Mundane Dishonesty

It bothers me that my commitment to overcoming bias is contracted daily by these dishonesties:

  1. I am tragically uncertain about how I should divide my time between work and play, among various possible work projects, and with who I should ally and spend my time.  These are terribly important decisions about which I have only very weak clues.  But I usually act as if I know what I’m doing.
  2. I actually care a lot what other people think of me, and in most conversations the major topic for most everyone is who praises or blames who else how much.  But this strong subtext is usually not acknowledged in our explicit text.  Like most people, I act as if we were talking about other topics, and only indirectly make points of praise or blame.
  3. I think about sex an awful lot – it is not far from my awareness anytime I am in the presence of, or thinking about, most any healthy female.  But I almost never acknowledge that fact directly via my actions or words.

Now I don’t think I’m very different from most people on these points.  And there are obviously very good reasons why we are dishonest in these ways.  Telling associates explicitly how uncertain we are about associating with them would seem like threatening to "break up" with them.  Talking explicitly about who we like how much would sound like bragging and insecure requests for praise.  And talking explicitly about sexual undercurrents would usually be seen as sexual harassment. 

So like most people I am stuck in a signaling equilibrium where my best strategy is to act in a way that seems to me dishonest.  Oh you might say that everyone knows about all this so I’m not really fooling  anyone.  But while we "know" at some level, to function effectively it seems we must self-deceive enough to often take appearances at face value.   (See a nice related quote by Nagel, courtesy of Richard.)

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  • Can this be reduced to a really hard collective action problem?
    I think there’s probably a performance cost to the species, this type evo psych/cultural drag on efficiency.

    Also, a lot of men may think about sex less often andless strongly than you do. Your relative heirarchical elavation may be making your hornier than the typical male.

  • mjgeddes

    I for one am shocked R.Hanson’s admissions, especially (3).

    Actually, hopefully anonymous, I doubt R.Hanson is more hornier than average. If I see a hot chick, to be honest, I actually want to rip their panties right off on the spot, but in fact I just don’t say anything.

    Just kidding.

  • I think it was you who posted some time ago about Radical Honesty. I believe that movement was trying to address this state of affairs.

    My wife and I tried it maybe 2 years ago, and lasted around 2 weeks. By the end of it we had grown closer, but we had no further interest in finding out about the things we filter from each other — our thoughts on bathroom habits and personal hygiene for example.

  • Chris

    Regarding 1 and 3, I think you can be more honest. Don’t be an ass about it, which takes a little skill, but nevertheless be more honest.

    For 1, it helps to make it less about the person than the project or the timing. “I’m really not sure about going in this direction, I’m really more interested in X these days…”

    For 3, just say flat out, “I want to rip your panties off”, and say it with the same confidence you would have explaining basic probability. At work, use obvious coded language just to avoid people overhearing you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results.

    #2 sounds like academic politics. No idea what to do there, I try to avoid those conversations.

  • It would appear that if, as Dr. Hanson asserts, he is “like most people”and “not very different from most people”, the majority must be one small step from psychologic abnormality. Yet, how can being like most other people be abnormal? In the condition cited, pathological lying is defined as “falsification *entirely disproportionate to any discernible end* in view, may be extensive and very complicated, and may manifest over a period of years or even a lifetime.” So, the key is the “discernible end”. Dr. Hanson says his ends are: #1- seeming knowledgeable when not; #2- having people think well of him; #3- avoiding sexual harassment litigation.

    Perhaps Dr. Hanson (like most people?): has an assumed “initial state” he failed to mention: the nature of the people encountered. While he states, “I actually care a lot what other people think of me”, he left out an important modifier: he might better have said “certain people”. I can assure you from personal communication that he does not care what *everyone* thinks about him.

