Tag Archives: Self-Deception

Far Truth Is For Extremes

To answer the question posed in my last post, here are some situations where it makes sense to forgo the large benefits of things like religion, to care about far truth:

  1. You are stuck in your ways, like a smoking addict. You admit it would have been better for you had you become more religious early on, but alas you fell in with the wrong crowd, and now the costs of change for you outweigh religion’s gains. If you are nice, you’ll warn young folks to avoid your downfall.
  2. Contrarian far claims with big personal consequences are true. If choosing cryonics would gain you five or more expected years of life (over its costs), and you are one of the rare people who would actually do something so contrarian after being intellectually convinced of its advantages, and if you can reliably discern when a majority is wrong, then you’ll need to think accurately about far topics to find such opportunities. For non-contrarian far claims with personal consequences, you could just follow the crowd without thinking.
  3. You have a good chance of being respected as a far topic expert, by a community that evaluates claims in truth-correlated ways. If you could be a famous cosmologist, you might try to create cosmology claims that will look good when evaluated by the tests cosmologists will apply. The gains from becoming a famous cosmologist could outweigh the risk that by becoming more truth oriented you will forgo religion’s gains. Beware, however, that truth-correlated is not the same as true – most communities say their far claim tests are more truth-correlated than they actually are.

So assuming you actually have a viable choice, the situations where it makes sense to reject religion in favor of far truth are extreme – either there are big personally-useful far contrarian claims to learn, or you have a good shot at being a rare far expert, respected by a community with truth-correlated standards. So if such extremes seem unlikely to you, far truth probably isn’t worth its costs to you. Go away, and sin no more.

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What Use Far Truth?

Consider two facts:

  1. People with religious beliefs, and associated behavior, consistently tend to have better lives. It seems that religious folks tend to be happier, live longer, smoke less, exercise more, earn more, get and stay married more, commit less crime, use less illegal drugs, have more social connections, donate and volunteer more, and have more kids. Yes, the correlation between religion and these good things is in part because good people tend to become more religious, but it is probably also in part because religions people tend to become better. So if you want to become good in these ways, an obvious strategy is to become more religious, which is helped by having more religious beliefs.
  2. Your far beliefs, such as on religion and politics, can’t effect your life much except via how they effect your behavior, and your associates’ opinions of you. When you think about cosmology, ancient Rome, the nature of world government, or starving folks in Africa, it might feel like those things matter to you. But in terms of the kinds of things that evolution could plausibly have built you to actually care about (vs. pretend to care about), those far things just can’t directly matter much to your life. While your beliefs about far things might influence how you act, and what other people think of you, their effects on your quality of life, via such channels of influence, don’t depend much on whether these beliefs are true.

Perhaps, like me, you find religious beliefs about Gods, spirits, etc. to be insufficiently supported by evidence, coherence, or simplicity to be a likely approximation to the truth. Even so, ask yourself: why care so much about truth? Yes, you probably think you care about believing truth – but isn’t it more plausible that you mainly care about thinking you like truth? Doesn’t that have a more plausible evolutionary origin than actually caring about far truth?

Yes, there are near practical areas of your life where truth can matter a lot. But most religious people manage to partition their beliefs, so their religious beliefs don’t much pollute their practical beliefs. And this doesn’t even seem to require much effort on their part. Why not expect that you could do similarly?

Yes, it might seem hard to get yourself to believe things that seem implausible to you at the moment, but we humans have lots of well-used ways to get ourselves to believe things we want to believe. Are you willing to start trying those techniques on this topic?

Now, a few unusual people might have an unusually large influence on far topics, and to those people truth about far topics might plausibly matter more to their personal lives, and to things that evolution might plausibly have wanted them to directly care about. For example, if you were king of the world, maybe you’d reasonably care more about what happens to the world as a whole.

But really, what are the chances that you are actually such a person? And if not, why not try to be more religious?

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Saints And Burdens

Let a person’s benefit ratio be the amount of benefit they give to others, divided by their cost to others. Then consider two classes of people:

  • Burdens – Those for whom the ratio is less than one. Such folks are a net burden on the rest of the world.
  • Saints – Those for whom the ratio is far greater than one, such as a thousand or a million. Such folks are fantastic altruists.

