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Deception and Self-Doubt

8 Post author: Psychohistorian 11 March 2010 02:39AM

A little while ago, I argued with a friend of mine over the efficiency of the Chinese government. I admitted he was clearly better informed on the subject than I. At one point, however, he claimed that the Chinese government executed fewer people than the US government. This statement is flat-out wrong; China executes ten times as many people as the US, if not far more. It's a blatant lie. I called him on it, and he copped to it. The outcome is besides the point. Why does it matter that he lied? In this case, it provides weak evidence that the basics of his claim were wrong, that he knew the point he was arguing was, at least on some level, incorrect.

The fact that a person is willing to lie indefensibly in order to support their side of an argument shows that they have put "winning" the argument at the top of their priorities. Furthermore, they've decided, based on the evidence they have available, that lying was a more effective way to advance their argument than telling the truth. While exceptions obviously exist, if you believe that lying to a reasonably intelligent audience is the best way of advancing your claim, this suggests that you know your claim is ill-founded, even if you don't admit this fact to yourself.

Two major exceptions exist. First, the person may simply have no qualms about lying, and may just say anything they think will advance their point, regardless of its veracity. This indicates the speaker should never be trusted on basically any factual claim he makes, though it does not necessarily show self-doubt. Second, the speaker may have little respect for the intelligence of her audience, and believe that the audience is not sophisticated enough for the truth to persuade them. While this may be justified, depending on the audience,1 unless there is good evidence to believe the audience legitimately would not process the truth accurately, this shows the speaker is likely wrong about his central point. However, "the masses are ignorant and should be lead by their betters" is a pretty effective cognitive dissonance resolver, so he may not experience the same self-doubt.

This principle applies in direct proportion to the deception, and in direct proportion to the sophistication of the speaker. An informed person relying on outright lies indicates either an Escher-like mind or a belief in the wrongness of your position. Lesser deception indicates lesser reservations. An uninformed person may well lie to support proposition that a better informed person could support easily with the facts. But, if an apparently informed advocate is resorting lies and deception, it strongly suggests he has little else to work with.


1- This is not necessarily unjustified. Consider a babysitter with a child who walk by a toy store. The babysitter needs to get the child home soon. The child gets excited and starts demanding they go in, and the babysitter says, "We can't, they're closed!" This may be patently false, but, in this case, the truth is very unlikely to convince his audience, even if better solutions may exist.

Comments (34)

Comment author: JamesAndrix 11 March 2010 05:07:30AM 10 points [-]

I'm not sure a babysitter is the right example, as it is often an issue of conflicting values, rather than the babysitter actually being right, given the child's values. If you lie to a human-level paperclipper, it's not because you think they won't understand, but because you know they won't care.

A child can be fully aware that a babysitter has homework to do and still want to see the toys.

I wouldn't consider that lie justified anyway. If you're circumventing a child's preferences, you should tell them you're doing it, and why.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 11 March 2010 06:37:04PM 4 points [-]

This is what I get for removing details to improve the flow of my writing. I'd tacked on a few conditions (like the parents expressly stating they did not want the child to go into the toy store), and then I figured the example wasn't such a big issue.

Also, that's not quite what the example states; it says she needs to get the child home soon. Perhaps he needs his medicine, perhaps his parents required him home at a certain time, perhaps he has a piano lesson. The point is that there isn't time to have the child throw a fit in front of the store.

That said, I'm not claiming that this is the absolute best approach, only that it is justifiable. Your median babysitter may have less skill with explanation than your median lesswrong commenter, not to mention she may have more skill handling children than your median lesswrong commenter.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 11 March 2010 07:24:50AM 3 points [-]

If you're circumventing a child's preferences, you should tell them you're doing it, and why.

Full agreement. (If you want them to be honest, you should teach by example.)

Comment author: Kevin 11 March 2010 11:24:41AM *  9 points [-]

I think you're assigning too much probability to the possibility that your friend told an intentional lie. Probably his brain was occupied by generating an extremely complex conversation that stretched the bounds of his knowledge. Somewhere along the line his brain assigned a ~90% chance that China executed fewer people during the USA and it turns out he was wrong. That shock to him probably made him much more receptive to your beliefs. Self-deception is also a possibility. If he was a CCP member, for example, I could see your friend sincerely believing in the truth of the lie he was telling.

