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Radical Honesty

19 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 September 2007 06:09AM

I recently ran across this interesting article about Radical Honesty, a movement founded by a psychotherapist named Brad Blanton who suggests that we should kick our addiction to lying and just tell the complete truth all the time.  I also like this quote from the Wikipedia article on Radical Honesty:  "The significant majority of participants in the Radical Honesty workshops report dramatic changes in their lives after taking the course, though they are not always comfortable and positive."  The movement visibly suffers from having been founded by a psychotherapist - it's more about the amazing happiness that absolute truth-telling can bring to your relationships (!!) rather than such rationalist values as seeking truth by teaching yourself a habit of honesty, or not wishing to deceive others because it infringes on their autonomy.

I once suggested a notion called "Crocker's Rules", which was the mirror image of Radical Honesty - rather than telling the whole truth to other people, you would strive to always allow others to tell you the complete truth without being offended.

Crocker's Rules didn't give you the right to say anything offensive, but other people could say potentially offensive things to you, and it was your responsibility not to be offended. This was surprisingly hard to explain to people; many people would read the careful explanation and hear, "Crocker's Rules mean you can say offensive things to other people."

I was initially a bit suspicious of Blanton's movement - it seemed like the mirror-image that so many people misinterpreted, the option of saying offensive things to other people.  But Blanton makes it not only optional, but mandatory to speak your mind - a far greater inconvenience than Crocker's Rules would ever impose on anyone.

Crocker's Rules didn't catch on.  Maybe it was too hard to tell the difference between someone delivering a slap in the face, and someone deliberately invoking Crocker's Rules - you don't want to miss a real clue to real hostility because of your acceptance; you wouldn't want to not believe a true fact, even if the true fact is that someone else hates you.  And third parties may assume the truthteller is an offensive person no matter how much the receiver disclaims offense - they may assume the receiver is "just being polite", or that requesting honesty does not excuse its offensiveness.

Will Blanton's Rules ever catch on?  I worry that Radical Honesty would selectively disadvantage rationalists in human relationships.  Broadcasting your opinions is much easier when you can deceive yourself about anything you'd feel uncomfortable saying to others.  I wonder whether practitioners of Radical Honesty tend to become more adept at self-deception, as they stop being able to tell white lies or admit private thoughts to themselves.  I have taken a less restrictive kind of honesty upon myself - to avoid statements that are literally false  - and I know that this becomes more and more difficult, more and more of a disadvantage, as I deceive myself less and less.

I suspect that the neural circuits that we use to lie to others, also censor our own thoughts.  Honesty to others is important unto a rationalist, even one who is seeking a strictly selfish advantage in finding truth only for themselves.  If there were a Bayesian Order, would its practitioners take a vow of Radical Honesty?

I think that if there is ever a vow of honesty among rationalists, it will be restricted in scope.  Normally, perhaps, you would avoid making statements that were literally false, and be ready to accept brutal honesty from anyone who first said "Crocker's Rules".  Maybe you would be Radically Honest, but only with others who had taken a vow of Radical Honesty, and who understood the trust required to tell someone the truth.

Maybe Radical Honesty would be reserved for matters sacred unto a rationalist?  In some domains this is already the case.  We believe that scientists should always tell the whole truth about science.  It's one thing to lie in everyday life, lie to your boss, lie to the police, lie to your lover; but whoever lies in a journal article is guilty of utter heresy and will be excommunicated.

I wonder what it would be like to have anyone in the world, even a single person, who you could absolutely trust.  Or what it would be like for there to be anyone in the world, even a single person, whom you had to tell all your thoughts, without possibility of concealment.

