Archive for June, 2012

Captions do the heavy lifting as far as deception is concerned.

Errol Morris

The caption of a photograph greatly affects how we see it.  Now, think of what other people see you do as a photograph.  How is the caption of that photograph determined?

I believe that we all try to influence how our photographs are captioned (not always consciously).  The primary mechanism is signaling.  Most people will not directly try to caption their own photo (for example, by telling others “I am a good person.”).  Instead, they try to influence the caption by casually mentioning things that we associate with the trait that they want in the caption.  If you want people to know that you make a lot of money, you could buy a BMW rather than tell people your income.  If you want people to think that you are nice, you could express outrage about sex trafficking.

People who directly tell you their traits are pushing the final domino.  People who use very subtle signaling push one of the first dominoes and pretend that their goal is not to knock down the final one.

Manipulation, social skills, and writing your own caption

Note the following (which I think are largely correct, but which are based more on anecdotal evidence and logic than scientific study):

1.  strong social skills are necessary to manipulate people

2.  strong social skills can cause delusions

3. having self-delusions makes it easier to manipulate people

As mentioned previously, people with strong social skills who are manipulative push down a domino far from the target (that’s basically what it means to be manipulative).  They are most effective if they have very little awareness of what their actual goal is (i.e., if they are delusional).  In fact, they need to go great lengths to make sure they never see what they are doing.  They build a fortress around their delusion, and fend off the truth invaders by ignoring, censoring, or attacking the character or motives of the messenger.

What’s interesting is I have noticed that high social skill manipulative types (who usually push a domino far from the target) tend to try to directly caption their own portrait.  They might have very sophisticated ways of getting you to give them what they want, while directly telling you they are a good person.  The manipulator needs for you to believe that s/he is of high moral character.  They will be more successful at that if they also believe it.

I suspect that the act of manipulation puts fears about what people will think of them in the forefront of their mind.  The manipulator cannot survive if people are suspicious of their motives.  Thus, there is an urgency to actively try to write their own caption.

So on the one hand, the combination of social skills and desire to manipulate leads to pushing a domino far from the target.  On the other hand, when it comes to captioning, they knock that domino down directly.


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“This is kind of awkward, but, um, I’ve been noticing you in class—and, like, I’d really love to get to know you better, and I was just wondering”—his voice cracked—”if maybe this weekend you wanted to go see Hamlet at the Repertory Theater with me?”

“What you’re saying is tantamount to saying that you want to fuck me. So why shouldn’t I react with revulsion precisely as though you’d said the latter?”

Eric’s cheeks reddened and his hands trembled; it was rather cute.  “I just wanted to have a good time, just as friends!”

You’re asking me to accept that a first domino will be knocked over yet a hundredth will stand. Do chess masters continue playing when they see a mate—get it?—twenty moves ahead?”

[from Scott Aaronson’s short story On Self-Delusion and Bounded Rationality (bold emphasis mine)]


We evolved such a complex way to communicate that we overshot and something has gone awry.  In the name of politeness one rule is to not be blunt.  For example, people say “Can you pass the salt?”  Of course s/he can pass the salt. You are literally asking if they are capable.   That is not what you intend to ask.  So why not ask, “pass the salt?”   You do not need to know if they can.  What you want is to have them pass the salt. But to give a directive can be considered rude, demanding, or threatening.  So we develop sentences that do not mean what they say. When communication was first used, it was likely a way to convey what we wanted. The veiled directives, metaphors, and other general complex ways of conveying meaning followed later. It might be the case that when we became good at veiling one type of meaning, we could turn our attention to getting even better at this doublespeak. 

Let’s say you do not like Sally.  If you are socially sophisticated you will not say that you do not like Sally.  Instead, you will say other things that imply it, or say things with certain facial expressions or intonation that, to the sophisticated observer, will make it clear that you do not like Sally.   Yet, you retain plausible deniability. Someone might confront you by saying, “You said you didn’t like Sally.” Since you never said the words, “I don’t like Sally,” you maintain plausible deniability. 
Speaking in a non direct manner is supposed to be polite, but in reality it serves as a tool to carry out severe manipulations that no one is very good at naming.


