Bias as Objectification

One reason to avoid insincerity is fear of being caught out.  But why is it bad to be caught out?  If you say something and it is later revealed that you said it only to gain some advantage, why would you care?  The obvious answer is that being known to be insincere will reduce your ability to enter into beneficial relationships with others in the future.  But clearly some people find being caught out to be very unpleasant in itself, beyond the reputational effect.  The reason, I think, is that being caught out is in some sense dehumanizing.  A guy who is caught out spinning cheesy pickup lines in a bar ceases to be regarded as an individual human being and just gets put in a box labeled "slimy bar guy," and it is humiliating to be thought of as someone whose essence can be captured with one uncomplimentary three-word label.

I think something similar lies behind the psychological impulse that some people have to overcome bias, and I certainly think this is so for me.  Somehow the idea that my beliefs or claims or arguments can be airily dismissed as the product of this or that self-interested bias damages my self-image far more than does simply being shown to be wrong.  I’m willing to go to pretty long lengths so that people can’t dismiss me in this way (or at least can’t do so in a way that I find substantive enough to be upsetting), and the best way to do this is to actually be as free of bias as possible.  Hopefully I’ve now reached the point that I seek OB as a virtue in its own right as well, but this is a big part of my motivation today and was a huge part of it in my formative years.

Does anyone else feel like this was also their motivation for seeking to OB?  Can anyone see any way in which this motivation introduces a bias into the project of OB?  I can’t think of any, except maybe that it tends to make you excessively worried about biases that other people are likely to pick up on and less worried than you should be about other ones.  Are there more?

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  • BillK

    That’s an old one. 馃槈

    The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.
    Jean Giraudoux
    French diplomat, dramatist, & novelist (1882 – 1944)

    Also attributed to Groucho Marx, Sam Goldwyn, George Burns, probably Plato as well.

  • An贸nima

    It’s true that wanting to get rid of bias could be considered a bias in its self. But then, if I understand your motivations, that shouldn’t worry you, since its a label that you won’t resent. At least, that you won’t resent as hard as been called a slimy bar guy 馃檪

    Personally I think that having bias is inevitable but it doesn’t worry me at all. When in a conversation someone uses the argument that I am biased, or that I am anonymous, I dont’ feel airly dismissed. I automatically think I’ve won the discussion and say so.

    The fact that I am biased doesn’t imply at all that my arguments are wrong. If the persons that are challenging my arguments can only do so by attacking my bias or my nick, that means they don’t have any stronger argument to use. And attacking some is not a valid argument, it’s a logic error that has even a latin name ad hominem fallacy.

  • http://www.typepad.com/t/trackback/475590/21094777 John

    The world is inherently biased- it’s always your world, never anyone else’s.

    I think your comments on how it hurts to get caught out are interesting. They remind me of… I think it’s called Looking Glass Self. If I remember correctly, a couple guys from an illustrious Chicago school of sociology(and others, I know I’m not very specific) made it famous.

    The basic idea is the mental framework that I have three layers of “self” that I dance between. The first is what I think I am. The second is what I think you think I am. And the third is how I incorporate that imagination into what I think I am.

    It’s interesting to what lengths I will go trying to change the way that I am imagined that I am perceived. This is different for everyone: some people lift weights to appear attractive, others to intimidate, others to achieve, and others because their position in life requires it. The first three are working within their own imaginings of who they want to be.

    Eliminating bias might make one person feel like she/he is in a superior position to see the truth, or simply in superior position to argue with others. For some having the moral high ground is their greatest protection of self. This has the same effect as “being right”– and involves protecting your imagined self.

    What is really interesting to me is the beliefs that drive these mental games. What’s so important about being unbiased, or being right? If I’m only playing within my imaginings of who I think you think I am– why is it important? Two different people could walk away from the same conversation and one thinks, “They know that I’m fair” and feels good, the other thinks, “So and so thinks that I have a BIAS.” And then justification and re-framing of experience starts to whir through the mind and they feel like shit.

    John

  • TGGP

    How might we distinguish between the hypotheses that people are concerned with reputation or objectification?

    I could see how evolution might adapt for the former by making “getting caught” inherently unpleasant.

  • David J. Balan

    TGGP,
    For any human psychological impulse to have evolved in the first place, there must have been some sort of material advantage for those that had it. In the example in this post, it is clear that caring what others think of you must have originally evolved so that it would be easier to enter into beneficial relationships, and there is no doubt that that is still a big part of it today. But there are a lot of examples where the impulses that we were endowed with by our evolutionary heritage get refined by philosophy and culture. We *aren’t* the same as people were 10,000 years ago. People intentionally use birth control. People used to think slavery was OK, now they don’t. And so on. So I don’t see any reason not to look for explanations for human psychological phenomena beyond those that can be readily explained by evolution.

