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Note to Dilbert: The difference between Charlie Sheen and Superman is that the Man of Steel protected Lois Lane, he didn’t bruise her

Scott “Dilbert” Adams has met Charlie Sheen and thinks he really is a superbeing. This perhaps relates to some well-known cognitive biases. I’m not sure what this one’s called, but the idea is that Adams is probably overweighting his direct impressions: he saw Sheen-on-the-set, not Sheen-beating-his-wife. Also, everybody else hates Sheen, so Adams can distinguish himself by being tolerant, etc.

I’m not sure what this latter phenomenon is called, but I’ve noticed it before. When I come into a new situation and meet some person X, who everybody says is a jerk, and then person X happens to act in a civilized way that day, then there’s a real temptation to say, Hey, X isn’t so bad after all. It makes me feel so tolerant and above-it-all. Perhaps that’s partly what’s going on with Scott Adams here: he can view himself as the objective outsider who can be impressed by Sheen, not like all those silly emotional people who get hung up on the headlines. From here, though, it just makes Adams look silly, to be so impressed that Sheen didn’t miss a line of dialogue, etc. The logical next step is the story of how he met John Edwards and was impressed at how statesmanlike he was.


  1. Dan G says:

    i think it fits with contrast effect

  2. I don't think Adams views himself as objective. Just the opposite. He is describing a subjective impression and not judging.

  3. fraac says:

    Or maybe Adams is just a nice guy? Jesus, Andrew, were you bullied or something and now you feel righteous being in the savage majority? Real classy, man.

  4. Andrew Gelman says:


    John Edwards, Charlie Sheen, etc. can defend themselves just fine. They don't need me on their side. Similarly, Adams can be a nice guy every day, but the real question here is why he's so pro-Sheen. I'm a social scientist and am trying to understand Adams's perspective here. It's not about being righteous; nor do I think it's particularly "savage" to point out that Sheen beat his wife.

  5. Phil says:

    On Friday, I saw a seminar by UC Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller. He is famously smart; he wrote the excellent book "Physics for Future Presidents"; and he and has been in the news recently for testifying to Congress that Yes, the earth really is warming, based on initial analysis of a bunch of temperature data (for some reason many people were surprised that he would say that).

    Here's the abstract of his talk: " Because of its huge economic and political implications, Climate Change is rarely presented without spin. This will be an attempt to do that. I'll discuss the physics of the greenhouse effect, and the data that indicate global warming. Among key topics are: Copenhagen — why did we fail to get a major treaty? Climategate — what really happened? IPCC standards — and why they are undergoing major revisions. What are the top prospects among the many choices for alternative energy? What kind of example can the U.S. set that could be followed by the rest of the world? I'll also report on new results of our "Berkeley Earth" project — a detailed re-analysis of the evidence for global warming; see"

    I was not the only one to roll my eyes at the first lines of the abstract: does he really think nobody gives talks about climate change without "spin"? I've seen quite a few talks about the science. But maybe Muller hasn't. Whatever.

    But then…the talk was absolutely terrible. The abstract was presumably a mistake, since Muller made no effort at all to do any of the things he said he would do. (He did not discuss the physics of the greenhouse effect, did not discuss Copenhagen, did not discuss Climategate, did not discuss IPCC standards). He made one good point about the difference between predicting something before the fact and explaining it after the fact (and how easy it is to fool yourself that you are doing the following). And he did present a very cursory sketch of some of the data about global warming, including a list of difficulties in interpreting/analyzing land-surface data. But that's it. Almost a content-free talk.

    Almost the whole rest of the time, he took a page out of Charlie Sheen's book: he bragged about how fair-minded and smart he is compared to everyone else, complained about a variety of behaviors by other people (some of which were indeed bad, but many of which weren't), and just generally held himself up as an exemplar of all that is right and fair and true, while oozing ill will about everyone else. Lots of pontificating; no technical content. And through it all, he dropped the name of Louis Alvarez — a Nobel Laureate physicist with whom he worked decades ago — about every five or ten minutes.

    It was really an astonishing talk, and left most of the audience in stunned silence. It did have a certain train-wreck fascination, though, and I (and many others) stayed for part of the Q&A, in part to see if anyone would take him on about his attitude. (Nope).

    Some colleagues and I spent a while discussing the talk: how does something like this happen? I mentioned the old saw that the flaws that are most irritating on others are the ones that one has oneself, and that I saw some application here. I have sometimes started talks by pointing out ethical transgressions by others, or by showing plots and results from the literature and discussing the ways in which they're wrong. And I've sometimes intentionally implied or stated that people were distorting scientific results, or the ways in which those results are presented (i.e. "spun").

    So I've got some Charlie Sheen (or Richard Muller) in me, too. Perhaps if I become a big shot, surrounded by people who either tell me how great I am or who don't correct me when I say that about myself, I will gradually morph into the kind of arrogant prick that these people are.

    I suppose I need to make clear that I think there is something seriously messed up about Sheen in a way that is not true of Muller. Unlike Sheen, I don't think Muller takes drugs, beats his wife, or is out of his gourd.

