Declare your signaling and hidden agendas

by Kaj_Sotala4 min read13th Apr 200921 comments

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SignalingHonesty
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Follow-up to: It's okay to be (at least a little) irrational

Many science journals require their authors to declare any competing interests they happen to have. For instance, if you're submitting a study about the health effects of tobacco, and you happen to sit on the board of directors of a major tobacco company, you're supposed to say that out loud. 

The process obviously isn't perfect, as most journals don't have the resources to ensure their authors do actually declare all competing interests. On the whole, though, it helps protect both the readers and the authors. The readers, because they'll know to be more careful in evaluating the reports of researchers who might be biased. The authors, because by declaring any competing interests upfront, they're protected from later accusations of dishonesty. (That's the theory, at least. In practice, authors often don't declare their interests, even if they should.)

Signaling has been discussed a lot on Overcoming Bias, though a bit less on Less Wrong. A large fraction of people's behavior is actually intended to signal some qualities to others, though this isn't necessarily a conscious process. On the other hand, it often is. As seasoned OB/LW readers, it seems to me like many would instinctively try to avoid giving the impression of excess signaling. We're rationalists, after all! We're trying to find the truth, not show off or impress others of our worth!

As if we even could avoid trying to make a good impression on others, or avoid having other kinds of hidden agendas. We're not any less human simply because we have rallied our rationality's banner. (Not to mention that signaling isn't a bad thing, by itself - humanity would be in a very poor state if we didn't have any signals about what others were like.) So, in the interest of self-honesty, I suggest we all begin explicitly declaring our (conscious) hidden agendas and signaling intentions when writing posts. As with the policy of scholarly journals, this will help both readers and writers, and in this case also serve a third and fourth function - making us more honest to ourselves, and make people realize that it's okay to have hidden agendas, and that they don't have to pretend they don't have any. I'll start out with mine.

I have roughly classified my hidden agendas at three different levels of severity. A "mild" agenda had a small impact on the behavior in question (for instance, writing a particular post), but I would have done it either way. A "strong" agenda means the behavior probably wouldn't have happened without the hidden agenda. A "moderate" agenda means that I'm not able to say either way - the behavior could have happened anyway, or then it might have not. I recognize that these are merely my conscious estimates of the different strengths and agendas, which are likely to be mistaken. They are, however, better than nothing.

Posting here in general - A desire to seek fame and respect in a community of rationalists, and to prove my worth as one (moderate). A desire to indicate that I have read and internalized the previous postings on OB, by linking to any relevant previous articles mentioning related concepts (moderate when it comes to linking, but mild when it comes to writing the articles - without the desire I might not have thrown in so many links, but I'd probably have written the posts anyway).
Does blind review slow down science? - Uncertain, as I don't remember my exact motivations for writing this post anymore.
The Golem - A mild desire to indirectly promote polyamory (by linking to a book about it as the source of the quote).
The Tragedy of the Anticommons - A mild to moderate desire to signal scholarship. My previous posts cited two books and some research articles and now I cited a third book, to give the (mostly accurate) impression that I read a lot and survey the research literature when I want to form an opinion of something. Mild desire to nudge people in the direction of a resource pointing out the harms of patents and copyright in their current form (declaration of possibly competing interest: I'm a board member of the Finnish Pirate Party).
Deliberate and spontaneous creativity - Mild to moderate desire to signal scholarship, again.
Rationalists should beware rationalism - Looking over the post, I'm not certain of any of my motives anymore, be they overt or covert. Perhaps a mild to moderate desire to signal resistance to groupthink.
Too much feedback can be a bad thing - None that I can remember.
It's okay to be (at least a little) irrational - Mild desire to signal support for the Institute Which Shall Not Be Named. Mild desire to signal altruism by bringing up my regular donations.
This post - Strong desire to signal honesty. Mild desire to more effectively promote my previous hidden agendas, by stating them out loud.

What are yours?

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Asking "what are you signaling?" is like asking "what is your greatest weakness?" during a job interview. It handicaps honest people.

We don't tell people our signaling intentions, even if we're aware of them, because that often would make the signaling less effective.

Rational protocols should not handicap the honest.

ADDED: I think it's a good idea to let people know your agendas. Looking at the examples above, most of them are things that it's fine to put out in public. But when you start in on personal motives such as "seek fame and scholarship", it gets tricky. I'd rather leave decisions on revealing such motives up to the individual, rather than have an inflexible community rule.

It handicaps honest people.

