Unrolling social metacognition: Three levels of meta are not enough.

Disclaimer: This post was written time-boxed to 2 hours because I think LessWrong can still understand and improve upon it; please don’t judge me harshly for it.

Summary: I am generally dismayed that many people seem to think or assume that only three levels of social metacognition matter (“Alex knows that Bailey knows that Charlie knows X”), or otherwise seem generally averse to unrolling those levels. This post is intended to point out (1) how the higher levels systematically get distilled and chunked into smaller working memory elements through social learning, which leads to emotional tracking of phenomena at 6 levels of meta and higher, and (2) what I think this means about how to approach conflict resolution.

Epistemic status: don’t take my word for it; conceptual points intended to be fairly self evident upon reflection; actual techniques not backed up by systematic empirical research and might not generalize to other humans; all content very much validated by my personal experiences with talking to people about feelings in real life.

Related Reading: Duncan Sabien on Common knowledge & Miasma; Ben Pace on The Costly Coordination Mechanism of Common Knowledge

I. Conceptual introduction, by example

Here’s how higher levels of social metacognition get distilled down and represented in emotions that end up tracking them (if poorly). Each feeling in the example below will be followed by an unrolling of the actual event or events it is implicitly tracking or referring to.

Warning: reading this first section (I) will require a fair bit of symbolic reasoning/​thinking, so you might find it tiring and prefer to skip to later sections. A better writing of this section would do more work in between these symbolic reasoning bits to distill things out and make them easier to digest.

Scale 1: One event, four levels of meta (yes, we’re starting with four)

1.1) Alex leaves out the milk for 5 minutes

1.2) Bailey observes (1.1), and feels it was bad.

Unrolling of referents: Bailey felt that Alex leaving out the milk was bad.

1.3) Alex observes (1.2), and feels judged.

Unrolling of referents: Alex felt that Bailey felt that Alex leaving out the milk was bad.

1.4) Alex reflects on feeling judged, doesn’t like it, and concludes that Bailey is “a downer”.

Unrolling of referents: Alex felt it was bad that Alex felt that Bailey felt that Alex leaving out the milk was bad.

Notice that the unrollings look and sound very different from the distillations. That’s in large part because the unrolling is not our native format for storing social metacognition; it’s stored via concepts like “feeling judged” or “being a downer”. However, to the extent that the feeling “Bailey is a downer” is tracking something in reality, it’s tracking things that track things that track things that track reality: in this case, milk spoilage.

(An aside: notice also that 1.4 involves Alex’s feelings about Alex’s feelings. Some people wouldn’t call that an extra level of social metacognition, and would just combine it all together into “Alex’s feelings”. However, I’m separating those layers for two reasons: (1) the separation in counting won’t affect my conclusion that the total number of levels being implicitly tracked greatly exceeds three, and (2) I think it’s especially important to note when people have feelings about their own feelings, as that can lead to circular definitions in what their feelings are tracking; but that’s a topic for another day.)

Scale 2: multiple events, six levels of meta

I’ll start the numbering at 4 here:

2.4) Multiple similar Scale 1 events happen where Alex does something X, and ends up feeling that Bailey was “a downer” about it.

Partial unrolling of referents: Alex feels that Bailey is often a downer

Complete unrolling of referents: Alex felt it was bad that Alex felt that Bailey felt that Alex doing X was bad, for multiple values of X.

2.5) Charlie observes Alex treating Bailey like “a downer”, thinks this is baseless, and feels Alex is “a snob”.

Partial unrolling of referents: Charlie felt it was bad that Alex felt that Bailey is a downer.

2.6) Bailey observes Charlie’s opposition to Alex’s snobbiness, feels socially included by Charlie, and concludes that Charlie is “protective & welcoming.”

Partial unrolling of referents: Bailey felt it was good that Charlie felt it was bad that Alex was feeling that Bailey was often a downer.

Complete unrolling of referents: Bailey felt it was good that Charlie felt it was bad that Alex felt it was bad that Alex felt that Bailey felt it was bad that Alex did X, for multiple values of X.

If you count the (+/​-) signs implicit in the “good” and “bad” judgements here, they suggest that Charlie is implicitly condemning Alex’s multiple “X” behaviors (perhaps among other things, such as Alex’s style social of delivery). Charlie might not intend or even be aware of this effect, and it might take explicit work and discourse for the group to untangle and notice. What could result from the group reflecting upon this together? Well, it’s not hard at all to imagine that Charlie, upon haring about the milk and other situations (values of “X”), might conclude that Alex’s behavior with the milk was reasonable, and that “Alex was right to think that Bailey was being a downer”. In turn, this could burst Bailey’s bubble of social support, and result in Bailey having a change of heart about how critical to be of others.

The particular consequences here are of course hypothetical, and things could go very differently depending on the details; it’s just meant to illustrate how “changes of heart” can propagate through unrollings of social metacognition.

ETA (8/​27): Note there is an important distinction here between implicit and explicit metacognition. Bailey alone is not (necessarily) loading up a 5-layer-deep cognitive model of what’s going on, all at once. Rather, the layers are distributed across people, whence the term “social metacognition”. However, six levels of metacognition really are needed for someone to aiming to ground out all these feelings in “object-level” reality (i.e., non-mental phenomena like milk spoilage).

(This is the end of the tiring symbolic reasoning section.)

