Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Mind Projection Fallacy

32 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 March 2008 12:29AM

Followup toHow an Algorithm Feels From Inside

Monsterwithgirl_2In the dawn days of science fiction, alien invaders would occasionally kidnap a girl in a torn dress and carry her off for intended ravishing, as lovingly depicted on many ancient magazine covers.  Oddly enough, the aliens never go after men in torn shirts.

Would a non-humanoid alien, with a different evolutionary history and evolutionary psychology, sexually desire a human female?  It seems rather unlikely.  To put it mildly.

People don't make mistakes like that by deliberately reasoning:  "All possible minds are likely to be wired pretty much the same way, therefore a bug-eyed monster will find human females attractive."  Probably the artist did not even think to ask whether an alien perceives human females as attractive.  Instead, a human female in a torn dress is sexy—inherently so, as an intrinsic property.

They who went astray did not think about the alien's evolutionary history; they focused on the woman's torn dress.  If the dress were not torn, the woman would be less sexy; the alien monster doesn't enter into it.

Apparently we instinctively represent Sexiness as a direct attribute of the Woman object, Woman.sexiness, like Woman.height or Woman.weight.

If your brain uses that data structure, or something metaphorically similar to it, then from the inside it feels like sexiness is an inherent property of the woman, not a property of the alien looking at the woman.  Since the woman is attractive, the alien monster will be attracted to her—isn't that logical?

E. T. Jaynes used the term Mind Projection Fallacy to denote the error of projecting your own mind's properties into the external world.  Jaynes, as a late grand master of the Bayesian Conspiracy, was most concerned with the mistreatment of probabilities as inherent properties of objects, rather than states of partial knowledge in some particular mind.  More about this shortly.

But the Mind Projection Fallacy generalizes as an error.  It is in the argument over the real meaning of the word sound, and in the magazine cover of the monster carrying off a woman in the torn dress, and Kant's declaration that space by its very nature is flat, and Hume's definition of a priori ideas as those "discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe"...

(Incidentally, I once read an SF story about a human male who entered into a sexual relationship with a sentient alien plant of appropriately squishy fronds; discovered that it was an androecious (male) plant; agonized about this for a bit; and finally decided that it didn't really matter at that point.  And in Foglio and Pollotta's Illegal Aliens, the humans land on a planet inhabited by sentient insects, and see a movie advertisement showing a human carrying off a bug in a delicate chiffon dress.  Just thought I'd mention that.)


Part of the sequence Reductionism

Next post: "Probability is in the Mind"

Previous post: "Righting a Wrong Question"

Comments (60)

Sort By: Old
Comment author: Hendrik_Boom 11 March 2008 01:38:21AM 17 points [-]

It's not about what the bug-eyed monster considers sexy. It's about what the human reader considers sexy.

Comment author: bobthechef 26 April 2011 12:44:36PM 7 points [-]

Exactly. I never conceived of the alien taking the woman because she was attractive. Weaker perhaps, but not because he found her sexy. Damsel in distress. I think it is your, author of this article, who suffered from mind projection fallacy, not necessarily the creators of the comic or the rest of the audience. To me, from the point of view of the story, it was just a tragic accident that the woman being hauled off was one I found beautiful.

Comment author: Dmytry 29 December 2011 06:45:09PM *  4 points [-]


If a bunch of aliens were to start capturing bunch of humans (and other terrestrial animals) for food, or slave labour, or what ever, it would be rational for males to go after the aliens with sexy human females first. The torn clothing would likely be widespread, and selection by torn clothing (as torn clothing improves ability to select for sexiness) may also be rational when one wants to maximize the sexiness of mates that one takes for rebuilding the human race. :-)

edit: One should also look for signs of struggle (such as torn clothing), as one would be interested in the relevant genes for the successful counter-attack by the next generation.

Comment author: Yelsgib 11 March 2008 02:38:28AM 0 points [-]

I ask you again - what is the other option? How can we deal with the world other than via "mind-projection?" I claim that you do it too, you just do it in a more sophisticated way. Do you have an alternative in mind?

Comment author: Fnord 28 November 2011 09:17:13AM 1 point [-]

You could attempt to perceive the universe in all the other viewpoints of every other living being while you perceive it as you would naturally.

