Overly convenient clusters, or: Beware sour grapes

by KnaveOfAllTrades 3 min read2nd Sep 201419 comments

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Related to: Policy Debates Should Not Appear One-Sided

There is a well-known fable which runs thus:

“Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked 'Oh, you aren't even ripe yet! I don't need any sour grapes.' People who speak disparagingly of things that they cannot attain would do well to apply this story to themselves.”

This gives rise to the common expression ‘sour grapes’, referring to a situation in which one incorrectly claims to not care about something to save face or feel better after being unable to get it.

This seems to be related to a general phenomenon, in which motivated cognition leads one to flinch away from the prospect of an action that is inconvenient or painful in the short term by concluding that a less-painful option strictly dominates the more-painful one.

In the fox’s case, the allegedly-dominating option is believing (or professing) that he did not want the grapes. This spares him the pain of feeling impotent in face of his initial failure, or the embarrassment of others thinking him to have failed. If he can’t get the grapes anyway, then he might as well erase the fact that he ever wanted them, right? The problem is that considering this line of reasoning will make it more tempting to conclude that the option really was dominating—that he really couldn’t have gotten the grapes. But maybe he could’ve gotten the grapes with a bit more work—by getting a ladder, or making a hook, or Doing More Squats in order to Improve His Vert.

The fable of the fox and the grapes doesn’t feel like a perfect fit, though, because the fox doesn’t engage in any conscious deliberation before giving up on sour grapes; the whole thing takes place subconsciously. Here are some other examples that more closely illustrate the idea of conscious rationalization by use of overly convenient partitions:

The Seating Fallacy:

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.”

This advice is neither good in full generality nor bad in full generality. Clearly there are some situations where some person is worrying too much about other people judging them, or is anxious about inconveniencing others without taking their own preferences into account. But there are also clearly situations (like dealing with an unpleasant, incompetent boss) where fully exposing oneself or saying whatever comes into one’s head is not strategic and outright disastrous. Without taking into account the specifics of the situation of the recipient of the advice, it is of limited use.

It is convenient to absolve oneself of blame by writing off anybody who challenges our first impulse as someone who ‘doesn’t matter’; it means that if something goes wrong, one can avoid the painful task of analysing and modifying one’s behaviour.

In particular, we have the following corollary:

The Fundamental Fallacy of Dating:

“Be yourself and don’t hide who you are. Be up-front about what you want. If it puts your date off, then they wouldn’t have been good for you anyway, and you’ve dodged a bullet!”

In the short-term it is convenient to not have to filter or reflect on what one says (face-to-face) or writes (online dating). In the longer term, having no filter is not a smart way to approach dating. As the biases and heuristics program has shown, people are often mistaken about what they would prefer under reflection, and are often inefficient and irrational in pursuing what they want. There are complicated courtship conventions governing timelines for revealing information about oneself and negotiating preferences, that have evolved to work around these irrationalities, to the benefit of both parties. In particular, people are dynamically inconsistent, and willing to compromise a lot more later on in a courtship than they thought they would earlier on; it is often a favour to both of you to respect established boundaries regarding revealing information and getting ahead of the current stage of the relationship.

For those who have not much practised the skill of avoiding triggering Too Much Information reactions, it can feel painful and disingenuous to even try changing their behaviour, and they rationalise it via the Fundamental Fallacy. At any given moment, changing this behaviour is painful and causes a flinch reaction, even though the value of information of trying a different approach might be very high, and might cause less pain (e.g. through reduced loneliness) in the long term.

We also have:

PR rationalization and incrimination:

“There’s already enough ammunition out there if anybody wants to assassinate my character, launch a smear campaign, or perform a hatchet job. Nothing I say at this point could make it worse, so there’s no reason to censor myself.”

This is an overly convenient excuse. It does not take into account, for example, that new statements provide a new opportunity for one to come to the attention of quote miners in the first place, or that different statements might be more or less easy to seed a smear campaign; ammunition can vary in type and accessibility, so that adding more can increase the convenience of a hatchet job. It might turn out, after weighing the costs and benefits, that speaking honestly is the right decision. But one can’t know that on the strength of a convenient deontological argument that doesn’t consider those costs. Similarly:

“I’ve already pirated so much stuff I’d be screwed if I got caught. Maybe it was unwise and impulsive at first, but by now I’m past the point of no return.”

 This again fails to take into account the increased risk of one’s deeds coming to attention; if most prosecutions are caused by (even if not purely about) offences shortly before the prosecution, and you expect to pirate long into the future, then your position now is the same as when you first pirated; if it was unwise then, then it’s unwise now.

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The common fallacy in all these cases is that one looks at only the extreme possibilities, and throws out the inconvenient, ambiguous cases. This results in a disconnected space of possibilities that is engineered to allow one to prove a convenient conclusion. For example, the Seating Fallacy throws out the possibility that there are people who mind but also matter; the Fundamental Fallacy of Dating prematurely rules out people who are dynamically inconsistent or are imperfect introspectors, or who have uncertainty over preferences; PR rationalization fails to consider marginal effects and quantify risks in favour of a lossy binary approach.

What are other examples of situations where people (or Less Wrongers specifically) might fall prey to this failure mode?

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