Ignoring Betrayal

Suspicious:  I suspect my long-time business partner of corrupting our venture's bylaws to give him lopsided gains from our joint efforts.  Confronting him might devastate our relation, but I have to know.  What should I do?

Business-Abby:  Give careful thought, please, to what you "have to" know.  Most who fear cheating are mistaken, and even if your bylaws are lopsided that could just be an honest mistake.  Even mentioning your suspicions to anyone might destroy your business, and could you really live with yourself if you destroyed your life's work, and betrayed employees, customers, and suppliers who rely on you?  If you wouldn't act on the info, why get it?  If you must do something, first consult with a lawyer about the consequences of even looking into this possibility. 

This would be odd business advice; I'd suggest first privately asking an accountant if your bylaws are lopsided.  Why get worked up over something you can cheaply check on?  But the above is pretty much what advice-columnist Carolyn Hax tells a man who suspects his wife's two year old daughter is not his:

Give careful thought, please, to what you "have to" know. When just seeking the truth could change your life in dramatic and irreversible ways, it's best to start not by actually doing something but by inviting each possible truth into your imagination as fact. … You need to … assume your wife did cheat … and then you need to decide whether you'd want to stay in the marriage or leave.

If the answer is to stay … then you need to ask yourself, is that outcome better served by not digging into the past? If the answer is to leave, are you ready to challenge your paternity — or have it challenged by your at-that-point-estranged wife? …  You can't entirely rule out the rarer than rare, yet not unprecedented, hospital error. …

If you decide you'd want this child no matter what, then the question becomes, again, why you'd want to risk everything to scratch even a torturous itch.  And finally: What if you started digging, wrecked your marriage and learned your daughter is "yours"? … If you're considering any action at all, have a lawyer vet it legally. Only then can you be confident whether truth-seeking serves your interests — and your family's — or smashes them to bits.

Is there any other common betrayal situation where neutral third parties would so strongly advise not looking to see if you've been betrayed?  I can't think of one.

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  • Peter Twieg

    I think there are a lot of scenarios like this in close relationships, actually, where it would be advised not to dig into someone’s personal history in a way which is likely to be upsetting. Many of these situations would constitute “betrayals” if the other party had lied to you in some way – ie. about one’s sexual history, or religious background, or something else. I suspect that there are two major reasons for why this advice is given only in close personal relationships:

    a) We’re not supposed to suspect the other party of lying, period.
    b) A lot the joy of close relationships is contingent upon some degree of self-delusion and ignorance of the flaws of others, and we shouldn’t be too eager to dispel this.

    Why the interest in betrayal in particular, though? This seems to just be a particular application of a general “some things you’re better off not knowing” sentiment, which can be true in cases where the given knowledge would cause sufficient psychological harm.

  • Let’s suppose I had some evidence that my spouse cheated on me with an old boyfriend, now dead, when she went to her high school reunion a few years ago. Let’s further suppose that I could actually find out the truth.

    Would any purpose be served by finding out for sure? Quite likely not.

    Would there be substantial potential downside to finding out? Sure.

    Would I, as a neutral third party, advise others not to find out? Yes.

  • Robin – your parody fails to mirror the fact that much of Hax’s advice is conditional on the man wanting to “stay” no matter what. On that condition, the advice seems eminently sensible.

    This suggests an obvious difference from “other common betrayal situation[s]”: we are less committed to business partners, etc., than we are to our families. So we are more likely, in those other cases, to want to act differently on the condition that we are betrayed. This makes it more valuable, in those other cases, to actually acquire the information necessary to guide our actions.

  • D. P. Roberts

    ZBicyclist, the justification for finding out is the same as the justification for revenge. The desire for revenge seems irrational: why go out of your way to get back at someone who betrayed you? Easier to just let it go.

    Upon further reflection, it can be seen that revenge is a form of moral instinct. In a society where harmed parties are expected to take revenge, potential offenders will be deterred from offending.

    So the point of finding out is not so much for one’s own peace of mind, but to deter future betrayers. If all women who cheated on their husbands were exposed and humiliated, there would be a lot less marital infidelity. This would benefit honest women, by making men more willing to commit to marriage.

