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Eight Short Studies On Excuses

193 Post author: Yvain 20 April 2010 11:01PM

The Clumsy Game-Player

You and a partner are playing an Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma. Both of you have publicly pre-committed to the tit-for-tat strategy. By iteration 5, you're going happily along, raking up the bonuses of cooperation, when your partner unexpectedly presses the "defect" button.

"Uh, sorry," says your partner. "My finger slipped."

"I still have to punish you just in case," you say. "I'm going to defect next turn, and we'll see how you like it."

"Well," said your partner, "knowing that, I guess I'll defect next turn too, and we'll both lose out. But hey, it was just a slipped finger. By not trusting me, you're costing us both the benefits of one turn of cooperation."

"True", you respond "but if I don't do it, you'll feel free to defect whenever you feel like it, using the 'finger slipped' excuse."

"How about this?" proposes your partner. "I promise to take extra care that my finger won't slip again. You promise that if my finger does slip again, you will punish me terribly, defecting for a bunch of turns. That way, we trust each other again, and we can still get the benefits of cooperation next turn."

You don't believe that your partner's finger really slipped, not for an instant. But the plan still seems like a good one. You accept the deal, and you continue cooperating until the experimenter ends the game.

After the game, you wonder what went wrong, and whether you could have played better. You decide that there was no better way to deal with your partner's "finger-slip" - after all, the plan you enacted gave you maximum possible utility under the circumstances. But you wish that you'd pre-committed, at the beginning, to saying "and I will punish finger slips equally to deliberate defections, so make sure you're careful."



The Lazy Student

You are a perfectly utilitarian school teacher, who attaches exactly the same weight to others' welfare as to your own. You have to have the reports of all fifty students in your class ready by the time midterm grades go out on January 1st. You don't want to have to work during Christmas vacation, so you set a deadline that all reports must be in by December 15th or you won't grade them and the students will fail the class. Oh, and your class is Economics 101, and as part of a class project all your students have to behave as selfish utility-maximizing agents for the year.

It costs your students 0 utility to turn in the report on time, but they gain +1 utility by turning it in late (they enjoy procrastinating). It costs you 0 utility to grade a report turned in before December 15th, but -30 utility to grade one after December 15th. And students get 0 utility from having their reports graded on time, but get -100 utility from having a report marked incomplete and failing the class.

If you say "There's no penalty for turning in your report after deadline," then the students will procrastinate and turn in their reports late, for a total of +50 utility (1 per student times fifty students). You will have to grade all fifty reports during Christmas break, for a total of - 1500 utility (-30 per report times fifty reports). Total utility is -1450.

So instead you say "If you don't turn in your report on time, I won't grade it." All students calculate the cost of being late, which is +1 utility from procrastinating and -100 from failing the class, and turn in their reports on time. You get all reports graded before Christmas, no students fail the class, and total utility loss is zero. Yay!

Or else - one student comes to you the day after deadline and says "Sorry, I was really tired yesterday, so I really didn't want to come all the way here to hand in my report. I expect you'll grade my report anyway, because I know you to be a perfect utilitarian, and you'd rather take the -30 utility hit to yourself than take the -100 utility hit to me."

You respond "Sorry, but if I let you get away with this, all the other students will turn in their reports late in the summer." She says "Tell you what - our school has procedures for changing a student's previously given grade. If I ever do this again, or if I ever tell anyone else about this, you can change my grade to a fail. Now you know that passing me this one time won't affect anything in the future. It certainly can't affect the past. So you have no reason not to do it." You believe her when she says she'll never tell, but you say "You made this argument because you believed me to be the sort of person who would accept it. In order to prevent other people from making the same argument, I have to be the sort of person who wouldn't accept it. To that end, I'm going to not accept your argument."

The Grieving Student

A second student comes to you and says "Sorry I didn't turn in my report yesterday. My mother died the other day, and I wanted to go to her funeral."

You say "Like all economics professors, I have no soul, and so am unable to sympathize with your loss. Unless you can make an argument that would apply to all rational actors in my position, I can't grant you an extension."

She says "If you did grant this extension, it wouldn't encourage other students to turn in their reports late. The other students would just say 'She got an extension because her mother died'. They know they won't get extensions unless they kill their own mothers, and even economics students aren't that evil. Further, if you don't grant the extension, it won't help you get more reports in on time. Any student would rather attend her mother's funeral than pass a course, so you won't be successfully motivating anyone else to turn in their reports early."

You think for a while, decide she's right, and grant her an extension on her report.

The Sports Fan

A third student comes to you and says "Sorry I didn't turn in my report yesterday. The Bears' big game was on, and as I've told you before, I'm a huge Bears fan. But don't worry! It's very rare that there's a game on this important, and not many students here are sports fans anyway. You'll probably never see a student with this exact excuse again. So in a way, it's not that different from the student here just before me, the one whose mother died."

You respond "It may be true that very few people will be able to say both that they're huge Bears fans, and that there's a big Bears game on the day before the report comes due. But by accepting your excuse, I establish a precedent of accepting excuses that are approximately this good. And there are many other excuses approximately as good as yours. Maybe someone's a big soap opera fan, and the season finale is on the night before the deadline. Maybe someone loves rock music, and there's a big rock concert on. Maybe someone's brother is in town that week. Practically anyone can come up with an excuse as good as yours, so if I accept your late report, I have to accept everyone's.

"The student who was here before you, that's different. We, as a society, already have an ordering in which a family member's funeral is one of the most important things around. By accepting her excuse, I'm establishing a precedent of accepting any excuse approximately that good, but almost no one will ever have an excuse that good. Maybe a few people who are really sick, someone struggling with a divorce or a breakup, that kind of thing. Not the hordes of people who will be coming to me if I give you your exemption."

The Murderous Husband

You are the husband of a wonderful and beautiful lady whom you love very much - and whom you just found in bed with another man. In a rage, you take your hardcover copy of Introduction To Game Theory and knock him over the head with it, killing him instantly (it's a pretty big book).

At the murder trial, you plead to the judge to let you go free. "Society needs to lock up murderers, as a general rule. After all, they are dangerous people who cannot be allowed to walk free. However, I only killed that man because he was having an affair with my wife. In my place, anyone would have done the same. So the crime has no bearing on how likely I am to murder someone else. I'm not a risk to anyone who isn't having an affair with my wife, and after this incident I plan to divorce and live the rest of my days a bachelor. Therefore, you have no need to deter me from future murders, and can safely let me go free."

The judge responds: "You make a convincing argument, and I believe that you will never kill anyone else in the future. However, other people will one day be in the position you were in, where they walk in on their wives having an affair. Society needs to have a credible pre-commitment to punishing them if they succumb to their rage, in order to deter them from murder."

"No," you say, "I understand your reasoning, but it won't work. If you've never walked in on your wife having an affair, you can't possibly understand the rage. No matter how bad the deterrent was, you'd still kill the guy."

"Hm," says the judge. "I'm afraid I just can't believe anyone could ever be quite that irrational. But I see where you're coming from. I'll give you a lighter sentence."

The Bellicose Dictator

You are the dictator of East Examplestan, a banana republic subsisting off its main import, high quality hypothetical scenarios. You've always had it in for your ancestral enemy, West Examplestan, but the UN has made it clear that any country in your region that aggressively invades a neighbor will be severely punished with sanctions and possible enforced "regime change." So you decide to leave the West alone for the time being.

One day, a few West Examplestanis unintentionally wander over your unmarked border while prospecting for new scenario mines. You immediately declare it a "hostile incursion" by "West Examplestani spies", declare war, and take the Western capital in a sneak attack.

The next day, Ban Ki-moon is on the phone, and he sounds angry. "I thought we at the UN had made it perfectly clear that countries can't just invade each other anymore!"

"But didn't you read our propaganda mouthpi...ahem, official newspaper? We didn't just invade. We were responding to Western aggression!"

"Balderdash!" says the Secretary-General. "Those were a couple of lost prospectors, and you know it!"

"Well," you say. "Let's consider your options. The UN needs to make a credible pre-commitment to punish aggressive countries, or everyone will invade their weaker neighbors. And you've got to follow through on your threats, or else the pre-commitment won't be credible anymore. But you don't actually like following through on your threats. Invading rogue states will kill a lot of people on both sides and be politically unpopular, and sanctions will hurt your economy and lead to heart-rending images of children starving. What you'd really like to do is let us off, but in a way that doesn't make other countries think they'll get off too.

"Luckily, we can make a credible story that we were following international law. Sure, it may have been stupid of us to mistake a few prospectors for an invasion, but there's no international law against being stupid. If you dismiss us as simply misled, you don't have to go through the trouble of punishing us, and other countries won't think they can get away with anything.

"Nor do you need to live in fear of us doing something like this again. We've already demonstrated that we won't go to war without a casus belli. If other countries can refrain from giving us one, they have nothing to fear."

Ban Ki-moon doesn't believe your story, but the countries that would bear the economic brunt of the sanctions and regime change decide they believe it just enough to stay uninvolved.

The Peyote-Popping Native

You are the governor of a state with a large Native American population. You have banned all mind-altering drugs, with the honorable exceptions of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and several others, because you are a red-blooded American who believes that they would drive teenagers to commit crimes.

A representative of the state Native population comes to you and says: "Our people have used peyote religiously for hundreds of years. During this time, we haven't become addicted or committed any crimes. Please grant us a religious exemption under the First Amendment to continue practicing our ancient rituals." You agree.

A leader of your state's atheist community breaks into your office via the ventilation systems (because seriously, how else is an atheist leader going to get access to a state governor?) and says: "As an atheist, I am offended that you grant exemptions to your anti-peyote law for religious reasons, but not for, say, recreational reasons. This is unfair discrimination in favor of religion. The same is true of laws that say Sikhs can wear turbans in school to show support for God, but my son can't wear a baseball cap in school to show support for the Yankees. Or laws that say Muslims can get time off state jobs to pray five times a day, but I can't get time off my state job for a cigarette break. Or laws that say state functions will include special kosher meals for Jews, but not special pasta meals for people who really like pasta."

You respond "Although my policies may seem to be saying religion is more important than other potential reasons for breaking a rule, one can make a non-religious case justifying them. One important feature of major world religions is that their rituals have been fixed for hundreds of years. Allowing people to break laws for religious reasons makes religious people very happy, but does not weaken the laws. After all, we all know the few areas in which the laws of the major US religions as they are currently practiced conflict with secular law, and none of them are big deals. So the general principle 'I will allow people to break laws if it is necessary to established and well-known religious rituals" is relatively low-risk and makes people happy without threatening the concept of law in general. But the general principle 'I will allow people to break laws for recreational reasons' is very high risk, because it's sufficient justification for almost anyone breaking any law."

"I would love to be able to serve everyone the exact meal they most wanted at state dinners. But if I took your request for pasta because you liked pasta, I would have to follow the general principle of giving everyone the meal they most like, which would be prohibitively expensive. By giving Jews kosher meals, I can satisfy a certain particularly strong preference without being forced to satisfy anyone else's."

The Well-Disguised Atheist

The next day, the atheist leader comes in again. This time, he is wearing a false mustache and sombrero. "I represent the Church of Driving 50 In A 30 Mile Per Hour Zone," he says. "For our members, going at least twenty miles per hour over the speed limit is considered a sacrament. Please grant us a religious exemption to traffic laws."

You decide to play along. "How long has your religion existed, and how many people do you have?" you ask.

"Not very long, and not very many people," he responds.

"I see," you say. "In that case, you're a cult, and not a religion at all. Sorry, we don't deal with cults."

"What, exactly, is the difference between a cult and a religion?"

"The difference is that cults have been formed recently enough, and are small enough, that we are suspicious of them existing for the purpose of taking advantage of the special place we give religion. Granting an exemption for your cult would challenge the credibility of our pre-commitment to punish people who break the law, because it would mean anyone who wants to break a law could just found a cult dedicated to it."

"How can my cult become a real religion that deserves legal benefits?"

"You'd have to become old enough and respectable enough that it becomes implausible that it was created for the purpose of taking advantage of the law."

"That sounds like a lot of work."

"Alternatively, you could try writing awful science fiction novels and hiring a ton of lawyers. I hear that also works these days."

Conclusion

In all these stories, the first party wants to credibly pre-commit to a rule, but also has incentives to forgive other people's deviations from the rule. The second party breaks the rules, but comes up with an excuse for why its infraction should be forgiven.

The first party's response is based not only on whether the person's excuse is believable, not even on whether the person's excuse is morally valid, but on whether the excuse can be accepted without straining the credibility of their previous pre-commitment.

The general principle is that by accepting an excuse, a rule-maker is also committing themselves to accepting all equally good excuses in the future. There are some exceptions - accepting an excuse in private but making sure no one else ever knows, accepting an excuse once with the express condition that you will never accept any other excuses - but to some degree these are devil's bargains, as anyone who can predict you will do this can take advantage of you.

These stories give an idea of excuses different from the one our society likes to think it uses, namely that it accepts only excuses that are true and that reflect well upon the character of the person giving the excuse. I'm not saying that the common idea of excuses doesn't have value - but I think the game theory view also has some truth to it. I also think the game theoretic view can be useful in cases where the common view fails. It can inform cases in law, international diplomacy, and politics where a tool somewhat stronger than the easily-muddled common view is helpful.

Comments (221)

Comment author: cousin_it 21 April 2010 09:25:17AM *  25 points [-]

What Thomas Schelling would do. Partly tongue-in-cheek.

The Clumsy Game-Player: agree to the deal, then perform an identical "finger slip" several turns later.

The Lazy Student, The Grieving Student, The Sports Fan: make the deadline for reports a curve instead of a cliff. Each day of delay costs some percentage of the grade.

The Murderous Husband: if you really don't want these things to happen, make the wife partially responsible for the murder in such cases, by law. (Or the lover, if the husband chooses to murder the wife.)

The Bellicose Dictator: publicly threaten sanctions unless the invading army withdraws immediately. Do this before any negotiations.

