November 02, 2006

Social science on the playground

On the recent Linguistics 001 midterm, one of the questions that most people missed was "What is the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis?" Obviously my lecture on hypotheses about language evolution failed to get this point (or at least this term) across. For the record, "Machiavellian intelligence" (popularized as a term by a 1988 book of that title) refers to the hypothesis that "the driving force in the evolution of human intellect was social expertise--a force which enabled the manipulation of others within the social group, who themselves are seen as posing the most challenging problems faced by primitive humans".

In the interests of making this idea more vivid, here's a little story that someone recently sent me, about an interaction among elementary-school children (in a galaxy far away):

Dramatis personae: Elementary school kids A, B, C, X, Y, Z; teacher T.

There's this new kid, A, who, according to B, never smiles and is extremely hateful to other people. He's in C's group, with T for teacher.

At recess, C was complaining to B that T got mad at him and it wasn't fair. He said T turned to him just before recess -- because C was sitting closest to her -- and asked where A was. C said, "I don't know, and I bet nobody else does either, because 9 out of 10 people don't like him." That made T mad.

B told C the problem was that if you quote a statistic, most people will think you agree with it. So they took a survey among three kids on the playground -- X, Y, and Z -- asking, "If someone quotes a statistic to you, will you assume they agree with it?" X said yes, Y said yes, and Z said, "What's the right answer to that question?" indicating that she just wanted to be on the same side as B and C.

But B points out that while it really wasn't fair of T to get mad at C for merely quoting a statistic, in fact C does agree with it.

And of course, he did make up the statistic. Although B says he thinks C's estimate may be conservative, because they only know of one kid who likes A.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 2, 2006 06:20 AM