This type of non-intentional lying has been mostly solved by having the internet readily available during complex conversations. If you weren't able to convince your friend of your side yet, you might want to try dissolving the question...

Comment author: FAWS 11 March 2010 02:56:59AM *  8 points [-]

It's not obvious to me that your friend was actually lying in the strict sense. He may have made that statement because it "felt right" without really considering its truth. He might have heard a lot of news about executions in the USA, but proportionally much less about executions in China, on an emotional level based the opinion that there are more executions in the USA on that without ever actually thinking it through, and then in the heat of the debate that statement just sort of slipped out of him. Of course I don't know whether anything like this was the case, but it strikes me as more likely than blatant lying.

I assume you haven't actually asked him why he was lying or you would have mentioned it in the post.

Comment author: Matt_Stevenson 11 March 2010 03:34:34AM 1 point [-]

Even if it is a gut feeling and not an explicit lie, he is still showing that his facts are weak since he's resorting to emotions.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 11 March 2010 07:36:39AM 7 points [-]

Unless you're an expert in a specific topic, then it seems to me rather likely that you're bound to believe in at least some things about it which are in fact false. We don't have the time or energy to comprehensively check the source of every statement we encounter, nor an ability to reliably keep track of which statements we have indeed checked. Even facts found in seemingly reliable sources, like textbooks on the topic, might be wrong.

I don't think making an erroneous statement or two is enough for us to say that his facts were weak, or that he resorted too much to emotions. If you discuss any topic long enough, the odds are that you're going to slip a not-entirely-thought-out statement sooner or later. This is especially so since discussing a topic with someone else will force us to consider points of view we hadn't thought of ourselves, and make up new responses on the spot.

Incidentally, having to quickly react to new points of view is what makes me a bit suspicious of the sometimes-heard claim "I debunked his claim in debate X, but then I heard him afterwards repeating it debate Y, so clearly he's intellectually dishonest". Yes, sometimes this is true, but it might also be that when the other person had more time to reflect on their opponent's arguments, they thought they found in them a fatal flaw and could thus save their original claim. I know it's happened to me.

Comment author: byrnema 11 March 2010 03:52:49AM *  3 points [-]

We (three) seem to agree that the friend resorted to emotional thinking... and that would be the reason he was careless or abusive of factual truths.

But I'm not convinced this is evidence that his 'facts are weak', because, actually, is there any fact in the matter of whether a government is efficient? In other words, were they discussing something for which facts were entirely the most relevant parameter? His friend shouldn't have lied about a fact, but when in arguing-an-impression-mode, facts seem much more often useful as rhetorical devices than actual evidence.

Comment author: simplicio 11 March 2010 04:07:46AM 3 points [-]

Not disagreeing with your overall point but...

"...is there any fact in the matter of whether a government is efficient?"

I think yes, although it's sticky to define. Take a reductio of extreme cases: say, Somalia vs. Sweden. I think in this context it is clear there is a fact of the matter.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 11 March 2010 07:21:27AM *  4 points [-]

Efficiency should be some sort of ratio of benefit to cost. Somalia has a feeble government and no effective taxation; Sweden has a lot of both. This does not determine the relation between the ratios. For low benefit/high cost, the pre-1989 USSR would be a better example.

Comment author: simplicio 11 March 2010 10:11:58PM 0 points [-]

I didn't think Psychohistorian meant "efficiency" in the technical sense, but yeah, I see what you're saying.

Comment author: Kevin 11 March 2010 11:36:57AM 1 point [-]

Assuming Psychohistorian's friend was arguing in favor of the efficiency of the Chinese government, I think the argument was really about the relatively collectivist morals of the Chinese people and government compared to the morality of the US people and government.

In the USA, most people probably think that the USA government is more efficient than the Chinese government because the USA is more "good" than the Chinese. Most Chinese people don't think the government has a duty to be "good", but should instead be focused on relentless growth and strong national unity. The USA government is indeed more "good" than the CCP, but the CCP is indeed focusing on relentless growth and national unity which makes it seem very efficient to people with Urban Residency Permits. It probably doesn't seem so efficient to the Chinese people that don't have Urban Residency Permits.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hukou_system

Comment author: [deleted] 11 March 2010 04:57:58AM 2 points [-]

"Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts."