II. Higher levels of meta

Without going into further explicit detail, I hope you can see the pattern. Levels of social metacognition get distilled into simple, repeated concepts like “feeling judged”, “being a downer”, “being a snob”, “being welcoming”, and so on. To the extent that these distilled concepts behave in a somewhat systematic manner in relation to reality, they have some tendency to be actually tracking things that are actually happening. It’s not uncommon for me to observe six levels of social metacognition in a given disagreement or conflict, which is why I chose six for this post.

III. People don’t usually unroll things this way. Why?

Unfortunately, I think a lot of people aren’t aware that it even makes sense to try to ground out these sorts of social metacognition in more explicit terms to be reasoned and disagreed about. I think this is because it takes a lot of working memory slots to do, such that you basically need a shared piece of paper, whiteboard, or a shared Google doc to do it reasonably and collaboratively (rather than just slinging hard-to-unpack negative judgments at each other, adversarially, either in person or on the internet). However, I’ve resolved conflicts through co-writing and co-diagramming relevant levels of social metacognition many times now, and found it to be very enlightening almost every time it a way that directly benefitted the “social situation”. I’ve found it’s best if the shared writing medium is used for distillation mechanism, and is augmented by actual real-time conversation over the creation of the document.

IV. A fruitful application

For instance, in the past week, Alex (anonymized) felt judged by me for a thing I noticed Alex doing. I said, (a) “Don’t worry, I don’t think you did anything bad”, but Alex didn’t find this reassuring. To check, I asked “Do you feel like I feel like you did something bad?” and Alex said “No”. This ran up against my explicit models of people feeling judged that had fit well with past unrolling of the concept. So, I broke out a Google doc (in person) and started unrolling stuff. The situation was more complicated than described above, so the doc gave us mental space to explore other ideas for resolution. We eventually looped back to my question (a) above, and Alex said “Huh, yeah, I think I do feel that you feel that I did something bad.” Once that awareness existed, I responded “Cool! Well guess what? I don’t think you did anything bad.”, and this time, it resonated with Alex and Alex no longer felt judged. I then apologized with “Also, I’m sorry you felt judged. Given that I didn’t actually feel you were doing something bad, this was a mistake on my part, and I’m sorry.”
This further cleared things up.

This whole process took about 15 minutes. In retrospect it might seem like we could have jumped straight to this solution by me saying “I’m sorry I made you feel judged”, but that wasn’t an available strategy ex ante, for two reasons:

(1) Sometimes I really am judging someone, and I’m okay with them feeling judged, because I do in fact think they did something wrong. As a result of this willingness in myself and others, it’s not always believable to say “Sorry, I wish I hadn’t made you feel judged”. Indeed, to many this feels like a platitude. But, by actually going through the work of actually unrolling whether or not I thought Alex did a bad thing, and the other details of what was going on between us, we established enough shared clarity about the situation that we managed to “get on the same page” what whether a bad thing was done, who thought or didn’t think that, and who miscommunicated or didn’t miscommunicate about it.

(2) There were many other things going on that the Google doc helped to organize and sift through without getting us lost. Without that functionality, I don’t think we would have been able to hone in on the particular narrative resolution above.

V. How generalizable is this ‘unrolling’ technique?

The application (IV) above is not an isolated incident. I’ve founding co-writing and co-drawing to be extremely valuable in settling social disagreements and conflicts on at least 30 occasions now, with at least 7 different people, of varying degrees of inclination toward explicit symbolic reasoning. I imagine some inclination is necessary, but much less than I would have expected previously. For instance, I’ve used this sort of unrolling heuristic fruitfully in numerous conversations with folks close to me who

(1) didn’t go to college or otherwise study a symbolic discipline like math or linguistics, but who

(2) were generally open-minded enough to be willing to try out a “weird conflict resolution technique I’m experimenting with” where we sat down together and tried unpacked our feelings in explicit terms in a common medium (usually a Google doc).

I’ll defer to the finding of the broader community here to see if others can make this sort of thing work usefully.

VI. Relation to “miasma” and “hype”

The concept of “miasma” that Duncan is gesturing at in Common Knowledge and Miasma feels like a real social phenomenon to me, succinctly definable as “negative ungrounded social metacognition”. There is such a thing as positive ungrounded social metacognition, as well, which I think is normally called “hype”, at least in Silicon Valley. I think both hype and miasma are failures of group coordination, and both are costly to resolve, along the lines pointed out by Ben in The Costly Coordination Mechanism of Common Knowledge. However, the communicative costs of resolving these problems can be significantly decreased if people are aware of what they are. Both require creating and sharing of ideas in places of common view, like writing blog posts that a lot of people see each other commenting on, or holding meetings that a lot of people can see each other attending, or for complex topics, sitting together and co-authoring a document.

VII. Apology

I’m sorry I put very little effort into the pedagogy of this post, due to having too little time to write it. Hopefully it will be of some value anyway, due to much better posts having been written and circulated on common knowledge recently, and due to the general intellectual health of LessWrong appearing, to me, to be able to absorb mediocrely-explained ideas and flesh them out into better ones. My sense is that the culture here has been trying to move towards people not waiting until an idea is perfectly elaborated before starting to talk about it, so to the extent these ideas might be valuable, I’m punting to the community to do more elaboration and/​or distillation of them. Indeed, wishing not to be a part of a “common knowledge breakdown” problem is one reason I time-boxed two hours to write this post instead of waiting to improve it.