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Theory of mindlessness

We begin today's journey with a Douglas Adams quote:

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.

I've always been a big fan of thinking about thinking. When you're thinking about what other people are thinking, it's called theory of mind. Humans are particularly notable for being able to think about what another person is thinking they're thinking about. Like Adams notes with learning, though, people seem disinclined to do so.

I bring this up as a result of Richard Wiseman's most recent Friday Puzzle. In the discussion, as has happened with previous puzzle answers, some people go to great lengths to explain why nobody should be able to solve the puzzle. It never occurs to them that they simply have an underdeveloped theory of mind.

That is, most people who get a word problem ("A train leaves New York traveling at 60mph...") understand that the person asking the question is after a particular answer, and that a toy situation is being set up by the questioner to make the math (or logic) a little more fun. If your theory of mind developed properly, you got past the particulars of the setup and solved the problem as posed. If it didn't, you were that annoying guy who wouldn't shut up about "Oh, but teacher! Wouldn't the train have to slow down around corners!?! Or stop for fuel!?!"

So, with a bit of irony, by trying so eagerly to show that they're oh-so-smart, they become Impossibly Stupid by showing they don't have a fully developed theory of mind. Instead of figuring out what the questioner is thinking of as an expected answer, they construct elaborate reasons why no answer can be correct. They think doing so makes them insightful, because they are open to all the possibilities, but what it really shows they've regressed into the mind of a 3 year old.

I think that kind of thinking is becoming more common. I think you know why I think that's a sad state of affairs.