Category Archives: Self-Deception

Reply to Gelman

Andrew Gelman disagreed with me Sunday:

Conservatives support low taxes so that those who have worked hard for their money can show off the fruits of their labor and earn full respect for it.

I don’t think that showing off is anything like a basic conservative value, beyond the idea that people should feel free to show off if they want to. … Conservatives support low taxes because they think the market is more effective than the government at producing prosperity.

Liberals support gay marriage because they want us all to officially respect gays as much as straights; gay activists have earned their group more respect.

Liberals support gay marriage because they don’t think it’s fair that straight people can marry and gays can’t.

His commentators said I meant unconscious strategies, and I said:

This was an attempt to identify the signaling persona behind common ideologies, not the conscious rationalizations people give.

Andrew clarified:

I don’t think signaling is as important as [Robin] does, but I’m pretty sure it’s more important than most of generally assume. … That said, I think his descriptions of conservatives and liberals are so caricatured as to be a hindrance to his thinking.

Monday, Andrew elaborated in a new post:

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Generous Lust

I've been pondering this 2007 JPSP article, summarized by the Economist:

They divided a bunch of volunteers into two groups. Those in one were put into what the researchers hoped would be a “romantic mindset” by being shown pictures of attractive members of the opposite sex. … The unlucky members of the other group were shown pictures of buildings …

The participants were then asked … to imagine they had $5,000 in the bank. They could spend part or all of it on various luxury items such as a new car, a dinner party at a restaurant or a holiday in Europe. They were also asked what fraction of a hypothetical 60 hours of leisure time during the course of a month they would devote to volunteer work. …

In the romantically primed group, the men went wild with the Monopoly money. Conversely, the women volunteered their lives away. … Meanwhile, in the other group there was little inclination either to profligate spending or to good works. Based on this result, it looks as though the sexes do, indeed, have different strategies for showing off. …

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You Don’t Know Why You Act

Psychologists document choice blindness:

As anyone who has ever been in a verbal disagreement can attest, people tend to give elaborate justifications for their decisions, which we have every reason to believe are nothing more than rationalisations after the event. …

In one recent study we invited supermarket customers to choose between two paired varieties of jam and tea. In order to switch each participant's choice without them noticing, we created two sets of "magical" jars, with lids at both ends and a divider inside. The jars looked normal, but were designed to hold one variety of jam or tea at each end, and could easily be flipped over.

Immediately after the participants chose, we asked them to taste their choice again and tell us verbally why they made that choice. Before they did, we turned over the sample containers, so the tasters were given the opposite of what they had intended in their selection. Strikingly, people detected no more than a third of all these trick trials. Even when we switched such remarkably different flavours as spicy cinnamon and apple for bitter grapefruit jam, the participants spotted less than half of all switches.

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How Spend Rationality Test?

To learn to be more (epistemically) rational,  i.e., to better discern and tell the truth, it would sure help to have good ways to regularly test ourselves.  Eliezer and I have both requested folks to give thought to how we could better test our (epistemic) rationality.

It seems relatively easy to test someone's ability to make accurate and calibrated forecasts in novel contexts.  Given them some info on a new topic, limited time and resources to make estimates, and then evaluate their accuracy.  We might presume that any residual after controlling for IQ, info, effort, and related expertise was (epistemic) "rationality." 

My main worry about this approach is it doesn't get at the fact that some topics test one's rationality more severely than others.  It can be much harder to be honest when you care a lot about a topic, when others care about your opinion, or when you don't expect your opinions to be scored against reality anytime soon. How can we test rationality in these cases?

Over twenty years ago some psychologists worked out a twenty item questionnaire for evaluating how much people lie to themselves to look good, on topics important to them.  (A related twenty question survey looks at lies to others.)  They "validated" these "scales" by running a lot of tests comparing them to other scales. 

Alas, I doubt that these tests would work as well if respondents knew that they were being tested for rationality.  And surely couldn't tell someone their score and then give them the test again and expect it to be as informative.  So these tests are a valuable but limited resource.

Which is why I haven't linked to them here in this post, yet.  First I want folks to ponder:  how best could we spend this limited resource to test our rationality?

Added 1Apr: The test is in here; don't look unless you've thought about whether waiting might be better.

