Sincerity Is Overrated

Consider choices like:

  • Do I push folks at my large company to hire my son?
  • Do I spend college money from my parents to pursue an acting career?
  • Do cut open this patient to try my new surgical technique?

Such choices might be justified if, for example,

  • My son is really good fit for the job opening.
  • I have an excellent chance to succeed in acting.
  • This is a very promising surgical technique.

But when am I justified in having such beliefs?  Most people think they are justified in acting on a belief if that belief is "sincere."  And by "sincere" they mean they are not conscious of just pretending to believe.  When they go to the shelf in their mind where that belief is suppose to sit, this is what they find.  And they don’t remember anything illicit about how that belief got there.

But sincerity is way too low a standard!  Since humans have an enormous tendency toward self-deception, wishful thinking, and so on, we are clearly "sincerely" biased in many ways.  So to be justified in acting on a belief, you must have tried to identify and overcome relevant biases.  Furthermore, your efforts should be proportionate to the magnitude of the actions being considered, and to the magnitude of the biases that could distort your beliefs.  For important actions where biases tend to be large, you must try very hard to consider what you might have seen and felt if the world were other than you think it is. 

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  • Jeff Holmes

    I consider myself better than average at considering what I might have seen and felt if the world were other than I think it is.

    As a result, I am often paralyzed into inaction or ambivalence. After considering a decision, I emerge agnostic.

    As you say, the attempt to overcome biases should be proportional to the impact of the decision. As a young college graduate, I don’t make many decisions of any consequence so I wonder if I am, on the margin, engaging my own biases too vigorously.

  • Levi

    I was under the impression sincerity was a minimum standard for most people. The public dislikes people who seem to be unsincere in their beliefs but that alone does not convince them that the person’s views are correct.

  • burger flipper

    Next up in the overrated series: puppies?

  • a. y. mous

    Next -> Overcoming Bias: Rating Is Overrated

    “We tend to rate in order to satisfy ourselves that we are doing the right thing. But what if it isn’t the right thing? Or even worse, situations where there is no such a thing as a right thing. Like blog comments.

    Ratings are good. No doubt.

    But it depends.”

  • Burger and a y, it is not clear to me that puppies or ratings are in fact overrated.

    Levi, the problem is people hold themselves to a lower standard than they hold others.

    Jeff, over the next few years you will make many decisions of great consequence.

  • Nominull

    How do you avoid becoming a cynic? If you can cast aside sincerity as merely people fooling themselves for their own profit then what sort of standard *can* you take for honesty?

    Or is it right to be a cynic? Everybody lies, you can’t trust people.

  • BillK

    Oh, this is an old one.

    “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

    Jean Giraudoux (1882 – 1944) French “dramatist, novelist, diplomat”
    In ‘Murphy’s Law Book Two’ by quoted by A. Bloch.
    Also attributed to Samuel Goldwyn and George Burns and Daniel Schorr and probably many more.

  • Unknown

    As Robin said in “Morality is Overrated,” people want to get what they want, not only what they should. And many of the things that people want will be impeded if they hold only justified beliefs. So they don’t want to hold only justified beliefs, but also many unjustified ones.

  • This post made sense to me but I got lost on the last sentence, the advice to “try very hard to consider what you might have seen and felt if the world were other than you think it is.” Is this supposed to be a generalized recipe for overcoming bias? What specific kinds of differences in the world are we supposed to consider? Factual differences, i.e. things we might be wrong about? I would think that bias is less a matter of mistakes about facts and more a matter of judging evidence incorrectly.

    Let’s take one of those examples above, someone pushing his son for a job opening. Let’s suppose that he actually is biased, and the son would not be as good a candidate as the person has convinced himself he is. Now he is supposed to fix this bias by considering what he would have seen and felt if the world were different than he thought, i.e. (I suppose) if the son were not actually a very good candidate. Well we know, constructing this scenario, that the world really is different, the son really is not a good candidate. So our guy is invited to consider, hypothetically, a situation which we know is actually true. The truth is that if the world were different than he thought (which it is), he would have seen and felt exactly what he did see and feel. But he drew a wrong conclusion anyway. So when he imagines what he would have seen and felt if his son were a worse candidate, he must imagine events which were less favorable to his son than what actually happened. But then, since those events did not happen, he seemingly has no grounds to correct his mistaken belief about the son’s talents.

    I am probably applying this advice incorrectly, because I don’t see how it would be particularly helpful in terms of overcoming biases.

  • Hal, yes, if the boss incorrectly imagines what an incompetent son would look and feel like, then attending more to such things won’t help him.

  • Or is it right to be a cynic? Everybody lies, you can’t trust people.

  • A defender of sincerity might say that she is justified in acting on a belief if she sincerely believes she’s checked out possible biases. To which a meta-Robin Hanson might reply that you need to look at the biases inherent in our self-bias checks.

  • Unknown

    As I implied above, I don’t understand how this post is supposed to be consistent (which I presume it is, since it has the same author) as the post on the overratedness of morality. If the point of the latter was that people want to do what they want, so that’s what they’re going to do, whether or not they should do it, and whether or not they have good reasons for doing it, the same thing will apply here.

    Just as people do what gets them what they want, so they accept the beliefs that they think will help get them what they want, whether or not they should accept these beliefs, and whether or not they have good reason to accept these beliefs.

  • tobbic

    “the problem is people hold themselves to a lower standard than they hold others.”
    Is it a form of social strategy to require more of others than you require of yourself. For you it might be desirable for others to deviate from their optimum. So if a person tells you “you should do x” it’s relevant to check if the person is itself doing x.

  • Our biases probably exist to overcome what the first poster discusses: ambivalence and inaction.

    Consider a human species that ponders the way you suggest, and then consider another species that acts even if action is reckless on occasion.

    Which one will come home from the hunt empty handed more often?

    But nevertheless you are correct. While being biased toward doing might be good on a hunt (where most of our evolution in this area took place), there are many many situations where it’s very bad in a modern context. Our biases toward wishful thinking, overcommitment, etc. are probably yet another example of something that was adaptive in prehistory but can be very maladaptive in a modern context.

  • You will never find a procedural solution to your self-biases. The problem is that no matter how much “more objective” than your initial judgment you try to become, you can never achieve an objective viewpoint. This means that in a way, each judgment is an initial judgment and subject to the same degree of distortion.

    Nor is ambivalence/paralysis a refuge, necessarily. Humans tend to regard opposed choices as equal by virtue of being opposed; we’re inclined toward dualism. Which is to say, enforced inaction or lopsided compromise are also products of predictable biases.

    The only way to be sure you’re right about a given question is to be right.