A different kind of "matched guise" test?

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In a "matched guise" test, subjects are asked to evaluate "various traits including body height, good looks, leadership, sense of humor, intelligence, religiousness, self-confidence, dependability, kindness, ambition, sociability, character, and likability", for the same content presented by the same speaker in different languages, or perhaps by the same speaker associated with different pictures. The goal is to uncover linguistic or ethnic stereotypes.

This twitter "experiment" takes the idea in a different direction, using an associated picture to shift the interpretation of an ambiguous word:

Here the ambiguous word is men, which might mean "humans" or "male (as opposed to non-male) humans", in a sentence taken from Friedrich Hayek's The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. The context:

There can be no deliberately planned substitutes for such a self-ordering process of adaptation to the unknown. Neither his reason nor his innate `natural goodness' leads man this way, only the bitter necessity of submitting to rules he does not like in order to maintain himself against competing groups that had already begun to expand because they stumbled upon such rules earlier. If we had deliberately built, or were consciously shaping, the structure of human action, we would merely have to ask individuals why they had interacted with any particular structure. Whereas, in fact, specialised students, even after generations of effort, find it exceedingly difficult to explain such matters, and cannot agree on what are the causes or what will be the effects of particular events. The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.

To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralising decisions, and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralisation actually leads to more information being taken into account. This is the main reason for rejecting the requirements of constructivist rationalism.

The picture in the tweet is Salma Hayek, who shares a last name with Friedrich.

And apparently the picture was enough to trigger some readers into reacting to the quote as a feminist critique of male insensitivity, as opposed to a neo-liberal critique of the failures of central planning.

Of course, there's a more directly similar tradition of psycholinguistic experimentation, in which context (visual or otherwise) pushes interpretation in one direction or another.

[h/t Annie Laurie on Balloon Juice]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 10:38 am

    For me, in the context of the Hayek quotation, "to demonstrate to men" can mean only "to demonstrate to male (as opposed to non-male) humans". Were it to read (for example) "to demonstrate to mankind", then I would have no problem in interpreting "mankind" as "humans, both male and female". And this despite the fact that, in general, I have no problem with the concept of "the male embracing the female" in formal written language.

  2. Giles Thomas said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 10:54 am

    @Philip Taylor — I wonder if that's also driven by the associated image? I would also read "men" in that tweet as referring to males (in opposition to females), and agree that that would be the "normal" interpretation in modern writing. But if it had been associated with a black and white photo and tagged with the name and date of a figure from the first half of the last century, I think I would have interpreted it in the older "people in general" sense.

  3. Y said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 10:59 am

    Genderless men (='people') is pretty much obsolete. I think the text would read the same if any younger person, of whatever gender, appeared to be its author. Likewise, non-Americans would be apt to misinterpret "These are the times that try men's souls" if accompanied by a photo of man of Salma Hayek's age.

  4. Wanda said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 11:19 am

    Salma Hayek is a movie star who is not a native English speaker. I find it hilarious that the first two comments assume she said that quote and that it's male-bashing.
    By the way, about age: Salma Hayek is 55 (although I don't know when the picture was taken).

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 11:31 am

    Philip Taylor, it seems rude to inquire about your religious practices or affiliations if any, but given that you are (as I understand it) an Englishman of a certain age it seems plausible that on one or more occasions in your life you would have been present at a C of E service that used the traditional Prayer Book translation of the Nicene Creed. If so, what do you make of the well-known phrase "who for us men and for our salvation"? Obviously there's are reasons many new translations of the last half-century or so do not use that wording, but do you find the "generic" meaning of the older phrasing incomprehensible as opposed to merely old-fashioned?