While these would seem to be opposite types of people, I think I see a correlation in the world: those who talk the most about trying to be saints also tend to have an unusually large chance of actually being burdens. Why this correlation?

One story is that variance is a good way to increase your chance of very good outcomes, but high variance altruism strategies tend to have more risk of both altruism extremes. So people who try hard to increase the thickness of their high tail of altruism must typically also accept a thicker low tail of being a burden.

A very different story is that people who feel guilty about their high risk of being a net burden compensate by talking more about wanting to be saints. They don’t have much of a chance of actually being saints, but by deluding themselves they can avoid guilt about being a burden.

What evidence would distinguish these theories?

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Do Liars Care More?

One of the biggest lies we tell is not having favorite kids:

It’s one of the worst-kept secrets of family life that all parents have a preferred son or daughter, and the rules for acknowledging it are the same everywhere: The favored kids recognize their status and keep quiet about it. … The unfavored kids howl about it like wounded cats. And on pain of death, the parents deny it all. …

384 sibling pairs … [were] questioned … and videotaped … as they worked through conflicts. Overall, … 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited a preference for one child, usually the older one. … “The most likely candidate for the mother’s favorite was the firstborn son, and for the father, it was the last-born daughter. ” …

Firstborns have a 3-point IQ advantage over later siblings. … Kids who felt less loved than other siblings were more likely to develop anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. (more)

Interestingly, lying here is seen by many to signal caring:

Not all experts agree on just what the impact of favoritism is, but as a rule, their advice to parents is simple: If you absolutely must have a favorite (and you must), keep it to yourself. Even if your kids see through the ruse, the mere act of trying to maintain it can help them preserve the emotional pretext too — a bit of denial that does little harm. What’s more, the effort it takes to tell a benign lie is in its own way an act of love toward the unfavored child.

Its not clear though how often disfavored kids see self-serving denials as showing care. Do parents who care more about disfavored kids actually lie more than others?

Also, we less resent favoritism to lower status siblings:

Even the most blatant favoritism is easier to take when there’s a defensible reason for it. Perhaps the most extreme example is when one child in the home has special needs. Children with Down syndrome or autism … Kids with physical disabilities … require more time and attention from parents … Talking about the situation openly is the best and most direct way to limit resentment. … “Research suggests that differential treatment may have no negative effects when children understand why.”

Oh kids understand favoritism toward smarter, prettier, stronger siblings – they just hate it more.

I suspect that many commonly told lies are accepted and even encouraged because they are seen by many as showing that liars care. Cynics who tell the truth are, in contrast, described as cold and hostile. A problem, of course, is that we often believe our lies, leading to mistaken inferences and decisions. Which may be why humans often seem so oblivious to “obvious” implications of their “beliefs.”

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Why Men Are Bad At “Feelings”

Mating in mammals has a basic asymmetry – females must invest more in each child than males. This can lead to an equilibrium where males focus on impressing and having sex with as many females as possible, while females do most of the child-rearing and choose impressive males.

Since human kids require extra child-rearing, human foragers developed pair-bonding, wherein for a few years a male gave substantial resource support to help raising a kid in trade for credible signs that the kid was his. Farmers strengthened such bonds into “marriage” — while both lived, the man gave resources sufficient to raise kids, and the woman only had sex with him. Such strong pair-bonds were held together not only by threats of social punishment, but also by strong feelings of attachment.

Such bonds can break, however. And because they are asymmetric, their betrayal is also asymmetric. Women betray bonds more by temporarily having fertile sex with other men, while men betray bonds more by directing resources more permanently to other women. So when farmer husbands and wives watch for signs of betrayal, they watch for different things. Husbands watch wives more for signs of a temporary inclination toward short-term mating with other men, while wives watch husbands more for signs of an inclination to shift toward a long-term resource-giving bond with other women. (Of course they both watch for both sorts of inclinations; the issue is emphasis.)

This asymmetric watching for signs of betrayal produces asymmetric pressures on appearances. While a man can be more straight-forward and honest with himself and others about his inclinations toward short-term sex, he should be more careful with the signs he shows about his inclinations toward long term attachments with women. Similarly, while a woman can be more straight-forward and honest with herself and others about her inclinations toward long-term attachments with men, she should be more careful with the signs she shows about her inclinations toward short term sex with men.

