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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

I read Michael Lewis’s book The Undoing Project, about two scientists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who investigated just how irrational people are.

For example, “anchoring.” If you have people roll dice to get a random number between 1 and 100, and then you ask them to estimate the number of countries in the United Nations, or the number of languages spoken in India, or anything else they aren’t sure of, those who rolled higher numbers will guess higher than the ones who rolled lower numbers. They’ve been primed to think of higher numbers.

Which is sort of interesting, but one valuable takeaway had nothing to do with their research. When Tversky listened to scientific lectures he didn’t agree with, rather than figuring out how to shoot them down, he asked himself: what is this true of?

This parallels my acting teacher Joanne Baron, who said that when you get feedback, find the truth in it.

It’s easy to find something to disagree with. But if someone gives you feedback, or a scientist gives a lecture, then there is probably some truth to it. You will often get more benefit from figuring out in what way is this true or what part of this is true than in figuring out why it’s wrong.

We have a gal in our office who often disagrees with people. She has a habit of finding something in what they're saying that is easy to dispute, rather than finding the thing that makes sense, and then expanding on it.

Anyone who’s ever argued with a teenager knows that if the kid can find something, anything that’s wrong in anything you say, the kid will feel entitled to reject everything you’re saying.

A cardinal rule of improvisation goes: yes, and. In improv, you’re not allowed to disagree. If the actor you’re with says “I’m a pineapple,” then you can’t say, “No, you’re not.” That would kill the improv. You can say, “And I’m a grocer” or “and I’m an orange” or “and I’m a pineapple fetishist.”

As a corollary, when you are proposing a new idea, there is something to be said for couching it in terms that make it hard to pick apart.

See, I just did it. I didn’t say, “always couch it in terms....” I said, “there is something to be said for couching it in terms....” If I said "always," you might well be tempted to construct a scenario in which my advice would be wrong.

When arguing with our former teenager, I always made a point of phrasing criticism so broadly that he couldn’t pick holes in how I phrased it. Rather than saying, “You never clean up your room,” which would enable him to bring up the one time he did, I’d say, “You’re not exactly a neatnik, are you?” It conveys more or less the same message, but – being as he was not exactly a neatnik – he couldn’t fixate on the wording. He had to confront the message. Or to put it another way, I made it easier for him to absorb the truth in the message.

He never did clean his room, of course. But I got my message across, at least.

Using words “many of” rather than “most of” or “all of” changes the focus from “exactly what percentage are we talking about” to whatever the issue that is actually bothering you.
“Half the NPCs sound like zombies” invites a discussion of whether it’s half or some other number. “Many of the NPCs sound like zombies” focuses on the zombiness of the NPCs.

Even better, use sentences that begin with some form of “I.” “To me, a lot of these NPCs sound like zombies.” It is very hard for you to argue with me about how they sound to me. (Note that I didn’t say it’s impossible. That’s inviting an argument.)

Find the truth.

Help your listeners and readers find the truth.

Find the truth in this.


One of the very few pieces of stylistic advice I recall from my school days was to avoid beginning sentences, and especially paragraphs, with "I". The implication would be that you are more interested in yourself than you are with the subject matter.

As someone who tends towards an "I" this is advice I've found helpful over the years, if difficult to follow. It's interesting to hear the whole concept rephrased as a positive rather than a negative.

By Blogger Bhagpuss, at 3:53 AM  

And yet, the impulse to "find the truth" is what allows The Big Lie technique to work. Sometimes there IS no truth.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:04 PM  

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