Overly convenient clusters, or: Beware sour grapes

by KnaveOfAllTrades5 min read2nd Sep 201420 comments


Motivated Reasoning
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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.


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?


20 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:47 AM
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I negotiate deals for a living. I've come up with various names for the thing that I think you are describing, specifically in the context of doing a deal. Currently, I call it "missing mediocrity." The reason I call it that is that I see business people cluster their analyses in two areas: great success and great failure. They focus on great success for fairly obvious reasons: (1) it is what the deal is intended to obtain, (2) you have to prepare operationally to deliver on the deal after you sign, and (3) their compensation is often tied to success.

They also focus on great failure, but for less transparent reasons. Often, they feel they have an obligation to assess risks for the organization. So they undertake it only as a burden, without creativity. And they aren't very good at it. And, in a case of motivated reasoning, they may want to dismiss the failure case as something that they don't need to plan for. So, you sometimes get statements like, "If that happens, we'll be retired by then." Or "If that happens, we'll be bankrupt anyway." Those statements could even be true, but they are inadequate in the sense that (a) they are missing the more likely cases and (b) they do not fulfill an officer's responsibility to his or her organization.

Both of those extreme outcomes are rare. Instead, what we see is a lot of mediocrity, especially in comparison to great success or great failure. One frequent outcome is that the deal is just a decent one. It neither makes nor breaks the company, but it contributes somewhat to the bottom line. If you do a lot of them, you will be successful. Another frequent outcome is a deal that was not good enough to do, but good enough to stick with once done. (For example, where marginal profits are positive, but will never be enough to cover the already incurred up-front fixed costs.) If you keep doing a lot of them, you will eventually run yourself out of business. And another possible outcome is one that is just a loser of a deal that the company ought to gracefully exit. It won't bankrupt you, but you lose a little money on every transaction and that won't change.

One way to combat the cognitive problem is to recognize your own relative incompetence at this particular type of analysis and bring in an expert. In the deal setting, they are mostly lawyers, but any executive with lots of experience could fill the same role. For example, after an acquisition, a CFO or a CFO's right hand will often analyze the acquired company's deals, to weed out the losers and stop doing new deals where fixed costs exceed the payback. Organizations often have controls in place to require review or oversight by staff functions and committees for this type of reason. (That is, not specific to the missing mediocrity problem, but to address the classes of failures where different types of expertise can prevent a bad decision.)

Max L.

Good post. Jon Elster (whose works I much recommend; he has one book precisely on Sour Grapes) studies proverbs in his Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions. He notes that there are many contrary proverbs (i.e. of the form “Every S is P” and “No S is P.”) such as "out of sight, out of mind" and "absence makes the heart grow fonder" and "opposites attract" and "like attracts like". Elster argues, if I remember correctly, that these denote different mechanisms. According to this analysis, there would be one mechanism that goes from absence via say more loneliness to more love, whereas there is another that goes from absence to greater possibilities of meeting someone else to less love. Which one is the strongest in any individual case depends on various other factors.

If you're interested in this, I'd recommend reading those parts of Elster's book. In any case, I think that there is a lot to your analysis. Many of these proverbs are essentially devices to stop thinking (there is a LW term for this, right?). Rather than trying to weigh pros and cons people make themselves and others stop thinking by dropping a proverb. Many of them rhyme as well, which increases their effect.

Ah, that's good to know. Thanks for the suggestion!

How does Elster avoid the problem that if you have a toolbox of explanations that you can select from to explain anything, you actually aren't explaining anything? In extracts from his works online, I didn't see him considering the question of how to determine which explanation is actually true. It isn't addressed in the Wikipedia article you cited (btw, you need to escape the parentheses in its title for the link to work). The Hedström and Ylikoski paper that it cites only suggests simulating a proposed mechanism and seeing if it generates the observed phenomenon.

Or more shortly, how are true stories to be distinguished from Just-So stories?

How does Elster avoid the problem that if you have a toolbox of explanations that you can select from to explain anything, you actually aren't explaining anything?