For both men and women, carelessly strong signs of an inclination toward betrayal could needlessly break their marriage. Of course it may sometimes be in one’s interest to show weak signs of such an inclination, as a threat to induce better terms of trade in the relation. But such brinksmanship should be done very carefully.

Men and women may have evolved, either genetically or culturally, to adapt to these pressures on their appearances. If so, then we should expect men to be more self-aware, transparent, and simple regarding their feelings about short-term sexual attractions, while women have more complex, layered, and opaque feelings on this subject. In contrast, women should be more more self-aware, transparent, and simple regarding their feelings about long-term pair-bonding, while men have more complex, layered, and opaque feelings on this subject. By being more opaque on sensitive subjects, we can keep ourselves from giving off clear signals of an inclination to betray.

Standard crude stereotypes of gender differences roughly fit these predictions! That is, when the subject is one’s immediate lust and sexual attraction to others, by reputation men are more straight-forward and transparent, while women are more complex and opaque, even to themselves. But when the subject is one’s inclination toward and feelings about long-term attachments, by reputation women are more self-aware and men are more complex and opaque, even to themselves.

So let’s sum up. Why don’t men express their “feelings”?  (At least about “love” – they easily express “feelings” about sex.) And why don’t women know when they are “horny”? Perhaps because such knowledge is dangerous – if you know it, then others may learn what you know from you. Which might destroy your marriage. So our feelings may be most opaque to us when we need them to be opaque to others. Homo hypocritus mates.

Added 10a: Similar incentives apply in the gradual creation of a long-term bond. He slowly becomes more inclined to devote resources to her over a long term, while she slowly becomes more inclined to become sexually exclusive with him. Neither side should too easily give all they have to offer before the other side has given all it has to offer. Opaque feelings help to manage such a slow matched escalation in feelings.

This whole story requires that given ambiguous signals people tend to assume the best, rather than assume the worst. Seems to apply to people, though I’m not sure why.

Added 1Aug: As I commented, “husbands having outside sex, and women breaking off the long term relation, are both weaker forms of betrayal than vice versa. As a weaker form of betrayal, people feel more free to do them.”

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The Most Important Topic

How purposely deluded and self-deceived are we about ourselves? If we were just rarely and a bit deluded, the subject would be of only moderate intellectual importance. Studying self-deception might offer interesting clues into human nature, but it wouldn’t help much to achieve other goals.

On the other hand, if we self-deceive more often, and on more important topics, then understanding the subject becomes more practially useful. And in the limit of being self-deceived on most important topics, the subject would be of central intellectual and practical importance. It would be hard to have much confidence in anything else without first having a handle on our self-deception. How could we trust our other thoughts, until we knew how to tell where we had self-deceived?

On the very important subject of our basic purposes, i.e., the key functions we most work to achieve via the details of our behavior, I do in fact think that we self-deceived more often than not. We are homo hypocritus, creatures built to fool ourselves in order to fool others on why we do things. While our beliefs seem reasonably reliable on near details, such as what exactly we see and do at each moment, we are quite often rather deceived about the overall far goals and purposes our behavior is designed to achieve.

I have thus become rather obsessed over the last few years with this subject of our self-deceptions. While I feel I’ve made some progress, far more remains to be done. But how is it that so few others seem to share my obsession? Do they a) think self-deception is rare, b) think it is common for most folks but not for them, c) not want to know about their self-deceptions, as they probably exist for good reasons, or d) expect it is very hard to make progress here, relative to other broadly useful subjects?

From a conversation with Russ Roberts.

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Look But Don’t Touch

In both male and female demand, sex and looks are complements; all else equal, the better someone looks, the more you want sex with them.  In male sex supply, sex and looks seem unrelated; how much sex a man offers has little to do with his looks.  In female sex supply, however, it seems that sex and looks are substitutes; the better she looks the less sex she offers. Supporting data:

  • “Overweight or obese teenage girls are more likely than their recommended-weight peers to engage in certain types of risky sexual behavior but not others.” (more)
  • “Women on campuses where they comprise a higher proportion of the student body give more negative appraisals of campus men and relationships, go on fewer traditional dates, are less likely to have had a college boyfriend, and are more likely to be sexually active.” (more)
  • “Women in their 30s and early 40s are significantly more sexual than younger women. Women ages 27 through 45 report not only having more sexual fantasies (and more intense [ones]) than women ages 18 through 26 but also having more sex, period. And they are more willing than younger women to have casual sex, even one-night stands.” (more)