Or, to make it extremely simple: Keep in mind that everyone else does not think in the same way that you do.

Comment author: Benquo 11 March 2008 02:58:00AM 9 points [-]

Yeah, I can't help but think that in many cases there is no implied inference that the alien especially desires the woman, but rather that the reader is especially affected by the fact that the abductee just happens to be an attractive woman. (King Kong would be an exception.) It's the same reason that we rarely if ever see the alien carrying a cow instead; not because of its preferences, but because we wouldn't be especially apprehensive about the cow's fate.

If there's a bias here, it's one generated by the desire to tell interesting stories. Projection happens, but I don't find this example terribly compelling.

Comment author: MooreQuestions 20 May 2013 08:38:48AM 0 points [-]

(Five years on, but whatever)

I don't think the inference is necessary, really; it's fairly explicit that the scenario in which the comment is relevant is one in which the Alien Monster selected the Damsel for some lovin'. A competent writer, given only that cover art as the basis for their film, could get around that. The fact that the story is so frequently told incompetently is what makes it an unfortunately apt example for a much subtler and more insidious fallacy.

As a more contraversial, if slightly less ovious example, is the Christian condemning an Athiest to Hell. Their universe does not include a scenario in which there is any other result in store for someone who disbelieves, even without any objective basis for their claim. Besides Dante Aliegeri, but results have to be independently verifiable, after all.

Comment author: redacted 05 June 2013 07:15:04PM 1 point [-]

Your example does not seem to depict a mind projection fallacy. You might contend that the Christian doesn't have a basis for his assertion, but he doesn't seem to be confusing the map with the territory.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 11 March 2008 03:22:38AM 4 points [-]

I take your point about the mind projection fallacy, but actually in the particulars I may have to _slightly_ disagree.

Consider these themes:

Furries Anime tentacle rape Bestiality/zoophilia etc etc etc...

In other words, we already know that there can be humans that find stuff either slightly human but modified, or increasingly alien to also, ahem. "tweak" them.

I bet somewhere either the author of that story (with the plant) that you mentioned, or some reader somewhere found that story _particularly_ enjoyable, or at least the notion of it.

So, it does seem reasonable to suppose that _some_ alien species would contain _some_ mambers that have sufficiently different or broad or... creative... sexuality that they'd even find the scandalous notion of being attracted to a human, well, attractive.

Clearly then the Bug Eyed Monsters coming after the ladies in torn dresses are simply the deviants of that species. They're self selected! (okay, was being somewhat silly throughout this entire comment, such happens when I am on lack of sleep...)

Benquo: Wait... what about Chupucabra? Clearly simply a very confused alien that's simply trying to find a mate! *chuckles*

Comment author: Raw_Power 11 September 2010 03:35:29AM *  3 points [-]

Actually wanting to bang Anything That Moves is common enough: alien perverts are just over-represented in fiction, because it's more terrifying for us humans.

I for one thought the plant story was a definite turn-on...

Comment author: John_O 11 March 2008 03:34:41AM 1 point [-]

If I assume that others have minds like mine I surely would also assume they "project" the same properties, so calling them "mental projection" is not likely to make this error go away. Conversely if I establish that a certain property is a real, non-projected property of an object, that doesn't entitle me to assume that it will be perceived by an alien with a different evolutionary history. After all, humans only perceive a tiny percentage of the actual properties of objects. So I think that the "mind projection error" and the "all minds are alike" error are quite different.

Comment author: bobthechef 26 April 2011 12:56:09PM -1 points [-]

Your error is falsely conclude that he fallacy is essential to human thinking, that the properties projected are always and the same across the board, and that they cannot differ. And what the heck does "human only perceive a tiny percentage of the actual properties of objects" even mean? We certainly don't know all there is about a thing, but what properties are you even talking about and how?

Comment author: DanielLC 23 February 2012 04:28:59AM 2 points [-]

And what the heck does "human only perceive a tiny percentage of the actual properties of objects

One thing that comes to mind to me is color. We see red green and blue. Aliens might see yellow and ultraviolet instead. We might decide to camouflage ourselves so that they don't see us, and fail completely because we're using the wrong colors to blend in.