The Peyote-Popping Native, The Well-Disguised Atheist: when the native first comes to you, offer to balance out the permission to smoke peyote with some sanction against the Native American church. Then the atheists won't bother asking for a free lunch.

Comment author: mattnewport 21 April 2010 06:34:11PM 14 points [-]

make the deadline for reports a curve instead of a cliff. Each day of delay costs some percentage of the grade.

We had this system for my second year physics project at university. I hadn't started it when the deadline arrived and decided the penalty rate was too steep to bother starting when the deadline passed. Several weeks later I was summoned to explain why I hadn't handed the project in and I explained that it hadn't seemed worth starting given how little it would be worth by the time I finished it (by this point the penalty had long since reduced the potential grade to ~0). They told me if I completed it before the end of term they wouldn't apply the penalty

Comment author: JGWeissman 21 April 2010 06:51:48PM 2 points [-]

I hadn't started it when the deadline arrived and decided the penalty rate was too steep to bother starting when the deadline passed.

Perhaps making students like you feel that it is worthwhile getting started once you have already procrastinated contributes to the success of this strategy.

Comment author: mattnewport 22 April 2010 12:42:27AM 37 points [-]

Perhaps, but my problem was more that I mistook a theoretical interest in physics for an interest in theoretical physics.

Comment author: BarbaraB 02 July 2012 09:32:58AM 0 points [-]

It sounds like You were the case, where it was not worth to waiwe the penalty. They should have sticked to their rules. Out of interest, did You ever write and turn in that physics project ?

Comment author: Matt_Stevenson 22 April 2010 11:54:38PM *  4 points [-]

The Lazy Student, The Grieving Student, The Sports Fan: make the deadline for reports a curve instead of a cliff. Each day of delay costs some percentage of the grade.

I've always liked the "drop the n lowest scores" strategy. For example, 10 assignments given with the lowest 2 scores ignored.

You are pre-committing to a set of rules, where any excuse would have a much lower probability of being true. Any excuse would need to include 3 excuses. Combining the probabilities of each of the excuses will likely bring the total under your acceptable threshold. Basically, it's lowering the likelihood that you will want to violate the rules.

You can also look at like this. Your model of people predicts that they are scoundrels, and will try to violate the rules, maximizing their utility at your expense. So build a system where procrastinators can maximize their utility at no expense to you.

Comment author: Random832 12 April 2012 02:30:11PM 2 points [-]

"Any excuse would need to include 3 excuses." - not as such; there is then the possibility that someone will wish to have an excuse to turn in an assignment they expect to do well on late to replace the grade of one of the other assignments which they did poorly on (or had no excuse).

Comment author: SilasBarta 21 April 2010 06:20:11PM 2 points [-]

make the deadline for reports a curve instead of a cliff. Each day of delay costs some percentage of the grade.

You sure he wouldn't advise the teacher to pretend not to understand what the student is asking for until they give up? :-P

Comment author: cousin_it 21 April 2010 09:49:15PM *  4 points [-]

Yeah, that might work if the teacher has a poor command of English. (Schelling refers to this negotiation tactic as "turning off your hearing aid".) Even better would be to announce that you will leave town immediately after the final date. But I still like my solution best.

Comment author: wedrifid 01 January 2011 02:55:39AM 0 points [-]

The Lazy Student, The Grieving Student, The Sports Fan: make the deadline for reports a curve instead of a cliff. Each day of delay costs some percentage of the grade.

This was standard practice when I did my first university degree. It seemed to work well and while I never handed in anything late myself I approved in principle.

Interestingly in my later courses at universities that were (and are) more prestigious (at least in the traditional and Arts/Science/Medicine kind of fields) they would not consider that sort of practical system. Far too set in their ways to do that sort of thing. (And on a related note I'd never have done a computer science degree there - they teach programming primarily in C.)

Comment author: gwern 23 April 2010 12:14:56AM 0 points [-]

The Bellicose Dictator

Hm, I don't see how this one works. Isn't a threat of sanctions and invasion the standing order of the day?

Comment author: cousin_it 23 April 2010 12:19:15AM *  1 point [-]

Nope. In the story Ban Ki-moon phones the dictator first, before publicly announcing sanctions. This is a mistake.

Comment author: gwern 23 April 2010 01:39:43AM 0 points [-]

Yes, but I mean doesn't the real world UN have standing orders about invasions? I thought the UN charter mandated defense of its members.

Comment author: JGWeissman 21 April 2010 12:03:02AM 22 points [-]

I precommit to acting as if I had made any precommittment I find myself wishing I had made. If I make this clear before iterated prisoners' dilemma, a rational partner would not try the "finger slipped" excuse against me, because I would wish that I had precommitted to punishing defection due to finger slipping.

I would still allow the grieving student to turn in the paper late, because in that situation, I do not wish I had precommitted to rejecting that excuse.

Comment author: radical_negative_one 21 April 2010 01:20:18AM 16 points [-]

Hopefully, of course, everybody involved will intuitively understand what sorts of things you are likely to "wish [you] had precommitted to".

Comment author: khafra 21 April 2010 02:08:44PM 8 points [-]

Sounds like a weak precomittment. Schelling includes the theory of excuses in his work, and they are a key part of bargaining, since pre-commitments that can be averted without appearing to weaken the bargainer's position will be.

IOW, once a breach has been made it will be in both parties' interests not to have the threat carried out, and any "wiggle room" in the precommitment will be exploited. Because of this, bargainers are well-advised to make the circumstances that will trigger their threat as unambiguous and externally verifiable as possible.

I don't see any way to do this with your model precommitment, unless the agent(s) you're bargaining with and any third parties observing have access to your source code.

Comment author: JGWeissman 21 April 2010 04:41:36PM 7 points [-]

It can be weak on its own, if I am not predictable. But if I combine it with more specific precomittments, then other agents who plan to exploit a one time excuse, where part of convincing me not to carry through the threat, is that I can precommit never to allow that excuse again, can predict that I will wish I had precommitted from the beginning to never allow that excuse at all, and therefore act as if I had made that precommittment, and still cary through the punishment, so they should not provoke the punishment planning to offer that excuse.

This greatly strengthens any specific precommittment I make, by preventing the exploitation of one time excuses. If an agent wants to offer me an excuse, they will need to be able to convince me that I should always allow that excuse.

In the grieving student example, I am willing to allow the excuse for the same reasons that I am willing to explicitly ammend the precommittment to allow an exception in those circumstances.

Comment author: khafra 21 April 2010 06:05:27PM *  4 points [-]

I see--as an anti-single-exception rule that makes sense to me, as long as it's communicable clearly. The term "wishing" seemed insufficiently constrained and precise to me, at first.

Comment author: bentarm 25 April 2010 01:54:45AM 9 points [-]

IOW....

If typing an abbreviation saves you less than 10 keystrokes, but increases the time taken to parse your post by at least 30 seconds for at least one reader, it almost certainly isn't socially optimal to use it (although I did get the pleasure of an 'aha' moment when I finally figured out what 'IOW' was supposed to mean).

Comment author: Kingreaper 03 October 2010 05:17:06PM 4 points [-]

IOW is such a common abbreviation online that it actually INCREASED my speed of parsing the post.

And I suspect, if you encounter it in future, you may eventually find it to save you time also. IOW, "IOW" may actually be socially optimal in many contexts, even if some people don't understand it.

Much like using the abbreviation FAI.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 09 January 2012 01:41:41AM 21 points [-]

You both managed to have this discussion without actually saying that IOW should be parsed as "In other words." This was sub optimal as it forced me to google it myself. Hopefully this post will provide utility to future readers.

Comment author: Jack 21 April 2010 01:10:35AM 3 points [-]

Isn't this the default position for TDT and UDT?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 21 April 2010 03:37:17PM 1 point [-]

For UDT, only partially for TDT. Though the main purpose of precommitment is in credibly signaling that you have precommited, which is harder for meta-precommitments like this.

Comment author: JGWeissman 21 April 2010 04:08:04AM 0 points [-]

I think TDT and UDT are more sophisticated than my precommitment strategy.

Two agents facing each other in a one shot true prisoner's dilemma would mutually cooperate if they were both using TDT or UDT, but not if using CDT and my precommitment strategy.

Comment author: jimmy 21 April 2010 05:17:26AM 2 points [-]

You wouldn't wish that you precommitted to cooperating iff you predicted that the other agent would cooperate iff he predicts that you will cooperate?

Comment author: JGWeissman 21 April 2010 06:06:29AM 2 points [-]

The problem is not cooperating conditionally on making that prediction. The problem is being able to make that prediction. TDT and UDT solve this by noting that it is the same algorithm making the decision for both agents.

Comment author: jimmy 21 April 2010 11:19:00PM *  0 points [-]

Making the prediction is absolutely the hard part, but I still think that two agents using CDT with your precommitment strategy who are able to accurately predict would cooperate.

TDT/UDT do seem a bit more sophisticated, but I'm not solid enough on this decision theory thing to see where they advocated different decisions. I just don't think this is one of them.

Comment author: roundsquare 22 April 2010 05:37:42AM 0 points [-]

Thats fine, as long as you lay out the relative importance of different aspects so people can predict what will and won't be important to you.

Comment author: Jack 21 April 2010 01:39:32AM 19 points [-]

The Music Fan

A month before the paper was assigned a student was talking with their professor and mentioned that the punk band "The Exemplars" was their favorite band and that they would do anything to see them live but that they almost never perform. The day after the paper was due the student comes in and says "I'm sorry I didn't get the paper in on time, professor, but you won't believe what happened. The Exemplars, that band I told you about held a one-time-only surprise concert downtown yesterday and I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to attend. It is true that my excuse isn't traditionally considered a good one like that of the grieving student, but months ago I signaled to you quite clearly that an Exemplars concert would be the kind of thing that would lead me to turn a paper in late. You excused the grieving student because it is assumed in our culture that a death of a family member will give someone reason not to write a paper. But though we don't assume most people will not write a paper because of a concert you could have predicted an Exemplars concert would cause me not to write the paper. This excuse won't be used often by other students since to be successful one has to indicate a stance that would cause them to not write the paper under certain circumstances and then hope those circumstances arise."

Comment author: Yvain 21 April 2010 05:45:05PM 18 points [-]

If I were a teacher, I'd ideally allow this (and the sports fan too, for that matter, if I knew he was a big enough fan).

There's no problem in the ideal form, but I would anticipate a lot of problems in real life - other students not understanding exactly how much this person loved the Exemplars and misinterpreting it as "You get an exemption for going to a rock concert", other students trying to convince you they like [thing X] just as much as this guy liked the Exemplars and you having to judge lots of difficult cases to see if their fandom is truly as great as this guy's is and inevitably getting some of them wrong.

If I really knew what to do, this post would have been titled "Eight Short Studies On Excuses, Plus The Answers To Them"

Comment author: sketerpot 21 April 2010 03:32:40AM *  11 points [-]

You know, most of these problems can be avoided if you accept assignments late and have most of the course grade depend on one or more large individual projects that must be turned in "sometime before the end of the semester". The simplifying assumption is that a student who doesn't try to learn anything deserves to remain ignorant -- it's nice how neatly this works out.

I give my students a recommended due date, but allow them to turn in any assignment at any time before Finals Week without penalty, for any reason. It works better than you might think.

(I wish that I was allowed to insist that everybody do an individual project. There is so much cheating it's a bit ridiculous, and the worst part is that the students who cheat are just good enough at covering their tracks that I can't find absolutely definitive evidence. This is especially common among Chinese students, for some reason. Again, I figure that if people harm their own learning by cheating on assignments, then their actions are self-punishing.)

Comment author: Yvain 21 April 2010 05:50:33PM 14 points [-]

In "Predictably Irrational", they mention a study (don't have the book with me, can't be more specific) where a teacher assigns three projects, due at various points throughout the year. The students do relatively well.

In another class the same teacher assigns three projects which can be turned in whenever the students want. The students in this class do quite a bit worse than the first students because they're procrastinating and do all three projects the last week.

In yet another condition, students are allowed to turn in projects at any time during the year, but they're also allowed to voluntarily pre-commit to a due date at the beginning of the year (they fail the project if they don't have it in by their own due date). In this condition, the students who pre-committed did as well as the students in the first class, and the students who didn't pre-commit did as poorly as the students in the second class.

Based on that study, I predict your students would do better if you gave them assigned due dates.

Comment author: sketerpot 21 April 2010 06:26:11PM *  21 points [-]

I do give them assigned due dates, actually; I just make it clear to everyone that I'll accept arbitrarily late work without penalty. I make a show of collecting papers on the date they're due. About 80--90% of the students turn in their work on the due date.

Adding to the incentive scheme here is the fact that the classwork builds on earlier work, so if they just procrastinate for a few weeks, they'll be in a pretty dire situation. If they have to go see a funeral or a concert, or they've been really busy some week with exams or a big project for another class, or whatever, then my method gives them enough flexibility for that, but the great majority of people do not procrastinate the way you might predict.

I guess you could call this system "obviously fictitious due dates". Everybody knows that the due dates are made of handwaving and rainbows, but that doesn't make them much less effective. And this way I don't have to listen to any damn excuses, and my students don't have to think of any; I just smile and recommend catching up before next week.

Comment author: JGWeissman 21 April 2010 06:46:13PM 3 points [-]

About 80--90% of the students turn in their work on the due date.

Of the 10-20% who do not turn in their work on the due date, how many eventually turn it in, and how does their quality of work compare to those who turned it in "on time"?

It would be interesting to see a repeat of the experiment Yvain mentions, with another class added using your "obviously fictitious due dates".

Comment author: sketerpot 21 April 2010 08:23:26PM 4 points [-]

Of the 10-20% who do not turn in their work on the due date, how many eventually turn it in, and how does their quality of work compare to those who turned it in "on time"?

I would say, about 2/3 of the people who miss the due date turn in their work a little late. Of those who don't, a handful will turn in a batch of late papers at the end of the semester, which is a pain in the ass, but at least they did it. And then there are the people who just give up on the class but don't actually drop it. They make up the bulk of the people who don't turn in their work ever.

