Lemon zest, theory of mind, and the hazards of localized advice

Image: Lemon zest, © Didriks via flickr.com CC BY 2.0

I hate lemon zest.  Yes, that’s trivial; but I’m going to turn it into a point that (I think) matters.

I hated lemon zest even more when I was growing up.  My mother, on the other hand, loved the stuff.  She put it in everything (well, it seemed that way to me), and she was perpetually amazed when I’d sample something new and – after my first nibble – say in an injured tone of voice “Mum, this has lemon zest in it!”.

What mystified me about the lemon zest was the stance my mother was taking.  It wasn’t a conscious resolution to put lemon zest in things despite my dislike.  That would have been entirely reasonable (perhaps even morally justified).  After all, she liked lemon zest, and she gave up so much for me and the rest of her family – why should she have given up zest too?  But that wasn’t it.  Instead, she seemed perpetually amazed not only that I noticed the zest, but that I didn’t like it.  She just didn’t seem to be able to wrap her mind around our different opinions.  To be fair: I was equally amazed that someone would voluntarily ingest the stuff.  Every time.

I didn’t realize it then, but my mother and I were both experiencing failures of “theory of mind”.  Theory of mind is the ability of one person to work out what another person’s mental state (knowledge, opinion, emotion) must be, independent of their own mental state.  If I can understand that you like lemon zest, even though I hate it, I have an effective theory of mind.  (I explain this a bit more fully in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, because it’s relevant to something scientific writers must do: they must be able to read their drafts as if they were the intended reader, forgetting all the things they know that the reader doesn’t.)

The usual Psych 101 explanation of theory of mind is that it’s absent in young children, developing around age four or five** and becoming more effective through childhood.  But I don’t think that’s quite the full story.  We may develop the ability to deploy theory of mind, but we often don’t deploy it.  In fact, adults are very frequently oblivious to the fact that other people hold different opinions or preferences, or have different needs.  My mother just couldn’t understand my dislike of zest, and I just couldn’t understand her love of it, and theory of mind was letting both of us down.

I promised I’d move beyond zest.  The same failure comes up in advice (and other prescriptions) all the time (here’s Terry McGlynn on this point).  People are very quick to take strong positions about what others should do, and those positions are very often based on their own experiences, and needs – but oblivious to the fact that other people have different experiences and needs.  I think of this as “localized advice” – advice that makes perfect sense in the lived world of the person offering it, but is tone-deaf or even offensive in the world of others.

I’ve seen two recent examples of localized advice.  The first was the push to ban plastic straws.  People who argued that the provision of disposable plastic straws is evil were surprised at pushback from disability advocates pointing out that some people – unnoticed by the straw-haters – depend on straws as an accessibility aid.  The second was a study suggesting that early-career scientists who move among countries have greater scientific impact.  That rapidly got turned in to advice that everyone should move (Nature News’ article about the study was headlined “Why you should move country”).  There are, of course, benefits to moving countries; but there are enormous costs, too, and many are simply not able to do so, and so simplistic advice to move comes off as tone-deaf at best.  Apparently, the headline writer (at least) was simply unable to imagine an early-career scientist unable to move: perhaps caring for a sick partner or an elderly parent, perhaps hamstrung by visa policies, perhaps simply lacking the financial resources to undertake an expensive international move.   Theory of mind had failed them.

Now, it may seem that I’m piling on, echoing those on social media who painted straw-banners and move-encouragers as clueless and out of touch.  And in a way I guess I am.  But I think it’s important for us to realize that all of us are, periodically, clueless and out of touch, because maintaining theory of mind is hard.  The lemon zest is one example.  You can find others right here on Scientist Sees Squirrel:  I take positions that are, inevitably, coloured by my own experience and my own position in the world.  Take my post “Can we stop saying reviewers are unpaid?.   I stand by my argument that when I do peer review, I’m not unpaid (it’s part of my job as I conceptualize it).  But many people pointed out that their jobs don’t pay them for peer review, or that they do peer review despite not even having a job.  My argument was localized: perfect correct in my own world, but arguably tone-deaf with respect to some other folks.  I wish this were the only example.

Here’s the thing: all of us take positions that are coloured by our own experience.  What else could we do?  And so, all of us offer localized advice – sometimes more localized, sometimes less, but no piece of advice works for absolutely everyone.  Those who offer advice should remember this, and get in the habit of throwing in a YMMV (“your mileage may vary”).  Those who receive advice should remember this too, and exercise their responsibility to ask “does this advice apply to my situation?”.  If it doesn’t: well, that’s a normal human state of affairs, not evidence that the advice-giver is irredeemably evil***.  When I’m offended by some off-kilter advice, I’m going to try to remember the lemon zest.

© Stephen Heard  Decmeber 13, 2018

*^“Just a tiny amount”, she’d always reply.  We all have superpowers, but we don’t get to choose what they are.  Mine is trace-quantity lemon-zest detection.  Well, and Boggle.  Pretty much equally useless.

**^I have a very early memory of lying on the couch with my eyes tightly closed, doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, and being astonished that my mother could see me.  My eyes were closed; how could she see me?  I had not yet developed theory of mind.  I remember the astonishment clearly.  I don’t remember just want I was doing – thank goodness.

***^I still want to hear about it, when a post on Scientist Sees Squirrel reveals a gap in my own theory of mind.  It’s one way I learn!

9 thoughts on “Lemon zest, theory of mind, and the hazards of localized advice

  1. Peter Short

    Thanks for this, Steve. Interesting take on the subject through lenses of idiocy, metacognition, and the ethical/intellectual dimensions of paying attention in Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford.


  2. Eric Pedersen

    Great post, Stephen! It’s a really nice framing of something I’ve noticed more and more as I’ve got advice (asked or unasked) as I’ve gone through my academic career; people, even after years of training in science, are still really quick to generalize from “this worked for me” or “this happened to me” to “this is how the world works”, basically making conclusions from n=1 studies.


  3. Artem Kaznatcheev

    Nicely written post. Also, very important for academics to keep in mind when giving advice to students who don’t necessarily want to also be academics. And in terms of writing, this is especially important when working in interdisciplinary fields and trying to bring tools over from one area to another. It takes a lot of practice.


  4. Rafael Pinheiro

    I think something that avoids this kind of problem is, both who receives as who gives the advice, having in mind that an advice is just an advice. It is not a precise understanding of reality, it is not an order, it is not a law. It is rather a personal perspective shaped by personal experiences.

    Not following an advice isn’t the same as not taking into account an advice.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. drtanya@saltedcaramel

    I really enjoyed this post.
    I am going to use and quote your YMMV acronym a lot.
    I hope I have your permission.

    I feel that its not just that different people have different experiences but also that people’s perceptions of the same experience can vary.


  6. Pingback: Close calls in fiction, and the value of advice | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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