Prefer Ignorant Fans

Tell pretty women they are smart, and smart women they are pretty. saying

We prefer to be liked, vs. disliked, but we also care about which features others most like about us.  For example, we might prefer to be liked for our sense of humor, rather than our looks.  But it seems to me that we most prefer that people who like us not know why exactly they like us.

It is of course a bad sign about someone’s opinion of you if they can’t think of any positive features of you.  It is also a good sign about their devotion if they sometimes try to make sure you know that you have good features.  But we would be disappointed and even disturbed to learn that someone knew that how much they liked us was captured by a particular known formula referring to objectively measurable features, no matter what those features were.

Someone who knew exactly where you and other folks ranked on their quality scale, and who could easily track how those rankings changed with time will know how much they like you more or less as your features changed.  Even if you are their favorite person at this moment, the odds are that someone else will soon outrank you.

In contrast, consider someone who has had a lot of contact with you, and who knows mainly that they like you, but not why exactly they like you.  This person will have more trouble finding someone else that they like more than you.  In this case you are more of an experience good, that has to be experienced to be evaluated.  If it is expensive to experience other folks enough to know their attractiveness, you have more confidence that you will continue to be one of their favorite people.

(From a conversation with Amanda Budny.)

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  • Doug S.

    I’ve seen a version of that saying attributed to Casanova.

  • Aron

    I just ate all my carrots and mommy loves me so much!

  • Bruce

    Perhaps this is why folks don’t like to be ranked and rated at work?

  • http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/ Katja Grace

    Whether you are an experience good and whether you can be rated according to your qualities seem to be different issues. e.g. If I wanted to rate you precisely on conversation or love making or just about anything but looks I would have to experience it. Do you mean that if you don’t know what you like you must include the experience goods in your evaluation?

    Your theory here predicts that if someone doesn’t like you enough you would prefer that they do like you for particular features. It’s hard to tell if this is true, as if people aren’t liked enough they usually opt for thinking neither their features nor their wholistic gist have been appreciated properly. On average you shouldn’t do worse by being evaluated on something changeable.

    It also predicts that you would like others to know why they like you if it is for very stable things, such as height. I haven’t seen much evidence of this.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    On the other hand, we are thirsty for feedback about how well we measure up. Teenage girls are flirtatious to see if boys will flirt back or ignore them. Grad students like to throw out lots of ideas to see if seasoned academics think they’re promising or baloney. How else would someone know if they were attractive or clever?

    In those cases, hearing exactly why someone likes you is wonderful. “omigod you’re such a good dancerrr!!” But after hearing it from enough sources, you don’t really get a boost from hearing the next bit of frank praise.

    So, only tell a pretty woman she’s smart if she’s already heard she’s pretty lots of times, and ditto the smart woman who’s already heard she’s smart lots of times. Seems like age is the single variable there. You can be more frank or direct in your praise of young people; older people have heard it already and would like you to praise something else about them that they haven’t heard a lot.

  • Hector

    “When love depends on another factor, then when the factor ceases to exist, so does the love. But when love does not depend on anything else, it never ceases to exist”
    — Talmud

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

    Katja something that you can precisely evaluate after just one experience is less an “experience good” than something that requires many experiences to slowly gain an accurate estimate. It seems to me we do prefer folks like us for stable features. Height is stable, but when someone says they like it they mostly mean they like your looks, which is less stable.

    agnostic, yes we are thirsty for feedback about how we measure on features.

    Hector, good quote.

  • http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/ Katja Grace

    Robin, why makes you think if someone says they like your height they mean your looks? Height is one of the most important parts of male attractiveness. If someone says they like my tendency to have sex with them should I think they really mean my personality?

    Are there any stable traits that people do sometimes genuinely say they like? If not why not? If so, do people like to be liked for them?

    • http://www.rationalmechanisms.com Richard Silliker

      >If someone says they like my tendency to have sex with them should I think they really mean my personality?