The quality of the late papers is, on average, lower than the quality of the on-time papers. This makes sense; the more diligent students would tend to do better work and get it in on time.

It would be interesting to see a repeat of the experiment Yvain mentions, with another class added using your "obviously fictitious due dates".

One confounding factor is that the study Yvain mentioned has only three assignments, whereas I have a larger number that are due more frequently. I suspect that my method might not work quite as well with a smaller number of assignments.

Comment author: mattnewport 21 April 2010 08:55:37PM 19 points [-]

The quality of the late papers is, on average, lower than the quality of the on-time papers. This makes sense; the more diligent students would tend to do better work and get it in on time.

Do you have a method for disentangling any negative bias you might have towards late papers (because they are 'a pain in the ass') from your quality judgements? I imagine the degree to which completely objective quality measurements are possible is a function of what subject you are teaching.

Comment author: sketerpot 21 April 2010 09:51:39PM *  14 points [-]

I hadn't thought of that, but it turns out that yes, I do! I handle the grading in two phases; in phase one I assign grades, and in phase two I enter them into the grade book. The pain-in-the-ass aspect comes mostly in phase two. I don't really mind grading late papers; it's dealing with the school's broken-ass computer system, Blackboard, that is really aggravating when I'm entering late grades. Or any grades, really, but late grades are worse.

Therefore the grades I assign should be fairly disentangled from any annoyance I may feel later in phase two.

(By the way, nice job thinking up that criticism. The ability to habitually see possible cognitive bias in everyday life is important, and needs to be lauded more.)

(Also, if you happen to be an educational institution, never use Blackboard. It's the worst thing since BonziBuddy.)

Comment author: RobinZ 21 April 2010 10:44:27PM 5 points [-]

I'm not denying that Blackboard sucks - my university uses it, too - but I've not had too much trouble entering grades by the download-edit-upload method. The download and upload options are in the "Grade Center" under "Manage", and the file is tab-delimited (or some alternate option I have already forgotten about) and editable in Excel.

Comment author: Unnamed 21 April 2010 08:40:26PM *  5 points [-]

Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control and precommitment. Psychological Science, 13, 219–224. pdf

Comment author: Alicorn 21 April 2010 03:43:08AM 3 points [-]

If you can't find definitive evidence of cheating, what makes you think that a) there is so much of it, and b) especially among Chinese students?

Comment author: sketerpot 21 April 2010 04:03:26AM 15 points [-]

I should be more clear about what I'm saying. There's a certain level of evidence needed to prove cheating to The Authorities so that it can be dealt with through the official academic honesty processes of the university. That's a hard standard to meet, since in this sort of thing you really don't want false positives. However, I can be almost certain about most instances of cheating, and that's enough to get a solid idea of how much is going on and who's doing it most.

I have plenty of evidence, of course, just not enough to convict anybody of academic dishonesty. Except the guy whose idea of "writing a report" was to copy and paste from Wikipedia and hope I didn't notice. That was weird.

Comment author: thomblake 22 April 2010 03:39:15PM 19 points [-]

I have plenty of evidence, of course, just not enough to convict anybody of academic dishonesty. Except the guy whose idea of "writing a report" was to copy and paste from Wikipedia and hope I didn't notice. That was weird.

I need to share this anecdote now... a friend of mine who shall remain nameless was teaching a history class and asked for papers on the War of 1812. One student copied the entry from Uncyclopedia. And showed no signs of it having been a joke. And didn't understand what she did wrong after it was explained.

The paper explained how one of the major powers in the war was Antarctica, and dolphins carrying bombs helped the United States defend against killer penguins. So yeah.

Comment author: SilasBarta 22 April 2010 04:32:46PM 18 points [-]

One day the classified files will be released, and you'll be really sorry for having trivialized this theater of the war >:-(

Comment author: Relsqui 30 September 2010 08:14:07AM 3 points [-]

I'm idly interested (by which I mean I have no use for it, I'm just curious) what some other heuristics are for "obvious cheating." Mismatch with the student's apparent understanding of the topic? Or their writing style?

I was accused of copying a paper for, of all things, an economics class, in high school. I think what got me out of it was the completely genuine look of astonishment on my face--I had not, in fact, copied it, and had never gotten the accusation before about anything. To this day I wonder why my teacher thought I had.

Comment author: sketerpot 30 September 2010 05:30:05PM *  9 points [-]

Let's see if I can list a few heuristics for cheating:

  • Mismatch between the writing style in different parts of the paper. If some paragraphs are poorly-punctuated and ungrammatical, and other parts are written in very formal academic language, that's a sign that the paper may have been made by copying and pasting from other people's writings, then filling in the cracks with their own writing.

  • Formal academic language is a very weak warning sign. It means you should try typing some statistically unlikely phrases into Google, just in case.

  • Sometimes people who are asked to summarize some assigned reading will do so by copying and pasting directly from it, and changing a bit of the wording around. This is pretty easy to detect if you've read it recently as well.

  • If a completely incompetent student suddenly turns in top quality answers, it's unlikely that this is due to him just getting his act together.

I have no idea why your teacher thought you copied a paper for your economics class, but those are some heuristics that I've learned.

Comment author: taryneast 07 February 2011 10:22:27AM *  2 points [-]

Don't forget to add plagiarism heuristics:

  • Paper is identical to Student B's paper

and in CompSci

  • code-samples in paper are identical to Student B's code samples (with possibly the comments or variable names altered)
  • code samples exhibit exactly the same comments/bugs as Student B's code, even though the code is altered to look somewhat different.
Comment author: Relsqui 30 September 2010 07:20:48PM *  1 point [-]

Thanks! I don't remember much about how I was doing in the class otherwise, so I'm not sure either. Likely possibilities are formal language (I had turned my brain into "paper mode") or the last one about incompetence (I was not so big on doing homework in high school, so whether I appeared competent would depend on how much I'd been participating in class).

Comment author: Dre 21 April 2010 03:39:46AM 0 points [-]

But doesn't this make precommitting have a positive expected utility to students, so students would precommit to whatever they thought was most likely to happen and the teacher would still expect more late papers from having this policy.

Comment author: Jack 21 April 2010 04:34:12AM 1 point [-]

Well they can't pick circumstances that are actually likely to come about. If such circumstances can be foreseen the professor will have expected the student to finish the paper earlier just in case.The more likely the event the the more likely the professor is to make that determination and not accept the excuse. Presumably there is some ideal rate of unlikelihood that satisfies the professor's utility function.

Comment author: Airedale 21 April 2010 04:46:48PM 15 points [-]

The murderous husband would traditionally have received a reduced sentence in common law jurisdictions, since such a killing would not have been considered murder but rather manslaughter committed in the sudden heat of passion as the result of adequate provocation. A husband’s killing his wife’s lover upon discovering them together is one of the paradigm examples of this sort of manslaughter. (If the husband does not immediately kill the lover, but instead leaves and then kills him at another time, the killing would then be murder because it was not committed in the sudden heat of passion; or if the husband only finds out about the adultery, but does not actually witness it, it would not be considered adequate provocation.)

That is, the law has already pre-committed to the reduced sentence in this peculiar class of cases. At least this is true traditionally; I believe that in at least some jurisdictions, this principle may have eroded somewhat or been changed by statute.

Comment author: jimrandomh 21 April 2010 04:59:04PM 4 points [-]

Not quite. As I remember it from my intro law class, common law divides murder into three categories (degrees), not two, and you're missing the middle one. First degree is premeditated; second degree is deliberate but in the heat of the moment; third degree is accidental death due to recklessness. The case of the jealous husband is second degree murder, but the term manslaughter means third degree.

Comment author: Airedale 21 April 2010 05:16:34PM *  22 points [-]

I'm not just relying on my memories from my own crim law class in law school; I pulled out one of my old textbooks to check myself in writing the comment. "Under common law, an intentional homicide committed in 'sudden heat of passion' as the result of 'adequate provocation' mitigates the offense to voluntary manslaughter." Joshua Dressler, Understanding Criminal Law (1995). The book goes on to discuss the specific case of the murderous husband.

I believe my account is accurate with respect to the common law, although possibly not with respect to the current state of the law in all common law jurisdictions. Hence the caveats about the law possibly having been changed by statute or otherwise.

Comment author: jimrandomh 21 April 2010 05:42:15PM 6 points [-]

Huh. I stand corrected; my memory had abridged that case away.

Comment author: Jess_Riedel 25 April 2010 02:30:26PM -1 points [-]

I'm pretty sure this varies state-to-state.

Comment author: Airedale 25 April 2010 06:42:34PM 5 points [-]

"Common law" is the court-made law historically developed in England and exported to most (all?) English colonies. These courts came up with the principle of mitigating certain homicides to manslaughter, including in the case of the murderous husband. It’s possible that the reasoning behind the very first use of the principle may have been something like the ad hoc lowering of the sentence in Yvain’s example. (It’s also possible that some of the early judges may have stated their reasoning differently and in a way that is in conflict with modern values; one thread that runs through some of the early murderous husband authority is that the husband is partially justified in the killing because he is protecting his “property” from “trespass.”) As courts continued to apply the reasoning, this principle became a well-established part of the “common law.”

As both of my comments suggested, there are likely variations in the current state of the law among jurisdictions. This is true even among common law jurisdictions, that is, among other countries with a common law background and among the states with such background (Louisiana has a civil law background). I believe that no states currently rely on the common law for homicide law, but instead all states have enacted statutes defining the various degrees of homicide, that is, defining murder in various degrees, manslaughter (voluntary/involuntary), negligent homicide, etc. (States have taken somewhat different approaches here; per the same book I quoted previously, “reform of the common law has taken three separate paths,” including a version dividing homicide into three offenses, murder, manslaughter, and negligent homicide, which I believe is similar to what jimrandomh was describing. But further discussion of those paths in this comment seems like too much of a detour.)

At any rate, in most states, the definitions in the penal code draw strongly from the original common law definitions as well as from later adaptations of the common law. Therefore, while there is indeed variation from state to state, it is quite likely that some version of this principle still exists in most states. To be sure what the law is in any given state, one would indeed have to look at the individual state’s penal code. But given that this comment is not intended to be legal advice to any potential murderous husbands who may be reading, further discussion seems unnecessary.

Comment author: gwern 06 April 2011 03:42:35PM 13 points [-]

"Mahmud Karim, of the Dadolzai lineage, was enraged to learn that a member of a "brother" lineage, the Kamil Hanzai, had carried off the palm trunks he'd prepared to roof his temporary mud-brick dwelling during the seasonal date harvest. Karim quickly mobilized a war party from among his Dadolzai lineage mates (including a few allies from closely related lineages) to retrieve the trunks--by fighting the Kamil Hanzai, if necessary.

But why hadn't Karim first simply walked over to the Kamil Hanzai and tried to clear the matter up? Indeed, it was later discovered that the palm trunks had been taken by mistake. Why risk a battle without first making a reasonable effort to talk the problem out? That sort of question is liable to be posed by someone living where a state monopolizes the legitimate use of force, and police and courts can therefore be relied upon to keep the peace. In a nonstate setting, where anarchy is kept under control only by the threat or use of force, it often makes sense to send a war party first and ask questions later.

A lone emissary from the Dadolzai making an inquiry or offering to negotiate a settlement would have conveyed an impression of weakness. Only by making publicly known their capacity to swiftly unify and fight to preserve their interests would the Dadolzai prevent future abuse in the lawless desert environment, whatever the intentions of the Kamil Hanzai had been in this particular case. The Dadolzai meant to fight only if blocked from retrieving the palm trunks, yet it was crucial that they be seen as willing to do battle. Had the Kamil Hanzai in fact seized the palm trunks with hostile intent, a lone Dadolzai emissary would have been in serious danger. Only after retrieving the palm trunks unopposed did the Dadolzai send an emissary--not a Dadolzai, but a member of a neutral lineage who would not be at personal risk--to inquire after the Kamil Hanzai's intent. And only then was it discovered that the apparent theft of the palm trunks had been an innocent mistake."

http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/014/947kigpp.asp?nopager=1

Comment author: buybuydandavis 29 September 2011 01:49:11AM *  9 points [-]

Luckily, we can make a credible story that we were following international law...

Credible, to whom? Implausible deniability is an interesting phenomenon. Everyone knows it's a lie, but we all say the lie to each other, and pretend it is not.

It seems more true (lesswrong?) that laws are for those without power, while those with power act according to interest, making up implausible denials when they want to pretend that laws are for everyone. The need for implausible denials places some small pressure on the powerful to act consistently, but not much.

If the powerful don't feel it is in their interests to protect West Examplestan, they won't. East Examplestan will tailor it's action to allow some implausible excuse, those with power will take it, and the lie of law lives on.

For the Peyote example, the powerful don't really care if a limited number of people can take drugs, while the religious certainly do care to protect religious exemptions. If there were only 10 religious people in the country, probably Peyote gets banned and we're done with it.

"Existing a long time" is just an excuse, one of many possible, and again, one that literally privileges vested interests - those who have had the interest for a long time. But if 100 million people are willing to bomb and kill for a week old religion that wanted to use Peyote as a sacrament, "existing a long time" would no longer be a part of the magic formula granting exemption from drug laws.

Follow the money. Follow the guns. Follow the violence.

I find a lot of game theory suspect. The right action will always depend on your prior for the behavior of the other players, and for any prior P that recommends X over Y, you can find a prior P' that recommends Y over X. Treating Game Theory as if it provides "the right" answer, without explicitly identifying the priors on the other players is hugely dangerous. I didn't see any priors established in this article. I saw rationalizations that would hold for some unidentified priors, and not hold for others.

Comment author: alotofaction 22 April 2010 12:20:11AM 6 points [-]

In the first example, you should just continue playing tit-for-tat, if the other player truly "slipped" and knows you are playing tit-for-tat, he won't defect after you defect, he will continue cooperating and make you cooperate.