Does it necessarily? I think it depends on the context and the environment. Sure, a senator isn't going to tell a reporter all of his signaling intentions, but we're in a rationalist environment, looking for the truth. People also appreciate honesty. One of my hidden agendas for this post was explicitly bringing out my previous hidden agendas, in order to promote them better. I don't know if it was the best strategy possible, but if somebody else had come up with the idea before I did, I think I'd respect them more for it, not less.

We're not rational enough for me to bare my soul here. Also, Google is watching.

ADDED: I'd be more willing to do this if I weren't using my real name.

I wish to become someone who could lay his soul bare anywhere. What can be destroyed by truth, deserves to be. What is there in that soul of mine that I don't yet want to show, that couldn't then be fixed ?

Would that be too idealistic ? After all, if I can't lay bare my soul in here, then it means that there's either a problem with the soul, either a problem with the place, or both.

Both can be solved given time, the purpose of this community is to solve the latter (in part), it is up to me to solve the former. But I can help for the latter, and I'd hope that the community can help with the former.

One either believes in men, or do not.

I wish to become someone who could lay his soul bare anywhere.

You want to become someone who doesn't have any agendas that could subject you to distrust, ostracism, etc. anywhere, by anyone?

One either believes in men, or do not.

Connoting that some belief is virtuous (assuming that is what you're doing) considered harmful. Vague applause lights, too. People are as they are, and trying to see them as you think you should see them or you think they should be doesn't win. Believing some not-nice things about people doesn't mean you have to morally devalue them.

After commenting, I realized that this might be seen as morally devaluing for anyone who wouldn't follow that example. I didn't mean it that way.

Please consider the other side of the issue. If someone signals here that he doesn't want to declare his agendas, for all those good reasons, it ruins the purpose of the thread.

If you don't want to declare, then don't. But don't either give additional possible reasons that could turn into rationalizations, for others not to do it. It may be all that is needed as they might be scared enough already not to do it.

The last part, "One either believes in men, or do not.", relates to bystander apathy. If everyone is willing to believe in his fellow man, then it is possible (though not assured, acknowledgedly) to work together. If you don't, then everyone will simply eye the others, and wait for someone else to jump in the fray.

You can show people, by your own example, that it's ok and human to be irrational, and that we can help it in here. You can also more explicitly tell them that it's ok, here, to trust other people to be tolerant, that we can believe in each other.

You want to become someone who doesn't have any agendas that could subject you to distrust, ostracism, etc. anywhere, by anyone?

That's impossible. What I want, is to be brave enough to show my self regardless. And it may help to have more benign and friendly agendas for that purpose.

What can be destroyed by truth, deserves to be.

Can you prove that statement, or is it an article of faith? Imagine a scientist about to make a world-changing discovery (like penicillin) suddenly learning something awful about his past (like Oedipus) and killing himself.

After all, if I can't lay bare my soul in here, then it means that there's either a problem with the soul, either a problem with the place, or both.

Definitely a problem with the place. The world is the wrong place to bare one's soul.

One either believes in men, or do not.

"I don't believe anything. Gets in the way of learning." If you believe in men, there's definitely some learning coming.

[-][anonymous]13y 0
It handicaps honest people.

Does it necessarily?

Yes. The task is to make a statement related to weakness that gives the interviewee an advantage in the interview context. Those who answer honestly are missing the point.

But LW isn't, as far as I know, a job interview.

For the record, my primary reason for reading this site is because I think it's fun.

That still doesn't rule out a hidden signaling agenda; it's "fun" to signal after all.

"Declare your hidden agendas" is somewhat of an oxymoron -- obviously anyone with a true hidden agenda isn't going to declare it. Seems like this idea of disclaimers in front of LW posts is a non-starter.

I don't want to know your 'hidden agendas.' I assume without an agenda, you wouldn't have the motivation to say something interesting, like pjeby says here. I first heard it articulated by Penn and Teller saying 'trying to become famous for the sake of being famous is vapid, be famous to spread your ideas' in an interview.

If you tell me your agendas, I will think of those when reading your ideas, and it will make it easier to hide any further hidden agendas, because I'll look at your ideas and know why you think that and stop looking for further agendas. Whether this is because your supposed agendas are rationalizations that make it easier for you to hide your agenda from yourself, or because you're purposely using misdirection, doesn't matter.

I've read here articles on detecting bias by playing word games that I never stopped using as a child... I think it's a good habit to think that way constantly. I think that since we aren't changing the world, we should look at each other with the standards we do with the rest of the world.

But if you're just going to link to your old articles later without telling me, then it's going to be easy enough to ignore it.

