Smart Sincere Syndrome

Humans are built to be hypocritical, i.e., to give lip service and soft thought to high ideals, while mostly acting to achieve low practical personal ends.  We manage this disconnect both by being stupid, and so not noticing our hypocrisy, and by being insincere, and so caring less when we notice.

Now human characteristics vary quite a bit, and so some folks are both unusually smart and unusually conscientious about their ideals.  More than most people, these folks notice their hypocrisy, and try to avoid it.  And since far ideals tend toward incoherence and impracticality, this has led smart sincere folks to invent a wide range of “ideologies” to substitute for their jumbled intuitions, with matching actions that range far from the norm.

The chance to show sincerity and smarts via our ideals makes it more important that one’s far ideals fit with a coherent and well-thought out ideology, than to be accurate relative to some external standard.  So humans are relatively unconcerned to discover they have wildly divergent ideologies; they accept that they disagree.  While a middle average opinion might be more accurate on average, it would less sparkle with the shine of clear clever sincere thought.  In addition, divergence lets folks show loyalty to particular groups.

This smart sincere syndrome less afflicted our distant ancestors because fuzzy far feelings rarely lead to clear inescapable conclusions.  While far mode is good for creative thinking, it usually leaves plausible excuses for rejecting conclusions that one does not like.  But the more recent invention of near-mode-based math/logical style analysis, applicable to far abstract problems, has made it easier for humans to notice and avoid inconsistencies.  So today, the smart sincere syndrome especially afflicts many folks with high math ability.

Now a modest dose of smart sincerity, limited by time, topic or temperament, is a good sign, as it indicates the positive qualities of intelligence and conscientiousness, qualities most any organization can put to good use.  So everyone wants to seem ideological to some degree.  And even a large dose of smart sincerity, if bundled with complements such as beauty, stamina, or charisma, can bring success as a “movement” or spiritual leader.  But without such complements, an overdose of smart sincerity tends toward evolutionary failure, typically achieving less success relative to ability.

Today, a common solution to this dilemma is libertarian axiomatics, a simple coherent ideology supporting most, but hardly all, ordinary practical actions.  Another common solution is to embrace a particular successful person, profession, or institution as the key to achieving global ideals; full loyalty and support of such a thing may, if reciprocated, help one achieve standard measures of success.

However, pity the simply smart sincere, who try make sense of their inherited incoherent impractical far ideals, via more coherent if idiosyncratic ideologies, that encourage unusual, and usually unadaptive, behavior.  Stories told of their dramatic bids for ideal consistency may be their main legacy from this our dream-time era.

Added 17Jan: Rob Wiblin says terrorists fit this pattern.

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  • Eric Johnson

    At GNXP I suggested that religion is used to block not just one undesirable rational conclusion, but all of them, a miscellany of them. It cauterizes the growing tip of the rationality fungus, wherever this is necessary. Not only do you need to avoid the possibility that you and your friends may face absolute death. You also need a comforting excuse to attack enemies that you know (increasingly as your line evolves into modern humans) are basically no different from yourself. Wherever something irrational is needed, it can be obtained from this special “gland” that permits one to tolerate rationality’s several toxicities.

    An interesting possible example of feigned, opportunistic ideology is Napoleon. Some say he aped parliamentary-democratic ideals in service of the opposite ideals. But I’m not sure even he knew what he really wanted.

  • Bill

    “Today, a common solution to this dilemma is libertarian axiomatics, a simple coherent ideology supporting most, but hardly all, ordinary practical actions.”

    Only to true believers.

  • Jef Allbright

    Huh. As a smart, sincere, idealistic person, I’ve experienced this tension between far idealism and near pragmatism all my life. I succeeded as a technical manager by virtue of solid technical ability, stamina and some charisma, but lacked (and didn’t desire) what it took to swim with the sharks who really ran things at the very top of the organizational ladder.

    A brief conversation one day with the company president summed it up: He asked me whether I was more interested in “doing things right”, or “doing the right thing.” I’m still (idealistically) trying to resolve those two into one.

    • Niklas D

      He asked me whether I was more interested in “doing things right”, or “doing the right thing.”

      I honestly can’t tell if the statements are equal or opposite.
      Could you try to elucidate a bit how you’re thinking here?

