Contingent Truth Value

Does allowing prophets, whistle-blowers, and dissidents to tell people truths they don’t want to hear help those other people or hurt them?  Today I heard an excellent talk (see slides and paper) by Roland Benabou explaining how it can help or hurt, depending on the situation:

HURT: If your future is likely to be enjoyable, and if before then anticipating your great future gives you enough joy, then if you come across bad news suggesting otherwise you might enjoy your life more overall if you quickly look the other way and forget about it.  Even if later on you realize you are the sort of person who would forget such news, you’d still reasonably guess you had a good chance of an enjoyable future, and you’d enjoy savoring that prospect, at least for a while.  Someone who forced you to pay attention to the bad news could do you a real harm.

HELP: On the other hand, if a group of you worked together to build an enjoyable future, how hard you each worked might depend on the chances you each assigned to your efforts working out well.  Given that you expected other people to avoid looking at bad news, you might also find it in your interest to avoid looking at bad news, so that you were all in an equilibrium where you all avoided bad news.  But for certain parameter values you might all be better off in a different equilibrium where you all expect each other to look at bad news and change your behavior in response.  In this case someone who collected bad news, saved it, and later forced you all to pay attention to the bad news you had tried to forget could upgrade your equilibrium.  This could do you all a favor, a favor you were individually not willing to do for yourselves. 

The value of truth is contingent, and depends on the details of your world and values.  It is not guaranteed.   So honestly demands that my commitment to truth also be contingent.

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  • Nominull

    Happily, my values place truth above most other things, so I do not have to worry too much about this dilemma.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    How can I trust that you’re being honest about this?

  • anon

    Good and sufficient reason not to bother reading Robin’s posts anymore.

  • http://lonelygenius.wordpress.com LG

    The argument is a little hedonistic for me, and it only deals with the effect of truth on an individual. I’m supposed to keep my mouth shut because I’m afraid of popping someone’s bubbly facade of contentment? No greater purpose can be served by popping many of those bubbly facades? No critical mass of education can be reached, person by person, in order to effect change?

    I don’t buy it.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Honesty demands that we admit truth-telling can hurt people, not that we refrain from truth-telling.

  • http://biasandbelief.wordpress.com/ Martin Poulter

    Thanks for the reference. This is a topic that I looked into in my PhD. There’s a standard economic result that information cannot have a negative expected utility, but clearly people can be information-averse, so there is an explanatory gap waiting to be bridged.

    That said, your post doesn’t seem to say much more than that if a man’s wife asks him if that dress makes her look fat, and it does, he shouldn’t say “Yes”.

  • http://manufacturedgods.blogspot.com LP

    If your future is likely to be enjoyable, and if before then anticipating your great future gives you enough joy, then if you come across bad news suggesting otherwise you might enjoy your life more overall if you quickly look the other way and forget about it.

    There are a couple of key phrases here:

    -‘likely’ to be enjoyable — what kind of probabilities are we looking for here? And, don’t we have reason to believe that people are not so good at accurately assesing the probability of their favored outcome?

    -‘enough’ joy — how much joy is enough to outweigh any additional long-term happiness one might gain by changing course in the light of bad news? And, don’t we have reason to believe that people are not good at weighing future joy vs. present joy?

    So how does the math work here? If we don’t know how probable someone’s future joy is, and we don’t know how much future joy can be gained from responding to bad news, and we can’t accurately compare future joy with present joy, how does this calculation work? This is why most (by which I mean ‘all’) people develop truth rules to guide them: ‘Always spare my wife’s vanity when she asks if she looks fat’ is an example of a truth rule. These rules seem to be based on some form of collective calculation about the harms and benefits of certain kinds of ‘bad news’, but interestingly, people are mostly expected to abide by them (and be polite) whether or not their calculations lead to the same policy.

  • http://mitechki.net/ Dmitriy Kropivnitskiy

    So, basically you chose a very wordy way of saying “While bad news might upset you, they might also contain useful information” 🙂

  • Douglas Knight

    What does this have to do with whistle-blowers? Isn’t that situation explicitly framed as a conflict of interests? Often principal-agent-subagent interests?

  • themusicgod1

    One thing that struck me about the lecture was the similarity to the model of enjoyment and experience of music from David Huron in his Sweet Anticipation, though his was a 5, rather than a 2 stage (bayesian) anticipation model. Similarly, it seems some disagreements (up to and including those on large ethical and political questions) end up being (especially when insufficient thought is drawn upon them) matters of which comes first, A or B (the greed of employers/the greed of employees, say) – and that this suggests that the decisions and beliefs made are or can be ‘realistic’ or ‘delusional’ on a particular time scale, but not on others(ie an inability to look at the markets long enough to see them work, or an inability to look at collective bargaining long enough to see it work, say). Putting the two together: There may be higher order delusions that we cycle between even than statism or anti-statism, that this same model should be able to say something about, extended just one more set of terms, under similar reasoning(the exception being that the time frame is larger).

    (tl; dr lecture generalized up to large numbers of people but not as much along the time axis, only mention of time is that beliefs can persist)