Explanatory normality fallacy

Only a psychologist thinks to ask why people laugh at jokes.  – Someone (apparently)

A common error in trying to understand human behavior is to think something is explained because it is so intuitively familiar to you. The wrong answer to, ‘I wonder why people laugh at jokes?’ is, ‘They are funny duh’. This is an unrealistically obvious example; it can be harder to see. Why do we like art? Because it’s aesthetically pleasing. Why does sex exist? For reproduction. These are a popular variety of mind projection fallacy.

One thing that makes it much harder to see is emotional or moral overtones. A distinctive feature of morality is that it seems objectively true, so this isn’t surprising. e.g. if I say ‘I wonder why women evolved to be *so* upset about being raped?’ the wrong answer is ‘I can’t believe you just said that – rape is HORRIBLE!!!’. Why don’t humans let their disabled children die? Not ‘because they appreciate that that would be cruel’. Why do we want revenge when others have done us wrong? Not ‘because the others DESERVE IT!’ Why do humans hate incest? Not ‘because they aren’t completely depraved’.

Another thing that makes this error happen more is when the explanation is somewhat complicated even without explaining the key issue. This makes it less obvious that you haven’t said anything. Why do we enjoy some styles and features of music particularly? Because we have advanced as a civilization so much that we appreciate them. Fill this out with some more about how civilization has progressed and what some famous people have said about musical progression through time and nobody will notice you didn’t really answer.

Here’s a common combination of morality and apparent complication: Why do women hate being treated as instrumental to sexual pleasure? Because it objectifies them. Why do women hate being objectified? Because it makes people think of them as objects. Why don’t women like being thought of as objects? They get treated as objects. Why don’t women like being treated as objects? Objects are treated badly. Note that while we have now established that to be treated as instrumental to sexual pleasure is to be treated badly from a woman’s perspective, but since it was stated in the question that women hate it, this is hardly a step forward. If you feel very strongly that objectifying women is terrible, especially with some detail about how bad it is, each of these answers can seem explanatory.

10 responses to “Explanatory normality fallacy

  1. I wouldn’t really call it a fallacy. “Why” questions can take a lot of different answers, depending on the context. People who hear a “why do people laugh” question may not be aware of the context that the person asking it has in mind. “Because something was funny” is a correct answer, it’s just a correct answer when the question is understood in a certain way, which is not the way in which the question was intended.

    Maybe a way to get a person past the misinterpretation of the question is, rather than call it a “fallacy”, which puts a person on the defensive when there is nothing to be defensive about (since the answer is in fact correct), explain the context, explain the sense in which the question was intended. For example, rather than ask, “why do humans hate incest”, you might ask, “what is it about hating incest that confers a reproductive advantage.”

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  2. Nick Tarleton

    A good point, but I think the last paragraph is wrong.

    Here’s a common combination of morality and apparent complication: Why do women hate being treated as instrumental to sexual pleasure? Because it objectifies them. Why do women hate being objectified? Because it makes people think of them as objects. Why don’t women like being thought of as objects? They get treated as objects. Why don’t women like being treated as objects? Objects are treated badly. Note that while we have now established that to be treated as instrumental to sexual pleasure is to be treated badly from a woman’s perspective

    I don’t think that’s what that line of answers is saying, exactly. It’s not that being treated as instrumental to sexual pleasure is being treated badly — that would be a non-explanation. More like: treating someone as instrumental to sexual pleasure is conducive to treating them badly (in more obvious material ways), and/or is objectifying and reinforces other objectifying attitudes, which are conducive to treating their targets badly; therefore, people who hold that attitude towards oneself / one’s allies / others like oneself should be punished.

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  3. Surely the “why does sex exist? For reproduction” is an actual explanation, unlike the others… I mean, it’s a summary of the content of the true evolutionary explanation…

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  4. The objectification answer also has a mountain of tradition behind it. For Kant, wrongdoing generally is treating people as objects (the second formulation of the categorical imperative). Of course, he never explains very clearly what this means, but Kant never explains anything very clearly, so it it is hard to tell when he’s actually got a good point and when he’s just concealing the fact that he doesn’t.

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  5. Re: Paul,

    “Why does sex exist?” is a different question from “Given the way sexual reproduction works, why do humans enjoy it?” ‘Reproduction’ doesn’t explain sexual reproduction as opposed to asexual.

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  6. Sure it does — at least, sure it does given a few additional details about fitness and some math…

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  7. I mostly agree with you, but I have a couple quibbles:

    (1) Saying that sex is for “reproduction” is a valid explanation. It’s not *complete*, since it brings up the further question of why reproduction exists. But it’s not a *non-explanation* like your other examples.

    (2) I don’t see how it can be the case that, across the board, “women hate being treated as instrumental to sexual pleasure.” Surely you mean that women hate being treated as *merely* instrumental to sexual pleasure.

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  8. 1) Animals could reproduce more if they all had children asexually. Sex mixes up genes at the expense of some reproduction.

    2) You’re probably right – I’m not sure what they hate.

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