    In fact, don’t we “all” (to continue the analogy) have different honesty levels, depending on the environment? For instance, as Dr. Hanson walks to his lecture, a groundskeeper says, “I saw your lecture on the Webcast about xyz important economic concept; I’d like to make some suggestions that could better your position.” The words, if any, that will come from Dr. Hanson’s mouth will quite likely not be tempered with any concern about what the man thinks of him. At the other end of the spectrum, he makes a similar totally honest comment to Mr. Yudkowsky (presumably a close friend) without regard to its effect on his status, because communication with a *best* friend doesn’t require dishonesty. It’s the middle ground that is a problem.

    For comfort in total honesty, we need more *best* friends and groundskeepers in our lives, and less “cheap talk and wine”, to quote Don Henley. Or, there’s the Thoreau approach.

  • Robin, I’ve recently been thinking about this same topic, and unfortunately I think we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. For example, I want to have a good relationship with my wife, but as I think you know from your post a couple days ago, this requires me to act in ways toward her other than how I would normally act. I had at some point either prior to or during the early stages of our relationship committed myself to total honesty, but usually that just got me into trouble. In fact, things have only gotten better because I chose not to be honest and either conceal things or flat-out lie to my wife. This may sound disheartening to some, but it’s the reality of human relationships: only those people who naturally fit their partner’s expectations can be totally honest.

    You can be honest, or you can be socially accepted by human society (unless you honestly match what is acceptable by human society). Until we can do something about improving humans, we won’t be able to change the society.

  • Shmuel

    There’s a nice bit on innuendo and game theory in Pinker’s most recent book.

  • Ben Jones

    Maybe you’re just spending too much time around dusty academics. Come to Glastonbury Festival next year, and have a wander and a chat with the strangest looking people you can find. I guarantee you that within a day you’ll have had enough refreshing honesty to keep you smiling at all and sundry for another year. There are a good few healthy females about the place as well.

  • burger flipper

    #2 is one of the most insightful things I’ve read in a while.

    I wonder how much of the feeling of dishonesty has to do with working in academia, which is a notoriously political milieu, and how much might stem from personally being a weasel, ie sending dishonest signals.

    I’ve some people who are quite succinct and curt communicating their feelings on all three points without overtly stating those feelings.

    And of course you should be very careful signaling on point three. If you are unwilling to carry through on your attraction (even if the point is just to signal you are sexually attractive, not I would like to have sex with you) you will mint some fresh enemies with the rebuffing.

  • I don’t think it’s appropriate to classify #3 as dishonesty. Afaict, it’s normal for a human to almost constantly feel urges that aren’t sufficiently strong to justify the cost of satisfying them; and as long as you’re suppressing them, there’s likely not much point in dumping that information to other people.
    Processing data isn’t free; if you estimate that the other person will lose more resources by completely processing the data you send to them than they will gain by use of the processed information, the nice thing to do is not to send the data, even neglecting the resources you would have to use to create the message. Anything else just results in creating annoyances for other people.
    Not informing people that trigger sexual urges in you but that you don’t have any intention of having sexual intercourse with of your urges is not necessarily all that different from not immediately talking about any and all itching you experience.
    I think it might also be useful to consider Eliezer Yudkowsky’s definition of “lie” here. If you aren’t trying to sexually harass someone, you shouldn’t say anything to them that you can predict leading to them feeling sexually harassed by you, even if you yourself wouldn’t come to the same conclusion after receiving the same message from someone else.
    In other words, if there are societal taboos that, when broken, will predictably lead to people mis-classifying you (for instance, as someone trying to sexually harass them), the most honest thing in many cases may well be to simply respect those taboos while they are in effect – since knowingly breaking them would cause other people to predictably form false beliefs about your person.

  • john

    I’ve been reading Carl Rogers recently, he advocates finding someone to whom you can express these thoughts with emotion. I’ve found that it is incredibly healthy to do so, especially with someone you trust. But, in general, it’s hard to merge outward honesty w. rationality I think.