    I suppose Scott Adams might look at Muller and say Hey, he's the smartest guy in the room most of the time; if he's an arrogant jerk, well, he's an arrogant jerk with a lot to be arrogant about. Still doesn't justify the jerkitude, but perhaps makes it forgivable.

  6. bob says:

    Seen from afar, it appears Sheen is drug dependent and may also have borderline personality disorder traits if not outright affective bipolar disorder. Such persons (perhaps much like reader "fraac" above does with his/her odd "bully" comment) often project their own fears and distortions on those around them, and often see the world as either all good or all bad (a part of "splitting" phenomenon). Those who encounter such people often differ widely in their perceptions.

  7. Phil says:

    Andrew, I don't think Sheen beat his wife, I think it was his girlfriend…a different one from the one he shot. By contrast, his wife is the one whose head he threatened to cut off. At least get your facts straight.

    And fraac is right, you're being too hard on Sheen. Yeah, OK, it's somewhat objectionable to shoot your fiance, beat your girlfriend, and threaten to cut your wife's head off, but (1) for all we know, they had it coming, and (2) he only did these things because he was on cocaine, he would never have done them if he was in control of his faculties. You can't hold a man responsible for something he does under the influence of drugs, for cryin' out loud! What would be the point of doing drugs?!

  8. Jeremy Miles says:

    I'm not sure that Scott Adams believes everything he writes on his blog. A lot of it is an idea that he's had, which he is just throwing out there. He recently (I can't find it now) said that he wasn't trying to persuade anyone of anything, because trying to persuade people doesn't work, it just entrenches there ideas more.

    He often ends his blog posts "Remember not to take advice about [whatever he just talked about] from cartoonists.


    Fraac: wtf?

  9. St says:

    I'd say it's called "availability bias".

  10. unbelievable says:

    I would rather forgive a man's jerkitude under his ego's influence than forgive a man's misdemeanor under his drug's influence. I also find it easier to justify the former one, people who could not handle drug simply should not do it.

  11. Andrew Gelman says:


    I agree about the fascination with the "living without fear" thing. I just thought that Adams was unduly impressed by Sheen never missing a line of dialogue, being the highest-paid actor on television, looking "better than any 45-year old I [Adams] know," etc. Adams also describes it as a "strangely great kind of crazy." I'm not trying to morally judge Adams here; it just seems to me that part of this is that he's rooting for Sheen because everyone else is rooting against him. That's where the wife-beating comes in: there are some good reasons people are rooting against Sheen!

  12. Andrew Gelman says:

    Phil: Google "sheen beat wife" and see what comes up.

  13. amg says:

    I think the fact that Sheen did not miss a line of dialogue on 2.5 Men is not all that amazing. He's been rehashing the same material and practically phoning it in for years now. On an unrelated note, I went for a lazy, directionless stroll the other day and didn't fall over once…

  14. Phil says:

    Andrew, you want to give me a hint as to which of these to actually read? Most of them appear to be unsupported claims just like yours. If I search [sheen beat wife gelman], I find a guy named Andrew Gelman claiming that Sheen beat his wife. It doesn't make it true, although of course it might be true.

    What we do know is that he beat his girlfriend and threatened his wife. And shot his fiance. I'd stick with those!

  15. Andrew Gelman says:


    Here was the first link I found. But, I agree, it was only an arrest, not a conviction. A bit stronger than a claim by a guy on the web, but far from certainty.

    This is all after-the-fact though. As you probably guessed, when I wrote the above blog I was just going with a vague idea that Sheen had beaten his wife; I'm not up on the details.

  16. Dubi says:

    Scott Adams is a troll masquerading as an oracle. He regularly takes up positions that he knows will irritate his readers and phrases them in ways that makes it a logical impossibility to prove him wrong, and instead of realizing that unfalsifiable claims are meaningless, he sees it as proof that he is right. The real question about Scott Adams isn't why he thinks Sheen is "supernatural" (he probably doesn't). It's why he still has any readers left.

  17. fraac says:

    Sounds like Adams met a guy he found fascinating. I'm still very confused why judging strangers is supposed to be a good thing. So what if he beat his wife? If you've met Sheen and like him, and don't personally know his wife, then why would you care about her? Likewise if you've met neither of them why judge at all? There is some very weird rationalisation of playground herd nonsense going on here.

  18. Andrew Gelman says:


    We're approaching infinite regress here. I don't know Adams and am judging him, you don't know me and yet you're judging me, other readers of this thread don't know either of us or Adams or Sheen, etc. I'm a social scientist and am trying to understand Adams's perspective here, why he'd be impressed with Sheen based on what seem to me to be pretty unimpressive achievements (being a professional actor who can memorize his lines, being 45 years old and looking OK, etc).

    P.S. I don't have to know Sheen's wife to have a general opinion on wife-beating, fiancee-shooting, etc!

  19. Phil says:

    Andrew, Fraac is pulling your leg.

