When to explain

It is commonly claimed that humans’ explicit conscious faculties arose for explaining to others about themselves and their intentions. Similarly when people talk about designing robots that interact with people, they often mention the usefulness of designing such robots to be able to explain to you why it is they changed your investments or rearranged your kitchen.

Perhaps this is a generally useful principle for internally complex units dealing with each other: have some part that keeps an overview of what’s going on inside and can discuss it with others.

If so, the same seems like it should be true of companies. However my experience with companies is that they are often designed specifically to prevent you from being able to get any explanations out of them. Anyone who actually makes decisions regarding you seems to be guarded by layers of people who can’t be held accountable for anything. They can sweetly lament your frustrations, agree that the policies seem unreasonable, sincerely wish you a nice day, and most importantly, have nothing to do with the policies in question and so can’t be expected to justify them or change them based on any arguments or threats you might make.

I wondered why this strategy should be different for companies, and a friend pointed out that companies do often make an effort at more high level explanations of what they are doing, though not necessarily accurate: vision statements, advertisements etc. PR is often the metaphor for how the conscious mind works after all.

So it seems the company strategy is more complex: general explanations coupled with avoidance of being required to make more detailed ones of specific cases and policies. So, is this strategy generally useful? Is it how humans behave? Is it how successful robots will behave?*

Inspired by an interaction with ETS, evidenced lately by PNC and Verizon

*assuming there is more than one

4 responses to “When to explain

  1. Have you ever seen the movie “Brazil”? It’s a perfect metaphor for corporate life. But really, no book or movie can do it justice. You have to live it for a few years to appreciate the logic behind the absurdities.

  2. You’re not the audience for whom the company is motivated to generate explanations, as opposed to PR.

    Humans didn’t develop explanations for dogs, they developed them for their peers, other humans (according to the claim). Humans train dogs for obedience via minimal communication. You’re the dog.

  3. If the person imposing some cost on you, such as the employee following a company policy which inconveniences, is unable to act differently, then this means that in a different, less-constrained context that same person could be much more helpful. If the policy would seem to demonstrate a lack of ability or lack of concern for your well-being, the ability and concern of the person applying it can be separated from the application of the policy, shielding their relationship with you from the negative effects their application of policy has on you.

    A similar claim is harder to defend when you’re interacting with people in regular contexts, when your behaviors do not seem strongly controlled by other agents. However by removing responsibility for taking unhelpful personal courses of action, a similar protection of the relationship can be gained, which creates a strong incentive for explanations which remove responsibility and agency. While not always created for this reason, any explanation which removes agency provides this benefit, and so there is some level of additional incentive to appeal to such explanations if your actions are disappointing or frustrating to others. Such explanations include things like spiritual temptation and not being strong enough, lack of energy, lack of spark, akrasia, wire-heading, being hijacked by memes, and being controlled by evolutionary desires “not your own”.

  4. An observation I might make is that high functioning autistic spectrum children such as those with Asperger’s Syndrome struggle with the concept of telling lies.

    Now if the key component of human communication is truth telling then why would the Asperger’s children be struggling so much?

    Perhaps the *real* purpose of communication and the theory of mind is “to gain advantage over others” which will require a combination of truth telling, lying and bluffing?

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