      • Jef Allbright

        “Doing things right” means optimizing one’s actions in accordance with methods that tend to work within the long-term context (in principle), despite short-term uncertainty.

        “Doing the right thing” means optimizing one’s actions in accordance with methods that tend to work within the short-term context, to the extent that the short-term context is certain.

        Sometimes it appears one must sacrifice long-term idealism in favor of short-term pragmatism, or vice versa. It seems to me, however, that the question is not really an exclusive one, and within a greater context one does both, perhaps assigning relative weights to short-term pragmatism and long-term principles based on (necessarily subjective) assessments of (1) certainty as to the immediate situation, and (2) the degree to which short-term actions do reflect long-term principles of “right” action.

        Now, what’s the proper formula for that relative weighting?

      • Michael Turner

        I’d understood them as orthogonal, mainly coming into conflict because a competitive grasp of one can impoverish one’s knowledge and understanding of the other. I hadn’t thought of them so much in terms of long- or short-term, more as engineering-oriented vs. customer-facing. There are right and wrong ways of being expedient, and there are right and wrong ways of working for long-term goals. Expediency is in conflict with “doing things right” only to the extent that working out what’s right, in some timeless sense, is taking precious time — i.e., the perfect being the enemy of the good.

      • Jef Allbright

        It might be worth observing that “expedient” in the sense it is being used here, entails a transparent assumption of a point of view from outside the system such that one can assess the trade-off between the two approaches and choose whether to be expedient or not and how much.

        This transparent assumption of objectivity is endemic to “rationalist” discussion, even those that profess a belief in Bayes.

        Also, we’re talking about scenarios of sufficient complexity, both under-defined and subject to combinatorial explosion (just like in the real world) sufficient to interest and challenge our notions of effective heuristics.

        For the *embedded* agent aiming for “success” as presently understood, but within a complex environment of uncertainty, I think the relative weighting between near-term pragmatic (less principled) actions and far-term highly principled actions, each with its associated uncertainty, combined to represent a single strategy, takes the form of a hierarchical Bayesian optimization problem.

  • michael vassar

    I was totally with you, thinking “this post would be a perfect introduction to Overcoming Bias and should be on permanent display” until I read “near-mode-based math/logical style analysis”. Then I said WTF?!??
    Math/Logical style analysis seems like the original of the far-mode paradigm. Fiddling with things with your hands without explicit executive scrutiny over what you are doing while trusting in non-conscious cognitive processes to figure out a solution seems like the paradigm for near-mode thought. Both have an important place, but it seems to me that placing math in near mode is simply an attempt to place everything that works, or that you have affectively labeled as good, in near mode. Every distinction wants to become good versus evil.

    • Robin Hanson

      I added a link at that point, to an earlier OB post you must have missed.

      • michael vassar

        I don’t see any evidence at that link indicating that far mode thinking makes people worse at math/logic. The idea of an opposition between analysis and verbal creativity doesn’t ring true to me.

      • Robin Hanson

        You can’t see if you don’t look. Follow the first link at that post and look at tables 1 and 2.

      • Constant

        Consider the Socratic dialogs. Socrates (the lowly) is the reasoner, the logician. The other Athenians (aristocrats) are the idealists. The clash between the two modes of thought is jarring. It is evident that Socrates represents a novelty, an unwelcome one, one for which the others are unprepared, in the realm to which he chooses to apply his mode of thinking.

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  • Adam Ozimek

    Robin, I suggest that when you run for president someday you start your stump speeches with this paragraph:

    “Humans are built to be hypocritical, i.e., to give lip service and soft thought to high ideals, while mostly acting to achieve low practical personal ends. We manage this disconnect both by being stupid, and so not noticing our hypocrisy, and by being insincere, and so caring less when we notice.”

    It would also be a winning start to high school or college graduation speeches, wedding or birthday toasts, eulogies, and other places humans gather to hear uplifting or sentimental thoughts.

    • anon

      Why? There’s a lot to be said for uplifting and sentimental speeches, even though they tend to have little or no information content. We get our mental elevation from speeches and our useful info from books, articles, conference talks and blog posts, and never the twain shall mix.

