Apes and important emails

23 April 2022

Have you read the children’s story about a cap seller’s encounter with a troop of monkeys? It is pretty straightforward for an adult: A cap-seller falls asleep under a tree in a forest. She is wearing a cap. A group of monkeys descend upon her and grab a cap from her merchandise. When she wakes up and realises what has transpired, she takes off her hat and throws it on the ground. Looking at her, all the monkeys do the same. She collects them all and moves on. Monkeys imitate; that’s the lesson. Even if you knew this, I highly recommend you try this hilarious YouTube video illustrating this.

I am bemused that I have recently realised this: aren’t humans the same? This should not be surprising because monkeys and apes are our genetic ancestors. And in this blog post by the end of it, I will describe why this makes it difficult to ascertain the importance of an email from its subject.

Why do we imitate or mimic others? Human beings are capable of causal reasoning. We have acquired and practised this skill from the moment we were born. Why am I feeling this burning sensation in my tummy? Oh, is it because I need to eat? Well, how do I obtain food? As it turns out, if I say “mum” and point to my mouth, I am given food. If I do not like the food, I need to cry and then the food changes. We are so good at it that we cannot stop doing it. Plenty of social phenomena can be pinned on the results of attempting to answer “Why?” questions. Why did I fail my exams? Because my stars are not aligned. We are capable of hypothesising and rejecting counterfactual claims. Had I studied better, would I still fail my exams? Of course, because my stars are not aligned. It is a much more generalised theory that explains all my bad luck. I fell in the puddle too this morning. Indeed, that is not related to my lack of studying for exams. There are pitfalls in our search for truth, but the point remains. We are very, very good at causal reasoning. The progress of science and the scientific method aims to protect us from such pitfalls. Still, the ability to reason seems to be built into the hardware.

Another thing we learn as a direct result of this ability is to lie. Momma will let me have another if I tell her that I’ve not had a single candy since morning. It does not matter if I’ve had more than one already. The cause for the effect “get candy” is others believing that I have not had any candy. We know that all of our causal behaviour is influenced by knowledge, and knowledge can be manipulated via speech.

If it is more likely for you to look at my email if I prefix the subject with an “[IMPORTANT]” or “[URGENT]”, why would I not do it again? The importance of an email is determined by the receiver. Still, the information content of the email is set by the sender, who would always be able to manipulate the causal inference of the receiver. Any measure of differentiation in communication systems dilutes itself. Hi, I called to check if you received the email I sent 10 minutes ago. I marked it as Urgent but thought it’s good to make sure you’re looking at it urgently. We have created this notification system where the sender can mark messages as MOST IMPORTANT. That will send you a notification every 10 minutes with a loud ping. Clearly, the ability to ping and arrest attention in a messaging app compared to the email was insufficient. All of us have seen this phenomenon unfold. Please write to me about the most atrocious cases.

Differentiation dilutes because we mimic because we reason causally.