Consistent Glomarization should be feasible

by Stuart_Armstrong1 min read4th May 202011 comments



Glomarization is responding that one "can neither confirm nor deny" something. It has to be done consistently, to avoid problems like:

There's been a lot of talk on this list about honesty and meta-honesty. Glomarization is a minor part of this, I know, but there is a claim that:

Genuinely consistent Glomarization (i.e., consistently saying "I cannot confirm or deny" whether or not there's anything to conceal) does not work in principle because there are too many counterfactual selves who might want to conceal something.

Consistently Glomarizing with "OR"

The problem with Glomarizing in everyday life is:

So either you Glomarize very rarely (thus making it obvious when you've been up to something questionable), or you do it all the time (making you a terrible friend who refuses to share basic details of their life in a simple conversation).

A somewhat better answer would be:

Now, that's still socially awkward in many situations, but you can at least do it consistently to every query, while sharing most of your life in a conversational way. Note that this is superior to "or I did something I don't want to tell you about", because if you said that, then they merely needed to find out that you hadn't slept early to conclude you were up to something dubious.

With close friends or rationalist groups, you might agree in advance that there's a "or I don't want to tell you about what I did" attached to every statement about your life, or have a short abbreviation equivalent to that.

Other alternatives could be:

Not the easiest and most conventional way of phrasing things, but in terms of socially sharing harmless information, it gets the job done (and is probably more honest than most people's answers to these questions).


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With close friends or rationalist groups, you might agree in advance that there's a "or I don't want to tell you about what I did" attached to every statement about your life, or have a short abbreviation equivalent to that.

This already exists, and the degree of “or I’m not telling the truth” is communicated nonverbally.

For example, when my wife early in her pregnancy we attended the wedding of one of her friends, and a friend noticed that she wasn’t drinking “her” drink and asked “Oh my gosh, are you pregnant!?”. My wife’s response was to smile and say “yep” and then take a sip of beer. The reason this worked for both 1) causing her friend to conclude that she [probably] wasn’t pregnant and 2) not feeling like her trust was betrayed later is that the response was given “jokingly”, which means “don’t put too much weight into the seriousness of this statement”. A similar response could be “No, don’t you think I’d have immediately told you immediately if I were pregnant?”, again, said jokingly so as to highlight the potential for “no, I suppose you might not want to share if it’s that early”. It still communicates “No, or else I have a good reason for not wanting to tell you”.

If you want to be able to feel betrayed when their answer is misleading, you have to get a sincere sounding answer first, and “refuses to stop joking and be serious” is one way that people communicate their reluctance to give a real answer. Pushing for a serious answer after this is clear is typically seen as bad manners, and so it’s easy to go from joking around to a flat “don’t pry” when needed without seeming like you have anything to hide. Because after all, if they weren’t prying they’d have just accepted the joking/not-entirely-serious answer as good enough.

How honest are you really being if you're coming up with silly logical scenarios to avoid answering a question truthfully? I just don't see the point of being "technically honest" when you don't want to reveal something? The only people who say, "I can neither confirm nor deny such and such" is when they are on trial and have a right against self-incrimination--not when they are talking to their friends.

So this all seems silly and unnecessary. If you don't want your friend to know what you did, just change the subject or lie about it. Or tell them, "I'd rather not talk about it." Let's say I stay up doing cocaine with a male prostitute all night, but I don't want to reveal this to my friend. If I say, "either I did or I don't want to tell you" now you've created some suspicion which could involve some unwanted attention or scrutiny into your affairs, such as pressing forward with follow-up questions, or unwanted office gossip about your late night activities.

FRIEND: Did you get to sleep early last night?

Just lie and cover up the reason why you're really tired.

"Yes, I went to bed early, but then woke up at 5AM and couldn't get back to sleep."


"Sure, how about you? Or did you stay up watching binge watching Netflix again?"

Subject Change:

"Oh hey! Can we talk about that upcoming dinner party?" (they were just making small talk anyway, so swap to something more important.)

I like the mixed strategy. You don't need to be perfectly consistent, only frequent enough that it carries very little weight. You need to obfuscate some multiple of actual cases of suppressing data, but some fraction of questions that are asked.

Most of the value in this kind of thing is _not_ information-hiding. The fact that the question is asked in the first place indicates a pretty high credence already of the asker. The point is deniability - the questioner doesn't have usable proof of the activity, so can't act on it. Deniability doesn't take perfection by any means, only a bit of uncertainty.

With close friends or rationalist groups, you might agree in advance that there's a "or I don't want to tell you about what I did" attached to every statement about your life, or have a short abbreviation equivalent to that.

This doesn't come up with close friends. This is only for groups and more distant power relationships where deniability matters.

In my culture, we don't put much weight on true-but-information-limiting statements. We do spend a fair bit of effort on pedantry and unnecessary precision, though, so it's fun to talk about this regarding "safe" topics. But that's mostly a game and a chance to quote Futurama ( Topics we actually care to keep hidden, we simply and directly lie, in whatever way moves the attention somewhere else.

This certainly can come up in close friendships. There was an incident last summer where a then-close-friend of mine told me an outright lie about what they were doing on a particular evening, in a one-on-one conversation, and I caught them, and that lie certainly contributed to the breakdown of the friendship and my current distrust of the person. If we had had a convention like this explicitly established, who knows where we would be instead. Probably would have ended up in the same place for other reasons, but it is hard to know.

On the other hand, I don't think I would value a friendship as much if it had this convention attached to it.

Certainly, trust is an important element in friendships. I meant to say only that the compulsory answer and allowed information-hiding response that is the Glomer response, does not apply to friendships. For close friendships, you have a lot more options. Often, just don't answer - talk about something else. Or just be truthful, and spend the effort to add the context which makes the answer OK. Or directly lie (if you can do it well enough).

"I am filling my technical responsibility by telling you that I will neither confirm nor deny this" just has no place in non-formal relationships like friends. This doesn't change if you randomize or otherwise try to make it common.

Why lie on the d100 coming up 1 instead of "can neither confirm nor deny"?

Because the proportion of time where we might have done something we wish to hide is low, while the proportion of time you might counterfactually have done something to hide is high. So by asking you every day, a questioner can figure out that 99% of the time, you didn't actually do anything to hide.

The fact you rolled the die (seems like it) is revealing.

I assumed the person has a background policy of rolling the die everyday regardless of intent to lie. Then the roll would not be out of the ordinary.

The sentence uttered (if true) has as a "cause" an event with 1% probability, or the speaker doing something they wish to conceal. Which is more likely? (And further, such a policy is more likely to be used by someone who does things they wish to conceal often.)

If you start rolling the die the first day that you want to lie yes then it is very suspicous and doesn't really gain any concealment benefits. But starting to roll the die gives the option to lie. And in the flipside it forfeits that your word is worth that much. Even if you never actually lie people can't take your word so seriously.

If you just claim to roll but never actually roll that is a very different case.