Where are the Greedy Listeners?

“If exchanging Information were the be-all and end-all of conversation, then we would expect people to be greedy listeners and stingy speakers. Instead, we typically find ourselves with the opposite attitude: eager to speak at ever opportunity.” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write this in the book The Elephant in the Brain as they attempt to understand exactly what is going on with human communication. The obvious answer for why we communicate and dedicate so much of our brains to language, speaking, decoding sounds, and interpreting meaning from the sounds produced by human vocal cords is because our early ancestors gained an advantage when they could use language to communicate important messages. Saying, you go left and I go right is a lot better than grunting with hand gestures if you are trying to sneak up on a buffalo.

 

When we talk we convey a lot of direct messages. We can tell someone how much we love and care about them. We can explain to someone how their computer works and what they need to do to get their internet back. Directly talking to someone allows us to give them a recipe and enables us to learn about current world events. The strait forward answer for why we evolved language is because there is a lot of data out there in the world, and we needed a way to transmit the information we have gained from one head to another.

 

Simler and Hanson, however, believe that language and communication are doing something less obvious for us. One reason they believe more is going on than simply conveying messages is that we don’t hold people in debt for our communication. We don’t share an interesting or meaningful fact, and then expect the other person to communicate something meaningful to us. We may obtain information at a great cost – years of school, spending our time at the city counsel meeting, staying up late with influential people at a bar to get any tidbits they may drop – but we give that information away without demanding reciprocal payment.

 

A second piece of evidence against communication simply conveying messages has to do with how eager we are to talk. If we really were just communicating information, then we would be the most amazing listeners ever. After all, the whole reason someone was talking was to give us important information. We wouldn’t waste conversation space with meaningless talk about the weather, which we all experienced in the morning and could look outside to see. We would’t eagerly tell someone about what we saw on TV or about the funny thing our dog did. We would instead make sure we communicated valuable information and we would only do so reluctantly, particularly if someone else had given us valuable information which we had eagerly consumed.

 

The way we communicate doesn’t follow these expectations, and seems to be about something beyond just conveying information. Communication is about more than the message and more than what we have learned and can share about the world. Tomorrow’s post will dig further into this idea.

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