  • Cyan

    [The] advice is conditional on the man wanting to “stay” no matter what. On that condition, the advice seems eminently sensible.

    While it is a theorem of decision theory that it is never preferable to incur a cost collecting information if it will not change one’s course of action, it’s far from clear that the husband would do everything the same even if he is committed to staying in the marriage.

  • George

    What if the cost of genetic tests continues drop rapidly and eventually becomes very cheap? Our genetic heritage is increasingly becoming an important factor in medical treatment decisions.

    I think the big error often found in this kind of advice (to not check paternity, arguing that it’s better not to know) is that it assumes that life and technology will stay the same for ever.

    You can be pretty sure that eventually (maybe in 20 years) you WILL find out the truth about the betrayal whether you want to or not (either for medical reasons, or perhaps just the curiosity of the child).

    The real question to ask yourself is whether you want to know sooner.

  • Evil Mutant

    One reason third parties are more lily to argue in favor of ignorance in this case then in others is that a confirmed betrayal or even an acrimonious testing that shows non betrayal will likely severely impair the child’s life in a long term an irreparable way.
    When doing a cost benefit analysis, one person’s preference for fair treatment has to be weighed against the harms that monitoring could create.

  • In personal relationships trust is treated as a valuable good in itself not just a means to cooperation (presumably this aids cooperation). So showing lack of trust by seeking info destroys much more than it would in a business arrangement. Romantic relationships are strongest case of trust itself mattering, so they are where caring third parties advise not to check most strongly. The same happens to a lesser degree in friendships though I think.

  • ddg33

    Don’t ask.

  • Actually, DNA tests that can confirm parenthood ARE relatively cheap (about $1000, IIRC) and there are labs that offer this service anonymously. This matter came before the German constitutional court recently, and it was decided that an anonymous test violated the child’s personal rights (since it would be her DNA collected and checked without her knowledge). It mandated that a new law had to be passed that gave fathers the right to demand such a check be performed (and courts would have to grant that demand against the will of the mother). Interestingly, if the check comes out negative, the father still has the option to remain the legal parent – this was different previously because the only legal way to have such a check performed was to dispute the parenthood.

  • I suspect this comes from the (understandable, but largely non-cognitive) bias that people have about the inherent value of ‘romantic’ relationships. I’m sure we’ve all heard people talk about how they were trying to ‘work it out’, when the best thing for either of them would probably be to never see each other again. Because of the perceived value of ‘coupling-in-itself’ many people will sacrifice both of their interests to this phantom ‘relationship’.

    I suspect it is this same sort of view that causes people to give advice like this.

  • Robin’s analogy is great, but I suspect many people would object to the implicit assumption that the interests of children (presumably the “customers and suppliers”) are not more important than the interests of the parents. Perhaps this is another bias.

    Also, what about considering that children also feel betrayed for being misled about who their biological parents are. Many people report enormous distress at not knowing this – that’s why anonymous sperm donation is not permitted in some countries, and why the Australia government apologised for the “Stolen Generation”. The analogy doesn’t capture that, nor does the “better not to know” lobby.

  • Alex Stapleton

    Both examples given are negative sum games?

  • Julian Morrison

    Cheating in a relationship has the unusual property that only preference makes it cheating. There is a third (and IMO massively underused) option besides “confront” and “ignore”, and that’s “coexist” as a threesome. There are probably evolutionary reasons this gets ignored, but I can’t see good modern-human reasons; this is a situation where instinct ought to be overruled.

  • Peter, as D.P. indicates, whatever we would actually do, we have an interest in our partners thinking we would detect and severely punish betrayal. Usually our advisors appreciate this and advise us not to put up with bad treatment.

    Richard, I added a sentence to the parody to make its conditionality clearer. And if personal relations are more important to us, why would their betrayal be less important to us?

    George and brazzy, if you google “paternity test”, you’ll see they go for less than $80.

    Katja, if trust is valued more, betrayals of trust should also matter more.

    Julian, only preferences make business cheating into cheating too.