    That said, I think it entirely possible, as Y suggests, that some younger people who reacted negatively to this meme would likewise not have interpreted "men" in a generic sense if it had been accompanied by a photo of Friedrich rather than Sama. But they would presumably not in that instance have viewed the quote as "anti-male" but rather assumed that Friedrich was an old fuddy-duddy who couldn't be bothered to remember to mention women when pontificating. In other words, they would interpret "men" as meaning "male humans" but would not parse the sentence as containing an implicature of "men, as contrasted with women."

  6. Marek said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 11:36 am

    The economist was born into a German speaking culture. He left Austria when he was 31. Was this quote originally in German? Did F. Hayek persist in German language distinctions? I can see how “mensch” might be confused with “männer” during translation/transcription.

    [(myl) The Fatal Conceit was definitely written in English. According to Wikipedia, Hayek joined the faculty of the London School of Economics in 1931, and became a British subject in 1938, 50 years before the book in question was published. And the book's Wikipedia article notes that

    There is scholarly debate on the extent of William Warren Bartley's influence on the work. Officially, Bartley was the editor who prepared the book for publication once Hayek fell ill in 1985. However, the inclusion of material from Bartley's philosophical point of view and citations that other people provided to Bartley have led to questions about how much of the book was written by Hayek and whether Hayek knew about the added material. Bruce Caldwell thinks the evidence "clearly points towards a conclusion that the book was a product more of [Bartley's] pen than of Hayek's. … Bartley may have written the book".


  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 11:37 am

    I guess another level of experiment would be to gather data on whether the picture-of-Salma meme triggers the same incidence of "anti-male" misinterpretation when posted on social media by an (apparent) male as it did here when posted by an (apparent) female.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 11:58 am

    A possibly apt quotation from the same book of (F.) Hayek's: "Thus, while we learn much of what we know through language, the meanings of individual words lead us astray: we continue to use terms bearing archaic connotations as we try to express our new and better understanding of the phenomena to which they refer."

  9. stephen said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 12:21 pm

    Other clues were that I did not expect Salma Hayek to say much of anything about economics, at least not publicly, and the quote did not give a first name.

  10. A1987dM said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 12:36 pm

    > For me, in the context of the Hayek quotation, "to demonstrate to men" can mean only "to demonstrate to male (as opposed to non-male) humans".

    Nowadays, yes, it can only mean that. In Friedrich Hayek's time, not necessarily.

    [(myl) Although Hayek was educated in the first half of the 20th century, the book in question was published in 1988. And I'm sure you can find more recent works that use "men" in a similar way. I agree that the culture has shifted decisively against that usage, but it's a relatively recent thing. ]

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 12:41 pm

    JWB — 'do you find the "generic" meaning of the older phrasing incomprehensible as opposed to merely old-fashioned ?'. Not only "completely comprehensible" but also not old-fashioned — I genuinely believe that the KJV has yet to be bettered. Which is why I added the final note to my comment : "despite the fact that, in general, I have no problem with the concept of "the male embracing the female" in formal written language".

    But I also wish that the Sayek quotation had first been presented as-is, with no accompanying photograph, and LL readers asked to state how they interpret "men" in the quotation. Having been exposed to it only alongside the photograph, I cannot say for sure how I would have interpreted "men" in the absence of a photograph, but I think that I would still have interpreted it as "adult male humans".

  12. D.O. said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 1:32 pm

    Does the maxim of relation apply to memes? Or the memes are covered by a maxim of irrelevance: no meme is relevant.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 4:37 pm

    I don't think "interference from German" would be a particularly plausible hypothesis even if we were absolutely confident that Bartley had had no impact on the wording of the sentence in question — Hayek's work in English (at least what I've read, which does not include his earliest stuff in English from the 1930's) was not particularly ESLish, and it would not be stylistically odd for a monolingual Anglophone academic of Hayek's age and approximately the same sensibility unless such an academic had fallen afoul of a cutting-edge 1980's copyeditor seeking to force an update of style.