  20. Andrew Gelman says:


    You might very well be right. But responding to blog comments is such a pleasant way to avoid working! (As I'm demonstrating right here…)

  21. fraac says:

    I'm quite serious. I believe you're expressing an irrationality. Scott Adams met Charlie Sheen and was impressed. Is it a cognitive bias to weight direct evidence above the publicly accepted narrative? If someone is awesome to YOU but they hurt SOMEONE ELSE (whose role is clearly different from yours, e.g. a wife, so it's fair to suppose you aren't being misled), then is it cognitive bias to like them? And if someone you like is being attacked by the majority is it irrational to speak up? Foolish maybe but irrational?

  22. fraac says:

    I think the problem on display here is societal hierarchy dependence. That thing where you confuse narrative for reality, and then rationalise your biases post-hoc. I find it fascinating. If "the real question here is why he's so pro-Sheen" can't be adequately answered with "because he met him and found him impressive" then we appear to have some reality clouding effect.

    <a>Here is a remarkable quiz that purportedly spots Aspergers but I think actually tests for societal hierarchy dependence in those who won't take Joe's word for it about the extra dollar. I've found that alpha males, psychopaths, autistics and random dropouts all allow the evidence to speak for itself until it conflicts with their values, whereas hierarchy dependants (which includes most successful people) project themselves into *any* situation involving people. Hence the question "Why does Scott Adams like Charlie Sheen?" after Scott Adams himself eloquently explains why. That question only makes sense if Andrew Gelman was Scott Adams.

    But he's not.

  23. Phil says:

    Andrew: shows what I know.

    fraac: I hear Adolph Hitler was very charismatic, a great orator, able to inspire others to tremendous efforts. Also, although not physically imposing, he had a very strong shoulder and could hold the Nazi salute far longer than most (this is true!). Verily, tiger blood ran in his veins.

    I never met Hitler, and he never hurt me, and yet: I don't like him, and I think it would be wrong to praise him. Call me crazy.

    I'm not saying Sheen is as bad as Hitler; only that you are wrong to suggest that we can't judge people by their actions, even if those actions didn't hurt us personally.

  24. fraac says:

    Phil, judging people at all based on high profile examples is a reckless misapplication of Bayes.

  25. Andrew Gelman says:


    I don't know what you're talking about, but then again I'm not a sociologist.

    Just to clarify regarding Scott Adams: He wrote that he was very impressed that Sheen, a professional actor, remembered his lines and was good looking. Having not met Sheen, I am not particularly impressed that a professional actor can remember his lines and is good looking. I'm guessing that Adams's reaction to Sheen is, in part, (a) an over-weighting of his direct experiences (something like an availability bias, as noted by a commenter above), and (b) some sort of reaction to Sheen being unpopular.

    Trying to understand others' motivations (and not always taking their eloquent explanations at face value) is a key part of social science. I'm not trying to project myself into other situations; I'm trying to understand these situations. The study of cognitive heuristics and biases is all about trying to understand others rather than to make others conform to one's own values. Scott Adams said his piece, and that's fine; it baffled me which is why I blogged it.

  26. Phil says:

    fraac: huh? I'm not judging Sheen based on a "high profile example" — I don't even know what that means — I'm judging him based on the fact that he shot his fiance, beat his girlfriend, and threatened to kill his wife. I think it is OK to judge someone based on things like that.

  27. Martyn says:

    Scott Adams believes in the power of positive affirmations. He wrote about his own experience with affirmations in the last chapter of The Dilbert Future. I think he is fascinated by Sheen as an example of a main sustained purely by self belief.

  28. fraac says:

    "The study of cognitive heuristics and biases is all about trying to understand others rather than to make others conform to one's own values. Scott Adams said his piece, and that's fine; it baffled me which is why I blogged it."

    It baffled you because you were applying your own values! Nobody should be baffling when taken on their own terms. Adams referred to Sheen having a uniquely impressive demeanour, it wasn't about being able to remember lines – that's you altering it so it sounds weird so you don't have to understand Adams. Your own cognitive bias on display.

  29. fraac says:

    My link above didn't work?

    People who say Joe intentionally paid an extra dollar or that Scott Adams is baffling for supporting Sheen are projecting themselves into the scenario rather than allowing the evidence to speak for itself. The majority of people have this cognitive bias. It's evolutionarily useful to blend into the herd, and the way you do that is by projecting your values, ignoring what people are actually saying.

    Yes, this has shocking implications.

  30. Phil says:

    I, for one, still can't figure out what you are saying.

    Many people, myself included (and Andrew included) think that some of the things Sheen has done, such as beating his girlfriend and threatening to kill his wife, are reprehensible. What's more, I think that this is a shared value; that is, I think that any normal, decent person in our society would agree that those actions are reprehensible.

    I may be putting words into Andrew's mouth, but I think he is saying that it's baffling to see someone who one would expect to share those values, like Adams, who seems completely untroubled by Sheen's bad behavior.

    I think — but I am not sure — that you are saying that Andrew (and I, and anyone else who condemns Sheen) is acting "irrationally" by judging Sheen based on things he has done. You are right that I am "applying my own values," but that is not irrational.