Apparently less-demanded women compensate by offering more sex, by requiring fewer “traditional dates,” and less insisting on official “boyfriend” status.  They are, for example, more willing to be a second woman on the sly.  Many don’t want to fully admit to making this tradeoff, however, and so would rather blame the men. (On the age effect, the study authors actually prefer to explain it as compensation for falling female fertility.  But male fertility also falls, yet men don’t show this age effect.)

So why is the relation between sex and looks so different in female sex supply, relative to other gender and supply vs. demand combos?   On obvious answer is that for women relations are primary and sex is more instrumental; women offer just as much sex as needed to get a man.  For men, in contrast, sex seems primary while relations seem instrumental; men more enter into relations in order to get sex.

A related datum:

  • “Binge drinking significantly increases participation in sex, promiscuity, and the failure to use birth control.” (more)

Why do woman need to get drunk to have sex?  It seems a way to stay in denial about intending to have sex – they can say they got drunk “for fun” and then the sex “just happened.”  Are women in more denial than men about intending to have sex?  That would make sense, if women were traditionally expected to exert more self-control on sex.

Added 5p: I should clarify that by “looks” I mean most any attractive feature, not just physical appearance.

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Hide Death?

Kübler-Ross took a job as an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago. … She began a series of seminars, interviewing patients about what it felt like to die. … Many of Kübler-Ross’s peers at the hospital felt that the seminars were exploitative and cruel, ghoulishly forcing patients to contemplate their own deaths. At the time, doctors believed that people didn’t want or need to know how ill they were. They couched the truth in euphemisms, or told the bad news only to the family. Kübler-Ross saw this indirection as a form of cowardice that ran counter to the basic humanity a doctor owed his patients. ….

Kübler-Ross began to work on a book … It came out in 1969, and, shortly afterward, Life published an article about one of her seminars. … Angered by the article and its focus on death, the hospital administrators did not renew her contract. But it didn’t matter. Her book, “On Death and Dying,” became a best-seller. …

Her argument was that patients often knew that they were dying, and preferred to have others acknowledge their situation: “The patient is in the process of losing everything and everybody he loves. If he is allowed to express his sorrow he will find a final acceptance much easier.” And she posited that the dying underwent five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. … Today, Kübler-Ross’s theory is taken as the definitive account of how we grieve.

More here.  Pause to see things from those old docs’ point of view.  While we usually prefer to be honest and forthcoming, we make exceptions.  Some of our reasons are selfish, but we also say that telling people some truths only makes them feel bad, without actually helping much to make decisions.

So isn’t imminent death a great examples of a truth that makes folks feel very bad without much helping decisions?  Look how fiercely people avoid thinking about death when it is only a slight possibility, and how more anxious they get as death becomes a larger possibility.

Sure, most folks say they want to be told the truth about imminent death.  But most folks also say they want to know if their partner is cheating, if their career is tanking, if their neighbors hate them, etc.  If you asked folks straight out, most would even say they want the truth on “do I look fat in this.” So if you are going to hide some type of truth from people for their own good, you must do so in the face of the fact that most folks say they want to be told.

Yes, we may like the closure of taking their time in saying goodbye to folks, but don’t similar modestly useful actions correspond to most truths we think of hiding from folks?  Does this gain so obviously outweigh the terror of knowing you will die soon?  I want to be told about my death, but I’m weird and want the truth on most everything.  What is a better example than imminent death of a truth we’d consider hiding from folks?