      • Michael Turner

        You could be Obama, and say it like this (I find it really helps if you imagine doing a stately swivel from one teleprompTer panel to another and back again, mimicking his signature gestures):

        “There are those who say that humans are built to be hypocritical, that they give lip service and soft thought to high ideals, while mostly acting to achieve low practical personal ends. They say we manage this disconnect both by being stupid, and so not noticing our hypocrisy, and by being insincere, and so caring less when we notice. To them I say: have the audacity to hope for better, but also the practicality to seek to be effective in this world, imperfect as it is.”

        Then you could also be like Obama, and seriously consider hiring one of Robin’s former grad students, on the condition he publicly repudiate all that Terror Futures nonsense, his former mentor and all his work, while joining up to implement the same idea under another name, with more clueful marketing, or maybe with no public profile at all.

  • Roland

    I had to think of this story:
    they killed my lawyer.

    • Roland


      A lawyer in Russia fights against the corrupt system and chooses to die rather than to compromise his values.

      • rob

        I’m not sure this is an example of unusual conscientiousness. It could be an example of a high risk taker trying to prove his sincerity by playing the hero.

      • Hopefully Anonymous

        great comment. for that alone you should start blogging.

    • anon

      That story is quite striking, but why didn’t Sergey and the firm cease all involvement with the country after moving their assets away and reporting the tax fraud to Russian authorities? Did they have anything to lose?

  • Ben Albahari

    The ethics branches of philosophy departments are the Smart Sincere Syndrome Asylums. The working assumption of the ethicist is that within their jumble of intuitions lurks a consistent ethical framework. Why this assumption? It seems there are all sorts of evolutionary and social pressures shaping our intuitions. Why would those pressures yield a set of intuitions that shared some sort of sublime internal consistency? If not, what becomes of the philosopher’s mind whose intuitions refuse to reconcile?

    Seeking consistency is what philosophers do in the Smart Sincere Syndrome Asylum. They hunt around the corridors with their finely meshed nets of logic built for catching contradictions. Once they catch one, they immediately try to kill it. Comedians, songwriters, and screenplay writers also hunt for contradictions, but only to cherish them when they catch them. They see the beauty and humanity in the irony. They embrace the contradictions. But not the philosopher. They try to kill them. They reformulate their minds to iron out the contradictions, becoming a little less human-like, and a little more likely to fail a Turing Test.

    That’s enough of my ranting / hypocrisy / poorly thought-through thoughts / signaling my unusual maladaptive behavior for now.

    • David Strauss

      From my (limited) experience with academic ethics, I have to disgree. I found the ethics department at my university to be quite at ease with the competing and contradictory ethical theories. Nor did they seem to try and unify the theories or find obscure mechanisms of consistency.

      Rather, I found the effort directed at taking our knowledge of happiness (or other ends) and our moral instincts, deconstructing them, and creating tools to analyze moral questions that aren’t obvious.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Good post. I think the notion of the gentrification of the moral high ground (and the ability high ground) is missing. “High math ability”, the role in social interactions of being “the idealistic one” these are social goods that are competed for, sometimes nontransparently.

    To be a “high math ability” person can be different than being someone who devoted their energy to idealistic ends.

    To develop a reputation as an idealistic person in your microsocial world can also be different than someone who has devoted their energy to idealistic ends.

    And I’m using idealistic ends flexibly (elastically?) here, although I’m guessing you mean something like maximizing some earthily wholesome combination of maximizing human happiness and minimizing existential risk for the human species.

    • michael vassar

      Hopefully: It seems to me that a large part of what Robin and I are trying to do is to figure out why people who are conventionally seen as smart but unsuccessful don’t do what works and don’t succeed, while you often try to argue that they are only pretending to do things that don’t work but then are unable to explain the lack of success.

      • Hopefully Anonymous

        I’m not sure I follow, maybe go a little less abstract and bring in an example or two?

        To be conventionally seen as smart is a relatively scarce good (particularly at the microsocial level) that is competed for, not always transparently. Same with being conventionally seen as idealistic. I’m not sure that was captured in Prof. Hanson’s post.

  • jb

    For some reason, the people who join the ‘Zero Population Growth’ movement spring to mind when I read this.

    • Michael Turner

      You might add Al Qaeda to the list. And those Lojban wankers. Unless I completely misunderstood Robin.

  • Tim Tyler

    “Libertarian axiomatics”? It sounds like a minority cause.

  • nazgulnarsil

    are you making fun of us cryonics supporters robin?

    • dsgh


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