    Perhaps you are saying that just because I oppose girlfriend-beating and wife-threatening, there's no reason to believe Adams would do so. But in fact, I do think Adams opposes girlfriend-beating and wife-threatening, and I don't think it is irrational for me to believe that. This may shock you, but: most educated Americans oppose girlfriend-beating and wife-threatening. If you insist on putting this in a Bayesian context, as you do, then I have strong prior information that Adams opposes girlfriend-beating…and even stronger prior information that if Adams doesn't oppose girlfriend-beating, he knows that people will assume that he does.

  31. Andrew Gelman says:


    Thanks for sending the link–that's a fascinating study! I'll blog on it soon.

  32. fraac says:


    You believe wifebeating is bad so you judge Sheen. It confuses you that Adams, who presumably shares your belief, doesn't share your judgment of Sheen. But Adams has met Sheen! He has new information. Adams, at that moment of meeting Sheen, stops being a projection of you. Let's say we can't imagine what new information would outweigh wifebeating, fine, but Adams himself is reporting the effect of the new information. Your irrationality is in failing to separate Adams' experience and imagination from your own. It IS possible for Adams to be rational, to hate wifebeating and yet be impressed with Sheen. Phil, take the test on my link.

    I'll add that anyone who says Joe didn't intentionally pay an extra dollar but that Adams is insane for liking Sheen is probably on the autistic spectrum and has particular issues regarding violence against women.

  33. fraac says:


    You believe wifebeating is bad so you judge Sheen. You are confused that Adams, who presumably shares your belief, likes Sheen. But Adams has met Sheen! He has new information. Adams, at that moment of meeting Sheen, stops being a projection of you and becomes an independent agent. Let's say we can't imagine what new information would outweigh wifebeating, fine, but Adams himself is reporting the effect of the new information. Your irrationality is in failing to separate Adams' experience and imagination from your own. It is possible for Adams to be rational, to hate wifebeating and yet like Sheen. Phil, take the test on my link. It demonstrates a very widespread cognitive bias known by psychologists as 'Theory of Mind'.

    I'll add that anyone who thinks Joe didn't intentionally pay an extra dollar but that Adams is crazy for supporting Sheen are probably on the autistic spectrum and have particular issues regarding violence against women.

  34. Scott Adams is really not hard to understand. Just read his blog. Or his comic strip. I think that Andrew and Phil are reading something into his opinion that he did not say.

  35. Phil says:

    fraac, you're right, I have "particular issues" regarding violence against women: I'm opposed to it.

  36. fraac says:

    Phil: and you see how your own beliefs overwhelm your ability to form a clear impression of Adams? You cannot imagine him not being a projection of yourself. I believe this happens largely subconsciously.

  37. Phil says:

    fraac, sure, I agree: my strong expectation is that Adams is opposed to wife- (or girlfriend-)beating, and I guess it's fair to say that that is an "unconscious" assumption, just as I would automatically assume that, I dunno, he showers every now and then, or occasionally enjoys speaking with friends. It's hard even to list the many, many "unconscious" assumptions that I make, because hey, they're unconscious!

    Many, even most, of those "unconscious" assumptions are correct, but some probably aren't. Until this moment, I'd never thought one way or the other about his attitudes on race, but I realize I have unconsciously assumed that he's not a bigot, and that if he is he'd keep quiet about it. But of course I'm aware that some people are bigots, and some are vocal about it. I would be shocked and disappointed it if turns out he's a vocal bigot, but I wouldn't find it inexplicable or baffling, I know there are people like that.

    But I have never heard of anyone remotely like Adams who isn't opposed to wife-beating. I just don't believe Adams is indifferent to it (or in favor of it). Although you're right that this was an unconscious assumption at one point, it is not an unconscious assumption now, it is a conscious one. Even now, I do not think Adams is indifferent to it. I hope he isn't.

    I think this is what it comes down to: you, fraac, think it is "irrational" to say "I don't like wife-beaters, and I don't like people who like them." I disagree, I think that is a reasonable judgment.

  38. fraac says:

    I know you don't like wifebeaters. We aren't talking about you. Scott Adams has, it appears, found a way to hate wifebeating yet like a wifebeater. We cannot imagine how he did that but that doesn't make it irrational, it just means we have to accept that Scott Adams is not us. That is what it comes down to.

  39. lemmy caution says:

    The study in Fraac's link is interesting.

    If you say "I did not intend to pay the extra dollar.", people will interpret this to mean that you care about the extra dollar and you want to cancel or you regret the transaction. Maybe, you paid the extra dollar by mistake.

    If you say "I did not intend to get the commemorative cup.", people will interpret this to mean that you don't care about whether you got a commemorative cup. It is unlikely that you just hate commemorative cups.

    I think the difference is that the people with asperagers think about the story in terms of the thirsty guys decision making while the neurotypical people think of the story on terms of the how the thirsty guy can best communicate to the clerk or others.

  40. Phil, Adams did not express an opinion about wife-beating. By focusing on wife-beating, all you are showing us is that you are unable or unwilling to address what Adams actually said.