Comments (35)

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Comment author: Doug_S. 10 September 2007 07:04:59AM 18 points [-]

I'm a very honest person. I never tell a lie without believing it first. ;)

Comment author: NG 10 September 2007 08:06:40AM 4 points [-]

This came to mind: http://xkcd.com/69/

Comment author: michael_vassar3 10 September 2007 10:50:13AM 5 points [-]

I have a couple people with whom I can be totally open and honest. It makes life much nicer. In general though, radical honesty would, it seems to me, cut one off from truth. One would be intrinsically unable to keep a trust with a third party who was not of the same philosophy. In practice, it would also simply be impossible to meaningfully be "radically honest" with the vast majority of people who don't even share my opinions about background knowledge such as what "belief" means. As is, I think a much greater than typical level of honest with epistemic peers is utility maximizing. It enables Aumann Agreement, if nothing else (but really much else). Expanding that circle would just be stupid. I am a bit inspired to test the psychologist from the article though. What would he be willing to sell his "services" for? It seems to me that trade creates overwhelming incentives to deception regarding one's producer or consumer surplus and willingness to pay.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 November 2009 09:31:59PM *  4 points [-]

It seems to me that trade creates overwhelming incentives to deception regarding one's producer or consumer surplus and willingness to pay.

This is something that some economist really ought to be focusing on. Is there a way for trade to take place that doesn't create incentives for this sort of concealment? Aside from large-scale market pricing of commensurable goods? The downside of this sort of this deception is that many trades don't take place!

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 01 November 2009 10:20:14PM *  1 point [-]

Is there a way for trade to take place that doesn't create incentives for this sort of concealment? Aside from large-scale market pricing of commensurable goods?

Isn't that what mechanism design is about? eg, a second-price auction is supposed to produce bidder honesty by the seller promising to concede the game of bilateral monopoly. Aside from reducing the transaction costs so that the sale actually occurs, one hopes that the honesty is a positive externality.

Comment author: jimrandomh 02 November 2009 12:10:19AM *  5 points [-]

When someone says they aren't willing to pay so much or sell for so little, we understand it's just haggling and don't assign it much weight. I'm more concerned about stock markets and similar setups, like decision markets, where the incentives are to lie to the general public, including uninvolved third parties, rather than to a specific business partner. I was struck by this interview (starting at about 7:30), in which a hedge fund trader admits to spreading false rumors about companies in order to profit from the effect on their stocks. Some traders are very good at taking advantage of brief oscillations in price, so this strategy is viable even if the market quickly restores the stock price to its correct value.

(This is also why I don't think decision markets and prediction markets are a good idea. The information provided by the market's price is greatly outweighed by the lies traders could spread to make that price oscillate.)

Comment author: chrisA2 10 September 2007 11:11:53AM -1 points [-]

"such rationalist values as seeking truth by teaching yourself a habit of honesty, or not wishing to deceive others because it infringes on their autonomy".

How can values be rational? To me, to take Eliezer's example, it is perfectly rational to lie in a journal, if you think you can get away with it. Of course this is something everyone else should dislike from a selfish point of view so we should certainly urge honesty from others (and do what we can to make sure that they are honest), but a rational person should aim to maximise his or her utility, and should ignore this external pressure when it comes to making their own decisions as to whether to lie.

Note that I am being slightly provocative here, since I have a conscience (whether cultural, or genetically determined it doesn't matter) so I am generally truthful even when I could lie without damage to my reputation, i.e. I usually have utility in being truthful.

Comment author: thomblake 27 December 2011 08:03:37PM 4 points [-]

For future readers:

How can values be rational?

"rationalist values" does not imply that the values are rational, but that they are those held by one correctly described as a 'rationalist'.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 10 September 2007 11:30:45AM 5 points [-]

It would be interesting to get a field report about how this seems to work out in practice.

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 10 September 2007 12:06:30PM 1 point [-]

I think Michael Vassar nailed it at the end of his post. We seem to live in a transactional world (not just in matters of commerce) where one party being completely transparent to another constitutes unilateral disarmament in a variety of social settings. Also, the existence of 3rd and 4th party observers means there are performance incentives for the two parties in interaction separate from their transactional incentives.

Comment author: John_Mark_Rozendaal 10 September 2007 12:13:28PM 18 points [-]

The difficult choices are not between truths and falsehoods. The difficulty is in choosing which truth to voice in any given moment. Last week my mother said to me, "Your children suffered when you divorced their mother." That was true. I had difficulty hearing it not because I don't believe it. I do believe it. I was unhappy to hear this because of what my mother's choice to voice this truth at that moment revealed about her attitude towards me.

Choosing which truths to voice and the context for voicing them has great political significance. "The men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center were Muslims." This is the truth. If many people say that loudly many times a day for years, is that simple truth-telling, a good, enlightening thing? The question reveals why the writing of history is always political.