    That said, Hayek's biographer Alan Ebenstein, who has written quite critically of the extent of Bartley's alleged involvement into the shape and content of the published text and Bartley's alleged attempts to overstate Hayek's involvement in reviewing and approving the final text, says that two earlier drafts of the book that predate Hayek's illness and Bartley's intervention are now known to be Out There in a scholarly archive (although with perhaps some limitations on access and even more limitations on quotation for publication), so maybe someday we will know whether or not that phrasing did or did not come from Hayek's own pen or typewriter. FWIW, to the extent I follow Ebenstein's claims about how Bartley may have shifted some of the emphasis of the work to reflect Bartley's own intellectual preoccupations and perspectives, the particular sentence seems to be fully thematically/substantively consistent with Hayek's pre-Bartley point of view.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 6:29 pm

    Another feature of the quotation that would contribute to misleading me is the use of the word "men" by a man without any note that he belongs to the group. I realize this is standard, but it always seems odd to me. I'd expect "demonstrate to us how little we really know etc."

    In fact, the paragraph switches from "man/he" to "we" to "men/they". This indicates 1) a shift in authorship, 2) the author decided to temporarily shift pronouns so he'd have "they" available to refer to "individuals", or 3) "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

    J. W. Brewer: Yes, I'd say that other quotation from the book is apt.

  15. Rachael said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 7:10 pm

    I didn't even see the ambiguity. The quote mentioned economics in the first few words (which primed me to recognise "Hayek" as the economist) and was in an academic and slightly old-fashioned register, so I automatically read "men" in its older, inclusive sense. I'm not very good at recognising celebrities, so I didn't know the woman in the photo was also named Hayek, but even if I had, I would have thought it unlikely from the wording of the quote that it was from a modern actress rather than a dead academic, so I'd probably still have read it with my mid-20th-century glasses on.

    It's more usual for modern *women* who don't recognise the older sense of "men" to be offended by it; this is a rare example of modern *men* who don't recognise it being offended by it, because it happens to be saying something negative about men-in-the-sense-of-mankind.

  16. DaveK said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 7:12 pm

    Beyond a momentary bewilderment at what the quotation had to do with the photo, I had no trouble interpreting “men” as meaning “humans”. Economics affect people regardless of gender and the language in the quote seems somewhat old-fashioned in general, which made it easier to read “men” in an obsolete way.

  17. Rachael said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 7:13 pm

    I'm also a little confused about the purpose of the tweet. Was the image generated by a computer program (or an ignorant human) that just did an image search for Hayek and used the first result? Or is the author deliberately trolling?

    [(myl) The tweet's author appears to be Julie Borowski, whose self-description on twitter is "Blue-pilled Big Pharma shill fake libertarian grifter". She runs an on-line shop "Liberty Junkies" selling t-shirts and sweatshirts with slogans like "Taxation is Theft", "I like my coffee large and my government small", "Right to choose (guns)", "Let's Go Brandon", etc. So your opinion may differ, but I'm guessing it was deliberately trolling, though from the (blue pill fake?) libertarian end of the spectrum.]

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 9:35 pm

    To Rachael's puzzlement, I would suggest that many libertarians (trolling or sincere) live in a subculture where Friedrich Hayek is a high-profile and iconic figure but find it puzzling that most folks in the wider world have no idea who he was yet have heard of a random actress with the same surname. If you came from that background, impishly purporting to mix up the two might seem to you like sure-fire comedy gold. But pace myl I'm not at all convinced that it was "trolling" in the sense of trying to fool outsiders to the relevant subculture rather than amuse insiders. I have a vague Gen X sense that back when myl and his fellow Boomers were young, some of them found it hilarious to purport to mix up Karl Marx and Groucho Marx, or Vladimir Lenin and John Lennon, even though no one was likely to be actually deceived. Think of this as an instance of the same genre.