Chain of dominoes
People with the worst social skills just knock down the last domino directly (“I don’t like Sally” or “I want to have sex with you”).  People with pretty bad social skills knock down the 2nd to last, which causes the last to fall. They might say rude and thinly veiled negative statments about Sally that are easily recognizable to others as, “I don’t like Sally.”  People with the best social skills knock down a domino way back in the chain.  They can actually say nice things about Sally or seem genuinely concerned about Sally (while knocking down the domino).  The effect is the same, but, if they are ever called out on it, they can argue that they were actually being nice.
Since it is difficult to call someone out directly when their comments are so indirect and so skillfully veiled, it is helpful to have something concrete, such as the chain of domino analogy. It provides you with a useful tool the when encountering a master of politely stinging or ‘helpful” comments that afford them the luxury of plausible deniability.


co-written with charlene estornell

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The Asch experiments from the 1950s showed that people would give the wrong answer if they observed other people in the group giving the wrong answer.

More recent imaging studies suggest that when other people claim to see something differently than you do, it can change activation in the visual part of your brain, so that you actually see the image differently.  One of the authors, Dr Klucharev, said:  “Our results also show that social conformity is based on mechanisms that comply with reinforcement learning and is reinforced by the neural error-monitoring activity which signals what is probably the most fundamental social mistake—that of being too different from others.”

The implication, I think, is that we conform for social reasons.

However, I wonder why we don’t view it as intelligent (and not social).  For example, if I’m looking at sticks and everyone around me tells me that the one that I think is second biggest is actually the biggest, I think it’s quite reasonable to doubt the accuracy of what I’m seeing (outside of psych experiments, people are generally not going to lie about what they see).  To the extent that our brain updates for us (changes how we see it), that suggests some pretty impressive updating to me.

So how can we decide if it’s intelligent updating or merely social?

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It seems to me that our universe has a single mission, which is to organize all of the particles into one complex, efficient system. If you think about the history of the universe, it seems to constantly move in that direction.  DNA was one of the great ‘inventions’ in that regard, because of variation in organisms that it can produce.  When people talk about how the goal of living things is to have offspring who will have offspring who will have offspring, I think this is a very narrow view.  Inclusive genetic fitness only matters if reproduction is leading to progress towards the larger goal. If humans stop contributing towards that goal, they will get purged (which would mean we became ‘unfit’ as a species).

If the ultimate goal isn’t to survive and reproduce, but rather, to build increasingly complex, efficient systems, then one might predict that humans (as the most successful living things so far) would value people who contribute towards building complex, efficient systems.  Whether it was cars, railroad, phones, governments, computers, facebook — contributing to the building of a system is a good way to get rich and/or famous (picture Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, or our ‘founding fathers’).

The above are just thoughts based on conversations with Charlene and Mengsen

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In evolution, plasticity leads to diversity (all you have to do is find a niche).  For example, large horned beetles with large horns have reproductive success (by winning fights).  However, being small and hornless can lead to success too:

..small males may simply wait next to tunnel entrances for opportunities to temporarily gain access to females while the guarding male is distracted, for instance by fighting off a second intruder. Studies have provided evidence consistent with the hypothesis that hornlessness increases maneuverability inside tunnels, suggesting that the absence of horns may be adaptive in the particular behavioral niche inhabited by small, sneaking males

Similarly, there are social network niches for every belief in internet space.  We get a big social reward for being part of a group.

However, you  have probably noticed that if you want to discuss policy or politics, the worst people to talk to are people who strongly identify with a political party and spend a lot of time in the corner of the blogosphere with other like-minded people.

It goes something like this:  you have some opinion; you begin to identify yourself as an __ist; you find other __ists in your personal life and online; you all reinforce each others’ beliefs; when someone presents evidence against your beliefs, it has the effect of ‘rallying the troops’ (you and your __ists bond over trashing the evidence; backfire effect); this all leads to you believing in some difficult-to-defend-outside-of-your-social-circle ideas.

So how do we prevent folie à plusieurs while still getting the social reward?

I think it is best to avoid having strong belief-based identities.  But to the extent that you consider yourself an __ist, it is probably best to not exclusively hang out with other __ists.  For example, feminists are probably better off talking to economists, evolutionary biologists, and moral philosophers, rather than other feminists exclusively (otherwise you end up with stuff like this).

An alternative  is to identify yourself by your interests and not your beliefs.  For example, find a corner of the blogosphere with people who identify as liking to discuss politics, rather than with people who identify with a political party.  Or, find people who identify as liking to discuss the bible, rather than people who identify as christian or atheist. You and your group can be just as passionate about truth seeking in some area as other people are about particular beliefs.

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