The whole notion of pre-commiting to a strategy is to remove the human elements like "negociation" and "excuses". You are a machine and you play accordingly. If the other player is rational, he will cooperate even after he slipped and you defected.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 22 April 2010 03:16:47AM 9 points [-]

Suppose you are committed to tit-for-tat, and so is your partner, then if his finger truly slipped, he will defect after you defect, because his commitment doesn't include an exception for being punished for his own finger slipping (just like your commitment doesn't include an exception for his finger slipping).

The outcome to the story given by Yvain does seem wrong to me, and two actual human players would probably produce the outcome you (and Dagon) give: you defect once, and your partner keeps cooperating, to "make up" for the slipped finger. But this seems to have more to do with fairness than with commitment.

Comment author: Jonii 23 April 2010 05:00:32AM *  10 points [-]

But this seems to have more to do with fairness than with commitment.

Fairness? More like easy, common sense. You play tit for tat, opponent defects, you defect. If opponent keeps on defecting, you defect too. Simple winning strategy for you, to which you should absolutely precommit to.

Your opponent, knowing your precommitment, can't really do much. Strategically speaking, he's the one to act, as your precommitment to tit-for-tat works kinda like removing your steering wheel in a game of chicken, making you indifferent and unable to stop. He can crash you just as many times as he wants to, but the choice is always left to him.

And why it is his? Because you're precommitted to a strategy, but he, by defecting, he either strayed from his precommitted one, or revealed that he didn't have any to begin with. Now that he doesn't play pure tit-for-tat, his second best choice would be co-operating twice and continuing with tit-for-tat. To him, strategy "play tit-for-tat, defect once, continue with tit-for-tat" is quite far from optimal.

Comment author: bentarm 25 April 2010 02:08:42AM 5 points [-]

The Clumsy Game-Player

The first thing I thought when I read this first example was "didn't Axelrod discuss the issue of the IPD with noise in his book?" the answer, it seems, is yes but not in his book, (PDF warning!). Essentially they seem to come the conclusion that forgiving the finger slip is optimal if it doesn't happen very often (for their particular choices of values <=1% of the time). Otherwise you should have the strategy where you forgive the opponent if they punish you for a finger slip, but play TFT otherwise.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 25 April 2010 09:25:58AM 7 points [-]

A bias I've noticed: People are a lot more likely to believe a bad event which was claimed to be an accident actually was an accident if it was done by someone you feel allied with, and to believe it was malice or culpable negligence if it was done by someone you already mistrust.

It's actually rather a hard call if you don't have solid information.

Comment author: phob 29 September 2010 04:45:12PM 9 points [-]

Is that really a bias? The fact that they are allied or not with you is some information about what they are likely to do.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 29 September 2010 11:15:19PM 7 points [-]

It's some information, but I think it's very tempting (confirmation bias, halo/horns effects) to wildly overestimate how much information you've got.

Comment author: Logos01 20 October 2011 04:07:23PM 0 points [-]

It's not a bias of either type so much as it represents a recursive feedback of updated beliefs.

New 'givens' will cause a belief update to any Bayesian nodal belief system, which propagates backwards and forwards. However, that belief system must be modulated by its a priori givens.

This creates a potential runaway feedback of exploitation: You have the current belief with high probability of alliance with a person. Person commits an act(1) with negative utility to you, and asks for forgiveness using explanation X. This causes you to accept explanation X as your ally wouldn't harm you intentionally. Person then commits act(2) with negative utility to you, and asks for forgiveness with totally-unrelated explanation Y. Person is your ally, and this sort of situation has never come up before, so again you accept the excuse.

Now, if you instead thought of the person as a neutral rather than an ally, then you'd be far less likely to accept explanation Y -- or at least you'd be less likely to continue associating with the person -- though the 'average' person I model in my mind would likely accept explanation X (no prior reason to hold assumption of deceit, most people are typically honest to strangers, etc., etc..).

What might constitute a potential for bias in interpretation is if you have a sufficiently high utility from not making an enemy out of the ally even if the ally is causing you harm. A very simple example: You come home one day to discover a crumpled up pair of underwear not yours (but of your gender) in the bathroom with your lover in bed. Your lover explains that this somehow made it into his/her gymbag by accident. This seems odd, but you deeply love your lover and so you let this pass. An extended time later, you come home to discover that the house has a perfume/cologne (appropriate to your gender) not yours. But again, your lover keeps a spotless home for you, cooks and cleans for you, and you really don't want to live alone. So... you let this pass. A still further extended period later, you discover in phone records that your lover has been calling your business-partner repeatedly. For extended periods. You recall the scent and realize that this was where you had placed it -- it was your business partner's! In fact, the underwear was your business-partner's size! You now are faced with a realization; your lover, who provides your home world for you, and keeps you in total comfort with little stress, is sleeping with your business-partner, who co-owns your sole source of income. You have no legal recourse in either case, (because that's how the scenario is planted and I'm cheating here anyhow.) So what options are you left with? Punishing your lover and partner's betrayals has massive negative utility for you: the destruction of your personal and professional livelihoods. If they discovered you knew, you are totally convinced they would each cut you out and that would be the end of it for them.

So what choice do you make? The optimal utility choice here -- without biases -- is to pretend you still don't know.

(There's actually another equally optimal selection if you can pull it off, but I'm biased for it: tell them that because you love your lover so much, you find joy in him/her being happy and want to share in that happiness.)

Anyhow, this thing just kinda de-railed on me a little, so I'll stop now.

Comment author: nick012000 30 September 2010 04:17:21AM -1 points [-]

Witness the 9/11 truthers.

Comment author: jhl 21 April 2010 09:20:04PM 5 points [-]

Regarding the "due date" excuses

Two common policies at my school:

  1. For recurring assignments/quizzes: your lowest one or two marks don't count, so you can afford to miss/fail a few for whatever medium-good reason you choose. Thus you decide what is "good enough" based on your own expectation.

  2. If you want some grace time for an assignment, your excuse better cover the whole working period of the assignment. If you leave something to the last day, and then get sick, it's your own damn fault, that is to say: for assignments emergency excuses are invalid.

My interpretation it perhaps uninformed because I never asked for any grace about deadlines or marking during university.

Comment author: arundelo 20 April 2010 11:21:09PM 9 points [-]

Typos:

These paragraphs

You say "Like all economics professors [....] I can't grant you an extension.

A third student comes to you [....] the one whose mother died.

should end in quotation marks.

In this sentence

"The student who was here before me, that's different.

"me" should be "you".

This paragraph

You respond "Although my policies [....] sufficient justification for almost anyone breaking any law.

should end in a (double) quotation mark and most of the quotation marks in it are nested so should be single.

(Upvoted, by the way.)

Comment author: Yvain 21 April 2010 05:51:28PM 7 points [-]

You missed the "they enjoys" one. You're fired as official Less Wrong proofreader. (just kidding, thanks for the corrections)

Comment author: Username 27 September 2011 04:07:48AM 1 point [-]

This comment is a little late, but the last paragraph mentioned actually shouldn't end in a double quote, because it's the same speaker as the next paragraph. (This tripped me up while I was reading.)

Comment author: arundelo 27 September 2011 05:32:58AM *  0 points [-]

Indeed! (For that matter the single versus double quote stuff in that paragraph still isn't right.)

Edit: Specifically, "well-known religious rituals" should be followed by a single quote not a double one.

Comment author: SilasBarta 21 April 2010 03:37:21PM 7 points [-]

Parfit's Implausible Hero

Omega is crusing through the desert in its dunebuggy and sees a poor, hapless victim dying. It offers to drive him [1] back to the city, but only if he pays it $100 after getting there and stabilized. He says yes, and Omega scans him, looking for any sign of deception, and all it finds is that the victim intends, under all circumstances his mind can conceive of, to honor the agreement. So Omega takes him back.

One in town, he runs off to withdraw the money. Then he comes back a few minutes later and says, "Sorry, I was going to withdraw the money for you -- really, I was -- but an emergency came up. See, this guy took children hostage and ..."

"Oh no! No, no, don't tell me you gave him the money! That just rewards that kind of thing!"

"Please Omega, give me a little credit. I didn't give him anything, except a bullet. I quickly emptied my account to buy a sniper rifle and killed him, saving the children. So, I don't have your money, but really, I didn't expect I'd have to save children."

"Then give me the expensive rifle you bought and we'll call it even!"

"Well, that's the thing ... after the shot, when I put the gun safely away, it malfunctioned and blew up. All that's left is the wooden butt of the rifle. You can have that if you want, I guess."

"I didn't rescue you for a wooden rifle butt!"

"Yeah, but I mean, I really was intending to pay you ... you read my mind and everything. It's just that I didn't count on there being a hostage situation when I went to pay you. And so I figured ... I'm already rescued, but these kids ... It isn't my fault your mind-reading ability dissipates in the city limits."

[1] I've made the victim a him in order to avoid implying that all women are helpless victims of desert conditions.

Comment author: Strange7 21 April 2010 11:06:28PM *  8 points [-]

Do the rescued children have parents? Would said parents be willing to pool their resources and pay a hostage-rescuer at least $100 plus expenses, in order to encourage proactive rescuing of children in the future? Situations like this come up in Hayate no Gotoku on a weekly basis.

Comment author: SilasBarta 21 April 2010 11:10:56PM 1 point [-]

Yes they would, but the Parfit's Hitchhiker problem is supposed to handle solutions for the purely one-shot case. Obviously, if you take a broad persepective, beyond the local problem, and think about the consequences of stiffing desert rescuers that ask for a reasonable fee, then of course you're going to find bad future consequences.

But you don't need TDT to justify paying in that case, just any other theory that is allowed to appeal to future consequences of the "message it sends".

Comment author: Dagon 21 April 2010 05:39:53PM *  7 points [-]

I don't see any dilemma, and I don't see that it matters whether the rescuer is Omega or some random passerby. Is the victim claiming that because he can't pay immediately, he doesn't owe anything?

It seems obvious that the agreement was to pay $100, and the victim's agreement to do so doesn't go away due to circumstances, it just gets delayed until the victim is able to comply.

Also, both the victim and Omega are idiots if their combined minds can conceive of no circumstance in which the victim does not HAVE $100 back in town, and special idiots if they failed to conceive of the circumstance that actually occurs.

Comment author: SilasBarta 21 April 2010 06:05:51PM 3 points [-]

Mostly good points, but:

Also, both the victim and Omega are idiots if their combined minds can conceive of no circumstance in which the victim does not HAVE $100 back in town, and special idiots if they failed to conceive of the circumstance that actually occurs.

I don't see how it's particularly idiotic for the victim not to conceive of a hostage situtation that would suddenly warrant a better use for the money, and if the victim can't imagine it, why would Omega detect any lack of intent to pay? Omega can imagine a hostage situation, but doesn't find the victim including such scenarios in his contemplation. And of course, in the scenario, the victim has the money, he just blew it when a more pressing concern arose.

Plus, the agreement was to give Omega stuff already in the victim's bank account, not to earn new money and give it; and the victims mental state was already convincing enough for Omega.

Comment author: Dagon 22 April 2010 06:02:33AM 8 points [-]

OK, unusual and even inconceivable events can occur, and I'll give up the "special idiots" clause. However, it remains ludicrous for neither omega nor the victim to have considered any possibility that the victim's $100 in the bank would be unavailable for some reason.

The agreement as stated was "pay $100 after getting to the city and stabilized" It was not "pay the $100 currently in the account if you can and nothing otherwise". Omega is smart enough to phrase the offer as intended.

Comment author: Strange7 08 July 2011 01:26:47AM 0 points [-]

A competent contract lawyer might argue that the victim was not yet "stabilized," in the sense that living in a modern city with no assets except a wooden rifle butt could hardly be considered a stable condition. Does the victim have a job, or some other source of income, by which he might produce $100 in some reasonable amount of time and then pay Omega?

Comment author: Nanani 22 April 2010 01:23:07AM *  3 points [-]

RE: The Grieving Student

You don't even need to go as far as society. The school, or school board, will almost certainly have an exception in place for this sort of thing. This is true at all levels for death of an immediate family member. (I speak from experience, having been exempted from final exams one year. My final grade was instead based on coursework, as if there had been no final for the class. )

In fact, odds are the school or department will have a clear policy that says concerts, sports events, and the like are not an acceptable excuse for missed work, but funerals, severe illness, and the like, are. So, to make the story more plausible, the precommitter should be the department head or principal or something like that, rather than the teacher. < / nitpick>

Comment author: Zvi 21 April 2010 10:43:38PM 3 points [-]

On all of the the teacher examples I would respond that with such a steep penalty for being late the fact that they risked such a situation happening with any substantial probability shows them to be a horrible utility maximizer, so they fail that project and the course, which means there's no reason to grade their paper.

Comment author: Desrtopa 08 July 2011 02:01:38AM 0 points [-]

Which would make you a horrible utility maximizer for taking avoidable 100 point hits.

Comment author: Dagon 21 April 2010 05:33:38PM 3 points [-]

I'm not sure I see the point of these stories. These are all examples of failed precommittment, mostly due to having an ludicrously simple model or imperfect communication about what the commitment actually is.

In all these stories, the first party wants to avoid the work of designing a real precommittment, or of just admitting that there are cases where precommittment doesn't solve the underlying difficulty.

Clumsy game-player: in this one, precommittment DOES work. Stay committed: "I agreed to play tit-for-tat - my agreement had no exceptions to it, and I am continuing. Your best move is to cooperate twice then go back to plain tit-for-tat, and be more careful in the future."

lazy and grieving students: I'm very confused about your use of utility numbers here, and your implication that one player's utility can be traded for another. That's not how it works. If you have a term for the other player's happiness, that's your utility, not theirs. If you have a utility cost for failing a student because of a late assignment, you need to include that in your plan.

The last three are just more cases where much more complicated committments need to be laid out, including policies for adjudicating disagreements.

Comment author: thomblake 22 April 2010 03:12:11PM 5 points [-]

lazy and grieving students: I'm very confused about your use of utility numbers here, and your implication that one player's utility can be traded for another. That's not how it works. If you have a term for the other player's happiness, that's your utility, not theirs. If you have a utility cost for failing a student because of a late assignment, you need to include that in your plan.

