Why are there No Comforting Words that Aren’t also Factual Statements?

Suppose you have a sad friend whom you would like to comfort. Both of you are committed to Overcoming Bias, and you have no information suggesting that the situation is objectively better than your friend thinks it is, so your comfort cannot come from you conveying favorable factual information. What you really want to do is simply offer your friend some sympathetic attention, which sad people appreciate for reasons that have nothing to do with information. You could do this with a hug or a cookie, and people sometimes do so, but there is an overwhelming impulse to have words be part of the comforting. What words can you use? “It’ll be OK” won’t work because you don’t know that to be true. Something like “I love you” or “I care about you” are closer to the mark (if they are true), but even those are factual statements that your friend was probably aware of, and it’s not clear why hearing a known fact, even if it is a pleasant one, should be comforting in and of itself. And anyway “it’ll be OK” is much more common.

Why is it that we have no words to use for fact-free expressions of sympathetic attention? This seems like quite a remarkable fact, whatever the reason turns out to be. As for the reason, here’s a completely made up sociobiological just-so story. Showing sympathy is more fundamental than language; other primates do the former but don’t have the latter. Language evolved in us, and it’s original function was to allow us to express factual statements. But it proved to be so powerful that it insinuated itself into every facet of our lives, so now when we want to express sympathy, we are powerfully inclined to do so verbally, because we do almost everything verbally. Could this be the origin of at least some kinds of bias? Our forebears wanted sympathetic attention, and getting it presumbaly conferred some kind of survival advantage, but because everything has to be done in terms of language they demanded it in the form of comforting words. But almost all available words were about factual statements, and the only factual statements that would be comforting were about how everything was going to be OK, so they reached the point where they could be comforted by hearing such things, even when they were false.

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