Emotions are highly fallible, but they're also efficient. If you're a perfect Bayesian, you'll think everything through completely, without emotion; if your brain contains a mere 30 billion neurons, you'll use thoughts for the most important things and also emotions for everything.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 11 March 2010 11:02:33AM 5 points [-]

Rationalization is a strong drive, even when one defends a correct position. Every argument will look to support the favored position more than it does (belief bias). Many incorrect beliefs (seen as supporting one's position) are a result of poor mental hygiene, not deliberate invention.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 11 March 2010 04:44:18AM 5 points [-]

I think that this is completely wrong about the psychology of boldfaced lies. They are much more commonly the result of a feeling of entitlement or resentment of the need to debate at all. I think that matches the proximate explanation of FAWS.

Comment author: RobinZ 11 March 2010 03:30:57AM *  5 points [-]

I've done that. Recently, even. I think it's generally the debate failure mode, as you suggested - if I wasn't caught up in the argument, I wouldn't have even considered saying it.

(For the record: it was claiming that derivative works based on material still in copyright was illegal. Which I know is not true.)

Comment author: thomblake 11 March 2010 02:39:27PM 4 points [-]

IANAL, but in the US some derivative works based on material still in copyright are considered infringing. For example, taking Microsoft's source code for Windows, adding some functionality, and selling it as your own OS would be infringing.

Comment author: RobinZ 11 March 2010 02:43:29PM *  2 points [-]

You're right - according to this PDF on copyright.gov, the requirement is that

a derivative work must be different enough from the original to be regarded as a new work or must contain a substantial amount of new material. Making minor changes or additions of little substance to a preexisting work will not qualify the work as a new version for copyright purposes.

Edit: Outside the US, of course, the rules may vary.

Comment author: Unknowns 11 March 2010 08:21:09AM 4 points [-]

Upvoted for honesty. I think lying to advance a position shows much less than the OP claims, because I think the vast majority of people do this at times in the heat of argument, even when they in fact have good reasons for their position.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 11 March 2010 07:16:46PM 3 points [-]

In practice you were right. Derivative works fairly frequently draw lawsuits even when they are largely original.
See as examples http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_disputes_over_the_Harry_Potter_series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wind_Done_Gone

Comment author: RobinZ 11 March 2010 07:45:01PM 0 points [-]

Now that is very interesting - I had heard of such cases, but I wasn't thinking of them when I spoke. They derive from the very common (legally incorrect) idea that derivative works are always illegal, of course.

Unfortunately, it isn't really a defense for me - I felt, as I spoke, that I was engaged in false rhetoric, because I didn't believe what I was saying.

Comment author: jimrandomh 11 March 2010 04:52:50AM 6 points [-]

If it isn't written down, it hasn't been through enough sanity checks yet. Spoken debates typically occur at a pace that guarantees some undetected falsehoods.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 11 March 2010 07:14:02PM 0 points [-]

I almost hold the opposite position. Written debate is necessarily relatively unresponsive and without response to individual disputed points debate takes forever. Email with every point addressed may be best, but taxes memory more than spoken debate. and in most cases not every point is addressed.

Comment author: jimrandomh 11 March 2010 07:22:20PM 2 points [-]

Sounds like your problem with written debates is not that wrong things get written, but that not enough gets written in total to cover everything - ie, higher quality per word, but fewer words total and potentially not enough. This is exactly the tradeoff one woul expect from adjusting the quality threshold below which people self-censor.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 14 March 2010 08:15:39PM 2 points [-]

Nope, it's that the wrong things get written. A written paper, to avoid weaknesses, has to develop every point to a fairly standard depth, but this implies developing sub-points in standard depth and indefinite length. A conversation is to writing as a chess program is to the exhaustive search of chess-space. Only the promising lines of inquiry get explored and they get explored in enough depth to resolve uncertainty to mutual satisfaction.

Comment author: komponisto 11 March 2010 06:02:49AM 2 points [-]

An informed person relying on outright lies indicates either an Escher-like mind

Probably better to say "Escher-painting-like mind" lest we unnecessarily cast aspersions on the man himself.

Comment author: MercuryChaos 11 March 2010 09:29:37AM *  9 points [-]

But when people say something's "Kafkaesque" they're alluding to the situations that he wrote about, and not to Kafka himself. Maybe "Escheresque" would be a better word?

