The Problem With Imagining (2): Simulation, Tragedy and Farce

When you try to understand a person, you imagine yourself in her situation, and some psychologists call it “simulation”. I tentatively use the term “Runaway Simulation” to describe the countless cases when a reasonable working assumption – “the other person thinks and feels the way I would have thought and felt if I were in their situation” – morphs into a stubborn belief that persists despite loads of glaring counter-evidence.

Sometimes it’s nearly harmless: you love looking at pictures of your children and can’t imagine anyone could fail to enjoy pictures of your children, so you post too many baby pictures on Facebook. You are a ravenous person and so you doubt anyone, however generally honest, who claims to be full after a salad. You are an organized person and you ask someone like me for her flight itinerary six month in advance, despite your experience with her disorderly lifestyle. But things can get trickier. You meet a person who claims not to want children, and you can’t imagine not wanting children, so you come up with some other explanation for her having no children and claiming she doesn’t want them. Perhaps she had a bad mother and is afraid she might be a bad one too? Perhaps she is afraid of commitment in general? Perhaps her romantic partner is wrong for her, and not wanting children is her unconscious’s way to tell her the relationship isn’t working? You violate Ockham’s Razor like nobody’s business, because the best explanation is under your nose: she just doesn’t want children. This however you can’t imagine, and we humans trust our imaginations a lot. Like a twisted Holmes, you accept an improbable story because the alternative seems impossible, and some profound misunderstandings begin that way.

Some of these are tragic. I have talked to many people who have suffered from serious depressive episodes, and heard, too many times, “my wife thinks I’m only doing it to escape responsibilities” or “my husband thinks I’m only doing it to get attention” or “my parents keep telling me to finally snap out of it and grow up”.  The depressive or bipolar person is believed to be faking, malingering or childishly overdramatizing.  Why? Because the partner or parent who never experienced depression – or only in response to very bad news – cannot imagine being so sad when everything is going OK. The disbelief, with the resulting misperception of depression as manipulativeness or malingering persists even as the patient gets into serious trouble at work or school, even as she gives up her favorite activities, even as she explains that she feels that her loved ones will better off without her. In some cases I have heard of, even a near-deadly suicide attempt was written off as a sign that one’s partner will do anything to get attention.

I have heard formerly depressed persons, their friends, and others speculate that surely the partner or parent in such a story does not see the patient’s suffering because of not wanting to see. Self-deception is suspected, or wishful thinking, or some other kind of convenient believing meant to avoid the need to feel sympathy. That is no doubt to the point in some cases, but in others it seems unlikely, as the same partner or parent who withholds sympathy from a depressed partner or child would have been perfectly compassionate if the partner or child had a disease or run of bad luck of a type that they can imagine, or, better still, that they have themselves experienced in the past and do not need to imagine. In these cases it’s a failure of cognition, not of good will, that is in the basis of the tragedy.

Runaway Simulation is quite different from wishful thinking or Davidsonian self-deception, as Runaway simulation is just as likely to result in a belief inconvenient to the agent as in a convenient one. I have mentioned in a previous post that because I am a night owl, I sometimes find myself unable to believe that the person I’m talking to is yawning because it’s midnight and leaving because she needs to go to bed. Since midnight seems absurdly early, I can’t shake the feeling that she’s yawning because I’m boring her and leaving because I said something wrong. I loath the feeling that I’m boring people and loath even more the feeling that I said something wrong, and were I to believe what I wanted to believe, I would have happily latched onto the more flattering explanation: it’s midnight and she’s tired. My imagination, insisting on simulation, refuses to let me have this comfort.

Is Runaway Simulation like the gambler’s fallacy (if you know about it you won’t fall for it) or is it like implicit bias (no matter how much you know about it, you will fall for it just as much)? I suspect and hope it’s in between (you keep falling for it, but less often). I try to remind myself: there are sometimes good reasons to doubt what a person says about their inner lives – the person might be a known liar, say, or scientific studies might show that people are unreliable on a relevant feature of their inner lives. But the fact that you can’t imagine feeling the way the person tells you they feel? That’s a bad reason. Even Nabokov couldn’t imagine anyone smart liking Dostoevsky, and your imagination isn’t half as good as Nabokov’s. And some people are full after a salad, hard to imagine though it may be!