The telephone effect, and the reciprocity of perspectives

In F. L. Allen’s Only Yesterday, a history of the 1920s published in the early 30s, Allen writes about the revolution in manners and morals that began to pick up in the early years of the decade:

Like all revolutions, this one was stimulated by foreign propoganda. It came, however, not from Moscow, but from Vienna. Sigmund Freud had published his first book of psychoanalysis at the end of the nineteenth century, and he and Jung had lectured to American psychologists as early as 1909, but it was not until after the war that the Freudian gospel began to circulate to a marked extent among the American lay public.

But as Bourdieu liked to say, Marx was not a Marxist, and so it goes with Freud and the Freudian gospel. Somewhere along the way, the analyst’s concepts of libido, drive, and sublimation had been distorted. Allen describes the ideological atmosphere:

Sex, it appeared, was the central and pervasive force which moved mankind. Almost every human motive was attributable to it: if you were patriotic or liked the violin, you were in the grip of sex—in a sublimated form. The first requirement of mental health was to have an uninhibited sex life. If you would be well and happy, you must obey your libido.

As those more familiar with psychoanalytic writings know, these “lessons” of Freud and Jung hang from the originals as if from a thread; only a scraggling similarity of form and shared signifiers connects them. But such, Allen writes, “was the Freudian gospel as it imbedded itself in the American mind after being filtered through the successive minds of interpreters and popularizers and guileless readers and people who had heard guileless readers talk about it.” Our parable is at once hopeful and hopeless: Psychoanalysis had not converted the American public, so much as the American public had converted psychoanalysis.


In the UK, it’s called “Chinese whispers,” a more elegant handle than the American “telephone.” The premise is very simple: an auditory-semantic signal subject to an iterated process of interpretation and propagation. Your best guess of their representation of their best guess of… ad nauseam.

In real-life games of telephone, children can often convey messages around the assembled circles with very little corruption. But that dynamic changes once there are one or two children who, consciously or unconsciously, desire to “throw” the game. Perhaps they are “merely” bad actors; perhaps they’re clever with a streak of rebelliousness, and have chosen to eschew the purported goal of the game (lossless transmission) and instead achieve the actual motivating force of the game (the humor of lossy transmission). One or two such actors, the message will become legitimately garbled, in large part because each child is dependent on the child before him; there is no other source of truth.

We can see here some crucial differences between the game of telephone and what we can call the “telephone effect” in public discourse. For one, public discourse is not a linear set of nodes in the same way. Often, people will discuss an idea with many interlocutors, and each discussion acts as a “check” against their initial understanding of a concept or stance. This is the good news.

The bad news is that there are a host of effects present in public discourse, and not a children’s circle, that increase the lossiness of transmission. These are: the Procrustean stretching or amputation of concepts to fit one’s already-implicit worldview and experiences; the role of self-interested actors who wish to “sell” an idea and will profit most off distorted versions of it; the difficulty of apprehending, neutrally interpreting, and then conveying in full complex ideas as they were understood; and the constant problem of personal languages (different mappings between signifier and signified). Real-world discourse is not merely a cast of actors listening to a sentence and repeating it, rather, a set of concepts must be interpreted, internalized, and then re-explained; each time, the form and semantic structure undergo significant changes even as the speaker attempts to keep the “content” of the message intact.


One would like to think that, while the public might be vulnerable to such corruptions—alongside general hysteria and the writings of Malcolm Gladwell—academia can and does a better job of pinning down terms, formally defining concepts, peer-reviewing deviant usages, and generally providing more accurate, charitable, rigorous interpreters and conveyors of meaning. Instead we get a very different lesson, courtesy of Kate Bush.

Here’s the start of a galaxy-brain oscillation you might recognize:
1. The Eskimos have 50 words for snow.
2. “The Eskimos have 50 words for snow” is a myth.

If you’re familiar with these memes, you know what’s coming next. Cue Regier, Carstensen, Kemp 2016, “Languages Support Efficient Communication about the Environment“:

Franz Boas observed that certain Eskimo languages have unrelated forms for subtypes of snow (e.g. aput: snow on the ground, qana: falling snow), and thus subdivide the notion of snow more finely than English does. He suggested that such cross-language variation in the grouping of ideas into named categories “must to a certain extent depend upon the chief interests of a people.” Boas’ Eskimo example was repeated by Whorf, and was subsequently exaggerated through popularization, leading to grossly inflated claims about the number of words for snow in Eskimo languages. Through this exaggeration and resulting critique, the snow example has acquired an air of unseriousness, and it tends to be avoided by many scholars. However, recent work has suggested some empirical support for the original claim prior to its distortion, motivating a broader re-examination across languages, and greater theoretical attention.

What we see here is a very simple dynamic: An idea is infectiously picked up by the public; their endorsement and exaggeration (telephonic corruption) discourages serious discussion or investigation of the phenomenon. Eventually, you get thinkers arguing that the very idea Eskimos could or do have a higher-than-average number of descriptors for snow is itself an invention, a legend, fullstop. They have ceased arguing against the exaggeration because the exaggeration has fully supplanted the original (which now has few serious supporters left on account of its growing common-knowledge stigma). And a very simple truth—that categorization and conceptual systems reflect local environments of language users—is lost in the blizzard.


