Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Communication Signal Loss and class segregation

I was driving from one chore to another the other day listening to NPR. It was a short trip in the middle of the afternoon. I did not get to hear the introduction or even the topic of discussion. From the context, there was a caller, a young woman, wanting to ask a question. The moderator was on, as well as an invited guest. My sense was that the expert was a local professor.

The young woman clearly had a question she wanted to ask but was having difficulty articulating it. The host tried to help out with a couple of prompts. Eventually, with many pauses, false starts, reversions, and self-corrections, the caller produced a string of jumbled words.

My interpretation of her question was "Why should people have to adjust to jobs? Why shouldn't jobs have to adjust to people?" I suspect a better rendition might have been "Why do we put the the economy before people? We should put people before the economy." I think that captures the sentiment but it does not reflect the words she used.

Is my interpretation correct? I am not sure. Too much noise in the signal, but I think I am close.

The talking head began a very ponderous response. And then I arrived at my destination and that was all there was.

It got me thinking, though.

When it became clear(er) what the caller was asking, my first response was a roll of the eyes. What an absurd question. How incredibly naive.

But then I paused. To me it seems like a foolish question, but my background is in business and economics and human systems. And besides, how would I answer? If it was a foolish question, then it should be easy to answer. But it is not. There is a hodgepodge of economic theory, political theory, psychology, philosophy that would all need to be addressed. But its a radio show. You only have two or three minutes. There actually isn't a good response in that time frame. Certainly not one that isn't dismissive or disrespectful.

If the caller and I shared a similar profile of Knowledge, Experience, Skills, Values, Behavior, Capabilities, and Motivation, I would be able to provide an answer within a few minutes because I could allude to concepts and ideas without having to be explicit. Because we don't share that KESVBCM, a respectful response within a three minute window becomes, effectively, impossible.

I considered the sequence and wondered about the barriers to effective communication and the signal to noise ratio in any dialogue. When talking about something with someone, your communication effectiveness is likely very high if you share high levels of capability (IQ), acquired knowledge, experience, skills, values, behaviors, and motivation. Part of the effectiveness derives from the shared bases and part arises from sheer capability.

The caller had a question she wanted to share in order to get an answer. What might that sequence of events look like between her idea and his response? More critically, where are the points of leakage? And just how big are those leaks?

I sketched out what it might look like. At the beginning of the process there is something of a mysterious gap between neural synaptic processes and a formulated idea.

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Accepting that an idea is initiated, I suspect the steps might look something like:

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What about signal degradation? Reflecting the caller's difficulty in articulating her question, I'll start with a high degradation level and assume that only 70% of signal gets through at each stage.

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The caller has an idea. That inchoate idea is framed in her mind to some sort of conceptual representation. There is a 30% loss of signal from idea to frame. Once framed in her mind, she then creates an articulation of the idea, the words describing the framed idea. Again there is a 30% loss of signal. Finally, as she speaks (transmits) the articulated idea, there is all sorts of signal loss. The words don't come out right. The articulated frame in her mind fails to flow in the words she speaks. She pauses, reformulates, starts and stops, etc. Again, there is a 30% loss of signal.

There are three distinct phases in the process of formulating and transmitting an idea with signal degradation at each step. Multiplying the percentages out (70% x 70% x 70%) yields only 34% of the original signal getting through to an expressed idea or transmitted idea.

That's only half the conversation. The counter-party has to hear the expressed idea, interpret what he is hearing and then formulate a response to what he thinks he heard. Another three steps with possible signal degradation.

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With these three additional steps, we are now at only 12% of original signal strength (34% x 70% x 70% x 70%). And that only gets the idea from Person 1 to Person 2. Person 2 now has to respond to Person 1, repeating in reverse order all the steps. At the end of the full round trip, we only have 2% of the original strength.

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No wonder communication is so hard and disagreements and miscommunication so frequent.

I set the signal loss high just because that was what was so striking in the radio call-in segment. Let's assume that the two parties of the conversation are much more alike than was evident in the radio show. [See, for an example, It contained the three words “but if not … ” for an example of efficient communication between congruent participants]. Let's assume that the two participants have a high level of shared Knowledge, Experience, Skills, Values, Behavior, Capabilities, and Motivation. What might signal degradation look like in that scenario? I'll set the signal loss at only 1% at each transition.

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That's much better and feels like a more normal conversation. There is only 12% signal loss between asker and response. Still not perfect but not a howling hurricane as a barrier to communication.

Is this the right number of steps and what are the realistic signal losses in each transition? I have no idea but I think the model is likely a step in the right direction of understanding what undermines efficient and effective communication.

Playing out the implications of the model is interesting in a speculative fashion.

The first example is the plaint I occasionally hear from very old people. Even if they live with family, they complain of a loneliness that is unique to old age. They are the remaining survivors of a cohort with whom they lived a lifetime of experiences and which set them apart from later generational cohorts. It is always nice to talk with people who have a similar worldview but as you get older and the Grim Reaper winnows the ranks, there are fewer and fewer people with whom you can share such easy communication.

A more substantive issue is self-segregation. I have touched on different aspects of this in earlier posts such as European and American political systems, locality and minority political power and Root causes of demographic inversions.

These posts revolve around the findings of Nobel prize winner, Thomas C. Schelling. His work revealed that you do not have to have negative biases in order to end up with homogenous distributions (groups sorting themselves into bounded areas). Seeing Around Corners by Jonathan Rauch is a good summary of Schelling's work. If people have even a small positive affiliation with an attribute and no negative aversion, you will end up with self-segregation.

I wonder if the same thing isn't happening in a fashion around conversational effectiveness. People observably self-segregate themselves on many vectors such as income, religion, profession, education attainment level, political affiliation, class, etc. I wonder if an unexamined dynamic here is whether Communication Signal Loss might be a driver of self-segregation.

The more signal loss there is in a conversation the more you have to work towards establishing a connection. It takes more cognitive processing, more time, more effort. The cost goes up. In addition, with low communication effectiveness, you also have a decline in positive outcomes. With so much signal loss, it is hard to coordinate and cooperate.

The consequence is that, where there is a poor KESVBCM match between conversational partners, there is high cost to conversation and low benefit. From economics, we know that people gravitate away from High Cost/Low Benefit and towards Low Cost/High Benefit. Hence my speculation that Communication Signal Loss might be a major and unacknowledged driver behind class segregation.

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