Technically, there's no point where this stops and mind projection begins. How sexy you'd find a woman is much more complex than how red you'd find her dress, and it's similarly less likely for an alien to notice, but it's just a matter of degree.

Comment author: PK 11 March 2008 04:06:07AM 0 points [-]

Good post. I have a feeling I've read this very same example before from you Eliezer. I can't remember where.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 11 March 2008 04:10:52AM 0 points [-]

PK: I think Eliezer made the same point in "Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgement of Global Risks"

At least, I think that's the one.

Comment author: TGGP4 11 March 2008 06:38:02AM 11 points [-]

The aliens and monsters are stand-ins for the traditional fear: men from the other tribe. Since cross-tribal homicide and rape/abduction are quite common, it is no surprise that our Sci-Fi creations do the same thing.

Comment author: Lior 11 March 2008 07:05:36AM 2 points [-]


We share an evolutionary history with different animals on earth. There could be attractive properties in animals that give us a similar representation of sexiness as they do to their own species. Same reason we find you will find different creatures finding other creatures cute e.g. humans to dogs and gorilla to human.

Additionally, there has been cases where dolphins attempted to sexually engage with humans. An intelligent alien will have a shared ancestry and therefore will not have sexiness representations from "sexual properties" exhibited in earth's creatures.

Comment author: bobthechef 26 April 2011 12:41:13PM 1 point [-]

That's a rather weak explanation because you're implying the presence of causes without elucidating them, or you're creating a cause out of evolution, which is not a cause.

From the standpoint of being, we apprehend the accidental properties of a thing first, but from the point of view of the intellect, we apprehend "gorillaness" first, so in the context of gorillaness, sexiness is impossible in relation to human. One cannot find a gorilla sexy unless one is confused in some way. This is why zoophilia is a mental disorder.

You can find something about a gorilla beautiful, certainly, but this is not the same as sexy.

Comment author: Naadir_Jeewa2 11 March 2008 08:33:43AM 1 point [-]

There is of course, the Red Dwarf episode "Camille" with the alien who appears as the projection of whatever you find sexiest.

Comment author: FrF 11 March 2008 12:35:30PM 1 point [-]

I'm sure the historians of the recent "Imagining Outer Space, 1900-2000" conference would have a good time with analyzing the various pop cultural strands that came together to produce rote images such as the above cover.

Comment author: Sebastian_Hagen2 11 March 2008 01:30:19PM 0 points [-]

PK: This example is also part of Eliezer's "Hard AI Future Salon" lecture (starting at 1:35:33).

Comment author: PK 11 March 2008 05:01:53PM 1 point [-]

"Hard AI Future Salon" lecture, good talk. Most of the audience's questions however were very poor.

One more comment about the mind projection fallacy. Eliezer, you also have to keep in mind that the goal of a sci-fi writer is to make a compelling story which he can sell. Realism is only important in so far as it helps him achieve this goal. Agreed on the point that it's a fallacy, but don't expect it to change unless the audience demands/expects realism. http://tvtropes.org/ if full of tropes that illustrate stuff like that.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 11 March 2008 06:24:18PM 0 points [-]

Lior: good point.

Comment author: apikoros 12 March 2008 02:27:19AM 0 points [-]

The subject of human/alien sex was disposed of rather thoroughly by Larry Niven in "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex".

Comment author: DanielLC 23 February 2012 04:35:09AM *  1 point [-]

I think it would be justified in that case. If the alien is of a species that looks exactly like humans, and was raised in a human culture, he would likely find the same females attractive. And that's assuming Lois Lane is attractive by human standards. Is that ever specified?

That was more about human/superhero sex. It would be just as dangerous for a human to sleep with the Flash.

Comment author: Intrazero 12 March 2008 06:27:55AM 2 points [-]

Speaking of interspecies vs intraspecies reproductive fitness evaluation - a human may judge a member of its own species (from a distant end of the genetic spectrum, i.e., whitest of the white vs. blackest of the black) less desirable than some hypothetical alien species with appropriately bulbous forms and necessary orifices or extrusions.

Comment author: bobthechef 26 April 2011 12:58:18PM 0 points [-]

Are you sexually attracted to manikins?

