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Please help me research human "parity errors".
April 4, 2009 7:52 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone point me to literature about conceptual "sign flipping" or "parity errors" and confusion of opposites in humans?

I'm interested in material about errors such as subtracting time instead of adding it, or vice versa, when converting local time to GMT; grammatical double negatives; the erroneous expression "I could care less"; confusing left with right when giving directions; and so on. The more general the discussion, the better.

Even suggestions of good keywords would be helpful. Googling "parity error" brings up pages of results about errors in computer RAM.

Yes, I am familiar with the paper called "The Ghost Not", but it comes with a lot of metaphysical luggage I'm happier not to lug.

Thanks!
posted by rwhe to Science & Nature (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
An electron has a negative charge. This is by convention: We know that there are two opposite kinds of charges, and we arbitrarily call one negative and one positive. One consequence of having the electron's charge direction be negative is that a lot of EM formulas are packed with minus signs, and it makes it more difficult to work with them. So, in hindsight, we could say that whoever decided on the sign of the unit of electrical charge got it wrong. *

"Parity error" usually indicates an inconsistency, not a wrong sign for addition. Maybe polarity error would make more sense?


* I'm not a physicist; I read this factoid somewhere, so it's possible I'm repeating it wrong
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:08 PM on April 4, 2009


I agree with xqbbbqptnxq , "parity error" isn't likely to lead to what you're looking for as it's generally used in CS for certain things. This sounds more like "you got it backwards," or, there were two choices and you picked the wrong one.
posted by sanko at 8:23 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


qxntpqbbbqxl, the curious case of the sign of the electron is a very good example. Thanks. I tend to think it occurred because historically, science was ignorant of whether electricity flowed from the anode or the cathode, and not from a conceptual slip of the sort I'm intending. However, assigning electrons a negative charge has probably caused plenty of "sign flipping" errors...

Your point about terminology is well taken. I'm still working that part out.
posted by rwhe at 8:24 PM on April 4, 2009


I say the wrong words for left and right *all the time*. I have a very good sense of direction and spatial relations, and easily create and reference maps in my head, but I consistently apply the wrong word to the directions left and right, and also to east and west. East and west are easier because I can orient myself to the water -- I have always lived on or near a coast -- but finding the correct word to match the direction I want to indicate is very hard. North and south do not have this problem.

I'm very curious to read more about this! I always wondered if it had a name.
posted by librarina at 8:38 PM on April 4, 2009


grammatical double negatives;

that is an error in English but not in many languages. In Russian for example, a double negative is common for emphasis. I believe it is similar in French and Spanish. Even then it is only an error in prescriptive grammar. Shakespeare used double negatives all the time.

"I could care less," even though it sets my teeth on edge, is now a common stock phrase, and even if its origin is an error, well language isn't logical, ergo it has become "logical" now in the same way using lousy when one is ill is logical even if one is not infested with lice.

Meaning I don't think that using the above two examples are good ones for sign flipping or confusing of opposites.
posted by xetere at 8:51 PM on April 4, 2009


I don't have anything to add besides personal experience, but moving from the east coast to the west coast really threw me off for a while when I was giving and receiving directions. People would say "go east" and I'd just think "towards the ocean" and become totally confused. To this day, my mental map of the layout of Portland, OR (where I lived) is flipped until I really concentrate and think about it.
posted by bengarland at 8:52 PM on April 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


Phonetic reversal is a linguistic term for the pronunciation of letter swapping in words/phrases. Like, when people say 'Can I ax you a question?" phonetically they are saying "can I aks you a question?". The K and the S are reversed, hence phonetic reversal. So try googling ____ reversal where ___ is various terms (numerical, grammatical, etc) and see what you stumble upon.

Interesting question though, I always flip things around and say the opposite of what I mean, especially with left and right. I will be watching this question.
posted by 8dot3 at 8:56 PM on April 4, 2009


I'll throw this in from my experience in case it's any use to you. The imposition of a large signature of pages to go on a sheetfeed press (say 16 pages printed double sided on one giant sheet which is then folded and trimmed so every page falls in the right place) is extremely difficult to visualize. When working as a printer this was a frequent source of human error until software came along to help figure it out. In impositions, you had to place multiple pages right side up or upside down on one side of the sheet and then do the same thing for an equal number on the other side. The emulsion side of the film added another level of complexity, you might have to put all these factors together backwards as well.