    Lemmy, you have an interesting explanation for the study, but I am not sure it is correct. When an NT is asked about someone's intention, does the NT assume that it is really a question about how that someone communicates that (alleged) intention? Perhaps the psychologist researcher should have considered some more explanations, and asked a few more questions of his subjects. The explanation in the paper does not seem any more plausible than Lemmy's explanation.

  41. fraac says:

    I think the NT is projecting themselves into the scenario by default and overriding the evidence of Joe's words/demeanour, and then rationalising a definition of 'intention' post-hoc. Wouldn't that be that amazing? I can't think of any explanation that doesn't blow my mind. Truly fascinating.

  42. lemmy caution says:

    "When an NT is asked about someone's intention, does the NT assume that it is really a question about how that someone communicates that (alleged) intention?"

    I guess. If your friend busts on you for paying the extra dollar you can't say as a defense "I didn't intend to pay the extra dollar". If your friend busts on you for getting a commemorative cup you can say as a defense "I didn't intend to get the commemorative cup". You can be held accountable for things you intend in a way you can't be for things you don't intend.

  43. lemmy caution says:

    "I think the NT is projecting themselves into the scenario by default and overriding the evidence of Joe's words/demeanour, and then rationalising a definition of 'intention' post-hoc. Wouldn't that be that amazing? I can't think of any explanation that doesn't blow my mind. Truly fascinating. "

    I don't think that is it. It is more that the meaning of the word "intend' depends on the context.

  44. Phil says:

    fraac and Roger, I feel like in a way I am arguing for Andrew rather than for myself; he's the one who is "baffled" by Adams; I just think Adams is an asshole. I like his comic strip, though! I have no problem with saying "I like his comic strip, even though he's an asshole", and if Adams had said "I like Sheen's TV show even though he's a crazy wife-beater" that would make sense to me. But it seems to me that Adams goes well beyond praising Sheen's work, he's praising the man himself. And that's a bit hard to stomach.

    Roger, I agree that Adams didn't express an opinion about wife-beating, or about Sheen threatening to kill his wife, or any of that other crazy stuff Sheen did. That, I think, is Andrew's point! And whether it his point or not, it's my point. If someone does horrible things, but is nice to me, I shouldn't think "boy, what a nice guy, everybody else has him all wrong."

  45. I am going to try the smoothie question on some friends, because I don't think that the psychologists are analyzing correctly. Maybe I should start with simpler questions, like "Did you intend to pay $4 per gallon for gas?" I have a hunch that some will say, "No, but I could not find it any cheaper."

    It is curious how (perceived) intention seems to be related something negative. It appears that bad things are somehow more intentional than good things. Strange.

    Phil, I am surprised that you like his comic strip if you are so judgmental about people.

  46. Phil says:

    Roger, you say "I am surprised that you like his comic strip if you are so judgmental about people." I'm surprised that you're surprised!

    I like the Bill of Rights, and indeed many parts of the Constitution, even though it was written by racist slave-owners. I also enjoy the aphorisms of Ben Franklin even though he, too, was a slave-owner, and a hypocrite besides.

    I enjoy some of the works of Richard Wagner even though he was an anti-Semite.

    I like the Lord High Executioner's song in The Mikado, except the line about the "nigger serenader and the others of his race."

    And so on. I could go on and on and on. My feelings about a book, painting, scientific discovery, etc., are not a referendum on the morals of its creator. Generally, it doesn't even occur to me to wonder about it! I don't know if the chef who cooked my squid last night was a jerk (it was delicious either way) and I don't know the moral character of the person who designed, say, my computer mouse (which I like quite well). I'm not saying these things are irrelevant — I sometimes deliberately avoid a product if I have a problem with the company that makes it — but that doesn't alter my feeling about the product itself. If I think it's well-designed, it's well-designed whether the person who designed it is a saint or a serial killer.

    By the way, I'm not actually convinced that I'm more judgmental than the next guy, or even more judgmental than you, just because I don't like wife-beaters! I guess you're OK with wife-beaters, but maybe there's something else that _you_ object to but that wouldn't bother me. Maybe I'm just more judgmental than the average guy about this particular issue, but less judgmental about other issues. I'm not asserting it, just suggesting the possibility.

  47. Andrew Gelman says:

    Hey–I didn't know that Ben Franklin owned slaves!

    But I assume the chef who cooked your squid was a jerk. Aren't all chefs jerks? At least, that's the general reputation.

  48. Phil says:

    Oops, yeah, Franklin didn't own slaves; he did have some lesser moral failings. Jefferson owned slaves, though! But you knew that.

  49. Andrew Gelman says:

    No–I googled "Ben Franklin slaves" and . . . he really did own two slaves! You were righter than you knew.

    OK, there goes another hour of time I could've spent working.

  50. Phil, I say that you are judgmental because you insist on giving us your judgment of Sheen's wife-beating. If it offends you that Adams would comment favorably on Sheen without denouncing his wife-beating, then I would expect you to be offended by his comics. Last week, his comics were about stuffing the pointy-haired boss like a dead animal. He does not stop to explain that killing the boss is a bad thing to do.

  51. says:

    fraac's link to the short article, many of the comments there, and his comments here all seem to me to be very good examples of how people on the autistic spectrum have difficulty with theories of mind of other people.