  • http://www.satisfice.com/blog James Bach

    I suspect you are NOT actually concerned with what other people think of you, and the clue is in your own text.

    You wrote “I’m willing to go to pretty long lengths so that people can’t dismiss me in this way (or at least can’t do so in a way that I find substantive enough to be upsetting)…” The parenthetical reveals something fundamental– you understand that other people could incorrectly, harshly, or even arbitrarily judge you, based on insubstantive methods and evidence. So, your concern about substance really doesn’t have to do with them (because you know you can’t ultimately control that), it has to do with you. It has to do with how humiliated you feel when you AGREE with their low opinion of you.

    What others think of you has a practical side, but I think history and evolution shows that the pragmatics of the opinion of others is highly prone to manipulation. Since most people are untrained and uninterested in epistemology, perception, statistics, etc., they would probably conclude you were biased even if your behavior were perfectly random. So maybe you have an urge to de-bias not because (or not strongly because) it is the best way to be seen as unbiased. Perhaps the real reason is that it’s the best way for you to think of YOURSELF as good, strong, smart, and worthy.

    — James

  • BBroadside

    Emotionally, I’m about where David J. Balan is on this one. Accusations of bias are more hurtful than most anything I’m likely to get accused of in a discussion. Objectification certainly plays a role; I can’t quite put my finger on it but I think it is related to the perception* that deep thinking by open minds is more human, while knee-jerk reactions are more animal or more robotic. An accusation of bias says, more or less, “You haven’t learned about this issue or seen the facts clearly. You have been a victim of childish snap judgements. Whether you admit it or not, you value having a strong opinion more than you value being right.”

    That’s what it says to me, at least. It may be a bias to be more hurt by that than other accusations, but I’m not so sure. I think my mindset has served me pretty well on the whole, but that too may be a bias because it really doesn’t come across that way to others. After an accusation of bias has been thrown down I almost never hear the accuser withdraw it. James’s point is very important:

    “So maybe you have an urge to de-bias not because (or not strongly because) it is the best way to be seen as unbiased. Perhaps the real reason is that it’s the best way for you to think of YOURSELF as good, strong, smart, and worthy.”

    In my case that is very much true. The best way to be seen as unbiased, in my experience, is to share the biases of the person you’re having the discussion with. Overcoming bias (the process, not the website) is just part of my self-image. It’s a very personal thing that has no direct positive effect. (The indirect effects are probably good but hard to assess.)

    * This perception may also be a bias. I’ll have to think more about it.

  • TGGP

    David, you didn’t answer my question. What prediction is made by the hypothesis that we are concerned with objectification that is different from those we would make if we believed it was instead about reputation? Where is the anticipation control? I am not claiming there is none, just that you should present some.

  • David J. Balan

    James Bach,
    You’re right that I care a lot about my own opinion of my worthiness, and one reason to care about negative opinions that others might have of me is that I might suspect that they’re right, and I suspect this more the more seriously I take that person’s opinion. To the extent that that’s what’s going on, it really is all about what I think of myself. But I don’t think that’s the only reason why I care what others think of me; part of it is that I just plain care, even if I can be totally confident that I’m right and they’re wrong. But even then how much I care depends on how seriously I take the person; I wouldn’t get too insulted if a two year old called me a dummy. Maybe it’s that I care more about the opinions of people who *others* are inclined to take seriously. Good question.

    TGGP,
    I’ll have to think some more about this one, and maybe reply in a new post.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    As discussed in posts such as e.g. The Proper Use of Doubt, it can be very dangerous to have a primary goal of being perceived as rational, because, in doing so, you bind your understanding of rationality to be no more than what the general public understands.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/blobusus/ blobusus

    This seems to revolve around trust. To be ‘caught out’ is to bring your trustworthiness into question. To be thought biased does the same thing. If trust if the foundation of voluntary relationships, then being seen as untrustworthy will limit your access to this most edifying of bonds.

  • Tobbic

    Like TGGP, I don’t see a real difference between motivation to OB resulting from reputational effects and objectification effects. Reading the text I understood objectification to be the same as giving simplifying label to someone. Isn’t having a certain label just a one way of having a reputation?