For most people the mind loses its grip quickly when faced with more than one level of complexity. Even people not in the least dyslexic have trouble with left/right, right side up/upside down, front/back, right/wrong reading in combination.

One of the problems is that English doesn't have enough words to describe all of the possible relationships of position in a case like this.
posted by cdc at 9:37 PM on April 4, 2009


Electricity can flow in either direction, depending on whether the charge carrier is an electron or proton. In wires, it's an electron. But you can have things like ionic flow where positively charged ions move.
posted by delmoi at 9:48 PM on April 4, 2009


I don't have time to dig up links right now, but here's some stuff to search...

George Lakoff's conceptual metaphor theory, or his and Mark Johnson's work (esp. the book Philosophy in the Flesh), the Event-Structure and temporal metaphors, Lera Boroditsky's work, Stephen Pinker's "The Stuff of Thought", geo-spatial reference, deixis/deictic centers, switch reference, anaphora/anaphoric reference, metathesis (the switching of phonemes etc.), the Piraha and numbers or directions (there's lots of studies about them, some mentioned in the Pinker book), antagonyms/autantonyms/contranyms, and if I can think of more, I'll pop back into the thread.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:15 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


For most people the mind loses its grip quickly when faced with more than one level of complexity.

cdc, yes, my thinking exactly. I think people start making this kind of mistake when they're overwhelmed with too many levels. It's analogous to a stack overflow in software development, in my opinion.
posted by rwhe at 10:16 PM on April 4, 2009


iamkimiam, thank you. I'll look for these. I think we have the Pinker book around somewhere, and I have some Lakoff.
posted by rwhe at 10:18 PM on April 4, 2009


In Russian for example, a double negative is common for emphasis.

It is in English, too. e.g. "That is not unknown in these parts."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:19 PM on April 4, 2009


Here are some examples from my life...

Blue/red for cold/hot... is blue hot, like a blue gas jet... or cold like blue lips? Does red mean hot like a sunburn... or cold like a nose in winter?

Circle/Circle with Vertical Line for Off/On... does open circle mean "on" because it resembles an open pipe through which the power flows or "off" because it resembles the number zero?

When driving, should I push the "snowflake" button when it's cold outside or when I want to make the inside cold?

In a shower that features a swinging handle to determine temperature, am I supposed to pivot the tip towards the hot/cold direction... or moving my hand in that direction?

Oh, and the Consumer Reports ratings symbols are completely incomprehensible to me.

You might scan the table of contents of the International Encyclopedia of Ergonomics and Human Factors, available in its entirety via Google Books, for search terms. Also, this article and its bibliography may be helpful.
posted by carmicha at 11:23 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Another one: when people say we need to move, say, a meeting "forward," do they mean closer in time to now, e.g., earlier... or further away towards the future, e.g., later? I never know.
posted by carmicha at 11:28 PM on April 4, 2009


When people say "quarter of" the hour, I still don't know if that means "quarter till" or "quarter past." It's just not an expression I learned when I was a kid.
posted by stopgap at 11:42 PM on April 4, 2009


Chocolate Pickle: the Russian double negative does not work like that. For example they would say something like "I definitely don't not know" to emphasize lack of knowledge. What you are talking about is more like understatement, if I understand your correctly.
posted by idiopath at 12:13 AM on April 5, 2009


idiopath: "Chocolate Pickle: the Russian double negative does not work like that. For example they would say something like "I definitely don't not know" to emphasize lack of knowledge. What you are talking about is more like understatement, if I understand your correctly."

Can you write that in the original Russian? I'm trying to, but I can't figure it out.
posted by alexei at 2:03 AM on April 5, 2009


Я ничего не знаю

In english, word for word:

I nothing no know, or I don't know nothing.