    Many of the comments there all typically focus on strict parsing of words and reasoning about only what is is given. No robust theory of mind is involved in this reasoning, but rather simple parsing of the exact written words.

    Indeed, that neurotypical people go beyond those exact written words is the heart of fraac's objection. To fraac, an application of a theory of mind is necessarily an unfair and inaccurate projection of the neurotypical's own subjectivity, particularly what fraac calls "values", on others. But fraac's argument only confirms the problem. Fraac cannot imagine a theory of mind that is anything other than simply a projection of one's own mind onto another. This gets to the heart of why people on the AS are sometimes, wrongly, said to lack empathy. They don't lack empathy…they care about others. But they do lack the social awareness that would allow them to formulate accurate theories of mind for neurotypicals. Without this context, they have only what is explicitly available as evidence and their own mental state as a model. Fraac looks at that study and the reported reasoning of neurotypicals and concludes that either one correctly reasons from the literal words provided, or wrongly projects one own subjective values on others.

    And fraac and others on the AS have some good cause to reason this way. Because, of course, neurotypicals form theories of mind which are of course normalized to neurotypicals, and thus they(we) often tend to falsely ascribe motivations to people on the autistic spectrum…which seems to AS people to be projecting our emotional and subjective neurotypical values onto them. And in their case, they're usually right. What's interesting to me is that it doesn't seem to occur to fraac and (some) other AS people that a neurotypical's theory of mind for any given other neurotypical will correctly include social cues and historical evidence that will result in something that is similar to the neurotypical's own mind, yet distinct and relatively accurate…hopefully, in each case distinct and relatively accurate.

  52. Phil says:

    Roger, I'm not offended by Adams' comics — well, the ones I've seen anyway. Perhaps I'd be offended by the one you mention, but I doubt it: although I'm even more opposed to killing and stuffing bosses than I am to wife-beating, fictional killing and stuffing is much, much, much less bad than actual wife-beating. If Adams actually killed and stuffed somebody, I would certainly object!

    But even if Adams were a murderer, it still wouldn't (necessarily) make his cartoons un-funny. Conceivably, I could find his cartoons funny, but agree that he is a despicable human being who should be given the electric chair. But — and this is where I might differ from you and fraac — you wouldn't find me saying "well, his cartoons are really funny, so people should stop giving him a hard time about that murderous-killer thing."

  53. fraac says:

    kmellis: neurotypical theory of mind of course works as a shortcut for dealing with other neurotypicals, just as AS theory of mind works for dealing with autistics, cat ToM works with cats, etc. But when sufficient information isn't given as to which ToM applies it leads to mistakes if one assumes one anyway. It appears that, for many people (most? who? and why?), neurotypical theory of mind is stuck on 'on'. See Phil in this thread: he can't imagine why Adams might have a different mindset.

    The only reasonable answer in the limited information smoothie scenario is that Joe's only intention was to get a large drink. And Scott Adams was impressed with Charlie Sheen because Sheen was personally impressive. We know these things because the protagonists told us, and we have no right or means to infer otherwise without more information.

    Btw, I'd be very interested if you could explain your ToM beyond simple projection. If it isn't post-hoc rationalisation of animal herding instincts I'd be very impressed. One simple way to show that ToM isn't an advanced process is by making someone explain their reasoning and then ask an autistic to replicate it.

  54. fraac says:

    Though having read about Adams defending himself anonymously on the internet, textbook weak behaviour, I now very much doubt his public support of Sheen was on the level. But it's important to note that I couldn't have altered my guess without additional information. Network node reweighting, however you want to put it.

  55. Kmellis, Fraac recognizes that NTs apply a theory of mind. They usually do it correctly, and sometimes incorrectly. Usually they do not realize that they are doing it. In the case of the psychologist smoothie question, it is impossible to say who is correct, because it is just an opinion about a hypothetical. In the case of Scott Adams, I think that it is easy to understand him if you regularly read his blog and comic, but very easy to misunderstand him otherwise, whether you are an NT or an AS.

  56. fraac says:

    Andrew, I hope you do return to Joe's smoothie because it's no end of interesting.

    kmellis: it occurs to me that the literal definition of 'intention' includes everything you meant to do. Or at least the definition is contentious. My fullest answer would be "In strictest terms yes it was intentional, but from the context (i.e. both the scenario and the metacontextual question that implies a 'no' is possible) I have to say no."

    Autistics override the literal definition with context, NTs override context with ToM. But in this example with no history or social cues, where the hell are they getting additional information? Can only be from themselves. Projection. QED.

  57. lemmy caution says:

    "And fraac and others on the AS have some good cause to reason this way. Because, of course, neurotypicals form theories of mind which are of course normalized to neurotypicals, and thus they(we) often tend to falsely ascribe motivations to people on the autistic spectrum…which seems to AS people to be projecting our emotional and subjective neurotypical values onto them. And in their case, they're usually right. What's interesting to me is that it doesn't seem to occur to fraac and (some) other AS people that a neurotypical's theory of mind for any given other neurotypical will correctly include social cues and historical evidence that will result in something that is similar to the neurotypical's own mind, yet distinct and relatively accurate…hopefully, in each case distinct and relatively accurate."

