Your Honesty Budget

Kira Newman runs The Honesty Experiment:

30 days. Complete honesty. Can they survive it? — Follow their journey and read about honesty in life, love, and business.

She interviewed me recently. One excerpt:

Honesty Experiment: How do we solve this conundrum?

Hanson: I think the first thing you’ll have to come to terms with is wondering why you think you want to be otherwise. We’re clearly built to be two-faced – we’re built to, on one level, sincerely want to and believe that we are following these standard norms – and at the other level, actually evading them whenever it’s in our interest to get away with it. And since we are built that way, you should expect to have a part of yourself that feels like it sincerely wants to follow the norms, and you should expect another part of you that consistently avoids having to do that.

And so, if you observe this part of yourself that wants to be good (according to the norms), that’s what you should expect to see. It’s not evidence that you’re different from everybody else. So a real hard question is: how different do you want to be, actually? How different are your desires to be different? . . . Overall, you should expect yourself to be roughly as hypocritical as everybody else.

I later recommend compromise:

It would be simply inhuman to actually try to be consistently honest, because we’re so built for hypocrisy on so many levels. But what you can hope for is perhaps a better compromise between the parts of you that want to be honest and the parts of you that don’t. Think more in terms of: you have a limited budget of honesty, and where you should spend it.

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    “Think more in terms of: you have a limited budget of honesty, and where you should spend it.”

    I’m not sure it works that way. There are two kinds of lying. One is socially accepted, the other is the kind people do and should feel bad about.

    When your wife asks you to tell her which dress looks better on her and you don’t really have a preference one way or the other you pick on and make it sound like you absolutely prefer that one at the moment, somewhere deep down she knows you’re probably making it up on the spot but that doesn’t matter, the signalling involved is more important and you’ve helped her get out of an infinite thought loop that was restricting her. This kind of lies isn’t optional (so no budget) unless you are autistic/prefer to live like a hermit, these lies are part of normal human social behavior, probably always have been and probably always will be.

    The other kind of lies are the ones where you do damage or and/or people would have wanted you to tell the truth, for these you do not have a budget either, they’re pretty much all wrong (unless you’re saving a lot of lives or something like that, but a) that’s unlikely to happen in an average person’s life and b) such an insane situation probably arose in the first place because someone lied about something important at some point).

  • Most statements have multiple dimensions. A statement like: “You’re eyes are the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen”, might be a truthful signal of love but false statement about which eyes I have seen before.

    On the other hand it’s also quite easy to give a dishonest signal while telling the truth on another level.

    • mare-of-night

      So it’s… more about whether you’re being deceptive, than whether you’re lying. Whether the most important part of the message is honest, rather than the truth of the literal statement.

      • The person who sends the message and the person who receives it might differ about what the most important part of the message happens to be.

  • Honesty is not a very clear-cut notion. Obviously, we cannot expect anyone to never be wrong. This kind of honesty is impossible. We then have to settle for judging whether one believed his own words at the moment. But such judgment is always subjective and prone to unconscious distortion.

  • Wonks Anonymous

    Is there evidence for a “limited budget” so that using up some honesty in one area leaves less for others? Or is it like a muscle that strengthens when used? I am of course borrowing from a common discussion on willpower (which seems related to amounts of blood sugar).

    • Stephen Diamond

      Limited willpower is the only explanation I can think of for having an honesty budget. You can only force yourself to be honest (when your urges argue otherwise) so much. And the gains for willpower from its exercise are probably much smaller than the gains of strength from physical exercise. The basic human solution to limited willpower is habit formation. To the extent the “budgetary” limit on honesty is willpower (and I can’t think of what else it might be), it doesn’t limit the degree of honesty one can obtain through practicing it.

  • Stephen Diamond

    Why would any rational agent, in the midst of enemies or at least rivals, want to be totally honest? It isn’t a matter of how we’re built; it can be explained by our interests–in good economist fashion.

    But one rationally ought to want to decrease one’s self -deception, of which we have an excess, when most of our conflicts aren’t resolved face to face like they were for our progenitors.

    “Dishonesty” or even “hypocrisy” isn’t a functional unity. If we become less self-deceptive, we will become more overtly dishonest; self-deception relieves us of the need to lie.

    Any reasonable ethics must recognize that honesty must be qualified by other virtues; perhaps not so with self-deception. Like Nietzsche wrote, one’s strength is measured by how much truth one can tolerate.

    • IMASBA

      “Why would any rational agent, in the midst of enemies or at least rivals, want to be totally honest? It isn’t a matter of how we’re built; it can be explained by our interests–in good economist fashion.”

      Rational agents can build a better world if they can trust each other. Imposing penalties on deceit and growing a sense of community so that cooperation becomes viable is a more rational and ethical strategy than “every man for himself”.

  • MaW

    Mitchell and Webb on Radical Honesty:

  • suzanne

    why this makes me laugh, i do not know. thinking about inhumanity and budgets and lying and parts… and cannot help but laugh. but it’s one short brief ha.

  • Lord

    The only reason I can see for dishonesty is avoidance of conflict or trying to obtain something you are otherwise not entitled to. I don’t see the difficulty of not saying anything at all if you can’t say something positive. Even if one dislikes something, I can’t see why one would not suggest what could make it better in one’s eyes or something neutral and noncommittal. Someone might corner someone else into a position where dishonesty may be considered, but if they care that much for a response, it is hard to see why they would prefer dishonesty. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and they are worth what they cost.

