefs, there is a significant chance that they are trying to manipulate you in a manner which serves their interests more than it serves your own. In which case, you should often resist updating.

    Do people update less than they should do? The case for that isn’t clear to me. The costs of being manipulated can be high – so precaution dictates a certain lack of enthusiasm for updating. Also, there are costs to updating – changing beliefs can result in belief landslides and temporary inconsistency and stress. “Belief inertia” often has the benefit of staying in a relatively proven and safe area.

  • Khoth

    I suspect part of it is that when you’re not considering details, it’s easy to handwave away objections by saying things like “the free market will deal with it” or “the government will choose the best option” or whatever. It’s only when you’re thinking about how things will actually work on a detailed level that you actually have to stop and think about why your handwave explanation is true, and then you might actually come to realise that in this case it’s not.

    • Tim Fowler

      Khoth – Re: “it’s easy to handwave away objections by saying things like “the free market will deal with it” or “the government will choose the best option” or whatever. It’s only when you’re thinking about how things will actually work on a detailed level that you actually have to stop and think about why your handwave explanation is true”

      There is some truth to that, but the problem with applying it to your free market example is that one of the major reasons to support free markets is that markets are too complex to work out how things work on a detailed level. If you really could work it out, perhaps some central planning committee with powerful computers could work out some optimum (assuming that there was an agreed criteria for optimum, and assuming people where willing to sacrifice freedom to get it), but I don’t think that will ever be the case (even with those rather unsafe assumptions)

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    komponisto and khoth, yes, you both make sense.

    Tim, should we refuse to be persuaded by you here out of a fear that your are trying to manipulate us? Is a fear of manipulation really more relevant on big important topics?