    To one of Jerry Friedman's points, I respectfully disagree with his analysis. Whether or not it would be generally odd for a male writer to refer to "men" without explicitly noting that he was included within that group, I think in the context of this sentence "men" means "ordinary men who are not themselves economists," which is a not a group of which Hayek was a member.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 12:17 am

    I realized after posting that what bothers and misleads me about the sentence quoted isn't the "men" so much as the "they", which for me entails that the speaker isn't part of the group. Even "man… he" is easier for me to deal with.

    I disagree with J. W. Brewer with equal respect. What I understand Hayek to be saying is that economics demonstrates to all "men" how little they know. Some profit by the demonstration, including free-market economists such as Hayek, and some don't, including those ordinary men who are deceived by socialism.

  20. Jon said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 1:21 am

    My reaction was like Rachael's, obviously a quote from the famous economist, no idea what the picture is about.

    Then I tried to see where the ambiguity lay. And it seemed to me that the sentence was obscure, incoherent, or meaningless rather than ambiguous. The premise is 'Men know little about what they imagine they can design.' Is this saying that imagination is more powerful than we realise? Or, if you ignore 'they imagine', that we can design more things than we realise? Or what?

    The ambiguous 'men' passed me by.

  21. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 2:45 am

    That "men" could be taken as specifically males didn't occur to me until I read myl's commentary.

    Neither did it first occur to me that the "Hayek" could be taken as referring to the woman next to the quote, whom I did recognize as Salma Hayek, instead of the economist, so I guess the takeaway is that I'm a little slow on the uptake.

  22. Philip Anderson said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 3:08 am

    After reading the post’s introduction, I was primed for a trick, and I had vaguely heard of Hayek (both actually). It doesn’t read like misandry to me – too verbose to be an insult.

  23. Rachael said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 5:37 am

    "[(myl) The tweet's author appears to be Julie Borowski, whose self-description on twitter is "Blue-pilled Big Pharma shill fake libertarian grifter". She runs an on-line shop "Liberty Junkies" selling t-shirts and sweatshirts with slogans like "Taxation is Theft", "I like my coffee large and my government small", "Right to choose (guns)", "Let's Go Brandon", etc. So your opinion may differ, but I'm guessing it was deliberately trolling, though from the (blue pill fake?) libertarian end of the spectrum.]"

    OK, if that's her thing and her regular followers presumably know this, then maybe the tweeters getting upset about their misreading of the quote are actually also in on it and playing along.
    That's reassuring, because I was feeling quite sad about their lack of reading comprehension.

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 9:15 am

    One (unsurprising) datapoint for the continued transition away from the generic use of "men" at least in certain genres of copy-edited prose: the most recent English translation I could easily find (and read in preview) of Aristotle's Metaphysics (by C.D.C. Reeve, published 2016) updates the traditional rendering of the famous opening line ("All men by nature desire to know") to "All humans …" Both (in the standard academicish register of English that was extant when I and the translator were younger*) seem like reasonable renderings of the underlying Greek (πάντες ἄνθρωποι τοῦ εἰδέναι ὀρέγονται φύσει).

    That said, there is an interesting dynamic specific to translations of "canonical" foreign texts of prior centuries or millennia – namely that if you are looking stuff up on the internet it is often easier to find a 1920's-or-previous translation, because those translations are typically now public domain and can thus be freely posted in complete form without any concern about copyright problems. Indeed, if you are referring to Aristotle in your own newly-written book, using an old translation means your publisher won't have to worry about how many total quotes of how much individual and cumulative length you can use from a recent copyrighted translation without needing to negotiate for the rights. All of which may slow down the transition to a new status quo in which 21st century Anglophone readers would only be aware of those authors' works as mediated through the distinctively 21st-century style of English.

    *Prof. Reeve was born in 1948 so I daresay the older usage would not be confusing to him personally. His version is presumably phrased to account for the expectations of his publisher and/or intended readership.

  25. E. Smith said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 10:40 am

    I don’t think this changes much in the post, but given that this is a blog about linguistics, I was surprised by the classification of the meaning difference between ‘adult humans’ and ‘adult human males’ for a single word as one of ambiguity and not, maximally, one of polysemy.