    This is true. I can see why AS people would get frustrated by this. It isn't easy to explain why neurotypicals have the specific understanding of social situations that they do. Neurotypicals understanding of social situations is not at the conscious level. Explanations from neurotypicals are really just speculations. It is like asking someone why they like the color green. They will give you an answer but it has a high likelihood of being bullshit.

  58. fraac says:

    Actually one can experiment with oxytocin to gain insight into the NT perspective. I found myself intensely aware of who was 'in' and who was 'out', feeling warmth to the former and hostility to the latter without any conscious reason why. Most enlightening. I imagine if you lived with that perspective your whole life you would assume it rational and could effortlessly construct stories justifying your prejudices. Indeed, this fits observed behaviour.

  59. says:

    fraac, please consider that the complex social reasoning that we're suggesting neurotypicals do is much more than merely tribalistic in-group and out-group reasoning.

    I have family and perhaps some friends who suspect I'm on the AS. Other family and friends think this is absurd. This is because I have a very deep empathy, but it is focused and usually the product of a conscious manifestation of will. I am intensely analytical and rational, but I also grew up with an emotionally abusive father. From a very early age, I had tremendous motivation to understand other peoples' thought processes. So I consider it a possibility that I "solved" ToM for neurotypicals as a sort of complex puzzle I've been highly motivated to grapple with my entire life. On the other hand, my intuition about people on the AS is that they are not that highly motivated to do this–like you, they tend to feel that they are better off with a limited portion of this aspect of human experience, freeing them to concentrate on things they consider both less nebulous and more important. I can't imagine anything more fascinating and compelling than to truly understand how other people think.

    For example, I have a long interest in the Monty Hall Problem, wrote the first web page on the topic, and my true interest in the problem has everything to do with how it is that people variously misunderstand it and how they are adamant that they are right about it when they are, in fact, wrong.

    Anyway, the point is that I am both sympathetic to your point of view and deeply exasperated by it. I find people distressingly irrational, I think tribalism is more harmful than beneficial, and I find rationalization of emotionally-driven conclusions maddening. On the other hand, I think you are doing exactly that. You have an emotional investment in your negative view of how neurotypicals reason; it is deeply influenced, I suspect, by your own experience of feeling that you've been placed in the "out-group" because you're different. Coupled with your intelligence and experience being unusually rational and logical, it's very easy for you to conclude that you are the superior thinker, unburdened by the dross of superfluous emotion and compelling social context. In fact, however, this is no more true than it is the case that passionate, intuitive, and creative types are superior because they are not chained to reason, or that it is the case that coldly analytical and focused types are superior because they are not chained to emotion and unbridled imagination. There is a trade-off.

    Very few contemporary scientists of any (relevant) stripe accept uncritically the idea of general intelligence, other than when comparing humans at developmental stages or the healthy against those whose brains are physiologically or chemically impaired. This does not mean that the EP folk with their functionally distinct adaptations are correct; but it seems clear that there are numerous kinds of perception the brain achieves, and social comprehension and, specifically, accurate theories of mind for other people are among them. You and other AS people almost certainly have an advantage in many contexts for exactly the reasons you believe you do. But you have a disadvantage in others. Why is it necessary, or rational, to return unto others the wrongs done to you by likewise affirming your superiority to those who are, in fact, merely different and not inferior?

  60. fraac says:

    kmellis: I'm like you, I find nothing more fascinating than learning how people think. I think we can admit we all have biases and not let that be a reason to halt enquiry. I'm sorry you find me exasperating. In light of your history that seems to be your own issue more than mine. See, highlighting bias is easy and a cheap game to play. I learned long ago, via LSD, that all beliefs are equally true and none are real. And yet there persists a public narrative, the modern version of religion, where certain beliefs are favoured. We argue to affect the narrative, and doing so is quite valid. So let's go deeper. Experimental psychology and clear thinking surely haven't been exhausted.

    What information do you think I'm missing when you say Joe paying an extra dollar was intentional?

    I'll consider the social reasoning you're suggesting is more complicated than rationalised animal urges if and when you actually suggest some rather than handwaving it. The odd thing is most researchers believe ToM is a conscious process precisely because it allows their version of morality to be superior. Your model appears to introduce an entirely new form of subconscious magical reasoning. Fascinating.

  61. Phil says:

    fraac, you say "See Phil in this thread: he can't imagine why Adams might have a different mindset", but you're ignoring what I said! I said that unlike Andrew, I am not baffled by Adams' defense of Sheen because I think Adams is an asshole. What I am is _disgusted_ by Adams' defense of Sheen. That's very different! I have to say, I am also kinda disgusted by _your_ attitude: yeah, call me "judgmental" for judging someone just because he beats his girlfriend and threatens to kill his wife. Yes! Judging!

  62. Andrew Gelman says:


    I don't think Adams is defending Sheen; rather, he seems to be rooting for Sheen. This still seems baffling to me, but, hey, maybe I'm just easily baffled. I like to think that one thing that makes me a good scientist is that things bother me. Exploring and resolving anomalies is a big part of science.