      I do not know what Robin’s answer will be. However may I suggest….
      You bet ya! Sex arises from intimacy (the sharing of vulnerabilities). Intimacy is where it is. Anything else is gratuitous.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10546265581296919974 Rob

    So, might there be (or at least have been) individuals so confident in the stability of an objectively measurable feature (or complex of features) they bear that they would embrace the idea that how much others like them is captured by a formula referring to it? I wonder if our attitude is not in some important sense an artifact of modernity.

  • michael vassar

    In my experience it’s the exact opposite. The more detailed and exact a compliment the more effective. In fact, if you are detailed enough in your criticism those can also create positive mutual feelings. What people don’t like is vague praise that they have heard before many times.

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10546265581296919974 Rob

      My impression is that the contexts in which we typically have the kind of experience you describe are ones in which we are occupying roles the fulfillment of which is fairly objectively measurable, and we enjoy the focussed compliments pertaining to our performance in those roles against a background sense of not taking the role to exhaust the value or extent of our full identity. A modern thing, it seems to me, this desire to feel one’s worth transcends any relational instantiation.

  • http://modeledbehavior.com Karl Smith

    Yeah, this seems exactly wrong to me. Vague compliments can come off as an attempt at ingratiation, especially to very attractive girls.

    The more detailed and specific you can get the more effective. Indeed, if you want to elicit a lot of affection its best to think really long and hard about even a simple and common feature like eyes.

    Moreover, you can get away with telling a women you like her “willingness to have sex with you” if you can get really specific. Saying “I like because you’re easy” is not likely to get you far, but a detailed explanation of the particulars of her sensuality can work.

    Now what will get you into crap is if you are detailed about you DEVOTION to someone. I want to do something nice for you because you . . .

    That is not good. It sounds best if you want to do something nice because you cannot help it. Because a desire wells up from in you that you cannot understand or control.

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

    michael and Karl, I didn’t talk about vague vs. specific compliments.

  • michael vassar

    Detailed compliments require and demonstrate non-ignorance. Detailed wrong compliments will probably come off as ridiculous.

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

      The post is about ignorance of what you like about people, not ignorance of the details of their features.

  • me

    When someone likes you for reasons they don’t understand, you feel higher status. Conversely, understanding why you like someone makes you feel like you have more control over yourself with that person and thus higher status. Knowing why you’re attracted to someone can hurt you if you want to feel lower status to the person you’re attracted to i.e. women attracted to men.

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  • Grant

    If the trait valued is loyalty and reciprocation, especially by both parties, then IMO the fear that someone else may temporarily outrank you becomes much less important.

    Of course, allowing certain traits to change can be a display of disloyalty (e.g. a spouse not working, gaining too much weight, etc.).

    • http://db_en.livejournal.com db

      IMO, the precedent in Grant’s arguments is true. We largely like because we are liked, and vice versa. Liking or being liked triggers the pleroma of cognitive biases that make life so interesting and exciting. There’s something to be said for the evolutionary stability of those biases etc.

  • Shae

    This post reminds me of Ayn Rand’s comments on why “unconditional love” is unflattering, even though people seem to want it.

  • Tom P

    It seems like the quote about smart/pretty women has more to do with how people like to be complimented on things they are insecure about rather than on things they already know they are good at.

    In my experience people love very specific compliments about things that they are insecure about. Those details make the compliment seem more believable.

    To some extent this is an independent effect from what you are proposing Robin.

  • http://radicalignorance.com Josh Weil

    Doesn’t having ignorant fans create stress because we are uncertain that they will continue liking us? It’s unsustainable for someone to like me for something I am not. I may prefer in the short term an acquaintance to be more ignorant and like me, but it seems to me people like close friends are a different case.

  • ThePenscileFamily

    Pinker once said the best compliment you can give a lover is that you love them because you can’t help it.

    (or something like that)

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