Comment author: DSimon 22 February 2012 05:38:34AM *  2 points [-]

What if the manikins were alive and intelligent?

Comment author: Desertopa 30 June 2008 02:42:33PM 2 points [-]

It's certainly not just sci-fi writers who go for this sort of reasoning. I knew a theology professor who would make mistakes like this on a consistent basis. For example, he would raise questions about whether there was an evolutionary pressure for babies to evolve to be cute, without even considering the possibility that we might evolve to find babies cute. It struck me as being much worse than the sort of unthinking assumption that goes into Attack of the Fifty Foot Whatever sci fi stories, since his preconceptions were actually hindering him in fairly serious attempts to understand the real world.

Comment author: bobthechef 26 April 2011 01:10:30PM 1 point [-]

In case you hadn't noticed, this is a general problem. And you're right, the observer is not some guy speaking from some immutable "neutral point of view" but it's an error made very commonly by certain "scientists" every day. His error was not one of theology, but one commonly made by "evolutionary psychologists". But let's consider this case: if evolution has free dibs on everything, and it lacks any teleological component whatsoever, then what are we to say about your status as a rational being?

Comment author: khafra 26 April 2011 02:37:22PM 2 points [-]

First, welcome to Lesswrong! If you'd like to introduce yourself, the 2010 thread is still active.

You've asked some interesting questions on this thread--unfortunately, Desertopa is the only one of your potential interlocutors I know to be active on this site. Even Desertopa may be reluctant to respond because your tone ("In case you haven't noticed") could be construed as combative, and we try to avoid that because emotionally identifying with one side of an argument leads to biases.

Regarding your question in the last sentence: there are a few posts addressing the rationality of intelligences generated by a blind idiot god on LW: The Lens That Sees its Flaws is one of my favorites.

Comment author: DanielLC 23 February 2012 04:37:24AM 1 point [-]

There may also be evolutionary pressure for babies to evolve to be cute.

There's certainly evolutionary pressure for males to be sexy. Some species have pretty bizarre looking males.

Comment author: gwern 27 April 2009 12:01:46AM *  1 point [-]

> "E. T. Jaynes used the term Mind Projection Fallacy to denote the error of projecting your own mind's properties into the external world."

URL is dead for me: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi= says "This url does not match any document in our repository."

Comment author: Cyan2 27 April 2009 03:53:49AM 0 points [-]

I don't know what document that link originally pointed to, but this document contains one of Jaynes's earliest (if not the earliest) descriptions of the idea.

Comment author: SC 20 May 2009 02:42:51AM 2 points [-]

I know this is incidental, but I am dying of curiosity about the story of the Plant-Guy/Human-Guy... would you mind giving the reference ?

Comment author: xrchz 01 November 2009 02:11:21AM 0 points [-]

Is "the world is full of people" an example of the mind-projection fallacy? (Compare to "we can both recognize the pattern 'person' at a high-level in our multi-leveled models of levelless reality")

Comment author: bobthechef 26 April 2011 01:26:47PM -2 points [-]

Why would it be? It's an ontological statement about the existence of many instances of what you have identified as persons. It doesn't attribute anything to them. And following your pseudotechnical jargon, why would you presume the pal you're speaking to ("we both recognize...") is nothing but another instance of this "pattern"? Your biased. You're exempting someone because you want them to be a person.

Comment author: falenas108 17 February 2011 03:13:02AM 2 points [-]

I just thought the Less Wrong community should know that a few minute ago, I was having trouble remembering the name of this fallacy, but I vaugely remembered the content of this post. So, I decided to use the search engine on this site to find this. I typed in "sexy," and this is the first thing that came up.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 17 February 2011 04:12:51PM 0 points [-]

Perhaps we should rename it the "sexy search string fallacy" in your honor?

Or, you know... not.

Comment author: [deleted] 26 April 2011 01:21:07PM 3 points [-]

I can only imagine how many people have scrolled up to the search bar to test this since this comment was written.

Comment author: JenniferRM 22 March 2012 04:55:14PM 0 points [-]

Just noticed this comment while looking in the archives... You might want to ponder information bubbles caused by website personalization because I suspect you are (or were when you wrote this comment?) inside of one. Something I've found generally useful in the past that seems like it would help is trying to imagine how you would discover "objectively important things to know about that you wouldn't have normally run across".