Comment author: Henry_V 10 September 2007 01:13:02PM 5 points [-]

"I wonder what it would be like to have anyone in the world, even a single person, who you could absolutely trust. Or what it would be like for there to be anyone in the world, even a single person, whom you had to tell all your thoughts, without possibility of concealment."

I think Christians have been wondering the same thing for a couple thousand years. Radical honesty and Crocker's Rules aren't exactly new concepts, are they?

Consider Ephesians 4: Speak the truth, but do so in love considering the feelings of others. There's an obnoxious way to be truthful, and a much more fruitful way to be truthful.

"Speak the truth in love" "each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body." "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."

Comment author: Relsqui 06 December 2010 12:36:12PM 10 points [-]

Buddhism has this idea too. Here's a nicely specific bit from one of the suttas, on how the criteria for "right speech" encompass much more than telling the truth:

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing and agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.

(Emphasis mine.)

Comment author: tomhs 10 September 2007 01:47:05PM 6 points [-]

If you are Radically Honest then you can't keep a secret. Wouldn't that make you less trustworthy and thus lower incentives for people to be honest with you?

Comment author: Larks 06 January 2010 01:42:33AM 8 points [-]

You can presumably say 'I can't tell you that', which suffices in many but not all circumstances.

Comment author: apophenia 05 December 2010 05:13:53AM 5 points [-]

In grade school, I had a policy of telling people "no comment" or "that's classified" on any subject that could be sensitive. This is slightly better from the point of view of actually keeping secrets, since suddenly clamming up if people ask you if you've ever made a bomb is giving a bit too much information.

Comment author: J_Thomas 10 September 2007 02:21:08PM 1 point [-]

Tomhs, perhaps sometimes the truth you should tell people is "It's None Of Your Business".

I have seen that people who tell the truth tend to get diagnosed as Asperger's Syndrome, or maybe high-functioning autism.

It's a sign of poor socialization.

Comment author: tomhs 10 September 2007 03:09:17PM 0 points [-]

Interesting point, J Thomas, there is often more than one truth that could be told. How would/should you choose which one to tell? The difference between Eliezer's "tell no lies" and Radical Honesty no longer seems so clear cut to me.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 10 September 2007 03:29:39PM 0 points [-]

The whole article is well worth reading. What impresses me most is that we have a limited capacity for honesty, and so must allocate it well. Be more honest with yourself, on the topics that are most important to you.

Comment author: Marina 10 September 2007 03:31:37PM 3 points [-]

Blanton doesn't support honesty 100% of the time -- he actively encourages lying to government officials (admitting to taking unwarranted deductions on his tax returns) and says it's fine to tell the Nazis no one's home when Anne Frank is hiding in your attic. In that vein, I'd guess it would be acceptable to keep a secret, but it would be up to the individual's judgment whether that secret was "worth" keeping. If said secret were originally mine, I would seriously hesitate to share with such an "honest" person for fear they would decide at some inopportune moment to "free" me of the burden of my secret and share it at a dinner party.

I see a very large distinction between an outright lie and simply not saying something at all, a line which Blanton seems to blur significantly (if not erase outright). Many times, saying exactly what we're thinking or feeling at the moment without taking the time to think it through can have disastrous effects when, five minutes later, you realize you really feel completely different but now cannot get your listener to believe your radical *shift* in honesty.

Comment author: Mike_Kenny 10 September 2007 04:44:17PM 1 point [-]

Perhaps the Internet could be of assistance in getting some benefits from radical honesty. You could keep a blog anonymously and write down what you really think about people. You could change names and places to avoid hurting yourself or others, but the substance would be, hopefully, unchanged. Then people could give you feedback (even anonymously if they don't like being known as someone who hurt someone).

I think there's a website out there that allows you to query people about something and people who don't know you can write what they think. People are sometimes mean for the sake of being mean, rather than being honest, though, which is problematic.

Comment author: J_Thomas 10 September 2007 06:17:32PM 0 points [-]

Tomhs, I don't have it worked out which truths I owe people. In general I believe that I have the right to find out anything about this fascinating world I want to, and often this is not only a right but a duty -- anything I don't understand is dangerous until I do.