It was mentioned that the teacher is a utilitarian. That means that they would like to maximize overall net utility, imagining that it can be summed over people. There has been a bit of discussion about the difference between the 'utility' of economists and the 'utility' of ethicists, but I think we still need a thorough post on this, and if I weren't so busy I'd have done it already.

Comment author: Kevin 21 April 2010 11:52:54AM 3 points [-]
Comment author: Yvain 21 April 2010 06:04:34PM *  12 points [-]

pw0ncakes writes:

The lower you go on the academic totem pole, the less tolerance there is. Extensions are hard to get at state schools-- even the really good ones-- and practically nonexistent at community colleges. It may be unfair, but it makes sense. Teacher:student ratios are lower at elite colleges, and late work is rarer, so it's not really a burden. Also, professors at elite colleges are generally happier and have cushier lives, whereas teachers at CCs are usually underpaid and overworked already, so late work is an intolerable addition. Finally, many of the students in middling schools shouldn't be in college at all, while the assumption at an elite college is that the person who's late is a good student with a good reason. That assumption's not always true, of course, but elite colleges would rather make one type of error.

I really like this, because it draws some testable predictions and then tests them. The more annoying it would be for the professor to grade late work, and the more it would mess up the student's life, the less likely the professor is to accept excuses. That means professors really are making that sort of "my utility versus the student's utility" decision when deciding whether or not to accept excuses.

(although the commenter who responded that Ivy League professors do it because they don't want rich parents complaining has a point too)

Comment author: caiuscamargarus 02 May 2010 09:47:31PM 2 points [-]

As someone who went to an elite university: professors can indeed be extraordinarily lax with deadlines, and 9 times out of 10, the reasons for turning work in late are not what anyone would call "legitimate".

Comment author: aceofspades 04 May 2012 12:39:16PM 2 points [-]

I think this post would benefit from a link to some article about the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, since the beginning of this post requires some knowledge about it to be valuable.

Comment author: komponisto 20 April 2010 11:49:50PM *  1 point [-]

I'm sorry, but I have to briefly rant about something that has annoyed me for YEARS:

So instead you say "If you don't turn in your report on time, I won't grade it."

"Not grading it" would be fine with me, as the student. I don't like grades in the first place!

What the teacher means is: "I will automatically assign a failing grade, no matter how good the work is." [EDIT: "...just as if you had turned nothing in at all".] That is distinct from "not grading it", and is what the teacher should say instead (if it is what he or she actually means).

Comment author: datadataeverywhere 30 September 2010 05:03:08PM 4 points [-]

Some teachers explicitly start students with a failing grade (0), and add points to it with each successive assignment, until you finish the semester with (ideally) a passing grade.

Under this model, do you think that "not grading it" and "assigning it a failing grade" are equivalent? If not, why not?

Comment author: komponisto 30 September 2010 05:42:17PM *  -1 points [-]

Under this model, do you think that "not grading it" and "assigning it a failing grade" are equivalent?

No. "Not grading it" would mean fewer points in the denominator of the student's grade, where by "grade" I mean the quantity (points earned)/(points possible).

(Edit: "Yes" changed to "No", which is what I meant.)

Comment author: datadataeverywhere 30 September 2010 06:03:12PM 3 points [-]

Why is a grade (points earned)/(points possible)?

Wouldn't it make more sense for a grade to be just points earned? I realize that we mostly work inside a percentile system, but that's for the purposes of normalization, not because we actually believe that 1 good work is better than N decent works.

Expecting assignments not turned in not to count either for or against the grade is sort of like expecting people who have done really poorly in Spanish class to speak worse Spanish than those who never learned the language at all.

Comment author: komponisto 30 September 2010 06:18:54PM *  2 points [-]

Expecting assignments not turned in not to count either for or against the grade is sort of like expecting people who have done really poorly in Spanish class to speak worse Spanish than those who never learned the language at all.

What is socially reasonable to expect is beside the point. The point is that appealing to social knowledge to resolve ambiguities when it would have been easy enough to speak precisely constitutes sloppiness.

Comment author: Relsqui 30 September 2010 10:22:07PM *  2 points [-]

The point is that appealing to social knowledge to resolve ambiguities when it would have been easy enough to speak precisely constitutes sloppiness.

If we're treating "sloppy" as a pejorative, then I don't think this is true as generally as you're stating it. By the same logic, we could say that measuring anything in units smaller than micrometers is "sloppy." Yes, greater precison is always possible, but it's not always necessary. This is actually a clearer way to describe what's going on in the other fork of this thread--we're disagreeing about where the necessary minimum of precision in language is, in that particular case. (At least, that's what I thought we were disagreeing about; if you had a different idea, I suggest we either get on the same page or drop it entirely.)

Comment author: komponisto 30 September 2010 06:29:32PM 1 point [-]

Why is a grade (points earned)/(points possible)?

Wouldn't it make more sense for a grade to be just points earned?

That's an interesting question, of course, but it's not one that directly bears on the issue here.

I don't actually know the answer.

Comment author: datadataeverywhere 30 September 2010 06:43:21PM 1 point [-]

It does bear on my original point; the teachers I've had that used such a system indicated that we had a score of 0; each assignment was worth a specified number of points (not a percentage score), and we would get up to that many points added to our score by completing it. It just seemed to me that you wouldn't object under such a system, but I guess you don't feel that way.

Comment author: orthonormal 21 April 2010 02:45:48AM 11 points [-]

No, what the teacher means is "I will act as if you had not turned in anything at all", and "I won't grade it" is a perfectly reasonable shorthand for that.

Comment author: komponisto 21 April 2010 03:05:01PM *  4 points [-]

No! Assigning a grade of 0 for not turning it in is grading it! The 0 is still a grade!

"I won't grade it" = "It won't count as a graded assignment [for you]."

Comment author: Alicorn 21 April 2010 04:15:52PM 12 points [-]

The referent of "grading" is a specific pattern of action that involves reading and evaluating the paper. The teacher will not perform that pattern of action on papers that are turned in late. Depending on how the grading formula works, the relevant cell in the Excel spreadsheet might even remain empty.

Comment author: komponisto 21 April 2010 05:40:51PM *  7 points [-]

What the teacher should say depends on what the formula is. If the formula ignores empty cells, then the teacher can say "I won't grade it". If, on the other hand, the formula treats empty cells as if they contained the value 0, then the teacher should not say "I won't grade it", but should instead say "I will assign it a grade of 0".

"Grading" means "scoring"; it does not refer to a specific ritual performed by the teacher to arrive at the score. What if the teacher decided to score each student's paper by means of a random process, such as rolling dice? Would you say that the teacher "did not grade" the papers, or would you say (as I would insist) that the teacher graded the papers in an unfair manner?

Furthermore, whatever the semantics of the verb "grade", it is the impact on the student's score, and not the teacher's behavior, that is relevant, and consequently it is to the former that the teacher should be referring. (Indeed, the reality is that that is the intended referent, and the teacher is simply referring to his/her own behavior as an oblique, implicit way of referring to the impact on the student's score. I object to such an oblique way of speaking.)

I honestly don't understand the resistance to conceding me this point. I can perhaps understand if people aren't as bothered by this kind of thing as I am, but...why the need to actually defend what is clearly less-than-maximally-considered language? Do people really not understand where I'm coming from here? In this, a place where I thought sympathy for logical precision mixed with skepticism of institutionalized education? Exactly what mistake do you think I'm making, all ye hordes-of-orthonormal-upvoters? Or is your apparent disagreement just a way of signaling disapproval of my having made the complaint (as I am inclined to suspect)?

Comment author: newerspeak 21 April 2010 10:32:47PM *  10 points [-]

I honestly don't understand the resistance to conceding me this point.

Surmise: that's because you've only gotten around to mentioning your real objection in this post, two replies down from the top of the thread. It's not the inconsistency. You mean to say you object to the prof's use of his greater power in this situation to frame the conversation to his benefit.

You're right that "I will not grade it" is the wrong phrase to use. The correct one is "I will fail you on this assignment," which the prof is deliberately avoiding because being honest makes him look more responsible for the student's bad outcome than necessary.

Standard Divisive Topic Warning: I suspect there are some here who object to the power dynamics in academia, which are covert for reasons both good and ideological. I know there are also academics here who will naturally take issue with that characterization.

Comment author: SilasBarta 22 April 2010 02:37:32AM *  8 points [-]

Surmise: that's because you've only gotten around to mentioning your real objection in this post, two replies down from the top of the thread. It's not the inconsistency. You mean to say you object to the prof's use of his greater power in this situation to frame the conversation to his benefit.

I don't see how that's more "real" than his other objection -- he mentioned that it's not obvious that "I won't grade it" actually means "I'll grade it zero". And as a real autistic-spectrum person, I can completely sympathize with missing these expected transformations you're supposed to make. The fact that he has additional good reasons doesn't take away from this, and it doesn't justify a teacher's use of sloppy language when clear language is just as easy.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 22 April 2010 09:45:16AM 10 points [-]

Clear language is not just as easy for neurotypicals. It's contrary to their models and their habits.

Your failing to know this isn't an autistic spectrum thing. People are generally very bad at modeling minds different from their own.

Comment author: SilasBarta 22 April 2010 03:05:10PM *  2 points [-]

Clear language is not just as easy for neurotypicals.

I'm not claiming that it is, as a general rule. I'm just claiming that the intrepretative assumptions they make about their speech are much more likely to match their audience's, thus mitigating the effect of unclear speech.

Your failing to know this isn't an autistic spectrum thing.

I didn't fail to know it; when teachers have said what komponisto complains about, I've understood what they really meant. But I also recognize it's because I made some assumptions about the teacher's disposition that someone wouldn't necessarily realize had to be made, especially if they were autistic-spectrum.

As a recent example, one time I was asked, "Did you come prepared to make a payment today?" Since I didn't know I would have to make a payment at that time, I said no, on the grounds that my failing to expect it is a lack of preparation. Then I realized they meant "Are you capable of paying today?" and were just using a roundabout way of saying it.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 22 April 2010 04:55:43PM 3 points [-]

My apologies for misunderstanding and being a little sharp about it.

Comment author: wedrifid 30 September 2010 03:18:21PM 0 points [-]

And as a real autistic-spectrum person

Oh, I hadn't heard you explicitly claim that before. It doesn't change my impressions at all but it is still interesting to fill in my mental check-list of people's identification with the label.

Comment author: SilasBarta 30 September 2010 03:20:42PM *  0 points [-]

Meh, it's still self-diagnosed. I've never gotten a professional diagnosis, which is why I only claim I'm on the spectrum. And in the context of the comment you're replying to, my point was just that my claim to the title is much more realistic than that of a certain someone else who doesn't seem to understand the problem with using "I won't grade it" to mean "I will grade it zero."

Comment author: wedrifid 30 September 2010 03:28:42PM 4 points [-]

Peh. Professional diagnosis. I've got professional diagnoses of all sorts of things purely because it allowed access (or cheaper access) to substances that authorities have decided to exert control over. To be honest I think it's easier to act the part of having various diagnosable conditions than it is to act neurotypical. (And even there a lot of high IQ spectrum folks avoid a diagnosis because they're so good at emulation.)

Comment author: RichardKennaway 22 April 2010 05:50:36AM *  7 points [-]

Do people really not understand where I'm coming from here?

You are obsessing over a trivial nit and then blowing up in frustration that nobody gets it. Four paragraphs over the distinction-without-a-difference between "won't grade" and "grade 0"?

Comment author: komponisto 22 April 2010 03:59:27PM 2 points [-]

You are obsessing over a trivial nit and then blowing up in frustration that nobody gets it.

No, I'm "blowing up in frustration" (an exaggerated description, I think) that people are stubbornly disagreeing. As I said, I understand if folks think it's a trivial matter. What I don't understand is the apparent disagreement on the matter itself, and the best explanation I can come up with is that people are trying to show their disapproval of my having introduced the topic. (Why wouldn't they have just said that directly? Because upvoting orthonormal's comment was just easier.)

Actually I suspect it may run deeper, and may have to do with a reflexive tendency some people have to resist strong claims (or expressions of strong feeling) in general.

Comment author: Jack 22 April 2010 05:17:47PM *  15 points [-]

Unrequested arbitration from someone who just read the thread:

"I won't grade it" cannot be taken literally as obvious shorthand for "I will assign it a grade of zero". That this is what it means is obvious to many people but only because they have spent a decent amount of time in an institutional context where everyone is already clear what it means.

That said, it also isn't obvious that "I won't grade it" means "I won't include the assignment as part of your final grade." The word "grade" is ambiguous between meaning "giving a number or letter that ostensibly represents the quality of work" and "reading and analyzing the assignment so as to form an opinion regarding what number or letter would best represent the quality of the work". Assigning a 0 without looking at the assignment is certainly a grade under the former meaning, but it isn't really under the latter meaning.

This ambiguity is resolved only when people are aware of the context and pragmatics surrounding the statement (for example, some people will probably infer that professor won't just let them not do the assignment and so interpreting the statement as "I won't include the paper assignment as part of your final grade" is too optimistic).

So when orthonormal says

No, what the teacher means is "I will act as if you had not turned in anything at all", and "I won't grade it" is a perfectly reasonable shorthand for that.

He is basically right. We use shorthands and euphemisms all the time and their literal ambiguity or inaccuracy is not really legitimate grounds for criticizing those phrasings...

...until people misunderstand. Komponisto says the first time he heard this phrasing he didn't understand. I don't know if this misunderstanding persisted until he received a failing grade for an assignment without realizing that would be the consequence, but it doesn't matter. Given that assignment failure is usually a big deal, any reasonable chance of miscommunication should be headed off at the pass (no pun intended). Many professors are explicit about this and there is no evidence that suffer significantly as a result. College freshmen are particularly likely to misunderstand because they may not have heard the phrase before and are in a new environment whose contextual cues they are not used to. Further, neurotypicality issues arise in these circumstances and it is important that language users keep in mind that the contextual cues that are obvious to them or even most others may not be obvious to everyone (Nancy and Silas's excellent exchange covers this well). This goes for the participants in the above debate, also.