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Legal Delusions

At most times and places in history, state authorities have had pretty wide discretion to help or hurt folks.  People knew to submit to authorities, and to accept occasional arbitrary applications of authority power.  Thankfully, such applications were limited by the fact that authorities were distracted trying to keep their power via keeping the peace, meeting revenue targets, etc.,

Today folks proudly bask in a glow of higher status by believing that they have more control over their government.  They believe democracy puts them in charge, and that a “rule of law” drastically discourages arbitrary applications of authority power.  They are deluded:

Over the past three decades, it has become routine in the United States for state, local, and federal governments to seize the property of people who were never even charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. …  [An] Act of 1984 … included an earmarking provision that gave forfeiture proceeds back to local law enforcement agencies that helped in a federal forfeiture.” …

The government had only to show probable cause to believe that it was connected to drug activity, or the same standard cops use to obtain search warrants. The state was allowed to use hearsay evidence—meaning a federal agent could testify that a drug informant told him a car or home was used in a drug transaction—but property owners were barred from using hearsay, and couldn’t even cross-examine some of the government’s witnesses. Informants, while being protected from scrutiny, … could receive as much as one-quarter of the bounty, up to $50,000 per case. …

Justice Department’s forfeiture fund … as of 2008 assets had increased to $3.1 billion. … Almost half of surveyed police departments with more than 100 law enforcement personnel said forfeiture proceeds were “necessary as a budget supplement” for department operations. …

Less than 20 percent of federal seizures involved property whose owners were ever prosecuted. … More than 80 percent of federal seizures are never challenged in court. … In many cases the property was worth less than the legal costs of trying to get it back. … Forfeiture defendants can’t be provided with a court-appointed attorney. …

To even get a day in court, owners were forced to post a bond equal to 10 percent of the value of their seized property.  The average DEA property seizure in 1998 was worth about $25,000. In 2000 a Justice Department source told the PBS series Frontline that this figure was also the cutoff under which most forfeiture attorneys advised clients that their cases wouldn’t be worth pursuing. …

In 2000, Congress … raised the federal government’s burden of proof in forfeiture cases. … Problem was, the 1984 law had already spawned dozens of imitators on the state level.

Articles about this stuff have appeared periodically for decades.  Clearly such news has not sparked an irate revolution of concerned citizens demanding the return of their supposed rule of law.  As long as we don’t hear about stuff being arbitrarily taken from someone we know, we can keep believing we are better than those ancients – we still live under a rule of law for those who really matter – people like us.

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Know Your Propaganda

We are built to rationalize.  That is, our minds often unfairly defend our most deeply held beliefs; when we sense such beliefs being threatened, our minds distract us, refuse to comprehend alternatives, and grab onto weak excuses as if they were timber.  La-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you.

This makes it especially hard for those of us who want to overcome our biases to identify and question such beliefs.  But like many parasites, our unfairly held beliefs are most vulnerable when they are young, i.e., when we first acquire them, and when they must come up to a surface, rather than staying buried deep.

For our deeply held beliefs that are passed down via genes, it can be very hard to even notice them, much less see when they are integrated into our other thoughts.  But beliefs that are passed down culturally are more vulnerable – there must be some visible social process whereby new generations learn these beliefs from older generations.

Now beliefs that we learn implicitly, from gestures and expressions of others, can still be a lot of work to identify; you may have to watch a lot of behavior up close to notice the belief transmission.  Fortunately, many deeply held beliefs are transmitted out in the open, in explicit words, and even written down in books.

Case in point: most of us attended public instead of private schools because our governments wanted to indoctrinate us into certain beliefs (and acts).  And to keep control, such schools make teachers stick to textbooks.  So one way to explicitly identify our possibly-unfair deeply held beliefs is to study the textbooks we learned from as kids.  If we could collect lists of important non-obvious beliefs we were taught as kids, and the supporting arguments we were given at the time, we could force ourselves to more directly confront the propaganda that formed us.

Yes our minds might still unconsciously bias us in their favor, but we’d have a much better chance to apply more neutral standards we’ve learned over the years.  In this confrontation, we’d know to rely less on unarticulated intuitions that might just reflect teachings from when our minds were weak and vulnerable.

When propaganda is written down, saved, and organized, we have a better chance to confront and overcome it.  It is sad and suspicious that we are not in the habit of knowing and confronting our propaganda in this way.  Many say such confrontation is dangerous and harmful, that we gain important advantages from our self-deceptive acceptance of inaccurate propaganda.  But what evidence do we have that we are better off believing the lies we were told as kids?  That belief sure sounds like the sort of self-serving propaganda we expect to have been told.

Surely as adults, at least some of us should face facts, know our propaganda, and ask how well supported it is.  Perhaps we will decide others are better off not knowing what we have learned.  But some should confront the beasts that lie within us.

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