But I certainly believe that some things are not some other people's business. People ought to have some right of privacy from some other people. Exactly where to draw the lines there is not always clear.

So I tend to play it by ear. If I think something isn't somebody's business I tell them. "That isn't any of your business." Whether I think the answer would interest them or not. And if they disagree they're welcome to explain to me why it is their business.

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 10 September 2007 09:21:34PM 1 point [-]

Mike Kenny, great comment. Since all the nonanonymous blogging experts on this site probably have ideas and thoughts of social value, but that woulde harm their narrative arcs and reputations, I encourage them to have separate anonymous blogs where they share these ideas. Certain topics, like IQ and genetics, jewish influence in media, finance, and politics, eugenics, and limiting disenfranchisement seem to come with large reputational costs that probably drive away the brightest minds. Also, there's probably reputational pressure for experts not to criticize pet ideas of other experts.

Graduate students should be blogging pointed disagreements with their thesis advisors, tenure-seeking professors their disagrements with people who will influence whether they get tenure, scientists/economists their disagrements with people who may influence whether they receive professional prizes and honors -at least anonymously.

Then if the idea becomes accepted in a widespread way, they have the option of revealing themselves to be the anonymous blogger, and thus get the reputational gains for being an early and influential advocate for a particular idea or policy.

Comment author: dilys 10 September 2007 11:03:17PM 1 point [-]

Crocker's Rules are appealing. That's taking responsibility! As to never lying -- even by selective silence --it would be valuable to have a hair-trigger interior recognition when you want to lie, and figure out whether it is for your sake or for the other person's. First case, tell the truth instead. Second, tread very carefully. But be aware, maybe even creative.

Some scripts for common lies might help. "I don't care." > "It's not something I think about much." "Yes, you look fat in that." > "Look, a shooting star! Here, out the window!" Or, "I always love you in green."

The old guy whose poetry was mediocre? Possible to --pick out your "favorite" line; --write him back one more time, chatty, asking how he's doing; --send him a book on writing poetry, saying something about how good poetry is for the soul, whether or not it is published or famous. The lying the reporter did in that case was to save himself any outlay of human kindness.

I don't like the Blanton guy. I think he shows signs of pumping his endorphins at the expense of other people. But at least he makes us notice how much and how easily we lie, and as such generates some motivation to find ways to be more authentic. (Samuel Johnson to Boswell: "Clear your mind of cant!") At worst he encourages more endorphin addicts, bullies with a self-righteous theory.

Comment author: Relsqui 06 December 2010 12:40:04PM *  1 point [-]

Crocker's Rules are appealing. That's taking responsibility!

Can't you take exactly the same responsibility for your own actions without ever thinking of or mentioning some rules?

ETA: Man, it's frustrating to get downvoted for asking a question. If the question is stupid or the answer is obvious, fine, but I haven't learned anything unless you tell me why.

Comment author: thomblake 27 December 2011 08:00:52PM 2 points [-]

Late to the party, but...

Crocker's Rules invite one's interlocutor to dispense with pleasantries, taking responsibility onto oneself for not being offended. There is no way to make an invitation without some communication.

Comment author: Tom_Breton 11 September 2007 05:06:38AM 3 points [-]

This was surprisingly hard to explain to people; many people would read the careful explanation and hear, "Crocker's Rules mean you can say offensive things to other people."

Perhaps because it resembles the "2" part of a common verbal bully's 1-2 punch, the one that first insults you and then when you react, slurs you for allegedly not being able to handle the truth. I'm specifically thinking of the part of Crocker's Rule that goes "If you're offended, it's your fault".

Yes, I see that one is "me" and the other is "you". But the translation to "you" is so natural that even that writeup of Crocker's Rule slips into it.

I also think Crocker's Rules is an ivory-tower sort of position that starts with assumptions that just doesn't reflect the real world. Perhaps in Lee Crocker's experience, all debating opponents are at the worst mere curmudgeons who wrap truths in unpleasant rhetoric, but I doubt that's true even for him. It's certainly not my experience.

In my experience, the majority of people who this rule seems applicable to use petty and truthless rhetoric to defend minor points of lifestyle or ideology. Usually the arguing parties have already understood each other as much as they care to and are shouting their talking-points and postures past each other. It's true that usually one or both sides could stand to listen and learn, but for the people that applies to, invariably that's just what they don't want.