Comment author: falenas108 22 March 2012 05:38:06PM *  4 points [-]

Oh, this wasn't through a general Google search, just the site's search engine. I would be shocked if a search of "sexy" on the internet returned a Less Wrong result anywhere near the top.

Comment author: AnthonyC 13 May 2013 08:46:57PM 2 points [-]

Still, that would be a happy day.

Comment author: timekeeper 18 November 2011 07:14:17AM 0 points [-]

I recall reading a book on Asperger's syndrome in my school library which had an activity in it that is supposed to conclude weather or not a child has 'Theory of Mind'. This is what I immediately thought about while reading this article.

Here is a version of the test, check it out. http://www.asperger-advice.com/sally-and-anne.html

Comment author: Darren_Nolen 11 September 2012 10:47:17PM -1 points [-]

It is a great example, but one cannot beat the metaphor to death. There are also artistic conventions which develop and self-reinforce (re Manga / Anime) as well as marketing forces - re Why do all female superheroes have giant breasts?

The strength of the metaphor is not that a rational analysis of alien / monster motivations leads the average fan-boy to conclude aliens intend to copulate with abducted females, but the unconscious projection of the fan-boy onto the alien / monster, and of course who would you grab then?

Comment author: Kenny 14 February 2013 04:46:44AM 0 points [-]

I downvoted, but the second paragraph is okay.

Comment author: Rukifellth 15 February 2013 07:08:07PM 1 point [-]

I once read an SF story about a human male who entered into a sexual relationship with a sentient alien plant of appropriately squishy fronds; discovered that it was an androecious (male) plant; agonized about this for a bit; and finally decided that it didn't really matter at that point.

...what was the name of that story?

Comment author: [deleted] 26 June 2013 02:42:19AM *  2 points [-]

and Kant's declaration that space by its very nature is flat

This is an inappropriate accusation to make about Kant in particular: he was explicit that space (in all its flatness) was a necessary condition of experience, not a feature of the world. He could not be more adamant that his claims about space were claims about the mind, and the world as it appears to the mind.

He was wrong, of course: non-euclidian geometry thrives. But this isn't the mind projection fallacy. This is the exact opposite of the mind projection fallacy.

I know these sequence posts are old, but I'm finding a non-trivial number of these incorrect off-hand remarks, especially about philosophers. These errors are never really a problem for the main argument of the sequence, but there's no good in leaving a bunch of epistemically careless claims in a series of essays about how not to be epistemically careless. A quick SEP lookup, or a quick deletion, suffices to fix stuff like this.

Comment author: HalMorris 17 June 2014 04:12:31AM 0 points [-]

Oddly enough, the aliens never go after men in torn shirts.

One exception: Troma's Monster in the Closet, where the monster does indeed fall for a guy. The movie is a real gem.

Comment author: Jiro 17 June 2014 02:36:27PM 0 points [-]

Considering that the aliens generally don't try to ravish the captive woman, I'd suggest an alternative hypothesis: the alien carries off the woman for non-sexual reasons, and the torn clothes and the way the woman is drawn are only there to make her look attractive to the audience (and perhaps to give the human rescuers more of a motivation to rescue her), not to indicate the motivation of the alien.

And more women than men are carried off because 1) that's what the writer chooses to write (or what the artist chooses to draw, if the story has scenes where aliens carry off both sexes), and 2) women in such stories tend to be bad at defending themselves, excessively curious, and other traits which make capture more likely.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon's interest was sexual, of course, but the creature is related to humans and is not a typical case of an alien carrying women off.

Comment author: adamzerner 27 February 2015 02:00:48AM *  2 points [-]

Optical illusions might be a good example of this. Ex. http://www.buzzfeed.com/catesish/help-am-i-going-insane-its-definitely-blue#.hfZoPkgjK

People are freaking out over what color the dress "really is". They're projecting the property of "true color" onto the real world, when in reality "true color" is only in their mind.

Comment author: 27chaos 27 February 2015 03:24:02AM 0 points [-]

In fairness, they're mostly kidding and exaggerating.