A few thoughts on conversations and human behaviour

Just some random notes, I probably shouldn’t publish this but I decided to do it anyway even though it’s not very structured.

So, I started out just by thinking about a simple question: Why do people talk with/to each other?

Now, we all know that there’s no simple answer to that question. There are answers – many of them. Categories like information exchange and social bonding/social relations management probably cover many of the reasons though there are others. Theoretically there’s probably a distinction to be made between conversations where people are very aware of what they want to accomplish with the conversation and how it can be expected to proceed on the one hand (conversation with a coworker about the new DHL-standards, board-meeting with a 12-point agenda, a doctor’s conversation with a patient); and conversations where the goal(s) is (are) more hazy and the expected duration is much more uncertain. Many of the conversations where people will be uncertain as to why they even engaged in them in the first place if asked directly probably can be argued to have quite clear goals if perceived in a certain light; goals having to do with social relations management and bonding. If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know why you’re talking, you’re probably doing it for reasons having to do with social relations management/bonding. And if you feel the need to ask yourself why you’re talking with the person with whom you’re talking (‘why am I even talking to this guy?), you probably won’t be for long.

Conversations usually evolve over time because of interaction effects; new inputs are being delivered along the way, shaping the direction of the conversation. Two conversations with roughly the same starting point can end up in very different places. It’s worth noting that inputs supplied can be both verbal or non-verbal and people often underestimate the impact non-verbal behaviour may have on a conversation/social interaction.

Human interaction is too complex for it to be optimal for people engaging in conversations to always think hard about stuff like what to say and what not to say or how and when to say whatever it is that (perhaps?) needs saying. Conversations proceed at a much faster speed than the human brain can process all the potentially relevant information, and so a lot of information get excluded by default. Conveniently we do not think much about the fact that there are a lot of things we don’t think about when interacting with others. Excluding a lot of information and ideas means that the communication gets more efficient, at least if measured in terms of words/minute or similar metrics. Body language can convey a lot of information fast, so people who are good at that (and good at reading it) will ceteris paribus be better communicators than will people who are not.

Many conversations follow, at least to some extent, some basic scripts people have internalized. Most people know pretty well how to react when asked a question like ‘how are you?’ and they know the general direction in which a conversation starting in such a manner may be expected to proceed, just as they know what to say when a person shares the information that he recently got one day older than he was the day before. We often don’t think very much about the meta-aspects related to what to say in any given social situation, because if we had to do that all the time we couldn’t really do anything else.

However even though both a lot of the stuff we talk about and the way we talk about them to a very large extent follow scripts, a lot of feedback still does take place along the way; you need to all the time be aware if the other person is following the script, and you need to be aware which script is the right one to apply to the specific part of the conversation in question (is the secretary bringing up her weekend plans because she’s trying to tell you she can’t work overtime this Saturday, or is it because she wants you to ask her out?). Human behaviour is incredibly complex but we’re much too used to all this complexity to ever truly notice it. When one starts to think about how conversations work, it becomes clear that there are all kinds of ‘crazy’ ways for people to break the script along the way: Shouting loud inappropriate remarks in the middle of a sentence, turning your back on the person with whom you converse, asking a random question having nothing to do with the topic discussed, sitting down on the floor while the other person is talking, start moving your elbows up and down randomly while the other person is talking, punch the other guy in the stomach… The fact that people don’t even think about how it would be inappropriate to just sit down on the floor while talking to a coworker at the watercooler is an indication of just how narrow is the range of what’s considered to be acceptable behaviour. But we don’t notice, because we don’t think about such things. Which i find interesting.

In game theory a well known concept is the idea of a zero-sum game. Many arguments I like to think are zero-sum games, especially political- and similar arguments. X and Y will start out with some different sets of arguments supporting their cause. The ‘winner’ of the argument will say that his set of arguments were better than the arguments of the other party. Rarely will X and Y meet and discuss how to improve the argument sets of both X and Y. The idea is not to weed out bad arguments and replace them with good arguments; the idea is to win and that’s often easier to do with many arguments than with just a few. If X cedes the point that one of his arguments was not convincing it will generally harm the cause of X and help Y to win the argument.

Now one might here argue that human interaction would be more pleasant if people didn’t engage in ‘zero-sum conversation games’ such as the ones described above, but rather tried to always make human interaction be positive-sum. In case you were in doubt this is not where I am heading. The truth is that as long as there are surpluses of some kind somewhere, someone will try to grab part of that surplus if it is within that person’s reach. Organisms which behave that way have more children in the long run, and when it comes to human behaviour there’s a limit to how much culture matters. Another way to think about such ‘political arguments as zero-sum games’ is to think of them as a huge and important technical innovation and a great improvement upon the kind of zero-sum games people engaged in before the advent of political debates as conflict-resolution mechanisms.


August 9, 2012 - Posted by | Game theory, rambling nonsense, Random stuff

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