Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Foolish optimism or optimal foolishness?

Publicly stating what you're planning to do is a good way of pressuring yourself to do that. It raises the cost of not doing so, and thus acts as a partial commitment device.

I don't feel like sacrificing myself for science today, but I can definitely think of examples where I wanted myself to do X, so I said I would very publicly. And in some cases I failed to do what I said I would do. And then people thought I was deluded or naive about my own preferences.

For example, you may have seen a study that goes something like this: Students have a paper due. They are asked when they are 50%, 75%, 95%, 100% sure they will have the first draft done by. And of course, some people end up overshooting even the dates they were "100% sure" they wouldn't overshoot. Fools. We conclude that people are terribly naive about their procrastination.

No. Because what if the act of saying you're sure has an effect on when you actually finish? If such an attitude actually helps to motivate you to finish earlier (in expectation), then it can be quite sensible to say you're sure. The alternative, after all, is defeatism...and what's the use of that?

Indeed, it wouldn't be difficult to construct a model where the only people who publicly announce their intentions are the ones who might actually renege on them. Or to take it further, let's say that people can announce their intentions with different levels of conviction. Set it up right, and we can get a scenario where people who announce their intentions with more conviction are -- even after doing so -- less likely to make good on the promise!

(For this, imagine that people want themselves to do X, but (when the time comes) there is some underlying likelihood of not doing X, which an individual can mitigate by announcing with conviction that she will, in fact, do X. We we would just need to rig it up so that, as that underlying likelihood of [not X] grows, it is optimal for people to increase their conviction but not by so much that the probability of [not X] actually falls or stays the same.)

In this model, when you terribly "mispredict" your behavior, it doesn't mean you're terribly naive; to the contrary, it means you know you have a serious problem! We would actually expect "hypocrites" to show up quite often in this world.

Hey, maybe Eliot Spitzer was such a fierce opponent of prostitution in order to increase the expected embarrassment that would befall him, should he succumb to certain temptations...

In Therefore judge not, I said that when people's pronouncements impact the behavior of others, we shouldn't assume these pronouncements actually reflect their beliefs. Here I'm saying that the same is true when people's pronouncements impact their own behavior, too.


  1. Exogeneous CombustionApril 7, 2011 at 10:46 AM

    "Hey, maybe Eliot Spitzer was such a fierce opponent of prostitution in order to increase the expected embarrassment that would befall him, should he succumb to certain temptations..."

    In which case he should be put on trial for abusing his public power for personal benefit...hopefully worse in everyone's minds than consensual intercourse. In this case, literally incarcerating others by force of guns so he could (attempt and fail to) control his own sexual urges for consensual sex.

    My point is this: you are right, we shouldn't care about hypocrisy as such. There might be optimal hypocrisy in the world. But if hypocrisy is strong evidence of worse wrongdoing, as in the hypothetical case of Eliot Spitzer, then we should really stick it to the hypocrites, jail them, impeach them, etc., and have far worse penalties than mere hypocrisy would demand. I think this is especially true for politicians who are hypocrites. More often than not, their hypocrisy reveals a far worse moral/personal deficiency than the one their action would have originally suggested (such as abuse of power, ruining lives, so you could encourage yourself not to have sex with prostitutes).

  2. EC,

    Fine. This is not a moral argument for Spitzer. But as you know, this isn't my real problem with popular usage of "hypocrisy."

    A person can truthfully state that he doesn't think XYZ is the right thing for himself to do, and nevertheless do XYZ. That's essentially what we're talking about here. But a person can ALSO truthfully state that he thinks XYZ is not the right thing for *anyone* to do, while nevertheless doing it. For example priests can preach the word of god even if they can't live up to it, and Spitzer can legislate against prostitution even if he can't help himself.

    The popular usage of "hypocrisy" presumes that these are in conflict, but why shouldn't people be allowed to say and believe one thing is right while doing another? No paradox is created, no contradiction arises; to the contrary, whether XYZ is the right thing to do will depend on the underlying logic of it, quite apart from the behavior of the particular person who happens to deliver the argument. It is a crime against logic to conflate the argument with its speaker on logical grounds. Ad hominem, I suppose it's called.

    When a political scandal breaks out, and a politician is caught doing something he has legislated against, he will be accused of peddling falsity, pretending to believe things he doesn't really believe. Not only does the conclusion not follow, but furthermore it wouldn't particularly bother me if it did. Everyone already knows that every politician pretends to believe many things he or she doesn't really believe. So (a) discovering a particular instance isn't particularly informative, and (b) why should I care what politicians really believe anyway? What matters is their behavior, and if I like how they're behaving, why should I care if *they* don't? Ironically the people who are most outraged about Spitzer and his prostitution hypocrisy are the ones who really don't like prostitution...but why should they want to get rid of someone who was actually tough on prostitution?

    Now I know what you'll say. We don't see most of what politicians do, so we don't get to just decide whether we agree or not with their policies. Instead, we are trusting them to do things we agree with, and their reputations are the carriers of that trust. And as Bayesians when a politician *is* observed doing something bad, it indicates he's more likely to be unscrupulous than a politician who isn't caught.

    That's fair and I'm fully on board with you, except that like I said, all politicians are, by necessity, unscrupulous. If we have a decent idea about the true underlying distribution of unscrupulousness, then I think it's not hard to argue that many of the things we bust them for and get all uppity about really don't push them particularly high up in the distribution. They're just the ones who get caught doing things a lot of politicians do. (So, I disagree with you that hypocrisy typically reveals a far worse deficiency than the one their action would originally have suggested). But moreover, this special crucifixion-by-hypocrisy particularly troubles me. Because if there *are* things that people shouldn't do but have a hard time resisting, it encourages politicians *not* to make laws against them, since the personal penalty will be higher.

    My special disclaimer just for you: The above is all conditioning on it being justified for lawmakers to make the laws they think are best, according to their own standards which we may or may not agree with, except insofar as we collectively voted them into office. I do not particularly agree with Spitzer's political views -- indeed I am probably closer to your political views than the views of any actual politician in office -- but for the purposes of this discussion, that is irrelevant. Today, I do not *care* what the laws should actually be regarding prostitution.