I won't belabor the point, but Crocker's apparent assumption about the nature of contentious rhetoric is grossly wrong in the real world.

Comment author: Henry_V 11 September 2007 11:29:42AM 3 points [-]

Tom Breton---very good discussion.

It reminds me of a panel in which I participated. The panel was celebrating diversity of one sort or another at my institution, and one speaker was a contemporary of MLK. He discussed the need to engage "the other side" in one's debates.

A student from the audience asked, "But what if the other side won't listen?"

"Keep talking!" was the response.

Well, here I really felt like I should jump in, but it would have been rude. In any case, everything I've learned about communication I learned from being married. When we think someone "won't listen" (which is probably not accurate---this seems to occur whenever we think that we're right and the other person is wrong; it has nothing to do with their listening), then we ourselves probably need to do *less* talking and *more* listening.

To do this successfully, it requires humility, and, of course, the desire to overcome one's own bias.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 06 January 2008 09:00:04PM 1 point [-]

Surely either form of radical honesty falls at the first hurdle: how many people are even capable of forming an honest opinion, rather than parroting back something they or others opined earlier?

If I were being honest, I would say that the number of my truly self-made personal opinions is low, even counting the poorly reasoned ones - and I acknowledge this isn't one of them. So how can I be honest. Who is the me that could be honest?

Comment author: Your_Mom 05 June 2008 10:34:36PM -1 points [-]

It doesn't actually appear that many of you have actually read Blanton's book(s), because had you read them you might not make so many assumptions on what Radical Honesty's ramifications are. Damage is being done all the time to relationships because people continue to stroke one another's egos about things they really don't like. What if you gave real feedback to people? Then you could encourage them to change things that you (and possibly others) find annoying, offensive and outright wrong. Why aren't we totally honest? Because then we have to face total honesty from others--which will probably include a demand for change on our part. So as long as I don't challenge, no one will challenge me. And that is how chicken shits live their lives.

As too the last comment, why bother writing anything if that is truly what you believe? and who is the you that believes it? You won't get anywhere practicing beliefs like that (and trust me you don't practice them)

Comment author: kt 02 February 2009 09:39:45PM 2 points [-]

Re: J Thomas: "It's a sign of poor socialization."

Poor is subjective. It is a sign of the rejection of social mores as false. What constitutes "good socialization," and where do we get these values? There are cultural biases. It seems that the failure of autistic individuals to observe social convention is more an expression of tabula rasa than a pathology itself.

Comment author: Rightorwrong 01 November 2009 09:01:06PM 2 points [-]

Eliezer, I suggest you read the whole book. Many articles I saw regarding this book was superficially written and choose only "teasers" from it. The main message (and question) in the Radical Honesty is: how much we are lying to ourselves? And how much benefits we will get by stop lying to ourselves.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 June 2011 06:07:15AM -1 points [-]

in the event anyone reads this, one thing learned from Josh Harris (90's .com entrepreneur) is that living open and in the public may sound feasible and today we may even have much of our lives on the internet but the idea of being truly honest and having your thoughts and views in the public is psychology rough, in fact the idea of big brother is really is more the mindset and not a tangible object/person/group

Comment author: Ylva 22 April 2013 12:37:04PM -1 points [-]

So what you are saying is, we should all be Aspies?

Sounds good to me.

Comment author: themusicgod1 25 July 2013 01:51:59PM 0 points [-]

A few thoughts:

Whether this is a good idea or not might very well be something you have to try for yourself to know; but on the flip side we are fairly different people, 20 years after any particular decision. While some decisions may be final, especially in an age where we can display attributes of ourself very publicly it might make more sense to have a publicly accessible Crocker's Flag somewhere that might be unset perhaps 20 years down the line so that you don't damn your future self to a life of shameful feelings beyond necessary.

Secondly, 'none of your business' is neither radically honest, and with the possible exception of the person hiding from the secret police, I've long maintained that since MAD/nuclear weapons became a possibility that there is no such thing as 'none of your business'; we all have a vested interest in the emotional situation and financial incentives of those in the global village. Should a veil of secrecy exist, it may very well cover that which will undo us all.