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Be sure to mind when you change your mind

The biggest of blindspots spring up when our minds form opinions about our minds. Here the question is: when we change our opinions, are we aware of that fact? The obvious answer is yes; the true answer is hinted at by Goethals and  Reckman’s 1973 experiment:

High school students were asked their opinions on a variety of social issues, including on how children should be bussed to school and whether it would help with racial integration. […]

A couple of weeks later the students were invited back for a further discussion on the bussing issue. This time, though, they were split into two groups, one that was pro- and one anti- the bussing issue. […]

The two groups had separate discussions about the bussing issue, but amongst their number had been planted an experimental confederate. The confederate was armed with a series of highly persuasive arguments designed to change the participant's minds on the issue. Experimenters wanted to turn the pro- group into an anti- group and the anti- group into a pro-group.

The confederates turned out to be extremely persuasive (and/or the students were easy to sway!) and the two groups were successfully turned around.[…]

But what happened when they were asked about this change of opinion?

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Augustine’s Paradox of optimal repentance

Eliezer once wrote this about Newcomb’s problem:

Nonetheless, I would like to present some of my motivations on Newcomb’s Problem – the reasons I felt impelled to seek a new theory – because they illustrate my source-attitudes toward rationality. Even if I can’t present the theory that these motivations motivate…

First, foremost, fundamentally, above all else:

Rational agents should WIN.

As I just commented on another thread, this is faith in rationality, which is an oxymoron.

It isn’t obvious whether there is a rational winning approach to Newcomb’s problem. But here’s a similar, simpler problem that billions of people have believed was real, which I’ll call Augustine’s Paradox (“Lord, make me chaste – but not yet!”)

Most kinds of Christianity teach that your eternal fate depends on your state in the last moment of your life. If you live a nearly-flawless Christian life, but you sin ten minutes before dying and you don’t repent (Protestantism), or you commit a mortal sin and the priest has already left (Catholicism), you go to Hell. If you’re sinful all your life but repent in your final minute, you go to Heaven.

The optimal self-interested strategy is to act selfishly all your life, and then repent at the final moment. But if you repent as part of a plan, it won’t work; you’ll go to Hell anyway. The optimal strategy is to be selfish all your life, without intending to repent, and then repent in your final moments and truly mean it.

I don’t think there’s any rational winning strategy here. Yet the purely emotional strategy of fear plus an irrationally large devaluation of the future wins.

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Formative Youth

Followup toAgainst Maturity

"Rule of thumb:  Be skeptical of things you learned before you could read.  E.g., religion."
        — Ben Casnocha

Looking down on others is fun, and if there's one group we adults can all enjoy looking down on, it's children.  At least I assume this is one of the driving forces behind the incredible disregard for… but don't get me started.

Inconveniently, though, most of us were children at one point or another during our lives.  Furthermore, many of us, as adults, still believe or choose certain things that we happened to believe or choose as children.  This fact is incongruent with the general fun of condescension – it means that your life is being run by a child, even if that particular child happens to be your own past self.

I suspect that most of us therefore underestimate the degree to which our youths were formative – because to admit that your youth was formative is to admit that the course of your life was not all steered by Incredibly Deep Wisdom and uncaused free will.

To give a concrete example, suppose you asked me, "Eliezer, where does your altruism originally come from?  What was the very first step in the chain that made you amenable to helping others?"

Then my best guess would be "Watching He-Man and similar TV shows as a very young and impressionable child, then failing to compartmentalize the way my contemporaries did."  (Same reason my Jewish education didn't take; I either genuinely believed something, or didn't believe it at all.  (Not that I'm saying that I believed He-Man was fact; just that the altruistic behavior I picked up wasn't compartmentalized off into some safely harmless area of my brain, then or later.))

It's my understanding that most people would be reluctant to admit this sort of historical fact, because it makes them sound childish – in the sense that they're still being governed by the causal history of a child.

But I find myself skeptical that others are governed by their childhood causal histories so much less than myself – especially when there's a simple alternative explanation: they're too embarrassed to admit it.

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On Not Having an Advance Abyssal Plan

"Even though he could foresee the problem then, we can see it equally well now.  Therefore, if he could foresee the solution then, we should be able to see it now.  After all, Seldon was not a magician.  There are no trick methods of escaping a dilemma that he can see and we can't."
        — Salvor Hardin

Years ago at the Singularity Institute, the Board was entertaining a proposal to expand somewhat.  I wasn't sure our funding was able to support the expansion, so I insisted that – if we started running out of money – we decide in advance who got fired and what got shut down, in what order.

Even over the electronic aether, you could hear the uncomfortable silence.