  • About #3: There was a discussion on slashdot a few months ago about male/female romantic interaction. A woman joined the discussion, claiming to be a) knowledgeable about the issue, b) the owner of a sex club, c) comfortable with explicit requests for sex from men she’s just met, suggesting that men should do this more often. She claimed that if you’re just more honest about your sexual feelings, you will get positive results. I explained then exactly what being honest would mean, at which point she changed her mind (or actually, tried to salvage her position by radically changing the meaning of words, including “honesty”).

    I would be very careful about giving advice on #3. Your experience there depends upon a lot of things you may not even notice about yourself. I know for my part, I have done exactly what people have suggested several times, only to have it disastrously backfire, getting results that appeared to be “black swans” to the suggester.

  • In his review of A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the world of atomic weaponry, by Hodge and Weinberger, Richard Rhodes recounts a conversation between the authors and Russian physicist Victor Mikhailov, when the non-scientist authors asked to interview Russian weapons scientists. Mikhailov retorted, “What would have to talk about with them? ‘What’s your house like?”, or ‘Do you have a family?'” Although dripping with sarcasm, his point is right on, and totally honest. Nonetheless, one suspects he would have made the same point in a gentler way if talking to his girlfriend (should he have any hopes of fulfilling his thoughts in category #3).

    On this blog, Mr. Yudkowsky has told one discussant, obviously light-years beneath him in the hierarchy, I’ve spent quite a while ramming headlong into the problem of preventing the end of the world.. He later ended the “discussion” by telling the reader to stop giving him advice, since he was unlikely to take it, or even to take it seriously. The effects of his unquestionably honest statements on two readers were juxtaposed. As the chided discussant (me, under the ridiculously dorky cloak of a pseudonym transparent to any nerd), I felt his position was undeniably correct, I appreciated his expression of it, and I was embarrassed that I had insulted his life’s work by suggesting that a casual, uninformed observer was on near-equal footing. At the other end of the spectrum, frequent-commenter Lara Foster was outraged at his incivility, and I can find no comments from her since.

    The desirability of honesty is relative, as Jeff Foxwothy points out in his list of situations for which a dishonest answer is always appropriate, e.g., “Honey does this dress make me look fat?”

  • Grant


    Why would we want to overcome bias in such mundane situations? As you’ve noticed, bias has its advantages, especially in social (and political) situations. It seems to me that it would be best to direct efforts to overcome bias to areas where bias is actually a hindrance.

  • Douglas Knight

    Robin Hanson,
    What about the fragment of #1 about choosing between work projects? Why can’t you discuss that? How did it go when you formally polled people about your next project?

  • Anonymous

    What do you have against sick women?

  • Bad faith as a conscious accommodation to social realities is arguably a lot better morally than bad faith as an unconscious reflex. If that’s any consolation.

  • scott clark

    you must have it rough at mason, boss. there are some serious bunnies on that campus. maybe not so many in the econ department, but i could spend all day in the johnson center watching the beautiful bunnies go by.

  • Caledonian

    Yet, how can being like most other people be abnormal?

    ‘Abnormal’ has both a statistical and a normative meaning. The statistical does not imply that the person is maladapted, the normative does.

    When we talk about most Americans being overweight, we’re not suggesting that’s average, although it is indeed average. We use two different meanings that involve the same word.

  • Married male college instructors have higher rates of infidelity than married males in other occupations, and of course every significant college campus in the U.S. is co-educational now, Virginia Military Institute being one of the last to go co-ed.

  • Cyan

    Am I alone in finding it odd that this post is categorized under Self-Deception? Deception, sure, but why self?

  • It is sort of Aspergeresque to assume that honesty is desirable in casual human communication. People don’t banter with each other to exchange facts, that’s just not what it’s about. The facts are typically just an excuse for whatever the real work of the conversation is.

    I’m not much good at small talk, but I’m not under some illusion that the problem is with how human society works, rather than with me.

  • Thanatos Savehn

    Honesty? Honestly I don’t see this as an honesty issue.

    I have horses. They think as follows: a) answer the following: “will it eat me?” if yes, run; if no, then b) answer this: “can I eat it?”; if yes, eat it; if no then c) answer this: “can I mount it?”; if yes, mount it, if no, ignore it.

