Communicating With The Monkeys

A bit back Svenn posted about communication with strangers, information versus communication theory, and a certain attitude prevalent in certain circles that whether you’re “nice” or “mean” should be completely irrelevant to the actual content of communication.

Now, I have written before on the subject of the social contexts of online communication and why manners still matter even when you’re communicating in a medium that’s essentially composed of pure information, but that was basically a very long and scholarly way of saying “if you’re an ass in my comments section I’m still going to ban you even if you’re factually correct about whatever it is you’re saying because your bullshit is still bullshit. Here’s why, logic troll.”

Anyway. How we look at a problem tends to be heavily colored by whatever our field of expertise is; I don’t know what Svenn’s player does for a living, but I do know a lot of theorycrafters and people heavily into the mechanics of the game fall under some kind of engineering or technology heading, and thus have a strong math background. Putting social interaction under the lens of information theory from that perspective is only natural. (And interesting reading to boot.)

Me, my educational background is all biology- mostly evolution and ecology. When I look at a complex social interaction, I don’t see information exchange, I see social primates. I don’t think so much about the content of communication, I think about what social animals do in order to actually function as an effective group even when they’re composed of a bunch of self-interested cranky apes with high background aggression and an obsession with sex. Chimps do not care much about who is right, but they’re still better at working as an effective team when they need to than a large number of the PuGs I’ve been in.

One of the things that people who study sociality and specifically social cooperation in animals are coming to understand is that the real cornerstone of their behavior is not degree of relatedness, as the first theories aimed for, but the ability to make distinctions between cheaters and cooperators. As it turns out, just about any vertebrate animal with a complex social life has tremendous power to identify and remember individuals they encounter that take the nasty approach to the Prisoner’s dilemma– and a surprisingly high degree of instinct to not only avoid cheaters, but go out of their way to punish them. As it turns out, both a baboon and a human would prefer to have the satisfaction of punishing a cheat even if it costs them further to do so. While the memory for cooperators is good, the cheat-detection systems are much stronger; the behavior appears to model along the lines of cooperation being the expected default, with cheat behavior being therefore highly necessary to extinguish even at cost.

This is so fundamental to our existence as social creatures that you can even see this evaluation on an MRI. Since entirely holding off on an evaluation of someone until the ninja has walked off with your purples or the chimp you were hunting with whaps you over the head with a rock and takes your baby gazelle is a bad idea, social animals also have a lot of behavior that’s associated with advertising that you’re a nice guy, or that you have no intention of cooperating with someone and trying would be foolish. (We tend to not hold so much of a grudge against someone who told you outright to fuck off rather than stabbing you in the back.) Ethologists have a lot of words for these behaviors, most species-specific and opaque to people not familiar with behavioral science. Modern humans tend to refer to our library of behaviors that advertise cooperator status as “manners”. We tend to refer to advertising non-cooperator status as “being a douchebag”.

This is why I don’t think the informational content is the most relevant element of communication and pretending otherwise is a waste of time. English is new and text is newer, and expecting to circumvent every inborn and cultural sense of making evaluations of someone else’s intent just because the facts are on your side is foolish. Putting accurate and helpful information in an abusive package will, unless that person is long familiar enough with you to know you’re really a cooperator (like a guildie within a hard-hitting guild culture), trip all a person’s learned and natural systems for “he’s not going to cooperate, ignore what comes out of his hatehole”. Ignoring or abusing back is as nearly as inevitable a response as putting up your hand to catch a ball coming at your face. You’re using a form of communication older and more primal than language- so it will almost invariably override the informational content in the language itself.

We work and play with other primates, not with computer programs. Until the singularity happens, I pretty much read all assertions that your manners shouldn’t need to have anything to do with how your information is recieved as “I find it emotionally satisfying to be a dick to people that frustrate me, I will defend this by saying they’re just irrational for objecting”.


6 Responses to Communicating With The Monkeys

  1. Geoffrey says:

    Bravo! Well reasoned and makes my own zoology – ecology background quiver with joy.

  2. Eric Hammer says:

    Very nicely written as usual, and I definitely agree.
    The only quibble I might have is that the definition of “nice” or “manners” is not only based on ecology but also the social norms of a group or even individual people. Some people can handle “No, I think you are wrong there” while others need that couched in about 50 qualifiers. Likewise, I know I at least work with some people who assume that any disagreement means you are out to get them and are fighting against the team, no matter how polite you are. Amusingly, those folks are actually horrifically impolite and socially unacceptable.

    That said, I think your point still holds. Framing counts for a great deal, and knowing your audience helps both there and getting around the issues I mentioned. Unfortunately, there is sometimes just no communicating with people 😉

  3. Kristopher says:

    persuasion > logic.

    Your typical tech geek will deny it, all the while people with social skills use it to lead him out of whatever social disaster said geek has dropped into.

    It is so hard to get these smart but socially challenged borderline folks to see that socialization skills are actually useful.

    Unless you live under a bridge and kill rabbits for food and clothing, you have to deal with people at some point …

  4. Svenn says:

    /agree. To a large extent that is exactly the case I was trying to make. It is not “logic” it’s “life” and if you are truly concerned about communicating an idea and having it take, then you need to be prepared to assess and utilize whatever means of communication (channel) is going to get you there; be it grunting/ arm waves, monosyllabic sentences, or sounding like the next president of Mensa.

    P.S. Svenn is an officer in the Army with a double major in History and Religion and a minor in Military Science. He is working on a Masters in Leadership and Management, all very much people oriented, still…he is a bit of a math nerd 🙂

  5. LabRat says:

    Same ultimate point, two different filters, which ties up nicely I think.

    if you are truly concerned

    This is the part I always doubt a bit. Being an ass to people who frustrate you or you think are beneath you is a self-rewarding activity, just one it’s hard to defend.

  6. daddyquatro says:

    Whenever this subject comes up; I am always reminded (as, I am sure, are you) of our friend Lionell. I think there is a subset of “people on the internet” that view technology as their pantyhose over the face. They can be as big a dick as they want to be because “No one knows who I am”
    Forgetting that the basic laws of human interaction still apply.
    Or maybe, they never learned those laws to begin with.

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