What “The Price is Right” and politic answers have in common.
I have heard tell that the game show “The Price is Right” introduced the guessing system wherein the person with the highest guess that is not larger than the correct value wins. This system came to mind recently as I was preparing for how I might handle various questions during my dissertation defense this afternoon.
All communication is approximate. What I say will hopefully create a similar level of belief in your head as in mine, but it never creates quite the same level of belief. This is even true of crisp communication domains like numbers; when I say “there were 38,423 people there” you mind pictures a group of people that is not exactly 38,423 strong.
Now, let us suppose that you and I disagree on some matter. If I give my honest assessment of the matter then you probably have about a 50% chance of receiving a mental model that is even further from your belief than mine is. Simple miscommunication, inevitable in some way, might exacerbate our differences.
An alternative way of expressing disagreements is to attempt to create a mental model that is as correct as I can get it without going past my actual belief. In other words, I answer carefully. Pulling a random ludicrous example out of thin air, instead of saying “ringworms can travel back in time” I might say “this paradox would be resolved if we believed that ringworms could time-travel.”
Certainly not going over is not the only aspect of careful, politic communication. But it is one that needs to be considered. If there are 50 people listening to you you want the probability that you sound more extreme than you are to be way less than 2%. It’s not just that you want to appeal to the people in the middle; you also don’t want to spook people who are not quite as far from the middle as yourself.