  • An贸nima

    [David J. Balan]:

    “You’re right that I care a lot about my own opinion of my worthiness, and one reason to care about negative opinions that others might have of me is that I might suspect that they’re right, and I suspect this more the more seriously I take that person’s opinion. […] I wouldn’t get too insulted if a two year old called me a dummy.”

    [An贸nima]:

    I have dicovered you have a bias! 馃檪

    Ignoring a 2 years old that calls you a dummy when you do or say something _only because he is 2 years_ old: is a bias, I’m afraid.

    I think if your objective is being right and rational in your way of defending your points of view you are making a mistake there.

    Taking more seriously the opinions of some persons can lead you to accept something that is wrong because these persons may, in good faith, be wrong and you belive what they say without challenging it rationally.

    On the other hand ignoring the arguments of people you don’t take seriously (because they are 2 years old or because you don’t know them) can make you miss some important point in a discussion.

    What you should never take as a serious attack to your arguments is the opinion of any one that _only_ says that you are biased. That is not a strong argument even if it is true.

    You are not more right or wrong because you are unbiased or truthworthy. It’s true that, if you have a bias, to be right you need to overcome your bias. That is you need to think clearlly and express rationally what you think not letting your bias cloud your reasoning. But that doesn’t make you unbiased.

    For example, I used to have discussions with free software supporters about patents but I never claimed to be an authority in the field (Being anonimous is a strong handicap to claim any authority in a field ;). Then in one blog they did some IP searching an they discovered that my comments seemed to come from a patent office. That made them very happy: they thought they could discard automatically my arguments because of my supposed bias. But that’s not true. My arguments are right or wrong, _ in their own_, independently of my IP, don’t you think so?

    What I can understand is that you care about negative opinions of others, because you think they can be right. I don’t like been wrong either and I don’t specially enjoy having others demonstrate that I am wrong, even if its helpful because I learn in the process. And it’s true that it hurts even more if I don’t specially respect intelectually the person that is proving that I am wrong.

  • vernigor

    I think this indeed biases OB, and mainly through the already suggested over-avoidance of biases that one expects to be ‘caught out’ easily.
    I believe that that is actually a major bias, as it turns attention away from any commonly shared biases and misconceptions.
    For example, in a religious society one isn’t motivated to get rid of any theological biases that are well established at the given moment.

    This social or psychological bias always (unconciously) seeks to stay with the crowd, and never challenge established paradigms.

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    I don’t feel bad learning that my ideas are subject to bias. That is the disconnect: my ideas are subject to bias, and the more I know about bias, the better I am able to separate my ideas from myself. Biases are neurological disabilities to be circumvented or overcome, and it should be freeing to realize that you are just as much at fault for having the biases as you are for being allergic to peanuts.

    Now that you know about the particular bias, you should avoid it, but no one would think badly of you for accidentally eating something that was made around peanuts. It may have taken you a while to realize that you have belief as attire, but now that you can tell yourself apart from your clothing, you can change your shirt. You might feel a little silly about that initial error, but you don’t need to take it personally that you bought a shirt that looked bad once you got it in good light.

    Overcoming Bias is a great opportunity to correct errors without losing face. “No no, you weren’t wrong, that idea was. You were neurologically hard-wired to believe it, so you could hardly have avoided it. I certainly didn’t notice that bias until someone pointed it out to me. Come, let us learn together.”

  • http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/08/bias-as-objecti.html?cid=80657103#comments john

    “So maybe you have an urge to de-bias not because (or not strongly because) it is the best way to be seen as unbiased. Perhaps the real reason is that it’s the best way for you to think of YOURSELF as good, strong, smart, and worthy.”

    This is an interesting comment. James I disagree, in part, with the idea that this would be the real reason for wanting to be unbiased. I do agree that I, and most people, strive to be worthy in whatever way possible.(Nobody is a nobody- everyone is an aspiring author, an amateur bicyclist, and etc. Stories of value.) I would disagree that wanting to believe that we’re valuable is a fully conscious intention. I may have read more into this than you intended however.

    “Ignoring a 2 years old that calls you a dummy when you do or say something _only because he is 2 years_ old: is a bias, I’m afraid.”

    For my two cents: I can recognize that someone is lazy, stupid, worthless, a bigot– whatever. If they tell me I look like I have four arms, I’ll shrug at the absurdity. If they tell me that I’m a lazy, stupid, worthless, bigot, I want to fight them. How odd.

    John

  • Tobbic

    “Ignoring a 2 years old that calls you a dummy when you do or say something _only because he is 2 years_ old: is a bias, I’m afraid.”

