July 25, 2014

Mental Model: Calibration Errors

Calibration Errors

People who cannot calibrate responses face a significant uphill battle in life.

Calibration errors are when people lack the genetic or cultural ability to calibrate communication based upon the situation, people involved, or other contextual clues.  To understand calibration errors as a mental model,  it might help to give you three real-world scenarios that would require the observer to calibrate the hyperbole.

  • A group of frat boys lives together in a private fraternity.  On a Thursday night, one sent a text message to another that said, “I’m going to kill you.”  Most reasonable people would be able to judge that, given the audience and the contextual clues, the sender of message does not, in fact, intent to murder the receiver.  Most likely, if they two were roommates, one left their dirty clothes all over the floor or ate the last box of Pop Tarts.
  • An insanely hormonal couple, consisting of a 19 year old boy and an 18 year old girl, just started dating.  They can’t keep their hands off each other and are engaged in inappropriate displays of public affection.  Walking by a bench on campus one day, you hear the girl say to the boy, aggressively, “I want to rape you!” and the boy responds, “If you ever cheat on me, I’ll cut out your heart.”  Despite the actual words spoken, and the wildly inappropriate nature, most reasonable adults are going to raise an eyebrow but instantly realize that the contextual clues indicate that the girl has no interest in raping the boy against his will and the boy has no interest in cutting apart the girl.  
  • A successful woman at lunch with friends runs into an acquaintance from her private boarding school.  Introducing the person, she squeals, “You are so my favorite person!” turns to the other women at the table and says, “This is one of my best friends in the whole wide world!”.  Despite the actual words spoken, the fact they haven’t seen each other in years or don’t speak regularly indicates that the woman’s language needs to be calibrated.  Using the famous relationship test, the woman probably doesn’t consider the person one of her best friends and almost everyone in the room understands that. 

Now, imagine that a middle age woman is sitting in her office.  The phone rings.  It’s a man.  He calmly says any one of the three phrases from the first two examples: “I’m going to kill you”, “I’m going to rape you”.  “I’ll cut out your heart.”  Clearly, the police need to be called and security measures taken.  This is an example of calibrating communication based upon contextual clues.  Again, you are calibrating your answers even though the words themselves did not change.

Many People Cannot Calibrate Successfully

A significant minority of people do not have the ability to calibrate well, resulting in calibration errors that can cause them difficulty in their relationships and their romantic lives.  They think harmless gestures are romantic cues or don’t have the ability to look beyond words and hear the meaning.  In business, this can be enough to sink you.

Mr Magoo

Cognition errors are like the mental equivalent of Mr. Magoo’s inability to see.

The nature of my work means I come into contact with a lot of people.  I once knew a person who was so myopic they committed calibration errors to such a degree that it became a running joke.  They were unable to have successful romantic relationships because they couldn’t read between the lines and reconcile people’s words, actions, and baseline in a way that let them divine underlying meaning, intention, and motivation

At times the calibration errors were almost comical.  Other times, they were less benign.  This person once thought a woman was in need of mental help when everyone else in the group understood what was really going on by the contextual clues (it was a complex situation but the person’s motives made sense, yet they couldn’t pick up on them even though they were plainly visible to everyone else).  This person spent months talking about and obsessing over the situation.  Due to everyone’s silence, they fell prey to false consensus bias, not realizing we were trying to spare their feelings without embarrassing them.  I still doubt they ever figured out what was really going on but it was the adult equivalent of when grown ups are discussing sex and the four-year-old kids in the room can’t pick up on the subtext.  This person ended up humiliating themselves many, many times in front of other people due to the inability to calibrate (but the upshot was, they hardly ever realized it so I suppose that is something?).

This applies to business, as well.  In business, understanding how someone operates allows you to calibrate their responses.  One person saying, “This is the greatest stock ever!” might indicate they are mildly excited about it.  Another person saying, “It looks like a very interesting opportunity.” might be the equivalent of “This is the best investment I’ve ever seen in my life and I’m putting half my net worth into it.” 

It is your responsibility to learn to calibrate on your own.  You cannot take people’s words at face value.  You need to calibrate them.  It helps if you’ve been exposed to someone long enough to develop a baseline for their patterns.

  • http://www.moneygrowers.co.uk/ The Money Grower

    Inability to ‘calibrate’ is often seen in people on the autistic/ asperger spectrum. English is a language based on intonation, in addition to the usual non-verbal cues such as body language.

    I have often wondered whether there is a ‘best language’ to be born in to if one is on the spectrum.

    The US and UK share a language but even though the language is shared, I still think there is a difference.

    All very interesting.

    TMG

    • Joshua Kennon

      That’s a very good question (whether one language would be preferable to another in this regard). 

      On that note, there was a very interesting article written about the surge in autism / Asperger’s in Silicon Valley.  The hypothesis that seems to make the most sense is that it is that the root cause lies in the assortative mating patterns of the parents, who often were brilliant technologically but perhaps not so much in the social department.  This resulted in the risk of genetic defects higher than those found in the general population.  It’s worth reading if you have the time: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aspergers_pr.html

    • Joshua Kennon

      That’s a very good question (whether one language would be preferable to another in this regard). 

      On that note, there was a very interesting article written about the surge in autism / Asperger’s in Silicon Valley.  The hypothesis that seems to make the most sense is that it is that the root cause lies in the assortative mating patterns of the parents, who often were brilliant technologically but perhaps not so much in the social department.  This resulted in the risk of genetic defects higher than those found in the general population.  It’s worth reading if you have the time: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aspergers_pr.html

      • Gilvus

        Some historians and psychology professionals think that many, if not the majority of famous artists, scientists, and engineers had a streak of autism.

        So that calls the question: is high-functioning autism (or Asperger’s) a disability or a gift?

      • Velska Makila

        re: language
        You make an interesting statement there, in “… risk of genetic defects higher …” when I do suppose you mean that there is a greater risk that same genetic defect associated to autism spectrum is inherited from both parents. Other than that, I think you’d be right on the money.

        But as a language, German is very precise, and there are seldom similar opportunities for misunderstanding from nominally correctly assembled sentences, as there is in English.

        • Joshua Kennon

          Willkommen auf der Webseite! Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch von meiner klassischen Musikstudium an der Universität. Leider habe ich das meiste vergessen. Ich bin sicher, diese Nachricht enthält viele Fehler und Irrtümer vorbehalten. Gott helfe mir, wenn mein Freund James diese. Er wurde fließend und zog nach Deutschland für ein Jahr, um Englisch zu unterrichten.

          That was painful – and it has been eight years since I have had to try and speak it so I am sure I utterly butchered the language. You have my deepest and sincerest apologies.

          The answer to your question:

          Yes. You are correct in my intended meaning. Often, “higher” is synonymous with “greater” in colloquial English, the former not referring to height or altitude but, rather, magnitude. German is a much more precise language. I’m still fascinated by the social relationships implicit in the Du / Sie forms of address. That is so foreign to an English speaker where everyone from the President to the lowest ranking members of society are referred to by the same pronouns and verb forms.

  • Patrick

    If you want a more detailed discussion of this phenomenon, read: “Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities” by Joseph Palombo.