Mental Model Speculations Part 1

Speculations on Allistic vs. Autistic Behavior

Why do autistic people and allistic (non-autistic) people have such trouble communicating? Poker might have the answer.

Poker culture features the concept of “levels of thinking:”

  • Level 1 is “Which cards do I have?”
  • Level 2 is “Which cards does my opponent have?”
  • Level 3 is “Which cards do they think I have?”
  • Level 4 is “Which cards do they think that I think they have?”

And so forth. It’s a powerful tool for understanding behavior and motivations. Said recursion can repeat beyond reason, however, unless one knows when to stop employing it. The Sicilian from The Princess Diaries died from overthinking the problem at hand. Countless managers and executives have fabricated entire conspiracies against them by subordinates who only perform better than them because the latter focuses on level 1 results instead of exhausting themselves with level 7 machinations. Parents and partners label their children and loved ones as vindictive and rebellious when their counterpart is overworked, hungry, and blunt simply because they’re tired of playing at level 29 against the backdrop of dirty dishes. Like any powerful tool, it comes with the great responsibility of knowing both when and when not to use it.

The hypothesis: The allistic person tends to start thinking at levels 3-5, the autistic person tends to start at levels 1-2, and this discrepancy creates much of the disharmony between the groups.

In the allistic world, presenting as level 1-2 looks like a “big brain” or higher level play. Playing at a level lower than one’s opponent (i.e. from inside of their OODA Loop) is usually a recipe for disaster. If one’s opponent appears to play at levels 1-2, the thinking goes, they must have an exceptional advantage to cover that projected weakness. The allistic person, therefore, recurses their level of thinking in response. It’s a reasonable instinct. Against most opponents, the recursive strategy works and works well. But it fails hard in the face of both the most advanced and most naive opponents.

Back in poker, the top players focus on statistics. The best know that math beats bluffing over the long term. A royal flush doesn’t care about the meta-game. The autistic person may tend to play at that same low level of math or other concrete facts, blithe to how the allistic person perceives this as a projection of superiority. And since the autistic person is sincere, there’s no level of recursive thinking at which the allistic person can “beat them at their own game.” The autistic person isn’t even playing at anything.

This inability to “win” frustrates the allistic person who wants to understand their counterpart and who can’t grasp the lack of oneupmanship. It frustrates the autistic person who wants to understand what’s right in front of them and can’t grasp the need for meta play in the face of facts. Patterns of thinking diverge as the allistic person enters higher and higher levels of thought in response to each attempt by the autistic person to bring the conversation back down to levels 1 and 2. Until both players can understand what the other is really “playing” or not playing at, effective communication remains impossible.

Even now, you might think I’m revving up to “sell” you something, be it a book, a course, or just the idea of your own fallibility. Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m making everything so complex when it’s obvious that people should “just” talk to each other. Which way did your instincts take you? What does that say about your mental habits? How will you change them going forward?