    I have dogs. They’re about the same though they tend to run b, c, a.

    Being products of evolution we all run similar algorithms deep in our amygdalas(ae?). That’s why we all have weird and unsettling thoughts pop into our heads from time to time. Becoming human is in part understanding and controlling our primal nature.

    We all face the same struggle so what’s the point of saying to your pretty clerk “ummm, the thought of throwing you on the conference room table and having my way with you just crossed my mind”? We all have such ideations. Why go around confessing to them? It’s like apologizing for the weather.

  • poke

    What is honesty? I think a lot of, for want of a better term, “nerds” are caught up in the old idea that language is used to express thoughts. They therefore wonder why people don’t communicate everything that happens inside their head. I think it’s more appropriate to consider language a form of expression. Use of language is more like writing a story than accurately communicating your private thoughts. “Thoughts”, for the most part, are a form of rehearsal anyway. We constantly rehearse the things we’re going to say, going to write, ways we’re going to present ourselves, etc. Our thoughts are just rough drafts of the bullshit we’re going to tell people. Some people have wilder imaginations than others and more often rehearse things that are inappropriate to every day situations. It’s not a big deal. “Honesty” is really conforming to certain implicit social commitments and not communicating every thought one has or everything one sees. The latter is just weird.

  • Evelyn

    As to #3, how would you feel if you knew that most women, attractive or not, were thinking about you in a sexual way most of the time, but not saying anything about it? And if you knew that most men were not thinking about sex most of the time?

  • To those commenters whose life experience is that they can’t be truly honest with their wives, I’m sorry to hear that.

    It is my experience that very honest partnerships are possible, though not with everyone.

    I believe that me and my wife do have one; we are very similar to begin with, and so don’t feel like we have any unpleasant truths to hide from each other.

    For example, alluding to #3, me and my wife are both horny fuckers, sometimes casually attracted to other people outside our relationship. So we talk about it, we often act on it, and it’s worked out nicely.

    I really do find that, not having to hide your instincts from your partner, makes for a more harmonious relationship.

    Alas, this does not help if, 20 years ago, you married someone you’re not fully compatible with in that respect, and now you want to maintain a happy marriage.

    I find that it is a general truth, with everyday acquaintances, and for some, also with partners, that mundane dishonesties help us avoid dwelling on how incompatible our value systems are, and help us focus instead on what we’re trying to achieve in the given moment.

    In recent years, I’ve had no problem being brutally honest with people. I have indulged in telling them what I think about things they value, as well as when I was sexually attracted to them. I find that this is a knife that cuts both ways. It polarizes. It helps you identify and get together with the few you are compatible with, but this comes at the expense of damaging fragile relationships with others.

    True skill is to be provocatively honest at times to identify potential compatibilities, but otherwise follow the protocol with others, so that you can get things done.

  • poke


    Are you suggesting women don’t think about men sexually?

  • Being honest does not require abolishing a sense of discretion. People do not generally care about the minutia of other people’s thoughts, and your thoughts are no exception to this. Some things are better kept private, as well – possibly because expressing them could cause embarrassment or pain to others, possibly because they’re no business of anyone else’s and making them public creates an unwelcome intimacy.

    Unless the women in question suddenly wish to know how you think of them sexually, or find themselves in a situation where their interests are legitimately dependent on knowing the nature of your private urges, they do not need to know, and you don’t need to inform anyone of them. This is not dishonesty. It’s simple consideration for their feelings and a respect for both your privacy and theirs.

  • Lake

    In fact, honesty is only laudable under a certain narrow range of circumstances:

    1) If someone asks you a question directly and it is apparent that they want to know the truth.

    2) If telling some truth will predictably cause better outcomes for yourself or others than failing to tell it.

    Honesty without either of these justifications generally seems peculiar and unpleasant.

  • Douglas Knight

    I think you are very different than the other commenters on this thread. Probably you are more normal. I think you could teach us lot, if you expanded on your comment, but I have no idea what more specific to ask you.