"Why can't we decide that at the time, if the worst happens?" they said, or something along those lines.

"For the same reason that when you're buying a stock you think will go up, you decide how far it has to decline before it means you were wrong," I said, or something along those lines; this being far back enough in time that I would still have used stock-trading in a rationality example.  "If we can make that decision during a crisis, we ought to be able to make it now.  And if I can't trust that we can make this decision in a crisis, I can't trust this to go forward."

People are really, really reluctant to plan in advance for the abyss.  But what good reason is there not to?  How can you be worse off from knowing in advance what you'll do in the worse cases?

I have been trying fairly hard to keep my mouth shut about the current economic crisis.  But still –

Why didn't various governments create and publish a plan for what they would do in the event of various forms of financial collapse, before it actually happened?

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Write Your Hypothetical Apostasy

Let's say you have been promoting some view (on some complex or fraught topic – e.g. politics, religion; or any "cause" or "-ism") for some time.  When somebody criticizes this view, you spring to its defense.  You find that you can easily refute most objections, and this increases your confidence.  The view might originally have represented your best understanding of the topic.  Subsequently you have gained more evidence, experience, and insight; yet the original view is never seriously reconsidered.  You tell yourself that you remain objective and open-minded, but in fact your brain has stopped looking and listening for alternatives.

Here is a debiasing technique one might try: writing a hypothetical apostasy.  Remind yourself before you start that unless you later choose to do so, you will never have to show this text to anyone.

Imagine, if you will, that the world's destruction is at stake and the only way to save it is for you to write a one-pager that convinces a jury that your old cherished view is mistaken or at least seriously incomplete.  The more inadequate the jury thinks your old cherished view is, the greater the chances that the world is saved.  The catch is that the jury consists of earlier stages of yourself (such as yourself such as you were one year ago).  Moreover, the jury believes that you have been bribed to write your apostasy; so any assurances of the form "trust me, I am older and know better" will be ineffective.  Your only hope of saving the world is by writing an apostasy that will make the jury recognize how flawed/partial/shallow/juvenile/crude/irresponsible/incomplete and generally inadequate your old cherished view is.

(If anybody tries this, feel free to comment below on whether you found the exersise fruitful or not – but no need to state which specific view you were considering or how it changed.)

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Beware Ideal Screen Theories

Variable B "screens" variable A from variable C when learning the value of B makes A and C no longer dependent on one another; once you know B, A says nothing about C.   Screening is a useful concept, but we are often over eager to apply it.  For example:

Mood Swings – Since your internal state must pass through time, you know that in the absence of outside influences, your state today can only depend on your state two days ago via the intermediary of your state yesterday.  So if something bad happened to you two days ago, but yesterday you felt fine, you might conclude you are over it; that bad event can't hurt your mood today unless it causes some new outside influence on you.  Alas, your mood only summarizes a small part of your internal state.  What happened two days ago can pop up and bother you today, even if yesterday you were fine. 

Disagreement – When someone disagrees with you, you should wonder what they know that you do not. They might explain their reasons for their differing belief, i.e., their evidence and analysis, and you might hear and ponder those reasons and yet find that you still disagree.  In this case you might feel that the fact that they disagree no longer informs you on this topic; the reasons for their belief screen their belief from informing your belief.  And yes, if they could give you all their reasons, that would be enough.  But except in a few extremely formal contexts, this is not even remotely close to being true.  We are usually only aware of a small fraction of the relevant evidence and analysis that influences our beliefs.   Disagreement is problematic, even after you've exchanged reasons.

Evolved Betrayal – We take actions that influence people around us, and we wonder how blameworthy we are regarding those actions.  We know evolution shaped our minds to promote our selfish genetic interests relative to others, but we'd like to feel we can ignore that fact when we are consciously aware of positive intentions toward them.  If our conscious intentions toward others were our only evolution-influenced mental factors which change our behavior toward others, this would be correct; intentions would screen evolved selfishness from our behavior.  Alas, this seems quite unlikely.  Our minds are very complex, and a great many processes influence each choice we make, processes about which we are mostly unaware. 

For example, if we take an action that gives us selfish benefits, and if our minds saw clues with enough info to feasibly identify that selfish action, the fact that we had no conscious awareness of intending to achieve that selfish benefit should offer little reassurance.  It is a good bet that our mind was influenced by this selfish benefit, as well as by the impressions others might get from seeing such a selfish action.  You can hurt the ones you love, on "purpose."

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