So komponisto is totally right that professors should be explicit about what they mean. But he is wrong that the professors are really, truly misspeaking (instead of just being somewhat unclear) and he should recognize that other people will sometimes get annoyed with those who insist a statement is wrong because they don't pick up on the obvious-to-some-but-not-to-others contextual clues which supply the meaning of the statement. It kind of reminds us of the grade school teacher who, when we asked if we could go to the bathroom, replied "I don't know. Can you?"

Comment author: Rain 22 April 2010 08:16:20PM *  8 points [-]

This ambiguity is resolved only when people are aware of the context and pragmatics surrounding the statement

Or they could ask a simple question. I don't understand why people feel the need to go into this huge analysis when conversation is a fluid and interactive process.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 22 April 2010 09:29:18PM 7 points [-]

Awareness of context and pragmatics can be tacit or explicit, and if you don't tacitly understand that you need to ask a question, some explicitness might help.

My handy example for communication failure on that sort of thing is a time when I was turned away from a restaurant for not being dressed properly. It took asking the same question a bunch of times to find out that the specific issue was that I was wearing shorts.

My impression is that the person I was asking had trouble imagining that anyone didn't already know his concept of "dressed properly".

Comment author: HughRistik 22 April 2010 05:22:40PM 1 point [-]

There is a distinction, and there is a difference. Just because the difference is small doesn't make it go away.

Comment author: SilasBarta 21 April 2010 06:34:22PM 3 points [-]

I honestly don't understand the resistance to conceding me this point. I can perhaps understand if people aren't as bothered by this kind of thing as I am,

I don't understand either. I agree with you that it is the wrong phrasing to use (when you say "I won't grade it" and expect that to be equivalent to "I will give it the grade 0"). I'm certainly not as passionate about the issue as you are, but it seems like a valid point. I've been reversing some of your downvotes on this.

Please count me as a counterexample to you-know-who's claim of "You are not obviously right to people other than yourself."

Comment author: Alicorn 21 April 2010 05:53:57PM -2 points [-]

You are clearly far more passionate about this triviality than I am, to the point of being less nice than I prefer my interlocutors to be, so I'm going to cease to talk to you about it. You can pretend you got me to agree if you want, I don't mind.

Comment author: komponisto 21 April 2010 06:00:14PM 0 points [-]

Hmm, I'm quite puzzled. If you think I was being non-nice, that suggests a misunderstanding. Did you perhaps interpret the final paragraph of the grandparent as directed at you personally? (It wasn't; it was directed at the 5 people who upvoted orthonormal's aggressive reply and whoever has been downvoting my comments in this thread.)

Comment author: Alicorn 21 April 2010 06:20:08PM 4 points [-]

I voted up orthonormal, although I did not downvote you. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt re: your niceness-related intentions, and explain:

or would you say (as I would insist)

This is a confrontational phrasing. The use of the second person is aggressive in context, and the aside where you strongly specify which answer you think is right comes off like a status grab ("When you make your choice between these two options, bear strongly in mind that I think this").

Furthermore, whatever the semantics of the verb "grade", it is the impact on the student's score, and not the teacher's behavior, that is relevant, and consequently it is to the former that the teacher should be referring.

The teacher's behavior is the sole determinant of the student's score. Even if you showed that there is some normative reason to speak only in terms of the latter, that wouldn't indicate that the teacher is in fact speaking in those terms. The fact that the teacher should speak about relevant matters doesn't prevent a ramble about a faculty ski trip from last February; why should it prevent a digression to teacherly grading-related habits?

(Indeed, the reality is that that is the intended referent, and the teacher is simply referring to his/her own behavior as an oblique, implicit way of referring to the impact on the student's score. I object to such an oblique way of speaking.)

Obliqueness is an epidemic, but you seem to be drawing the line very uncommonly. I would be only a little more surprised if you had chosen to rant about someone expressing an intention to turn on their lawn sprinkler, saying that this is objectionably oblique because what really matters is that the grass will get wet, not that it be delivered by a particular device.

I honestly don't understand the resistance to conceding me this point.

This would be a reasonable thing to say if you were obviously right to people other than yourself, who stubbornly held out in spite of having clearly already lost out of pride or stubbornness or some incomprehensibly arcane reason. You are not obviously right to people other than yourself. That doesn't mean you're wrong; but it means you can't get away with this sentence and sound nice.

why the need to actually defend what is clearly less-than-maximally-considered language?

This phrase is sneaky. "Less-than-maximally-considered" is probably denotationally true of every piece of natural language humans actually use. But the implication is that it is not just non-maximally considered; but inadequately considered, and as I said above, that's not clear to people other than you. Also, you're implying that people are actively defending the usage of language to which you object, which seems to me a mischaracterization.

Do people really not understand where I'm coming from here? In this, a place where I thought sympathy for logical precision mixed with skepticism of institutionalized education?

Now you are insinuating that disagreement with you constitutes flouting those values, which is insulting and kind of a cheap shot. (I thought you, a regular contributor to Less Wrong, would have more mindfulness and give a measured, polite reply...!)

Exactly what mistake do you think I'm making, all ye hordes-of-orthonormal-upvoters?

This is just an attack on orthonormal, whose comment was not particularly objectionable in any way except inasmuch as it attempted to correct you. Am I next? Also, it looks to me like people have made attempts to specify your mistake. If you don't understand them, there are polite ways to ask for clarification. This ain't one of them.

Or is your apparent disagreement just a way of signaling disapproval of my having made the complaint (as I am inclined to suspect)?

Do you have any reason apart from this incident that Less Wrong is particularly hostile to complaint? Or that disagreements are hard to find here, such that you should have high priors on apparent incommensurate opinions really being fake signaling tools?

Comment author: HughRistik 22 April 2010 07:10:53PM 4 points [-]

komponisto's tone would indeed be unjustified and not nice if his arguments had been rebutted and were only obvious to himself. As far as I can tell, nobody has actually rebutted komponisto's arguments, and a couple other people do think his view is obviously right.

orthonormal gave the following objection:

No, what the teacher means is "I will act as if you had not turned in anything at all", and "I won't grade it" is a perfectly reasonable shorthand for that.

The argument is that the equivalence in meaning between the two phrasings is so close the two are interchangeable. komponisto rebuts this argument:

(a) The first time I heard it, I didn't realize what the teacher meant. ... (d) Because people should say what they mean and mean what they say.

Later, SilasBarta argues that non-neurotypical people might be confused by such oblique language.

Right now, komponisto's position lacks a convincing rebuttal. There could still be counter-arguments (e.g. "people who find 'will not be graded' confusing are atypical and they don't matter", "people who find 'will not be graded' confusing should learn to make inferences and detect euphemisms, because these are valuable skills"). But nobody has made any such potential rebuttals, unless I'm missing something.

(And there are rebuttals to those rebuttals: "people who have trouble with euphemism-detection deserve accommodation, not marginalization", "euphemism detection is a valuable skill, but in the student-teacher relationship, clarity of communication is more important than teaching that skill.")

You offered a potential rebuttal, but it hardly closes the case:

Obliqueness is an epidemic, but you seem to be drawing the line very uncommonly. I would be only a little more surprised if you had chosen to rant about someone expressing an intention to turn on their lawn sprinkler, saying that this is objectionably oblique because what really matters is that the grass will get wet, not that it be delivered by a particular device.

I don't think it's uncommon to hold certain types of communication to a higher standard of clarity, and communication of expectations between a teacher and student may be a good example. It's a good thing for students to feel that the teacher is talking straight to them about potential punishments that could effect their futures, rather than talking in euphemisms.

It actually is perfectly fair for komponisto to query why people aren't conceding the point, since his argument lacked real rebuttals at the time (and still does). To me, it sounds like he is saying "agree with me or show me how I'm wrong." Since he seems to actually have grounds for being confident in his position, his tone reads as passionate to me, rather than an "not nice." If someone shows some stronger arguments against his position, and he persists with the same tone, then I would say that he is being "not nice."

Several people have been rubbed the wrong way by komponisto's communication style in this discussion, which could well be evidence that it could use improvement. Perhaps if komponisto had spent more time eliciting counter-arguments before arguing that people should agree with him, then he would have avoided that interpretation. Yet calling him "not nice" seems to require acting as if his argument has holes in it which haven't yet been shown, and requires a particular interpretation of the socioemotional content of his posts that I don't share:

Also, you're implying that people are actively defending the usage of language to which you object, which seems to me a mischaracterization.

By saying that "'I won't grade it' is a perfectly reasonable shorthand," it does sound like orthonormal was defending the acceptability of the oblique phrasing. If komponisto is mischaracterizing orthonormal, let orthonormal be the one to say so.

Now you are insinuating that disagreement with you constitutes flouting those values, which is insulting and kind of a cheap shot.

The question we should ask is whether is it reasonable for komponisto to believe that his position on this subject is so strong that he is justified in considering disagreement with him to be flouting rationalist values. As far as I can tell, his position might be strong enough to justify such a level of confidence. Yet I am not convinced that it is, so I think his meta-comments about rationality on Less Wrong would have been better saved for later. I'm willing to call his comment overconfident, but I'm not willing to call it insulting or a cheap shot.

This is just an attack on orthonormal, whose comment was not particularly objectionable in any way except inasmuch as it attempted to correct you.

I disagree that "Exactly what mistake do you think I'm making, all ye hordes-of-orthonormal-upvoters?" needs to be interpreted as an attack. While I wouldn't object to orthonormal's comment, his phrasing wasn't the gentlest.

You are not obviously right to people other than yourself. That doesn't mean you're wrong; but it means you can't get away with this sentence and sound nice.

Yet after you made this post, some people have appeared (e.g. Silas) who do think that komponisto is right (though they think the point is trivial), so perhaps he can get away with saying something like that without being not nice.

Personally, I would have preferred to see a bit more back-and-forth on the substantive issue in this discussion before either of you attempted to go meta (komponisto about why people were disagreeing and their rationality, and you about him being "not nice," or being the only one who holds such a position).

Comment author: komponisto 22 April 2010 05:25:43PM *  6 points [-]

I'll give you the benefit of the doubt re: your niceness-related intentions, and explain:

Thank you, because it was frankly shocking ("devastating" might be a tad too strong, though not that much) to find myself accused of non-niceness when I have on several occasions made a point of trying to increase the niceness level of this place, even linking to your post on the subject!

I was certainly right about there having been a misunderstanding. Your comment reveals that you interpreted my words in ways that I did not anticipate. For instance, it never would have occurred to me that use of the second person, as in

Would you say that the teacher "did not grade" the papers, or would you say (as I would insist) that the teacher graded the papers in an unfair manner?

could be construed as "aggressive" or "status-grabbing". I think what happened here was what I had surmised: because my comment was a reply to yours, you interpreted it as if I were speaking directly and specifically to you ("Hey, you, Alicorn, would you really say this?"), when in fact I was addressing you only in a sort of rhetorical way, your mild comment being merely the latest and most proximate component of an unexpected and incomprehensible onslaught of disagreement represented principally by orthonormal's comment and (most particularly) its score.

Despite our shared concern for niceness, it appears we may have substantially different conceptions of what it entails. Consider this:

I honestly don't understand the resistance to conceding me this point.

...you can't get away with this sentence and sound nice.

What?! I thought what I said was exactly the kind of thing a nice, polite person says when they're puzzled in the way I was. As opposed to, e.g. "Are you people out of your freaking minds??" I even added the word "honestly", specifically to signal that I wasn't just being rhetorical: I really genuinely did not understand.

Do people really not understand where I'm coming from here? In this, a place where I thought sympathy for logical precision mixed with skepticism of institutionalized education?

Now you are insinuating that disagreement with you constitutes flouting those values, which is insulting and kind of a cheap shot. (I thought you, a regular contributor to Less Wrong, would have more mindfulness and give a measured, polite reply...!)

Again, how in the world was that impolite? (I suspect this may be a case where we, using only written text, are suffering from the absence of cues such as intonation and facial expression, which can be crucial in communicating "tone".)

The disagreement was, as I have said, unanticipated. The reason I didn't anticipate it did indeed have to do with my model of readers' attitudes toward verbal precision and toward the educational system, represented in this case by the sort of teacher who would say "I won't grade it" rather than "I will give you a score of 0". How was communicating this insulting or a cheap shot?

Exactly what mistake do you think I'm making, all ye hordes-of-orthonormal-upvoters?

This is just an attack on orthonormal, whose comment was not particularly objectionable in any way except inasmuch as it attempted to correct you. Am I next?

It was most certainly not an attack on orthonormal (who in general is a fine contributor by my lights); in fact it was expressed in a somewhat lighthearted tone, as indicated by the archaism "ye". Orthonormal's comment may not have been "objectionable", but, good golly, how was it worth 5 (now 6) upvotes? Especially when, if you stop to reflect, it couldn't possibly have communicated anything that I hadn't considered: of course the teacher means he/she will treat it as if the student turned in nothing! (And that means giving it a grade of 0.) Could anybody have reasonably expected that I would have read that comment and said "Oh, hadn't thought of that, thank you for pointing it out"? My contention was that "I won't grade it" wasn't a reasonable shorthand; consequently the comment amounted to a mere denial, and not even an attempted refutation.

Now, speaking of niceness, I have to say that I think you were uncharitable to me in the parent comment. For example:

I would be only a little more surprised if you had chosen to rant about someone expressing an intention to turn on their lawn sprinkler, saying that this is objectionably oblique because what really matters is that the grass will get wet, not that it be delivered by a particular device.

The difference between that sort of silly thing and my actual complaint is nothing short of stark. I'm talking about a teacher saying that he or she will not award a score as a sort of euphemism for awarding a particular low score (such as 0). Do you see how that's a more reasonable complaint than your example, even if you don't think it rises to the level of being reasonable in absolute terms?