Moderate desire to signal not comprehending other's obsessions with signaling as though it were something special.

Maybe it's from having done a smattering of postings here and there for awhile, but I really don't have any thoughts of fame from posting here, OB, or anywhere else. I think it's cool if someone likes what I write, but I don't have the time to really devote to becoming one of the karmic elite here. I'm sure there's some unconscious signaling going on, but on the conscious level, it's more about the feeling of participating in a conversation instead of just observing it.

(First of all, excellent idea)

I have hidden agendas, but not just that. I also have hidden compulsions.

Here my main compulsion was like "Hey people look at me, I'm abasing myself, please be in awe at how honest I am; besides you can't point a flaw I haven't pointed myself now, so I feel safer from criticism".

My agenda is however, also to help people feel like they can't do worse than me, so they should feel alright telling us about their agenda, and compulsions. Another step forward for the community.

In general :

Agendas :

I try to attract attention because I think I have helpful ideas to contribute in this community > I want to contribute, because I want to see it grow and realize its potential, so that I may be able to see, and learn, that mature art of rationality we've only yet started to outline > I want to use it, because I think it'll be useful to realize all my other objectives in real life.

I also want to see the community succeed for if I'm not wrong, that will help important projects such as the one that must not yet be named. I think a mature community of mature rationalists, could indeed achieve much more than what other groups (normal science included) could do. I have selfish reasons to want the unnamed project to succeed, and just as well, the future community will probably turn its attention to issues which will benefit me. In particular fields like antiagathics.

Finally, I am as honest as I think I should. I lie when I think I can get away with it, and I'm very cautious to keep a safety margin there. In a place such as LW, I don't feel safe lying about anything because I'm sure there are people reliably more intelligent, rational, and experimented than I am. Hence trying to be as honest as possible, and also, trying to point my flaws and hidden agendas to insure my reputation, if I am ever to slip a lie here and there without my noticing it.

Compulsions:

I have always liked to be praised for my intellectual achievements. I'll always strive to sound honest, fair, brilliant, persevering. I notice the karma / voting system has worsened that trait. I check regularly to see how my posts fare. I feel very disappointed (aka butthurt) when I'm not upvoted, and let's not even talk about downvotes.

I like to point flaws and mistakes; in others as well as in myself, though pointing them in myself is also a way to signal how honest I am. And this also verges on masochism.

I like to shock and confuse. For instance, I'll defend one side of an argument, then switch my point of view and defend the other side. I don't want people to know which "side" I'm on. Like, defending religion against bashing, then trying to bury it. This also signals fairness.

There's more, but that should be enough already to get the picture.

One question : do we want to include in all our posts henceforth a short explanation of our hidden agenda, case by case ? Some will argue that this would burden them. But I'm for it, just as I was in favor of the idea that downvoting should usually go in hand with an explanation, so that we can understand our nonobvious mistakes.

I don't think the point-by-point is necessary on all posts, but when your bias affects your position, (or some affiliation might be affecting your point of view) it's probably worth mentioning.

What I'd really like is the ability to include some personal details on our profile page. Is this available in the Reddit software? How hard would it be to add something like that?

It's issue 108 in the bug tracker.

One question : do we want to include in all our posts henceforth a short explanation of our hidden agenda, case by case ? Some will argue that this would burden them.

I'd recommend it, but not make it compulsory by any means. I'll be trying to include one in all my future posts (probably just a sentence or two), but others are of course free to do as they wish.

Perhaps that explanation could be put in a comment rather than the body of the post, which would have the dual benefits of (1) putting the hidden motivations in a subsidiary position to the actual content of the post (where I think they belong), and (2) confining the discussion of them to a single thread, so the other threads can discuss the post on its own merits.

How does desire to signal resistance to groupthink relates to actual resistance to groupthink? When you desire to signal scholarship, does it mean that you are trying to appear more scholastic than you think you really are? Is "desire to signal X" just a polite disclaimer, such as IMHO?

If we say "declare your agendas", and leave it up to the individual to decide whether to keep common, personal, embarrassing, uninteresting motives to themselves, then it's a good idea. It's just the word "hidden" that gives me trouble. And "signaling".

I mean, we've demonstrated pretty thoroughly in our exchanges that we're all emotional beings. Diplomacy was defined by some famous diplomat (Bismarck?) as being primarily about hiding your motives. Sometimes, saying what you really think just shuts discussion down. Sometimes I write something in response to someone else's opinion that I think is wrong, and I may judge it undiplomatic to spell that out.