  63. fraac says:

    Well then it's probably identification with the power of self-belief thing Martyn said.

  64. Kmellis says: "a neurotypical's theory of mind for any given other neurotypical will correctly … and relatively accurate."

    The NT's ToM is accurate enough to be useful, but it is very often wrong. I see it every day, in the form of misunderstandings and faulty reasoning. Often the NT is unable to see that he is making an inference that may not be correct. If you are saying that the NT will be correct, then that is wrong.

    The smoothie scenario gives an example where the NT and AS may make different inferences. Maybe the NT inferences are more probable, but that is about all you can say. The NT will very frequently be incorrect. And for this artificial scenario, there is no way to determine who is more correct.

  65. fraac says:

    We can't ask Joe but as a toy problem it can be very revealing. My only explanation for the NT interpretation is they project themselves into Joe, look for social cues and history but find none, and then say "I paid an extra dollar to get the drink so it was intentional". This is pure guesswork. Other explanations are extremely welcome.

  66. Yes, of course the NT subjects are projecting themselves into Joe and saying that the dollar was intentional. The AS subjects are projecting themselves into Joe and saying the opposite. The question encourages such analysis. I tried asking a couple of people, and they explain answer by describing what they would be thinking if they were Joe.

  67. lemmy caution says:

    There is an extra dollar case where Joe does not intend to pay the extra money. It would be something like:

    The Extra-Dollar Case 2
    Joe was feeling quite dehydrated, so he stopped by the local smoothie shop to buy the largest sized drink available. Joe hands over a twenty and gets some change back that he does not look at. Joe does not notice that the Mega-Sized Smoothies are now one dollar more than they used to be. Did Joe intentionally pay one dollar more?

    This type of scenario is the one that clerk is trying to avoid. Not intending to pay the extra dollar is a problem. That is why the clerk points out that the price has gone up a dollar and gets Joe to consent to the extra dollar.

  68. Phil says:

    One of the theories of why consciousness evolved is that it lets you predict the behavior of others by asking "what would I do, if I were in that situation?" To the extent that different people are motivated by similar desires, this works well. Basically, the relevant Theory of Mind is that "that guy's mind is a lot like mine." In fact, people can be fairly sophisticated about applying this principle; for instance, if they know that someone's motivations or desires are different from their own, they can try to take that into account. But if they don't know, they assume the person is similar to other people. In any case, echo Roger in saying that of course we project ourselves into Joe. That's what we have a consciousness for in the first place. (Or at least, that's one theory).

    I will also say that although it's clear that many people think that the example with Joe and the smoothie is really interesting and informative, I don't find it so. I don't have Asperger's and am not autistic, but I really have no idea how to answer the question about whether paying the extra dollar was "intentional" or not. As kmellis (I think it was) suggested earlier, it feels like playing games with language — what do you mean by "intend"? — rather than telling me something about the mind. The fact that NT and AS subjects give different answers tells us something, I agree, but I don't know what.

  69. says:

    I think it is a vast oversimplification to say that people merely imagine themselves in someone else's position as their ToM.

    There is literature about the expression "if I were you". This expression illustrates the conundrum and complexity very concisely. ToM is a strange thing where we are ourselves trying very hard to be someone not ourselves. You can focus on the fact that this is ultimately futile, or you can consider the significance that imagining ourselves being not ourselves is, right at the outset, not simply being ourselves. It is alien in its essence. The greater someone's imagination, and the greater someone's experience with people quite unlike themselves, the greater their capacity to form ToM that move quite far outside their own territory of motivation and behavior.

  70. fraac says:

    Roger, I'm not sure AS people project on Joe or if they're just reading the context. Reading context seems more likely or there would be a range of answers depending on interpretation of 'intentionally'.

    Lemmy: Joe can explicitly consent to paying more and quite deliberately do so, I still answer the question no. The question defines a universe in which both answers have meaning. I think AS people are framing the scenario within that universe and answering the questioner, not just the question. Like "How is it possible to unintentionally pay more? Ah, if your only intention was to quench thirst – nicely supported by the text". Until the question is asked the answer is moot, semantically void, an uncollapsed waveform. When I recall odd disconnects with people this seems to fit.

    kmellis: something I notice with NTs is they routinely fail to see each other. This might be hard to describe. Imagining themselves as each other fails when the imaginer is deluded or the imagined is deceptive, and as they each have places within the social hierarchy they are all to some extent deluded and deceptive. It's weird to watch.

  71. Scott Adams says:

    It's fascinating to watch strangers debating what they imagine is in my head.

    On the wife/girlfriend beating/shooting questions, there's no credible evidence that Sheen did those things. In the "normal" world, a guy who has been accused of the same sort of crime several times is probably guilty. In the celebrity world, it doesn't mean the same thing.

    I say that as a person who has often been accused of being a holocaust denier, creationist, misogynist, and racist. That's just the starter list.

    I can't say Sheen didn't do any of the things he has been accused of. But the evidence against him is as credible as the evidence that Osama used his wife as a human shield.