Comment author: komponisto 11 March 2010 07:10:36PM *  1 point [-]

Maybe "Escheresque" would be a better word?

Heavens no. Should be "Escherian". When in comes to names, the suffix "-esque" is a faute-de-mieux stopgap that should be reserved for cases where "-ian" doesn't work (as in Kafka) or already has another meaning ("Arabesque" vs. "Arabian").

On the other point, if one were to say, disapprovingly, that somebody has "a Kafka-like mind", my reaction would be the same, for the same reason.

Comment author: Jack 12 March 2010 02:12:14PM 4 points [-]

No! Boo that! The suffix "-esque" actually means "in the style or manner of". The suffix "-ian" is a catchall that just means "of or relating too". "Escherian" would be reserved for purposes where there is no appropriate suffix. For example, collectors of Escher's estate are interested in "Escherian memorabilia". Perhaps the group the gets together every month to discuss his work is the "Escherian society". If you have a piece of language that removes ambiguity, use it!

Comment author: komponisto 12 March 2010 06:00:41PM *  2 points [-]
  1. Well, I did specifically allow disambiguation as an excuse for using -esque (as in "arabesque").

  2. I don't believe for a moment that all the people who characterize the behavior of smirking, mendacious politicians as "Clintonesque" are doing so because of a fear that "Clintonian" would be ambiguous. What's really going on here is that "-ian" requires a change in the stress pattern of the root, which is apparently the sort of thing that causes people's brains to crash. Meanwhile, having heard somebody use the term "Kafkaesque", they think they've discovered a suffix for the general purpose of making adjectives from names that doesn't require any alteration of the root.

  3. "Escherian society/memorabilia" is pretentious (and underspecific!) and should be replaced by "Escher society/memorabilia".

Comment author: Jack 12 March 2010 09:29:50PM *  3 points [-]

Hmmm. There are four criteria I usually consider in these discussions- 1. Traditional "proper" English grammar, 2. De facto usage, 3. Pragmatics, language that makes it easier to say things is good language, we should have it. 4. Aesthetics.

  1. I can't seem to find formation rules for eponymous adjectives anywhere on the internet. I will therefore assume they don't exist. So my evidence just consists of the list. There do seem to be some patterns like if a word ends in "on" the right suffix is "-ic" (except then Smithsonian should be Smithsonic!). Names that end in "er" tend to add -ian but there are exceptions. "-esque" appears to be much more common for painters, pop musicians and artists in general. This is also true of words that use -esque but aren't eponymous like "picturesque" and "statuesque". See here.

  2. This might be the only thing that matters. As you can see in that second link, Escheresque is already in use. It has it's own Wiktionary page. Escheresque dominates the google battle.

  3. The problem is that since "-ian" is so flexible there is the possibility of ambiguity in a lot of cases. And "-esque" is has a particular meaning that "-ian" does not have by itself. It's a useful piece of language.

  4. Basically the case for "Escherian" rests on liking the tradition of altering the root instead of the Newspeak-esque rule of just adding a single suffix on to any noun. I like this tradition very much. I even agree that the practice of tacking on "-esque" to things just to turn them into adjectives is bad form. But I'm not trying to get rid of "Escherian". I'm just saying it doesn't mean the same thing as Escheresque. Something can be Escherian and still not resemble the works of Escher. The Escherian society, example (and of course the name is pretentious! They spend their evenings discussing M.C. Escher!). Or say Escher had spawned a whole school of art dedicated to his principles. Their works may or not be Escheresque but the school would "Escherian". Note that "Escheresque" can't be used in that way. And that's a good thing.

Afaict this is a pretty general principle as well. You might write a book in a rhetorical style that reminds me of Nietzsche. I could then say that your writing was "Nietzsche-esque", even if your positions were far from Nietzschean.

Comment author: djcb 12 March 2010 01:49:05PM *  0 points [-]

Well, Escherian has the unfortunate connection with E.Coli, the usually harmless bacterium that gets a lot of bad press.

Comment author: prase 12 March 2010 02:03:36PM 1 point [-]

Adjective connected to the bacterium would be Escherichian.

Comment author: Unnamed 11 March 2010 03:28:24AM 0 points [-]

Daniel Davies described this as "Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance" (warning: context may be mind-killing).