Archive for May, 2012

Politing:  the act of telling someone what you think they want to hear, rather than what you really believe

If someone hosts a dinner party, most (or all) of the guests will compliment the food (even if half of them do not like it).  This is an example of what my friend Charlene and I call politing.  There is a lot of politing in the world.  Some of it is of the etiquette-manners variety, like complimenting someone’s food or house at a dinner party.  All of it involves some form of self-censorship based on anticipating that not censoring would either make someone else feel bad, or make it less likely that you will be accepted socially.

In general, I prefer people who are not politers.  I would rather occasionally hear a remark that stings a bit than to have people pretend to agree with me or tell me what they think I want to hear.  If you think the photographs I have hanging on my walls are ugly, do not pretend to like them and then tell your friends how awful they are.  I would actually love to know that you think they are awful — that’s interesting to me!  We could have a conversation about it.  If you do not like my ideas, do not pretend to agree to spare my feelings.  I would love to know why you dislike them!*

All politing really shows is that you’ve learned society’s social rules.  Congrats.   But will anyone get to know your true feelings? A world where everyone is politing is a world with a lot of conformity and predictability, which seems a lot less interesting to me.

Like euphemism, politing seems to be aimed at presenting an unrealistically rosy picture of the world  (“yay! everybody likes everything I do!”).

I hope that Homo Hypocritus will learn something from aspies.  Let’s have more Larry Davids** and fewer Eddie Haskells.

*FYI: the examples in that paragraph were not pulled from my personal life

**I suspect that part of the reason Curb Your Enthusiasm is so popular is because Larry David, in a lot of ways, is who we would like to be.  Sure, he takes things too far sometimes, but he does not have the censor.  He’s not wearing the straightjacket that most people are.


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Suppose two people are trying to quit smoking.  They both want a cigarette, but they wish they didn’t want a cigarette.  So there is a difference between what they want and what they metawant.  Now, suppose one of the two people smokes a cigarette.  Does that mean that the person who smoked had less willpower?

If somebody does not do something that they have a first order desire to do and a second order desire to abstain from, this could be viewed as an example of willpower.  However, we do not know how strong their first order desire was.  In the above example, perhaps the person who smoked had a much stronger first order desire to smoke, but they both had an equal second order desire to not smoke.  Did the smoker really have less willpower?

Denote by W (for ‘want’) the level of first order desire that a person has to take some action.  Denote by MW (for ‘metawant’) the level of second order desire to not take the action.   We could roughly think of the decision to take the action or not as determined by whether MW>W.

What we observe is whether the person took the action, i.e., whether MW exceeded W.  But we do not observe MW and W.

If the person who successfully quit smoking, or if the skinny person who doesn’t overeat, brags about superior willpower, it seems to me that they are inferring (assuming) something about other people’s MW and W, even though they only observed whether MW exceeded W.

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