On pages 16-20 of Explaining Social Behaviour: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, Elster argues that one should refute rival explanations and show that additional (preferably novel) corollaries of the invoked explanation are observed. "These two criteria – refuting the most plausible alternatives and generating novel facts – are decisive for the credibility of an explanation."

Sorry, I don't remember his views of these important issues. I agree that there is a massive risk that the explanations you give using these proverbs will be Just so-stories. I seem to recall that Elster is quite positive to these proverbs - that they somehow express "folk wisdom" - but I think that one should be quite suspicious of them. They are very often used as facile just-so stories and semantic stopsigns (thanks, polymathwannabe, for the term) to comfort your own prejudices , even though they perhaps need not be (Elster uses lots of examples from French essayists as La Rouchefoucauld and Montaigne, who arguably used them in an unusually interesting and thought-provoking way).

“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!”


having no filter is not a smart way to approach dating

These are not the same things. The first tells you to only employ the filters you would normally employ.

ETA: (This is not a complaint: This has received a downvote. This suggests you disagree. I would like to hear what you have to say)

I think many of these can be solved by keeping oneself stolidly in reality, being realistic and objective about the situation including ones own behavior. There are things I do that I know would drive people nuts. They are neither good or bad they just are. However, to be circumspect about one's life is to allow change.

There is this idea (I think it's a stoic one) that's supposed to show that no one ever has anything to worry. It goes like this:

Either you can do something about it, in which case you don't have to worry, you just do it. Or there is nothing you can do, then you can simply accept the inevitabel

It throws out the possiblility that you don't know whether you can do anything (and what precisely) or not. As I see it, worry is precisely the (sometimes maladaptive) attempt to answer that.

Every calse dichotomy is another example for this failure mode (if I understood you correctly).

I think there is a fatalistic prayer to that effect: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer. It kind of depends on how you read it, though.

Max L.

I actually think the Serenity Prayer is pretty valuable and wish it were reclaimed in some fashion.

There are things you can't change, and if you don't accept that you're going to spend your life being miserable. There are also things you can change but which look impossible at first glance, and learning to recognize when you can change things is super important. (As is having courage to do so, when appropriate)

The fact that wisdom is hardest, and is the final note that the prayer emphasizes, is significant to me.

I actually think the Serenity Prayer is pretty valuable and wish it were reclaimed in some fashion.

So, one option is to take one of the precursors, like Epictetus's:

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions-in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing

But, obviously, this is not optimized for actually repeating it. The Mother Goose rhyme is optimized for repeating:

For every ailment under the sun There is a remedy, or there is none; If there be one, try to find it; If there be none, never mind it.

but seems less on point (it seems to help to specifically call out serenity, courage, and wisdom).

One could just modify the front:

May I have the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other

I just went with the "modify the front" version, which I think works fine. Anything more accurate loses more potency than its worth IMO.

The Serenity Prayer was posted as a rationality quote here and discussed. A few possible modifications were suggested, including this one from Mass_Driver:

Friends, help me build the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to continually update which is which based on the best available evidence.

I think the words are right. My problem with it is that I associate it with people who use it as an excuse to give up. They focus on the idea that they can't change much of anything, so have to accept it. If I were to change it, I would treat the idea that I can't change something as a claim requiring positive proof and being subject to regular challenge. (I'd also filter it for things about which I care and things about which I don't care. But that's kind of beside the point.)

Max L.

The link didn't work. You ended your sentence with a period but it was included in the URL.

Is this what you meant?


[-][anonymous]7y 2

“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!”

There is something about this point in particular that I'm curious about. It seems like a change to this phrase turns things around.

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

As an example, if you consider your best traits to be that you're good at videogames and making homemade cookies and the person that you are attempting to date declines your offer because they hate videogames and homemade cookies ... it seems like you can make a different argument about why a bullet was dodged. In this case does the argument still fall under the same fallacy?

It seems like it might not because in that case you might really NOT care about the person who hates your interests. But it also seems to suggest 'Give your date an opportunity to make you not care about them.' as dating advice, which isn't something I've commonly heard.

I believe you took a simple concept and then attempted to attribute it to ideas it was not meant to convey.