Anyway, I hope this helps to clarify things, and I hope I didn't seem non-nice in this comment.

Comment author: LordTC 04 May 2010 06:28:59PM 3 points [-]

Oxford types have a solution for this problem, it's a pronoun called "one".

I find it slightly amusing in a situation where you are highly critical of polite euphemisms, that are generally well understood (chance of error is far below 1%), you make your point with imprecise language by using an ambiguous pronoun "you" rather than the unambiguous "one". In my experience people make this error with ambiguous pronouns at a far higher frequency than not-graded vs grade of zero.

Comment author: zero_call 22 April 2010 03:03:51AM *  5 points [-]

First of all, this breakdown is much more "not nice" than anything that komponisto said, in the sense that it is explicitly negative against komopnisto's post. Komponisto wasn't actually explicitly negative.

Secondly, I think it's unfortunate and unjustified for people to cop out of disagreements based on rudeness or "discursive impropriety". Even if you didn't like what you perceived, that doesn't give you the justification to "victory by secession".

Comment author: RobinZ 22 April 2010 03:27:16AM 6 points [-]

That's not what she did. She explicitly declared that she was done with the argument, not that she won it - by standard debating rules, she forfeited.

And whether she updated as much as she should have is her business, not yours.

And she was reporting her feelings and their sources precisely as requested, not setting out to slander anyone.

To be perfectly frank, I would suggest that the entire thread should have been dropped after her original comment, and should be dropped now.

Comment author: wedrifid 30 September 2010 03:15:51PM 0 points [-]

(I just noticed this comment. My reply to your earlier comment takes almost exactly the same position.)

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 21 April 2010 03:10:05PM 4 points [-]

Taken literally, sure. But everyone knows what the teacher means, so why argue semantics?

Comment author: komponisto 21 April 2010 03:32:08PM *  7 points [-]

(a) The first time I heard it, I didn't realize what the teacher meant.

(b) What if the teacher says "It won't be graded"?

(c) By using this expression, the teacher is tacitly imposing and enforcing a value system in which "having things graded" is desirable -- a value system to which I reserve the right to object.

(d) Because people should say what they mean and mean what they say.

Comment author: Relsqui 30 September 2010 08:18:58AM 3 points [-]

(d) Because people should say what they mean and mean what they say.

Unless they're deliberately lying, people always believe they're saying what they mean. The correspondance between verbal language and thought is not perfect; in the teacher's head, as in those of many other commenters here, this particular example is sufficient to be clear. In yours, and some other commenters', it is not. I don't see any way to meaningfully determine which view is "correct."

What you appear to mean--at least, what people tend to mean when they say that--is "people should say things in a way which is immediately clear to me." I hope you see why this is a tall order for people who may not know you or understand how you think very well.

Comment author: komponisto 30 September 2010 02:48:15PM 2 points [-]

Unless they're deliberately lying, people always believe they're saying what they mean.

I don't think this is true at all. I think such people believe they're saying something close enough to what they actually mean, and that social conventions don't require them to take care to make their language as unambiguous as possible. This last part is the problem.

in the teacher's head, as in those of many other commenters here, this particular example is sufficient to be clear.

Again,"sufficient to be clear" is not the right criterion; the right criterion is the ideal of "no possible way to misunderstand". (Achieving that is impossible; how much less possible is it when they aren't even trying?)

What you appear to mean--at least, what people tend to mean when they say that--is "people should say things in a way which is immediately clear to me." I hope you see why this is a tall order for people who may not know you or understand how you think very well.

This makes it sound like "clear to me" is a highly idiosyncratic criterion. There is such a thing as objectively less ambiguous language.

The basic issue here is people not thinking carefully enough while they're speaking. It's really a question of quantity of thought, not style of thought.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 30 September 2010 02:55:54PM 2 points [-]

Unless they're deliberately lying, people always believe they're saying what they mean.

I don't think this is true at all. I think such people believe they're saying something close enough to what they actually mean, and that social conventions don't require them to take care to make their language as unambiguous as possible. This last part is the problem.

I think the default is something like believing that what one says is close enough to what one means, and the other person is obligated to pick up on what one means.

Comment author: wedrifid 30 September 2010 03:14:20PM *  3 points [-]

I think the default is something like believing that what one says is close enough to what one means, and the other person is obligated to pick up on what one means.

"If they don't they clearly lack ingroup connections, social awareness, status and are less likely to be the kind of people that are valuable allies. I should shun them." (For example.)

Comment author: Relsqui 30 September 2010 07:03:20PM 3 points [-]

"If they don't they clearly lack ingroup connections, social awareness, status and are less likely to be the kind of people that are valuable allies. I should shun them."

Yup. Not consciously, of course. I wonder if, generally, speaking, people don't instinctively distinguish between not knowing something and not caring about it. Hence ignorance of facts being conflated with stupidity about a topic, as well as the instinctive avoidance of people who don't already know the social rules of a community.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 30 September 2010 03:32:56PM 0 points [-]

It can work that way. Or "If I keep repeating the same words, they'll get it." Or "If I yell at them, they'll get it."

Comment author: Relsqui 30 September 2010 07:00:26PM 1 point [-]

I think the default is something like believing that what one says is close enough to what one means, and the other person is obligated to pick up on what one means.

I agree. I also think this is the source of the stereotypical male/female communication problem ("he never thinks about what I want" "she never tells me what she wants"), which I've posted about elsewhere.

Comment author: Relsqui 30 September 2010 06:55:36PM *  2 points [-]

I think such people believe they're saying something close enough to what they actually mean

I think they believe they're saying what they mean, but what you say is what's actually happening. More generally, I think you're talking about how people should act, and I'm talking about how they do act, which is making it sound like we disagree more than I believe we actually do.

This makes it sound like "clear to me" is a highly idiosyncratic criterion.

Yes, and I stand by that--even though, as you say, there is such a thing as objectively less ambiguous language. Which parts need to be less ambiguous in order to guarantee understanding varies from person to person. Even if the truth is so simple that people who aren't neurotypical require, on average, less ambiguity than neurotypical people do, that doesn't mean you can communicate with all of them exactly the same. Which parts you can fudge depend on the previous experience of the specific individual you're addressing. If I say, "Hey, did you see the less wrong thread about grading?" you would know what I meant, but someone unfamiliar with LW would be entirely justified in calling that sentence confusing. Someone who's, say, a weaver, might go off on entirely the wrong mental path.

By that logic, I think it's absolutely reasonable for a teacher above the first grade level to assume that all of their students are generally familiar with the mechanics of grading and potential penalties for late assignments. Of the two intepretations of the disputed statement, "you will receive a score of 0" is much more plausible than "you will be freed from having to do the assignment" to anyone who's been in academia for any length of time. I agree with you that the chosen wording could be, objectively, clearer; I do not believe there was sufficient reason to expect it would be misinterpreted that it was negligent not to be clearer. If I ask you to "make me a sandwich," I don't expect you to be tripped up by the real grammatical ambiguity and wonder if I would like you to put me between slices of bread. I expect you to go with the plausible choice.

I do agree with you that most people don't think very much about how they communicate. This frustrates me a lot, because it's something I think about a lot and which is important to me. But I don't find this fact as inexcusable as you appear to. Shortcuts and built-in amibiguity are a part of, as far as I know, every human language. In almost all situations, they resolve without conflict. Very few humans have ever had reason to consider that their use of language is insufficiently ambiguous. (When ambiguity does result in conflict, we assume by default that the other person is wrong, misunderstanding or stupid--which is not good or useful, but happens, and reinforces our belief that the way we communicate is fine.) Could most people benefit from learning to communicate better? Absolutely! But they don't know that.

Being upset that humans speak ambiguously is a little like being upset that humans shake hands. You're free to dislike it, and choose not to engage in it, but actually being unhappy every time it happens is going to get exhausting. A more productive thing to do in both cases would be to educate people about what's wrong with it and how they can do better ... in a communication style, of course, which they will find compelling and convincing, even if you wouldn't.

Which is why, if you give me a few years, I'll have a degree in this.

ETA: Skipped something I think was important: While I do agree that we should strive to be clearer in our communication, I don't think it's feasible or even a good idea to try to be as unambiguous as possible all the time. Thinking carefully about everything you say is difficult and tiring, and it takes a long time. Optimizing for unambiguity would be a sacrifice of mental energy and communication throughput which I don't think it's worth, given that the system really does work most of the time. In my experience, it's easier and more useful to try to optimize for the specific understanding of the person you're addressing, which may include being less ambiguous but almost certainly includes choosing particular ambiguities that the listener is likely to understand as intended. This still uses some mental energy, but not as much (at a guess, that's because it's a more natural thought pattern), and it doesn't sacrifice throughput because you're just choosing your shortcuts more carefully, not abandoning them altogether.

Comment author: komponisto 30 September 2010 09:35:47PM *  5 points [-]

Both the original discussion of this and the current one, not to mention numerous other discussions about other things, exemplify the following pattern:

I point out that phenomenon X is bad. Then, instead of replying with "I agree", or "I agree that it's bad, but don't think it's as bad as you do" or even "I agree with you about how bad it is now that you've pointed it out, but wouldn't myself have bothered to raise the issue", people come up with elaborate justifications, rationalizations, or explanations of X, which (I hypothesize) are basically intended to signal distance from "anti-X fanaticism". The parent comment is yet another example of this.

Folks, there just isn't any need to defend the teacher here -- unless you actually want to take the position that saying "I won't grade it" is preferable to saying "you will receive a score of 0" (and if anyone is tempted to take that position in reply to this comment, be forewarned that I simply won't believe you're being honest unless you say something genuinely surprising, that I hadn't thought of). I did not say I was still confused by the teacher's meaning, and I do not need an explanation of the fact that human language is imprecise in general, and of the reasons people say the ambiguous things they do. I'm not stupid, and I'm not even autistic. I'm aware of the social conventions that are operative here, and I'm not proposing that teachers speak to their students in Lojban. All I'm doing is expressing disapproval of the fact that some teachers say "I won't grade it", and proposing that they say "I will give it a score of 0" instead. This is really pretty simple; in particular, it would require much less effort on the teacher's part to implement this suggestion than you spent writing the parent comment. It's an easy, low-cost net-improvement on the world.

Agreeing with a "fanatic" doesn't make you a fanatic. You're allowed to agree with me and yet not feel as strongly about the matter as I do. You don't need to signal your distance by presenting superfluous rationalizations of the bad phenomenon. In fact, you don't even need to point out that you don't feel as strongly as I do -- because simple agreement carries no implication that you do feel that strongly!

No one really disagrees with me here; if you doubt this, ask yourself whether anyone would protest that a teacher who actually said "you will receive a score a 0" should instead have said "I won't grade it"! Rather, the dialectic pattern of apparent disagreement is due to the fact that my original complaint violated two social rules: (1) it was tangential to the post; and, more importantly (2) it expressed a strong opinion not already established as a group-defining belief -- something which is generally frowned upon in most human groups, but especially goes against the self-image of folks here as calm, reflective, "rational" people.

So, while I appreciate your concern with communication, and don't want to discourage you from further pursuing your efforts in that area, I am obliged to point out that your comment -- like those of many others -- didn't communicate anything to me other than resistance to my strength of feeling.

Comment author: [deleted] 01 October 2010 05:09:10AM 4 points [-]

I just dropped in to agree with this: "it expressed a strong opinion not already established as a group-defining belief -- something which is generally frowned upon in most human groups, but especially goes against the self-image of folks here as calm, reflective, "rational" people."

I care about lots of things that are not themes of LW. I get a pretty negative reaction whenever I express such feelings -- even when I don't think I'm being particularly fanatical. I don't believe it makes you foolish to have strong opinions or preferences about a variety of things.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 30 September 2010 10:31:07PM 1 point [-]

I point out that phenomenon X is bad.

You didn't just do that.
You said that the teacher's words don't match their meaning.

I do not need an explanation of the fact that human language is imprecise in general

Explanations may be a poor way of promoting beliefs, but belief in that fact would discourage your claim that the teacher's statement has a precise meaning.

I think newerspeak's take is pretty good. It quite late (and rather temporarily) that you switched from discussing lack of clarity, especially the need to learn a new idiom, to discussing what is bad about the phrasing. (except that I strongly object to newerspeak's use of "wrong phrasing.")

Comment author: Relsqui 30 September 2010 10:18:48PM *  1 point [-]

I disagree with that interpretation, perhaps because of a meta-ambiguity about which of two questions we're discussing:

  1. Which of two example wordings should the teacher have used?

  2. Was there anything wrong with what the teacher said?

These are obviously related but by no means the same. You seem to be assuming that the dispute is about the former (which, as you say, we all seem to agree on); my understanding was that it is about the latter. Specifically, I interpreted you as believing that the teacher's wording was so unacceptable as to warrant correction, and this is what I disagreed with and presented arguments against. I suppose that, yes, that means we were arguing about your strength of feeling, but that's exactly what I was trying to do. If I seemed to claim that I was arguing about anything else, that was a miscommunication.

I appreciate that you made a point of distinguishing between disliking the nature of this particular discussion and disliking this kind of feedback from me in general.

ETA after discussing in IRC: Also, you seem to be relying on the premise that less ambiguity in language is universally better, and for the reasons outlined in my previous comment I don't think it's that simple.

Comment author: orthonormal 30 September 2010 11:58:05PM 0 points [-]

So, while I appreciate your concern with communication, and don't want to discourage you from further pursuing your efforts in that area, I am obliged to point out that your comment -- like those of many others -- didn't communicate anything to me other than resistance to my strength of feeling.

Now that I think about it, the real point I should have made is that getting noticeably angry on the Internet about language usage is sort of low-status (only the first level above using poor spelling and grammar); the second level is to let such things pass, and the third is to remark wittily on bad usage (or only remark openly on it when it has bad externalities).

My original response, in retrospect, was clearly meant to signal second-level sophistication. This one is, perhaps, attempting the fourth level (going meta on questions of language usage).

Comment author: Rain 02 October 2010 08:15:37PM -1 points [-]

I disagree.

