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I’ve been afraid that most people lack abstract reasoning for quite some time. Thank you for describing the phenomenon so clearly. However, I also fear that you may be underestimating its biggest consequence in your life.
I strongly suspect that the biggest consequence of people lacking abstract reasoning isn’t that different methods are required to explain concepts to pattern-matching people, but rather that most of the systems and institutions around you have been designed by people who have or had poor abstract reasoning skills, and that this will continue to be the case unless something is done about it.
The further consequence is that these structures are only equipped to deal with situations that the designers could conceptualize, which is limited to their immediate experiences. Unprecedented situations, long-term or large-scale effects, or immediate effects that they simply have not yet learned to notice are all ignored for the purposes of design, and this results in problems that might have been avoided, maybe even easily, had abstract reasoning been applied towards the project. These sorts of problems are the bane of my existence.
Following from this, I advocate for teaching abstract reasoning, if possible, from an early age. (Ensuring that most people possess such thinking skills is my central life purposes for the foreseeable future.) I believe it is likely possible, but have not yet compiled evidence or a formal argument for its feasibility. At the very least, I believe it is worth a try, and have been working on a project to address the situation for some years now. For elaboration on why I believe it is important, I refer to my response to this post: https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/dPLLnAJbas97GGsvQ/leave-beliefs-that-don-t-constrain-experience-alone
How do you tell the difference between someone skilled at abstract reasoning and someone who is not?
(I thought the point of doing similar math problems over and over was so that you would memorize the algorithm to solve them and not forget it.)
Just to add some more examples, I frequently pick up on some of the following things in casual social situations:
Use of textbook biases and logical fallacies
Reliance on “common sense” or “obviousness”
Failure to recognized nuanced situations (false dichotomies)
Failing at other minds
Failure to recognize diminishing marginal returns
Failure to draw a distinction between the following concepts:
Correlation and causation
Description and norm (is and ought)
Fact and interpretation
Necessary and sufficient
Entertaining an idea and accepting it
What distinguishes someone who has not learned how to think abstractly isn’t just that they make these mistakes, but that when you call them on it and explain the principle to them, they still don’t know what their mistake means or how it could weaken their position in any way. A good counterexample or parable usually helps them see what they’re overlooking, though.
I think what you are seeing is a consequence of different levels of postformal developmental complexity (at least within particular domains). You might be interested in Michael Commons’s work on developmental psychology as I think it can explain much of what you’re seeing and help you develop developmentally targeted methods of communication since that seems to be of interest to you.
This reminded me of this post. I like that you specifically mention that reasoning vs. pattern-matching is a spectrum and context-dependent. The advice about using examples is also good, that definitely worked for me.
Both posts also remind me of Mappers and Packers. Seems like all three are exploring roughly the same personality feature from different angles.
Empirically, I agree with you that some people seem uninterested in or incapable of discussions involving abstract reasoning. It seems like some people have a framework for understanding the world that is highly dissimilar to mine, and which I would not call abstract reasoning. Yet how can one call these people non-reasoning? Is abstract reasoning not a fundamental part of the human experience?
I just can’t understand what it would be like, what it would feel like from the inside. Have you broached this idea with your test subjects (who are presumably non-reasoning, under this framework)? How do they react to being told they cannot reason? Reasoning seems to me to be a deeply internal, personal process, one that is difficult to identify from the outside. Are these people really incapable fo reasoning, or do they just not know how to do it / that they can do it?
Think of more everyday examples. Making a grocery list. Planning your day. Reacting to what your friends say/do. Thinking about the future. These things require reflection, they require thought. Is this insufficient as abstract reasoning? What is the demarcation between a concept which requires abstract reasoning and one for which either abstract reasoning through symbolism or pattern matching would suffice?
Based on my understanding of the wide variety of human thought, there are several basic mindsets which people use to address situations and deal with problems. Many people only use the handful that come naturally to them, and the mindsets dealing with abstract reasoning are some of the least common. Abstract reasoning requires differentiating and evaluating concepts, which are not skills most people feel the need to learn, since in most cases concepts are prepackaged for their consumption. Whether these packages represent reality in any useful way is another story…
To use your examples, planning one’s day takes an awareness of resources, requirements, and opportunities; an ability to prioritize them; and the generation and comparison of various options. Some people find it difficult, but usually not because they don’t already have all the concepts they need. It is certainly conscious thought, but it does not deal with the abstract. This is organization mindset.
Reacting to what one’s friends say and do in social situations is usually one of two related mindsets: dealing with people similar to oneself takes intuition, and usually does not call for much imagination. Feeling out the paradigms and emotions of a less similar person requires a blend of both. That leads to an appreciation for differences, but doesn’t help with hard rules.
Thinking about the future doesn’t require abstract reasoning, if it’s just extrapolation based on past experiences, or wishful thinking blended from experiences and desires. Serious predictions, though, should have an understanding of causality, and for that, abstract thinking is necessary.
Mostly pattern-matchers make decisions based on what they think is supposed to happen in a situation, based in turn on past experiences or what they’ve heard, or seen on TV. They accept that things won’t always work out for them, but they sometimes don’t how to learn from their failures, or they learn an unbalanced lesson.
From a pattern-matcher’s perspective, things just sort of happen. Sometimes they have very simple rules, although people disagree on what those rules are and mostly base their own opinion on personal experience and bias (but those who disagree are usually either obviously wrong or “just as right in their own way”). Other times things have complex and arcane rules, like magic. A person with a high “intelligence” (which is implicitly assumed to be a scalar) can make use of these rules to achieve impressive things, like Hollywood Hacking. With ill-defined limits and capabilities, such a person would be defeated either by simply taking out their hardware or by a rival hacker who is “better”. The rules wouldn’t mean much to the audience anyway, so they’re glossed over or blurred beyond recognition.
Does that help with visualizing non-abstract thought?