    [(myl) Could you explain further? Polysemy (referring to a word with more than one conventional sense) is surely one of the various sources of ambiguity. And in the context, it seems more appropriate to talk about the ambiguity than about the fact that it's about word senses rather than (say) alternative syntactic structures.]

  26. Rachael said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 4:24 pm


    "The premise is 'Men know little about what they imagine they can design.' Is this saying that imagination is more powerful than we realise? Or, if you ignore 'they imagine', that we can design more things than we realise? Or what?"

    I *think* it means: the things people optimistically believe they can design, they actually know very little about (and therefore could not actually design, in practice), and economics can reveal these limitations.
    But I'm not completely sure.

  27. Terry K. said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 6:35 pm

    I was struck by E. Smith saying "the meaning difference between ‘adult humans’ and ‘adult human males’ for a single word".

    For me, it cannot mean adult humans. It can't be used to specify adults without also connotating males That is, of a group where males is the default. So, in the quote from Mr. Hayek, I read it as either he's not specifying adult humans, or he's thinking of a group that he thinks of as made up of adult males.

    The quote does strike me as odd. If Hayek meant "humans", it seems to be a register that doesn't fit the subject. If he was using "men" as a default for the members of some group of humans, which men? If he actually meant that it doesn't apply to women (which I doubt), why men only?

  28. Morten Jonsson said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 7:43 pm

    @Terry K

    Why? Because Hayek wasn’t writing in 2021. What “men” can’t mean for you, it certainly could mean when he wrote it, and was a long-established usage. When Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” was he speaking only of adult males (women and children presumably leading lives of noisy cheerfulness)?

  29. Terry K. said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 7:58 pm

    @Morton Jonsson?

    Are you saying that Thoreau, when he wrote that, was only talking about adults? I don't read it that way. It reads to me as talking about humans, not adult humans.

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 11:42 pm

    One more example of shifting usage within my own lifetime. When I was in 4th or 5th grade circa 1975, I was exposed in school to a then-trendy curriculum called MACOS (pronounced MAY-kohs), which stood for "Man: A Course of Study."* There's a wikipedia article that hints at it being controversial at the time because it was perceived in some quarters as too "progressive" and thus anti-American and/or anti-Christian. There was, by contrast, apparently no substantial contemporaneous controversy as to the generic use of "Man" in the name. But it turns out there's an active-in-2021 website devoted to serving the niche audience of remaining MACOS enthusiasts, which now refers to the curriculum as "(Hu)mans: A Course of Study." http://www.macosonline.org/

    *The core MACOS proposition that understanding the behavior of non-human primates organized into baboon troops could be a useful prologue to understanding the behavior of human institutions, such as for example to mix threads the Acoustical Society of America, is still relevant to my understanding of the world lo these many decades later.

  31. Peter Erwin said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 11:42 am

    Salma Hayek, who shares a last name with Friedrich.

    Amusingly, Hayek is one of those cases where surnames from two completely different cultures happen to coincide in spelling, Friedrich's surname being Austrian (originally Czech) while Salma's is Lebanese.

  32. Joshua K. said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 2:17 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: For a good example of the mock confusion of Karl Marx/Groucho Marx and Vladimir Lenin/John Lennon, see the cover of the Firesign Theatre's comedy album:

    The cover features the text "ALL HAIL MARX/LENNON" in a faux-Cyrillic font with pictures of Groucho and John.

  33. Joshua K. said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 2:18 pm

    To avoid ambiguity, I know that the Firesign Theatre had more than one comedy album, but I got tired of typing the album name so my prior comment was ambiguous on that point.

  34. Morten Jonsson said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 3:22 pm

    @Terry K

    Precisely. As was Hayek.

  35. V said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 1:01 pm

    Is the "matched guise" test related to the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyranoid concept by Stanley Milgram?

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