Comment author: wedrifid 30 September 2010 10:08:30AM 2 points [-]

Unless they're deliberately lying, people always believe they're saying what they mean.

I don't think the distinction is nearly that clear.

We use euphemisms all the time. Then there is the whole courtship protocol in which the meaning of what people say is entirely different to the words but definitely not (usually) the same thing as lying. In human interactions in general people often do not say what they mean and would be frowned upon if they did, they do not always need to outright self deceive themselves in order to meet this requirement.

Comment author: Relsqui 30 September 2010 07:09:37PM 2 points [-]

Absolutely agreed. My point (which seems to have been unclear, from a couple of replies) was that people equate "saying something which I expect to be interpreted as what I mean" with "saying what I mean." Probably not on the conscious level--if you asked them, I would expect most people to admit that "do you want to come up for coffee" is not really saying what they mean--but in the part of the subconscious that has to quickly manage what's being said in realtime.

My favorite ambiguous piece of dating vocabulary: "I think we should see other people." Are you breaking up, or suggesting polyamory?!

Comment author: wedrifid 01 October 2010 06:15:04AM 2 points [-]

My point (which seems to have been unclear, from a couple of replies) was that people equate "saying something which I expect to be interpreted as what I mean" with "saying what I mean."

Following on from that point it is also sometimes assumed that the lack of comprehension is actually a status transaction. High status people don't need to understand what other people are saying (when it doesn't benefit them) - and understanding too much can be a sign of weakness. In such cases incomprehension is disrespect.

The problem, of course, is that people also systematically underestimate inferential distance.

My favorite ambiguous piece of dating vocabulary: "I think we should see other people." Are you breaking up, or suggesting polyamory?!

Brilliant. I hope someone tries to use that line on me when we're breaking up just so I can tease them about polyarmory. (I'm of the opinion that there is no reason breaking up can't be fun!)

Comment author: Relsqui 01 October 2010 05:31:45PM *  3 points [-]

I second AD's request for an example; I actually misread that paragraph the first time, but I think my misreading had some truth to it as well:

I'd thought you said that high-status people have less of a need to make themselves understood, i.e. they don't need to explain themselves to people who are lower status than they are. When they do choose to, it's with a tone of exasperation or condescension.

Which is one one of the reasons I don't take status signalling too seriously, at least in that situation. Communicating clearly and respectfully is really important to me--both on an emotional level (I feel strongly about it) and a practical one (people need to do it all the time and you're kidding yourself if you think it won't help you to be good at it). Someone who acts like it's beneath them to communicate respectfully to a given person is signalling high status, but demonstrating being some combination of "jerk" and "dumb about people," and the latter impression wins out.

The opposite of this is an old friend of mine who somehow developed the rare ability to, in an argument invoking tech cred and lots of status negotiation, stop and say "Oh, I haven't heard of X, what's X?" because someone made a point he didn't follow. It's hugely low-status, but it's the really productive thing to do, and he learned a lot that way. Based on what else I know about the friend, I highly doubt this is a conscious choice he made--I think he just naturally doesn't give a fuck about status. i respect that a lot and am trying to make a habit of doing the same thing (swallow pride and ask when I don't know something).

I like subverting status (showing respect even where it's "beneath" me and admitting ignorance). That's probably some kind of meta-status play, though. :)

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 01 October 2010 03:02:24PM 1 point [-]

Following on from that point it is also sometimes assumed that the lack of comprehension is actually a status transaction. High status people don't need to understand what other people are saying (when it doesn't benefit them) - and understanding too much can be a sign of weakness. In such cases incomprehension is disrespect.

I don't think I've encountered this theory before. Can you give an example?

Comment author: Rain 22 April 2010 02:02:42PM *  7 points [-]

If you encounter this situation in the real world, I suggest asking for clarification, such as, "Does that mean we can skip it, or that we'll fail?" Once you encounter the phrase many times, and always with the latter definition, updating would suggest that any future uses will have the same (not quite literal) meaning, allowing you to be more confident in your understanding. If there is still enough doubt remaining, then ask every time.

This method works even if you can't think of alternatives but realize that people don't always mean what they say. "Does that mean we can skip it?" is an adequate way to express, "This is my understanding of what action I am allowed to take without penalty; please check it and let me know if I am correct."

Encountering many situations where you require this question/answer method to determine what someone really means would show that it's a necessary component of understanding neurotypical communication. As someone who has problems with literal-mindedness, constantly asking questions and updating based on the responses changed my relationships significantly for the better.

Comment author: zero_call 22 April 2010 03:08:23AM 2 points [-]

After years of suffering through the process of academic enslavement I completely agree with the sentiment of this comment.

Comment author: wedrifid 30 September 2010 03:10:59PM 0 points [-]

That is distinct from "not grading it", and is what the teacher should say instead (if it is what he or she actually means).

There is some ambiguity in the phrase 'grade it', with the two of you using different definitions. Most teachers consider 'grading papers' to be the process of reading a paper, evaluating merits and granting symbolic value to your academic performance based on the quality of the work. Possible literal meanings are far more varied.

I think the teacher's meaning could scrape by as technically correct but it would depend on the details of how she inputs the marks. ie. If she doesn't do anything with the paper at all and the computer system defaults to either assigning 0 or outright failing you based off the lack of an entered grade then it is technically correct. If she explicitly types in a 0 then she would not be.

Comment author: komponisto 30 September 2010 06:15:01PM *  0 points [-]

Most teachers consider 'grading papers' to be the process of reading a paper, evaluating merits and granting symbolic value to your academic performance based on the quality of the work.

Even under this understanding of the term, the issue remains. Yes, if you interpret "grade" to mean "read", the teacher's statement becomes true. But then the problem is the omission of the important part: "...and papers I don't 'grade' (=read) receive a score of 0."

Comment author: wedrifid 30 September 2010 06:37:05PM *  0 points [-]

But then the problem is the omission of the important part: "...and papers I don't 'grade' (=read) receive a score of 0."

I think both you and I covered this technicality. It depends on how the system works. Receiving '0' isn't the same as not receiving anything. But I agree about the important part being missing.

Comment author: Leafy 12 May 2010 08:42:52AM 1 point [-]

I appreciate that these are being used as simple analogies, but since they are phrased as real-world scenarios I feel that it weakens my visualisation of the situation in hand by not explicitly commenting on the time-scales over which the teacher/pupil wishes to maximise their utility.

Each example refers to the impact of the initial setup, or decision made when faced with an excuse, to the overall utility of the outcome but fails to convey to me clearly the success or failure criteria.

I would find it valuable if we were able to split the scenarios into a timeline decision tree to show how the impact of initial setup and decisions made would affect the utility over time, which would allow me to visualise the most beneficial path once I had decided on the timescale over which I wish to consider. (Taking this even further I would most likely attribute different weightings to my utility function depending on time-horizons and then attempt to maximise over the whole.)

What variation would there be in setup and decision if my consideration was for a one-shot decision versus a long-term career?

Comment author: EGarrett 03 February 2014 06:26:44PM 0 points [-]

Human instinct and social conventions already solve the "clumsy defector" problem. The clumsy defector is required to sacrifice any benefit he gained from the defection. Usually this is through the small-loss-of-status of publicly acknowledging their error. But in the game, they must cooperate while you defect.

This restores trust and removes any incentive for the clumsy-defector to do what they did. If they refuse to accept this, then they aren't actually seeking to form a mutually-beneficial cooperative relationship anyway, and thus they must be punished by defection unless or until they accept the penalty by cooperating while receiving a defection in return.

Comment author: Multipartite 24 September 2011 07:13:48PM 0 points [-]

I note that while most of the examples seem reasonable, the Dictator instance seems to stand out: by accepting the trumped-up prospector excuse as admissible, the organisation is agreeing to any similarly flimsy excuse that a country could make (e.g. the route not taken in The Sports Fan). The Lazy Student also comes to mind in terms of being an organisation that would accept such an argument, thus others also making it.

(Hm... I wonder if a valid equivalent of the Grieving case would be if the other country had in fact launched an easily-verifiable full-scale offensive large enough to necessitate occuptation in order to stop it and protect the attacked country.)

While in the other cases, the decision-makers seem to maintain consistency regarding their possessed priorities, in the Dictator case it looks as though the only way the decision-maker can be said to have made the right decision is if one assumes the organisation only cares about public approval (a spin favourable to them) and does not in fact care whether or not countries invade each other based on transparent lies.

On a slightly related note, if a country/entity were so stupid/paranoid that it in good faith invaded countries left and right for flimsy reasons, it would be in appropriate keeping with such a decision-making organisation's stated goals to take it down as a mad dog (-equivalent) before it did any more harm to law-abiding countries/entities.

A different interpretation might require the prospector case to in fact be very unlikely, a near-miracle that the dictator leaped on as an unhoped-for opportunity rather than as one of any number of possible {grounds for unjustified action} that would certainly have come up sooner or later if one waited long enough.

Thinking intuitively, though, even if every country freezes its borders in terror to prevent any movements being declared as casus belli, there are all sorts of as-easy-to-see-through things that could be done instead... (Mostly involving forgery/bribery/baseless lying, granted.)

Comment author: slimemold4 27 September 2010 02:13:52PM 0 points [-]

In The Grieving Student, while it may be morally right in society to accept the excuse and let her have more time, how do you know she is not lying? Of course, it is her mother, and it would be horrible to lie about such things, and dangerous, as the mother could call the school or any number of other things, but she could just be lying about it to get more time. Say her mother is dead, but she died when the girl was a child. If you didn't look hard, you could think that she had really died earlier. So, if she gave an extension at all, it should not be long. Say to the end of the day, or until the next day.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 01 January 2011 08:35:40PM 2 points [-]

From a consequentialist perspective it doesn't matter whether she's lying or not: she could be lying, so if I'm seen to grant her an extension I create incentives for others to lie, which is the thing I as a consequentialist actually want to avoid. (Of course, in the real world there are ways I could find out, but that's outside the scope of this example.)

Reducing the size of the incentive doesn't actually address the issue. That creates less incentive, sure, but the basic problem remains unaddressed.

The more seriously we take the possibility that she's lying, the more Grieving Student starts to resemble Lazy Student or Sports Fan.

Comment author: Jack 21 April 2010 01:07:55AM 0 points [-]

I wonder if the Clumsy-Game player excuse could have worked for Peter Fonda in Fail-Safe

Rot13 for spoilers: Va gur zbivr Nzrevpn qrgrpgf jung gurl guvax vf n Fbivrg nggnpx naq qrcybl gurve obzoref. Gurl gura yrnea gur guerng vf snyfr naq erpnyy gurve obzoref. Ohg fbzrguvat tbrf jebat jvgu gur pbzzhavpngvba naq gurl pna'g ernpu bar bs gurve obzoref. Gur obzore pbagvahrf, znxrf vg guebhtu Fbivrg qrsrafrf naq ahxrf Zbfpbj. Gur Cerfvqrag (Crgre Sbaqn) trgf ba gur cubar gb gur Cerzvre naq ceriragf n Ehffvna pbhagre-nggnpx ol nterrvat gb ahxr Arj Lbex Pvgl.

Fb guvf vf gur pnfr bs na npghny fyvc bs gur svatre, cerfhznoyl vg vf zber pbaivapvat gung gur cynlre'f fyvc va gur fgbel. Qvq Sbaqn fperj hc ol abg gelvat vafvfgvat ba guvf rkphfr? Fubhyq gur Fbivrgf unir npprcgrq vs ur unq bssrerq vg?

Comment author: dclayh 21 April 2010 06:39:45AM 0 points [-]

Or for Peter Sellers (in his capacity as President) in Dr. Strangelove, which appears to be rknpgyl gur fnzr zbivr.

Comment author: Jack 21 April 2010 07:08:56AM 1 point [-]

Rot 13: Gur vagebqhpgvba bs gur qbbzfqnl znpuvar va Fgenatrybir punatrf gur tnzr-gurbergvp qlanzvpf. Gur HFFE unf cer-pbzzvggrq vgfrys gb qrfgeblvat gur jbeyq fubhyq vg or uvg va n ahpyrne nggnpx (ohg bs pbhefr gurl snvyrq gb pbzzhavpngr gung snpg gb gur Nzrevpnaf!). Bapr jr yrnea bs gung gurer vfa'g zhpu zber gb or qvfphffrq.

Gurl ner rkgerzryl fvzvyne zbivrf gubhtu. Gur nhgube bs Erq Nyreg juvpu Fgenatrybir vf onfrq ba fhrq gur nhgube bs Snvy-fnsr sbe cyntvnevfz. V guvax V yvxr Snvy-fnsr orggre gubhtu gur "zvarfunsg tnc" vf bar bs gur shaavrfg guvatf va gur uvfgbel bs pvarzn.

Comment author: dclayh 21 April 2010 07:46:48AM 0 points [-]

Ah yes, I had forgotten about that little detail.

Comment author: TraderJoe 12 April 2012 12:52:51PM *  -1 points [-]

[comment deleted]

Comment author: army1987 12 April 2012 02:35:07PM *  2 points [-]

Starting lines with # signs turns them in headings. You have to escape them as \#.

Comment author: TraderJoe 16 April 2012 11:57:07AM *  0 points [-]

[comment deleted]

Comment author: arundelo 16 April 2012 12:20:26PM *  1 point [-]

Yes, a preview option would be very nice. Until someone implements one, you can

  1. submit your comment, immediately view it, and edit it if necessary, or
  2. before submitting the comment, send it as a private message to yourself at lesswrong.com/message/compose/?to=TraderJoe

By the way, you didn't do the backslash escaping quite right. You need to have no space between the backslash and the number sign. Edit: TraderJoe fixed this.

Comment author: TraderJoe 17 April 2012 11:19:48AM *  0 points [-]

[comment deleted]

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 12 April 2012 02:02:12PM *  1 point [-]

Please don't do that thing with the font.

Retracted because it's been fixed.

Comment author: army1987 12 April 2012 02:35:53PM 1 point [-]

I don't think he did that on purpose.