    This is somewhat like questions of trust which I find inane. Trust whom to do what? Trust how far and with what? Without doubt or with concern? Trust they exist, that they will behave well, that they have good judgment, or they are incorruptible? Specifics are not a side concern, they are the entire concern.

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    “So it’s a form of social hypocrisy: we, in fact, don’t really want to uncover those kinds of police actions very eagerly, at least.”

    This doesn’t seem especially persuasive to me. For one thing, I don’t think it’s particularly accurate to say “we” set up internal affairs departments to report to the chief of police. I was not consulted for this decision, and I doubt you were either. I’d estimate the portion of the population that was consulted in the decision of who the department of internal affairs should report to to be under 0.001%. So using “we” seems highly misleading.

    Even if most people had a mild preference for police oversight to be decoupled from police departments, I wouldn’t necessarily expect this to be implemented. It seems like a collective-action problem: the police department probably has a strong desire to keep investigation groups internal, while any public desire would be a mild one held by many people.

    If we were to poll the users of on whether police oversight should stop reporting to the chief of police, what do you expect the result of the poll would be?

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    I’m not persuaded by your blackmail example either. There are lots of people who are in favor of minimum wage laws, because paying working class people more money seems good, so requiring businesses to offer higher wages intuitively seems like it should help working class people. But of course economists don’t think things are that simple ’cause they’ve thought about the issue for a while longer. Blackmail seems likely to be the same sort of thing… perhaps people want these sorts of things to come out, and they think blackmailing would mean things stayed quiet. The name “blackmail” doesn’t help either. Nor does the fact that anyone who did blackmail sounds like a jerk, and people typically dislike jerks, and perhaps don’t realize that in this case this jerk behavior is serving a useful role.

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    “My colleague Tyler Cowen, he’s often remarked that most of us could get frank advice about ourselves if we simply asked around to our local colleagues and associates about our strengths and weaknesses and our problems, and few of us ever do that.”

    And yet “Honesty Box” is a popular Facebook application. I think people are very curious what others think about them. Let’s say you overheard part of a conversation two friends had about you, but you didn’t make some of it out. Wouldn’t you be extremely curious what else was said?

    Obviously people don’t go around all the time asking for frank feedback, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not curious about ourselves. There are lots of other potential reasons. One big one: asking for feedback like this would be a low status move, and most people like to appear high status, or are at least uncomfortable being low status.

    I actually think the idea of having a high level of honesty and egalitarianism is a great one. I have lots of friends who I have that kind of honest, egalitarian relationship with, and they’re great friendships. The modern world doesn’t exactly have scarce resources, so we don’t need to be conniving against each other.

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  • free_agent

    Unlike most people in the world, Americans have this belief in rugged honesty at all costs: If you aren’t honest, you’re not good. Whereas many peoples in Latin America, for example, and throughout much of Asia, will graciously say dishonest things in order to be polite. I would say that, in most tribal societies, where community is absolutely essential, most people are willing to tell white lies to smooth over difficult social situations.
    — Darwinian anthropologist Helen Fisher

    Why do we believe that honesty is actually a good thing? Is there any evidence for that?

    • There may be some correlation wit Protestantism. The Germans and Dutch tend to be blunter than soutthern Europeans.

      • IMASBA

        Yes, definitely. Roman Catholicism, like Islam and Hinduism is a strictly hierarchical system with lots of rituals and very specific rules. This has advanced to the point where outward appearances are more important to be viewed as a good Catholic than your actual actions or beliefs

  • arch1

    …or one can just finesse the issue entirely:
    “’Honesty is the best policy.’ Very well then; if I act so as to do the best for myself I am assured of acting honestly.”
    –J. E. Littlewood, Littlewood’s miscellany, CUP

    (in case it’s unclear, Littlewood intended this as a joke)

  • Stephen Diamond

    Think more in terms of: you have a limited budget of honesty, and where you should spend it.

    Thinking in terms of a limited financial budget makes you more frugal with money. Similarly, thinking in terms of a fixed honesty budget is a recipe for making one more frugal with honesty.

  • dmytryl

    I don’t see why honesty would have a budget, unless of course you exhaust will power any time you are forcing yourself to be honest instead of lying.

    On the other hand, lying definitely has a budget, in the sense that there’s limited amount of lying that can be done before there’s sufficient Bayesian evidence for the other parties.

  • dmytryl

    The communication works as following: some sequences of words and the like are made to produce specific picture or a mental model in the listener’s head. When they are made to produce a false picture, that’s a lie.

    Telling someone that they are e.g. a most beautiful woman in the world evokes the picture of your love, and thus it is a lie if this picture is false (e.g. if you are only doing this to get them in bed).

    People on the autistic spectrum seem not to model the information-receiving aspect of communication very well, and so they might describe statements that are in some sense not literally correct as “lies”, even though those do not produce any deception, or describe correct statements which have been e.g. cherry picked to create a false impression, as “truths”.

    Suppose you are reporting on people who took some medicine, and you neglect to report anyone who suffered any adverse effect, in an interaction where the listener would expect you to. You are doing this to sell the drug. Even though none of the statements made were literally false, you’re being manipulative and deceptive in a way that hurts other people, and you should feel bad about it.