    If one has unlimited resources (here = unlimited time), this is indeed an example of argument of authority. If one has limited resources, one doesn’t necessarily have time to address every “you’re a dummy” -argument. Then, the rational thing to do is to concentrate one’s efforts on the issue/argument where one’s expected marginal utility is the greatest. Given our knowledge of mental capacity of 2 year-olds the expected utility is very low. Thus, ignorance of arguments can be justified by scarcity.

  • TGGP

    Zubon, where does the distinction between yourself and your mind/brain/beliefs come in? Would you be more upset to believe that your arms or legs were defective rather than your head? I would suggest you read this on the mind/self distinction.

    David Balan, I had come to suspect in the back of my mind that you were writing things for the purpose of setting me off (I know a guy who feels similarly about the name of the band Hootie and the Blowfish, though they have never interacted and he still doesn’t know what it is about the name that is playing a joke on him) and it gives me a sense of relief to know that you are putting consideration into my response. Unless of course you are merely playing a trick on me!

  • David J. Balan

    TGGP, All part of my master plan!!

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    the idea that my beliefs or claims or arguments can be airily dismissed as the product of this or that self-interested bias damages my self-image

    I wonder if part of this is not wanting to seem simple-minded, where others can have a simple model to predict your beliefs. Alas, there can also be a bias to seem complex and creative, which distorts away from simple common beliefs.

  • An贸nima

    Tobbic:

    You are rigth, the rational thing to do, since time is scarce, is to ignore the opinions of those you have a priori decided you should not take seriously because you don’t respect them intellectualy. The example of a 2year old is a boutade (provocation?), of course, but all of us ignore some grown ups because we don’t think they can teach us anything for whatever the reasons.

    But then I’m also right that the fact of ignoring other people a priori is a bias, that we have decided _rationally_ not to overcome, and that can lead to ignore valid arguments, even with low probability.

    That was the whole point of the post as I understood it: David Balan said he was willing to loose infinite time in not been caught been biased and my opinion is that if one wishes to act rationaly, one must accept that one can not overcome every bias one has.

    My conclusion is that it’s not so important being biased (not listening to a 2 years old) as being wrong (if the 2 years old is right). One shoud try to overcome bias to avoid being wrong, not to avoid being biased and told so.

  • An贸nima

    – “X is true”, says An贸nima
    – “X is false, because argument 1, argument 2…argumentn”, says 2YO, a 2 years old person
    – “I don’t care what you say, 2YO, shut up!”, says An贸nima
    – “An贸nima your are biased! How can I accept X is true? You have such an inflated sense of self-worth that you refuse to listen and explain your arguments” says MyHero, An贸nima’s intellectual hero

    Should An贸nima feel her self-image damaged, independently of X being false or wrong?

    According to David Balan, she should: “Somehow the idea that my beliefs or claims or arguments can be airily dismissed as the product of this or that self-interested bias damages my self-image far more than does simply being shown to be wrong. ”

    According to An贸nima, An贸nima should feel ashamed (at least a bit) if, and only if, MyHero shows X is wrong, and she shouldn’t feel more ashamed because she hasn’t listened to 2YO since it is the rational thing to do, as explained by Tobby. But even if it was an irrational bias, the fact is one can not always be concious of every bias one has.

    So, in my opnion, it should be far more damaging to one’s self-image to be shown wrong than to be shown biased. But the damage shouldn’t last long because being shown wrong is one (hard) way to learn things and learning is great 馃檪

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    TGGP, I don’t see where you are getting “mind/brain/beliefs,” as a concept not just from what I was saying. It implies that the mind and brain are identical and both are identical with their contents. That discussion could take us far afield of anything I was considering, so I leave it for another time.

    If you are advocating the conclusion the link suggests, that ties well to your disability comment. If you could not have done other than believe falsely because of a bias, you have no moral culpability in the matter and should not feel shame. You have new responsibilities now that you are aware of the role of bias in the matter, but you bear no fault to the extent that your ideas were dictated by neurological necessity. To me, that seems better than being told that you just messed up and have no excuse.

    And as a practical matter, I am all for helping people to correct their beliefs. If allowing them to save face reduces commitments to false beliefs, I want to play up that aspect.

  • An贸nima

    Overcoming bias should never be a goal in itself and it’s neither a virtue in it self.

    Overcoming bias is a great tool to be able to learn new things that we wouldn’t have being able to accept because our bias would have preventend it.

    I’m sorry if I’m not able to put it more clearly, but I’ve tried hard and I would have apreciated an argument showing me wrong. But c’est la vie, I suppose. So long 馃檪