Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Don't Let You Get in the Way

Although I've been mostly positive about my own blogging, one of my big worries is that once my ideas go public, they will become static. That in an effort to not contradict myself, I will be less likely to adopt different ideas. Even worse, if this is true for me, then maybe it's also true of the billions of other people putting there thoughts and ideas on social networking sites everyday. Though there may be benefits to this (who's to say the new you is better?), I think most personal growth is just that, growth.

Economist Robin Hanson once published a list of "signs that your opinions function more to signal loyalty and ability than to estimate truth" on his blog Overcoming Bias. Here they are:
  1. You find it hard to be enthusiastic for something until you know that others oppose it.
  2. You have little interest in getting clear on what exactly is the position being argued.
  3. Realizing that a topic is important and neglected doesn't make you much interested.
  4. You have little interest in digging to bigger topics behind commonly argued topics.
  5. You are less interested in a topic when you don’t foresee being able to talk about it.
  6. You are uncomfortable taking a position near the middle of the opinion distribution.
  7. You are uncomfortable taking a position of high uncertainty about who is right.
  8. You care far more about current nearby events than similar distant or past/future events.
  9. You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid.
  10. You are reluctant to change your publicly stated positions in response to new info.
  11. You are reluctant to agree a rival’s claim, even if you had no prior opinion on the topic.
  12. You are reluctant to take a position that raises the status of rivals.
  13. You care more about consistency between your beliefs than about belief accuracy.
  14. You go easy on sloppy arguments by folks on “your side.”
  15. You have little interest in practical concrete implications of commonly argued topics.
  16. Your opinion doesn't much change after talking with smart folks who know more.
  17. You are especially eager to drop names when explaining positions and arguments.
  18. You find it hard to list weak points and counter-arguments on your positions.
  19. You feel passionately about a topic, but haven’t sought out much evidence.
  20. You are reluctant to not have an opinion on commonly discussed topics.
Similarly, entrepreneur Paul Graham has written an essay on the topic of "keeping your identity small". He speaks specifically about problem conversations with religion and politics:
More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people's identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn't safely talk about with others.

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.
What does this mean for my desire for perspective and the descriptive terms I have on the top right of this blog?


  1. I certainly agree with the notion that the fewer the labels, the better. There may be a step between tolerance and not identifying, though. I identify strongly as female, for instance, while my husband identifies quite strongly as male. I don't have to merely tolerate the fact that he's male and I'm female. I can be so comfortable with the fact that I am who I am that I have no need or desire to project my identity onto him, or to resent him for it. Children who are raised to be completely at ease with themselves and their rights to have differing ideas and to discuss these ideas with others will become adults who are less likely to form their identities around the identities of others. I don't think strongly identifying is necessarily the issue (and in fact, it's only by identifying that we become healthy, normal adults), but rather the way underlying needs to belong, to be right, and to dominate sway us in one direction or another. It's the classic bully scenario -- a person who feels the need to bully has many, many unmet needs and insecurities.

    The labels are bandaids of a sort. I hurt here, so I'll call myself "this". In order to grow and heal, eventually the bandaid has to come off. This is painful and intolerable to many, and so they'd rather just hide behind the labels.

  2. I think you make an important distinction. The labels that negatively affect us are the ones are trying to prove. The others are just who we are.

    That said, just because some of them attempt to satisfy a healthy need to belong, doesn't mean they are healthy. That need should be satisfied by relationships, not relationship labels.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. I was interested to see that almost all 20 of these "signs" don't describe me very well. What does that say about me? That I have almost no desire to win an argument or be "right"? That I don't have any convictions? I know that's not true, but I think the state of our political discourse in America is so discouraging to me that I am completely turned off by arguments and want everyone to desire solutions more than arguments. Of course this is naieve. We'll have to talk some about this, Harrison.

  4. I wouldn't say you don't have any convictions, just that you don't like conflict Patty.

    I think being discouraged by political discourse just means your listening. I think we all are.

    Good think I'll be in town this week for some conversation (but don't worry, not conflict).


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.