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mattnewport comments on Things You Can't Countersignal - Less Wrong

51 Post author: Alicorn 19 February 2010 12:18AM

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Comment author: mattnewport 19 February 2010 05:16:04PM *  28 points [-]

For instance, when I explained my change in life plans to people who are very familiar with me, I was able to use the phrasing "I'm dropping out of school to join a doomsday cult" because I knew this sounded so unlike me that none of them would take it at face value. Alicorn wouldn't really join a doomsday cult; it must be something else! It elicited curiosity, but not contempt for my cult-joining behavior. To more distant acquaintances, I used the less loaded term "nonprofit". I couldn't countersignal my clever life choices to people who didn't have enough knowledge of my clever life choices; so I had to rely on the connotation of "nonprofit" rather than playing with the word "cult" for my amusement.

I'm not sure this is a very good example. The reason that saying "I'm dropping out of school to join a doomsday cult" works is that people who are really joining a doomsday cult wouldn't say that. Acknowledging that you are aware of the phenomenon of doomsday cults is an effective way of signalling that you are not in fact falling for the recruitment tactics of such a cult and does not require the person you are talking to to know anything much about you personally.

If anything this is a more effective tactic when used on relative strangers who do not know you very well and might think you actually are joining a doomsday cult if you just tried to describe what you are doing in a few short sentences. This seems more like an example of straightforward signalling that you are fully aware of the existence of doomsday cults and so people can assume that you have not in fact been seduced by one.

Comment author: private_messaging 03 February 2015 12:30:16AM *  1 point [-]

The reason that saying "I'm dropping out of school to join a doomsday cult" works is that people who are really joining a doomsday cult wouldn't say that.

People who are not joining a doomsday cult wouldn't say that either.

Comment author: Jiro 03 February 2015 12:58:55AM 2 points [-]

People also tend to blab and joke about things that put them in stressful situations. Joining a doomsday cult, or a cult which is thought by others to be a doomsday cult is something which can put a lot of stress on you. So it's not implausible that someone would say such a thing and mostly mean it.

Comment author: private_messaging 03 February 2015 01:25:40AM *  1 point [-]

Yeah. My point is, though, is that it's about relative probability of such remark between those joining a doomsday cult and those not joining a doomsday cult (who are unlikely to at all pull that utterance out of the space of possible utterances, let alone say it)

Comment author: Nornagest 03 February 2015 01:14:41AM *  1 point [-]

Back in college, I occasionally used something like "...also, I joined this cult" as a joke on the odd religious inclinations of the people I was hanging out with at the time. (Several of them belonged to various esoteric strains of reconstructionist paganism.)

Probably needless to say, there was no cult, the joke was universally understood as a joke, and I remained atheist.

Comment author: private_messaging 03 February 2015 01:32:01AM 0 points [-]

Well, how should a rational person update their probability of you joining a cult if you said you did?

Comment author: Nornagest 03 February 2015 01:39:02AM *  1 point [-]

Tone matters a lot here. "I joined a cult!" [light, smiling] is all but certainly a joke. "I joined a cult" [anger] probably means "fuck off and stop prying into my private life". "I joined a cult?!" [horrified realization] likely points to a group with some unpleasant practices, if not necessarily an actual cult, and an update in the positive direction wouldn't be out of line.

Online, of course, there is no tone, and so we have to go by context. "I joined a cult" in the title of a Reddit AMA means something very different than if you're talking about, say, GameFAQs.

Comment author: private_messaging 03 February 2015 01:59:16AM *  0 points [-]

"I joined a cult!" [light, smiling]

Well, context matters a lot - if someone has dropped out of school, moved to a foreign country, there's a lot of nonjoke content here. I mean, should we consider the "dropping out of school" to be a joke too?

Comment author: Nornagest 03 February 2015 02:03:03AM *  1 point [-]

Even there I wouldn't update positively on the words, though my prior would be much higher thanks to the circumstances. People don't use negative-valence words unironically to describe groups they're part of and aren't disgruntled with, and "cult" is very negative-valence; "I joined a cult!" [light, smiling], therefore, strongly signals irony.

The message is "I don't consider this a cult, and I expect you to get the joke". Contra Alicorn, I think it would have worked the same way for just about anyone -- the speaker would have to be cartoonishly clueless for it to be taken at face value.

Comment author: private_messaging 03 February 2015 03:28:27AM *  0 points [-]

Well, if someone literally said "I am joining a very cult-like group that I don't consider to be a cult", wouldn't it be much more likely that they are in fact joining a cult than the baseline probability of such? (Which is very low - very small fraction of people are at any moment literally in the process of joining a cult).

It's that this ironic statement acknowledges that the group is very much like a cult or is described as a cult and what they're doing is very much like what a person joining a cult does, but for some reason they don't believe it to be a cult.

Comment author: Nornagest 03 February 2015 03:30:40AM *  1 point [-]

In those words? Yes. You may note that those are different words than Alicorn's, or any of mine.

ETA: Wow, got seriously ninjaed there. I'll expand. It's not the "I don't consider this a cult" part of the message that'd make me update away from the surface meaning so much as the "...and I expect you to get the joke" part. That trades on information, even if you don't know it, that the speaker expects you to know. The speaker believes not only that they're not joining a cult but that it's obvious they're not, or at most clear after a moment's thought; otherwise it wouldn't be funny.

Comment author: private_messaging 03 February 2015 03:57:54AM *  0 points [-]

That trades on information, even if you don't know it, that the speaker expects you to know. The speaker believes not only that they're not joining a cult but that it's obvious they're not, or at most clear after a moment's thought; otherwise it wouldn't be funny.

Well, if the speaker got a job at Google or McDonalds, it would be far more obvious that they're not joining a doomsday cult... yet it seems to me that they wouldn't be joking it's a doomsday cult out of the blue then. It's when it is a probable doomsday cult that you try to argue it isn't by hoping that others laugh along with you.

Comment author: private_messaging 03 February 2015 03:46:11AM 0 points [-]

Well, if someone ironically says that they are "dropping out of school to join a doomsday cult" (and they are actually dropping out of school to join something), they got to be joining something that has something to do with a doomsday, rather than, say, another school, or a normal job, or the like.

Comment author: dxu 03 February 2015 12:54:02AM 0 points [-]

People who aren't joining a doomsday cult wouldn't say that, either.

They might out of jest.

Comment author: private_messaging 03 February 2015 01:07:11AM *  -1 points [-]

Well, the way I would put it, someone who's getting a job at McDonalds is exceedingly unlikely to say out of the blue that they're joining a doomsday cult, while someone who's joining a doomsday cult is pretty likely to get told that they're joining a doomsday cult, at one point or the other (or to anticipate such a remark), and thus doesn't have to be uttering something irrelevant out of the blue.