Recently I’ve been getting into Roy Wagner, who is thoroughly, endlessly weird in the most appealing way. Wagner has an idea he takes from the Barok tribespeople of New Ireland: pire wuo, or, “the reciprocity of perspectives.” It a kind of figure-ground reversal, a “subject-object switch,” a way of getting outside one’s immediate subjectivity and understanding the “bigger picture” which one is situated inside. The best description Wagner puts forth is still highly figurative, but it will give a sense of what he means:

Perhaps the most influential rhetorical incorporation of perspectival reciprocity was recovered by Tânia Stolze Lima (1999) from the Tupinamba of eastern Brazil: when a peccary looks at a peccary, it sees a human being, but when it looks at a human being, it sees another peccary. A classic instance of chiasmatic figure–ground reversal, this elegant allusion to the perceptual subject/object shift has nothing whatever to do with how peccaries perceive things, but subverts its whole function as sucker bait for the literal minded.

“Reciprocity of perspectives” resembles in key aspects the thesis/antithesis/synthesis model of Hegelian dialectic, the 太极 tàijí dualism of Taoism, and the object-level/meta-level frame of the rationalists. In all cases, an idea of “leveling up,” of “seeing from above” the way that two apparently opposing entities, or forces, are part of some meaningful, higher-order unity. This “aboveness” is removed from the typical “situated” view; one gains insight into one’s situation via the aboveness.

I’ve written before about progress via oscillation, and I think this is more or less how such progress happens. The ground and figure get wrapped up and, reconciled, become new ground as some interconnected system; eventually we discover that this unity, too, is against a ground of its own, and continue the process. As the Hegelian galaxy-brain of culture progresses, each stance takes into account the previous statements, even as it “circles back” to the same place.

Let me attempt to describe a pattern I have noticed lately in myself, in my own epistemology. A younger self holds a naive belief, say, in the virtues of rationalism, which is mostly un-interrogated. Perhaps I have some reservations about specific behavioral econ projects, but my skepticism hasn’t generalized. I come across certain arguments—Seeing Like A State, Hayek’s Fatal Conceit, Christopher Alexander’s theories of design, Gerd Gigerenzer on behavioral economics, Taleb on risk assessment. I begin to understand the brilliance of evolution, the hubris of human reasoning. At last, having been thoroughly convinced, I hear a different, equally compelling case involving hill-climbing and natural selection, citing myopic view in the fog of local maxima, this idea that intelligence and reasoning can get us over valleys the valleys evolution “dumbly” gets stuck in.

Similarly, I can come across functionalist structuralism, and believe they’re far understating human agency with this totalizing view of norms, and then I stumble upon ethnomethodology, Garfinkel’s idea of the “cultural dope,” this imaginary human being Parsons must conjure to make his functionalist arguments about top-down normative control. But now there is little mention or acknowledgment of the insidious way that norms unconsciously shape our social physics, our sense of the possible, thinkable, and desirable, of the options on the table.

The point of course is that both “sides” are right; you’d bear the burden of proof in convincing me me there’s no such process as unconscious internalization of norms, or that there isn’t a meaningful amount of leeway afforded to agents in the vast majority of institutions that allow members to subvert and build norms. Maybe more to the point: these weren’t “sides” to begin with; their stances may have been incompatible, but the territory they mapped was far from it. (A “three blind men and an elephant” scenario.)

But how it appears to me is that each “side” of these debates is engaging in one of two stances of mutual regard. One is absolutism—the claim the opposing side’s explanation does not constitute a meaningful part of the picture, should not be included in the common map, etc. The other is a signal-corrective-style “summing up” dispute, where what is under consideration is which part of the picture is the dominant narrative, and which is the qualifying corrective—the “except,” the disclaimer, the differential. (For one example of debate which may possess either or both of these outlooks, see False dichotomies: Toward “Meaning compatibilism”.)

The first frame is often but not always silly. There are certainly disputes with intelligent members of the field on either side that are legitimately dichotomous. But I increasingly believe that only a minority percentage of the overall conflicts, at least in the Inexact Sciences, which are believed to be or treated as (theory-in-use) dichotomous through the language, rhetoric, tactics, and strategies of either side, are, in actuality, in direct contradiction. More often they are either a verbal dispute (as previously discussed; examples include the disputes over the details of ideas like “meaning,” “collective intentionality,” “causality,” “free will,” and “knowledge”) or else a scope argument: a dispute over which story (or “mechanism,” or “causal driver”) ought to be the dominant and which the corrective. While this dispute may be a meaningful start in instances where the alleged gap between dominant and corrective, in terms of explanatory power, is wide, in many cases I hazard that the cause of the widespread dispute among well-informed individuals is a result of this gap being relatively narrow, and therefore even a successful determination of the victor of the debate would give us little insight into our world. The variance between cases is too high, and the gap too narrow, to make predictions or judgments about any specific situations—e.g. when one ought to trust one’s gut or the math, whether one is acting out norms or has agency within them. These disputes may need to be re-carved for more meaningful natural lines (when one situation is relevant, or the other) to appear. I call this general outlook—that many conflicts in the Inexact Sciences are not instances of legitimate theoretical incompatibilism or mutual exclusivity—”generalized compatabilism.”

In some sense, verbal disputes and scope arguments might even be theorized to be hyponyms of a broader class: battles over discursive turf. In future posts, I’ll expand on this metaphor, though a recent post at LessWrong on conceptual engineering touches on metaphors of “linguistic real estate” and the incentive structure of making claims like “knowledge is” over claims of the structure “knowledge as.”

One response to “The telephone effect, and the reciprocity of perspectives”

  1. […] discursive inclination, coupled with what we call “the telephone effect”—the tendency of originally subtle academic arguments to become diluted or exaggerated by […]


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