  • Anecdote: a friend of mine married a women from another continent. They moved in together, got a child. Within 1 year, she left to visit home. Stayed 4 months without prior agreement. Couple years later, she went again. Stayed 8 months without prior agreement. Came home pregnant. Guy adopts said child. Couple years later, she splits, leaving him with both kids.

    The Bernie Madoffs of this world also engage in relationships.

  • Julian (and everyone else): Personal relationships don’t map clearly to decision theory, but you can take it to be a problem with naive decision theory, not necessarily problem with personal relationships.

  • Arthur B.

    There’s at least another case where information can make you worst off, movie spoilers.

  • OK, perhaps I can’t think myself into the head of the protagonist properly since I’m poly, but one advantage of knowing over not knowing is that it takes a burden of secrecy from your partner – if they know that you know and you wish to stay anyway, it lifts the sword of Damocles from above their head.

  • The analogy that leapt to my mind was with making the decision whether to get tested for some rare medical condition. Say, prostate cancer. Suppose the base rate for some condition is low; the test has costs; if the test comes back positive it’s probably a false alarm; there are negative consequences to acting on false alarms and there’s not much worth doing even if it’s a true positive.

    In those circumstances, I’m probably better off not taking the test.

  • Vladimir Slepnev

    George, the interests of children might trump the interests of parents, but they shouldn’t trump the interests of unrelated strangers duped into financially supporting said children. If you disagree, I know a great way to spend your money.

  • Robin, the difference is the extent to which the trust has to serve another purpose, not the absolute importance of it. The other purpose will fail if you have been betrayed, so your finding out limits costs. To the extent trust is for it’s own sake only your beliefs about it give you pleasure or pain, so finding out only adds to costs (it may increase or decrease your trust in your partner, but you always show less trust in them).

  • psychohistorian

    The woman’s reaction is interesting in this. It seems the “If you trusted me, you wouldn’t ask” is an excellent way to protect cheaters, since the response of a cheater and the response of an honest woman can thus be identical.

    This problem also seems to stem from an idea of trust as binary. The woman is either honest or dishonest. Therefore, she’s cheated or she’s an honest woman. If I ask for a test, I must think she’s cheated, since if I thought she was an honest woman there would be no point. This mental model doesn’t recognize me thinking she’s honest with probability .9999 but assigning huge disutility to that .0001 if it’s true.

    More generally, this type of situation generally stems from any trust-based arrangement. Kids lie to their parents all the time. Many of those lies are actually pretty easy to test, but it would often strain relations if you did test them. Generally, anything to determine if a friend or “in-group” member is lying to us is viewed negatively by that in-group member.

    On further thought, this probably exists because the cost/reward of checking such things would be astronomical, even if the cost/reward in checking specific instances, like paternity, is actually low.

  • I have read at least three science fiction stories in which reliable, covert lie-detection is developed, and the story concludes that humanity is better off without it. I offer this not as fictional evidence, but as real-world evidence that the authors of these stories are advising everyone that they’re better off being lied to by everyone around them (and failing the Egan test: http://eidolon.net/eidolon_magazine/issue_11/11_egan.htm).

  • Stephen

    Wouldn’t a partner who knows you won’t “gamble your relationship” on a call-out be more likely to cheat?

    And why are we treating the suspicion and the act of cheating as if they were equal infractions? A positive and a false positive should not have the same absolute value. What happened to glasnost?

    If your solution to a relationship problem is to communicate less, congratulations; you’ve found your relationship problem.

    And perhaps a suspicion that you choose not to address just wasn’t a strong enough suspicion. Does anyone on this board actually currently suspect their S.O. has cheated or told them a significant lie, but intends to do nothing about it?

    And what weight do you assign the sunk costs of a relationship and how do you measure that against a future with a person willing to perpetrate and perpetuate a lie at your expense? If you (the solipsist) throttle your knowledge about people close to you in order to preserve your comfortable state, you risk misunderstanding their future behavior.

    Consider this: jealous partners are perceived to be equally loving or more loving than non-jealous partners. If this is true (sorry, I don’t have a reference for the study) then that ought to significantly reduce our estimate of the costs incurred by false positives. My conclusion: Better to know (or at least seek to know).