    Of course I have access to even more normal people, but it’s hard to get them to admit that honesty is peculiar, let alone unpleasant.

  • Lake

    This is the first time I’ve been cast as an ambassador for normality, but I’ll try my best.

    Honesty per se isn’t unpleasant. But it can be if, along with telling the truth, one is being boring, or puzzlingly irrelevant, or if in saying one’s piece one also appears to be doing something else – making a pass, picking a fight or whatever. And in general, failing to observe the norms that govern truth-telling will make one appear unusual; perhaps mad; perhaps dangerously so. It should go without saying that most people prefer not to deal with the dangerously mad.

  • The hypothesis is that habitual honesty can be reasonably mistaken for dangerous madness?

    I cannot immediately rule that out as a fair description of a common belief, nor even whether it is a fair heuristic for most. I do fear for our species.

  • @Zubon

    “The hypothesis is that habitual honesty can be reasonably mistaken for dangerous madness?”

    Diogenes of Sinope found it so. Why would it have changed since?

  • I’m fond of the old saying, “Just because its true, doesn’t mean you have to say it.”

    That especially applies to #3 where, if you’re not going to have intercourse, why bring it up and suffer the probable demerits? And if intercourse is a reasonable possibility, then honesty (“you are attractive, I wish to have sex with you”) is not going to achieve your objective, unless its a prostitute, so you better deploy some game.

  • “As to #3, how would you feel if you knew that most women, attractive or not, were thinking about you in a sexual way most of the time, but not saying anything about it? And if you knew that most men were not thinking about sex most of the time?”

    Evelyn, with the advent of often draconian hostile work environment law, a woman can stop a guy from making any reference to sex (or anything even close to it). But there is no way to prevent guys from thinking whatever they like. And your words, “attractive or not” make me think it would be ok if an attractive person thought about sex, but it’s highly objectionable if an unattractive person thought about it.

    That reminds me of the Saturday Night Live skit which purports to be a preventing workplace sexual harassment video. The lessons: Be Handsome. Be Attractive. Don’t Be Unattractive.

  • Evelyn:

    I had the same employees (all female) for my entire 30-year practice (I am a heterosexual male). After the first 8 years, I changed from general urology to a practice called the Sexual Medicine Center. The kind, polite, refined Cajun ladies who worked with me went from never saying or hearing anything of a sexual nature in our office, to doing almost nothing but that for the next 22 years. Because many of the patients (all male) were unfamiliar with medical terms, these women both heard and spoke terms, to and from both the patients and me, such as “hard on”, “come too fast”, “lump in my dick”, and all the others you can imagine. The concept of sexual harassment apparently never occurred to them. The ladies cried when my injury caused the practice to shut down, but we still see one another periodically, because we all enjoyed our work environment. Is it possible that you’re finding only what you’re seeking in the workplace?

  • Douglas Knight

    That comes across as pretty conventional, much less restrictive than your first comment. I probably just misinterpreted it. Your first comment says that you should honestly answer questions, but doesn’t address when it’s OK to ask serious questions, which will necessarily reveal information. RH’s #3 is probably about about boring, irrelevant, misleading possibilities, but his first two don’t sound boring or irrelevant, but they might pick a fight. Sure, they’re weird, but I think the cost is more than that.

  • To a virtue ethicist, this doesn’t seem like so much of a dilemma. Honesty is a virtue – that suggests that it is the mean between extremes. The value with respect to honesty is truth-telling. Too little truth-telling is a vice, often simply called “dishonesty”. However, telling the truth all the time is also not being honest – that would be telling the truth too much. We perhaps call this “being a stickler” (depending on context).

  • J Thomas

    Here is an approach to honesty that has worked well for me over a period of years with co-workers, random people, wives, children, and subordinates.

    1. Tell the truth. Don’t lie.
    2. Sometimes the truth you owe people is “That’s none of your business.”

    I have not particularly tried this approach with bosses, policemen, judges, or IRS agents.