However, it actually means I know nothing. So the double negative is still a negative in Russian.
posted by vernondalhart at 2:36 AM on April 5, 2009


The origin of Murphy's Law involved 16 sensors which could be installed in 2 ways, right and wrong and they were all installed the wrong way.
posted by onya at 4:38 AM on April 5, 2009


It might be a little off your topic, but there is a book called "The Design of Everyday Things" by Don Norman. In it he talks about how various common objects work, how people logically respond to their interfaces, and how some of them just don't make innate sense to our brains (i.e. we have to read a manual and remember arcane commands just to use them, or they work the complete opposite way that we expect).
posted by bengarland at 5:37 AM on April 5, 2009


Stopgap- a quarter of is always before. "A quarter of 3" is 2:45. I would assume that's a shortening of "a quarter of [an hour before] 3".

delmoi- my knowledge of chemistry/electricity is sketchy, but even in ionic flow, isn't the basis of the charge the lack (or glut) of electrons? Positively charged ions flow toward an electron source? Or, that ions are the medium over which electricity (electrons) can flow? In solids, those ions are locked together, but in liquids, gasses or a vacuum, the ions can move around? But that the point is still that the ions are in search of (or trying to get away from) electrons?

I think the basis of the problem are that the human mind is basically a pattern recognizer. Because of that, we'll make mistakes when reality doesn't conform with some pattern we think we recognize.
posted by gjc at 5:55 AM on April 5, 2009


Stopgap- a quarter of is always before. "A quarter of 3" is 2:45. I would assume that's a shortening of "a quarter of [an hour before] 3".

But Stopgap is right, it could equally mean "a quarter of [an hour after] 3".

I think this one is an americanism anyway, I hadn't heard the "quarter of" convention until I moved here, although I had encountered "quarter after", which is far more logical to deduce coming from the british english equivalents "quarter to" and "quarter past".
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 7:00 AM on April 5, 2009


Two terminology notes on this:

1) Left/right flipping is part of 'chirality'. Searching on that term might get you more.

2) In English, a double negative for emphasis is known as 'litotes'. It's one of my favorite grammatical constructions.
posted by Caviar at 7:24 AM on April 5, 2009


Oh god, aircon controls with a +/- symbol... does "plus" mean "make the aircon stronger/cooler" or "make the temperature go up"? I think we never managed to come to a definitive conclusion.

My hi-fi has a "standby" LED but no "this is on" LED, hence, when the light is on, the hi-fi is off, and when the light is off, the hi-fi is on. Unless it's unplugged, of course, in which case the light and hi-fi are both off.

Also there's the general UI problem where a button only has two states (or there's only two buttons) and it's not obvious which means on/off. Before everyone mimicked youtube some flash video players would show a play/pause button depending on the current state (a play symbol if the video was playing, a pause button if it was paused) whereas others woud change the symbol based on the function of the button (a pause symbol if the video was playing, a play button if it wasn't.)
posted by so_necessary at 8:03 AM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Along the lines of carmicha's posts: when someone tells you to rotate counterclockwise, do they mean as if you are looking at a clock, or if you ARE the clock?
posted by bink at 9:02 AM on April 5, 2009


Does a single "y" mean "yes" or "why"?
posted by smackfu at 10:17 AM on April 5, 2009


What you're looking for is not exactly The Stroop Effect, but it's probably related. Looking into this might lead you in the right direction.
posted by Alabaster at 12:54 PM on April 5, 2009


Having lived all my adult life east of the continental divide, I experienced the strangest feeling being in Idaho and realizing that the Snake River flowed westernly. You don't think about which way rivers flow until you encounter one flowing the "wrong" way.
posted by tamitang at 9:23 PM on April 5, 2009


Consider also the difficulties created from translating a 3D world into 2D maps; those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are used to conflating "north" with "up" (etc.), which probably has led to a lot of directionality confusion.

Another one: when people say we need to move, say, a meeting "forward," do they mean closer in time to now, e.g., earlier... or further away towards the future, e.g., later? I never know.

This might sound nuts, but if you picture yourself in a "time tunnel" (i.e., with impending minutes coming at you in order, like an advancing army), something coming forward is going to be closer to you, whereas something moving back is going to be farther in the future.

I think this one is an americanism anyway, I hadn't heard the "quarter of" convention until I moved here

Just be glad you know that "a quarter hour" = "15 minutes," which some of my (American) adult employees apparently didn't. *grumble*

posted by kittyprecious at 10:55 AM on April 9, 2009


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