  • George Weinberg

    Funny thing, I somehow got the idea that this site was for people who would always rather know the truth, even if knowing doesn’t do anything but make them unhappy. Dunno why I ever thought that.

    People who don’t question their religion too closely because they benefit from being part of a religious community are still a bunch of contemptible morons,right?

  • HH

    “This problem also seems to stem from an idea of trust as binary. The woman is either honest or dishonest. Therefore, she’s cheated or she’s an honest woman. If I ask for a test, I must think she’s cheated, since if I thought she was an honest woman there would be no point. This mental model doesn’t recognize me thinking she’s honest with probability .9999 but assigning huge disutility to that .0001 if it’s true.”

    I have to disagree here. Honest IS binary: either someone was honest, or they were not. [The disutility of dishonesty, of course, varies: if a lover lies tells you the dinner you made for her was great, there’s not much damage done. If, however, she cheats on you, the disutility is huge. ] I will agree that our brain probably can’t picture it this way: either you picture her faithfully rejecting an advance, or in the arms of another. Hard to picture any mixture of the two.

    Additionally, we do tend to treat a person as having been honest with a .999 probability, though we’d probably say “she very likely didn’t cheat.” In fact, you engage in this process, mostly subconsciously, all the time. If your significant other goes on a business trip or out with opposite-sex friends, there is a very high probability she didn’t do anything wrong. Despite the huge disutility of cheating, the expected value of the confrontation is negative: you’ll start a fight, and possibly a breakup, with little to gain. However, if your significant other were to spend a week on vacation with an ex, the probability of dishonesty goes up and you might find it “profitable” to snoop and see what happened.

    I’m pretty sure this computation is often subconscious, and is experienced as the emotion of jealousy. Unfortunately, the triggers of jealousy don’t very well correspond to the actual probabilities and disutilities you face, which is why these feelings confuse us when we try to rationalize them, as the above-mentioned advice-seeker did.

  • Julian Morrison

    Robin, that was trite. If you’re cheated in business, you lose real wealth. That’s not “only preference” as long as money is an instrumental necessity for implementing the rest of your utility function. But exclusivity in a relationship really is just a preference for humans (versus for genes). Overriding it might very plausibly be a net win.

  • Julian Morrison said, “Cheating in a relationship has the unusual property that only preference makes it cheating. There is a third (and IMO massively underused) option besides “confront” and “ignore”, and that’s “coexist” as a threesome…but I can’t see good modern-human reasons; this is a situation where instinct ought to be overruled.”
    Of course, the extent to which most people value (or can use) reason is rather limited. I would agree – that is to say, I have always felt the very concept of ‘cheating’ in a sexual relationship as idiotic and counter-productive for all involved. The problem is that most people still live in 10k BC, because they know absolutely nothing. It’s also a primary reason they’re unhappy in modern society, IMO, because they’re too dumb and arbitrarily opinionated to adjust themselves to reality.

  • the interests of children might trump the interests of parents, but they shouldn’t trump the interests of unrelated strangers duped into financially supporting said children

    In Louisiana, if a child is conceived while a couple is legally married to one another, the child legally is that of the husband at the time of conception, even if they were living apart and had not had sex together in years, and even if DNA proves that he could not be the father. On the other hand, if the woman is not married at the time of conception, she can use DNA results to force legal paternity and its responsibilities on the man. Many a Louisiana man has been required to support the children of his wife’s lovers. Consequently, very little good can come from asking in Louisiana, especially if you believe yourself to be happy. The pendulum has swung.

  • HH


    I’ll have to disagree with you. You may find the concept of cheating idiotic, but it’s a reality: people get jealous and demand faithfulness from their partners. I don’t know what alternative regime you’re proposing [free love?], but that’s the one that would be at odds with reality. Like it or not, jealousy is in us – you may prefer if it weren’t, but it is. You may think we’d all be better off if it didn’t exist, and that’s a highly questionable proposition. Yes, maybe it’d be better if nothing upset but we could still derive joy from things. However, I doubt it’s plausible that we could derive as much utility from a successful relationship as we do now if we didn’t get jealous in cases of cheating. I don’t see how it’s possible to value something if you have it but not value it if you don’t have it. I don’t think there’s a way to tell if utility would be higher under an alternative regime, but I don’t find those kind of thought experiments particularly instructive anyway. I know I’ll get jealous if I get cheated on, and I’ll go on trying to prevent that feeling. Like a rational person would.

  • I’ve just talked to a second religious person who, after being presented with it, agreed with the statement: “I would do everything exactly the same way whether there is or isn’t a God.”

    I’d guess there’s a strong connection here.

  • Why are people talking about cheating/faithfulness? Isn’t this about paternity fraud and the desire (need?) people have to pass on their genes? With modern technology (IVF, contraception), these are no longer necessarily related.

  • Adam Nelson

    The difference in the analogy is that most businesses operate in a competitive marketplace. So customers might be inconvenienced, but rarely will they have a huge decrease in consumer surplus, while children’s parents are a monopoly provider so splitting up that partnership carries larger costs.

  • To HH:
    “I don’t know what alternative regime you’re proposing [free love?], but that’s the one that would be at odds with reality.”
    I’m proposing that people who can control themselves just like they control their envy stand to benefit themselves, and also make less of an ass of themselves. Also, some of us don’t get jealous like that – not I, said the fly.

  • Sarneparne
  • akwilco

    “Betrayal” is a subjective condition, and truly neutral third parties may not have sufficient information on what is considered betrayal to accurately assess and advise. There are situations where a subject “has to know”, despite the foreknowledge that seeking the truth will irreversibly change their lives in unpredictable ways.
    From the view of the child in your scenario, there may be an emotional and subjective need to accurately know their parentage. A neutral third party would likely caution against digging into it, particularly if the parents have an emotional commitment to keep the knowledge hidden and questioning their decision may be viewed as betrayal. This is a common situation for adopted children.

  • Puma

    The oddity of Carolyn Hax’s advice to the potential-cuckold has been picked up in other parts of the blogosphere as well. One particulary entertaining one is Roissy in DC’s take on it:


    It is also interesting that some of your female readers take the “what’s the big deal?” line on paternity-fraud. Either they naively don’t understand how this means genetic metadeath for the cuckolded chump, or alternatively they hemselves see cuckolding as a legitimate evolved tactic. I hope it is the former.

  • Thinker

    Everyone has failed to mention the elephant in the living room when it comes to marriage & children , and business relationships as opposed to a “significant other” & trust. That is the role of the State in our interpersonal relationships. Paternity is important because it lays responsibility for support (i.e. resources) for children on someone, even if that someone isn’t the biological parent. (As in the case of LA wherein the spouse is considered to be the parent, for example.) Marriage was once the instrument the State used to help insure, albeit imperfectly, individual responsibility for children. The rise of the welfare state, access to divorce & abortion, the sexual revolution, DNA testing etc. has allowed individuals to abandon, shirk, or otherwise bail on financial responsiblity for children collectively.
    Consider the case of a biological father who relinquished his parental rights so a step-father could adopt, but that person did not adopt. When the parties divorced, the biological parent was told he could not sign away the child’s right to financial support, nor could the biological aprents contract to do so by an agreement even if it was approved by a legal document. Responsibility reverted to the biological aprent even though he believed he was legally no longer the parent.
    Trust, as an emotional component of an interpersonal relationship, is akin to a deeper social need for “good faith” in business and other contractual relationships on which social order is based. Our’s is a social contract society with or without a license, permit, formal contract, or other paper proof of intent.
    DNA and other trust-exploding technology become mighty inconvenient for the State because it makes keeping social order (and social roles assist in social order) more difficult. Ask the IRS to trust you and see what happens if there is suspicion you’re a cheat — there are situations where the state has a vested interest in knowing (about income) and not knowing ( about paternity that relieves financial repsonsibility for children).
    As for individuals – remember the adage, the truth shall set you free? It will also make you a prisoner of choice, forcing you to make decisions you may not like making. But, are you going to live life life as a weenie or as an adult – and perhaps have to make difficult, moral choices and live with your decisions? That is the question as the root of the original question.