Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cold Reading and the Meaning of Life

The high value we place on truth and rationality puts us in a difficult position. A broad body of evidence points to the conclusion that self-deception plays an important part in being happy and finding life meaningful. If both happiness and meaning on the one hand, and truth and rationality on the other, are valuable, how do we resolve the deep conflict between them?

The first step is acknowledging that a conflict exists, and few are inclined to go even this far. However, it is becoming more common for writers to acknowledge that self-deception helps us in various ways, and that a purely accurate appraisal of reality can be harmful to us. Robert Todd Carroll, a righteous skeptic, acknowledges the benefits of the illusion of control and posits that we might be able to get some of the benefits without selling our souls to the faith healer, but wonders how far this limited acceptance of deception might go:

I suppose we could make it a rule that the illusion of control isn't a bad thing as long as it doesn't lead to delusional thinking that results in harm to oneself or others. If we did make that a rule, what would we then say about financial advisers who convince their clients that their system of economic forecasting is a good bet? Are these folks in the same category as people who pray instead of having their child's diabetes treated by a medical doctor?

Once we allow some amount of self-deception in the door for its instrumental benefit, how do we keep it from infecting everything? Perhaps more importantly, once we become admitted deceivers, what standing do we have to cast stones at more egregious deceivers?

Religious folks are even in touch with the conflict, at least as far as it concerns the secular world. Ross Douthat lampoons secular liberalism's lack of grounding in a base value; presumably, he is able to do this because he is comfortable that God really exists as a base value in Douthat's own system. Regardless of his beliefs, what Douthat is pointing out is the function, the instrumental value, of a God or other (pretend) final value upon which all other values, beliefs, acts, and stories may be based. I agree with Douthat that such a base value has an important function; my only disagreement is that such a value (God, in this case) exists.

In The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking (ordered, but I haven't read it yet), Matthew Hutson seems to come down firmly on the side of using self-deception for our benefit. I am interested to see how he proposes to keep us from deceiving ourselves as to precisely what "our benefit" is - not to mention that of others.

Which brings us to cold reading. Why cold reading works is subjective validation: subjects motivated to find meaning in random pronouncements tend to be able to do so. Given vague stimuli - the letter H, the month of May - most subjects are able to think of meaningful events in their lives to link it to. This is, I propose, exactly the same process by which people find meaning in life - interpreting random events in such a way as to feel that they have meaning and fit into a story, confabulating and ignoring evidence as necessary to make the story fit. An observer of humans not committed to the value of truth and factual accuracy might find even label this process healthy.

My challenge to the defender of both truth and meaning is how to distinguish this "healthy" process of finding meaning in life from the process of being a sucker in a cold reading. Or, perhaps, is John Edwards a great benefactor of humanity?


  1. Related: Scott Aaronson's On Self Delusion and Bounded Rationality

    The thing to do I think is to just buckle down and admit that truth is more important than deluded happiness. I suspect it wouldn't take too much tinkering with human brains to fix it so they'd be happiest knowing the truth, but if it took a lot of tinkering, so be it. This conflict is real but it need not be a permanent one.


    how do I choose to value truth over "meaning"? Well, one way people commonly do so is to realize that if you allow self-deception into your life, you will make stupider decisions, all else being equal. Especially for other people, and that makes it -unethical-.

    Another way people commonly do it is to realize that if you know you're deceiving yourself, you're not really deceiving yourself. I don't know where the mechanism for this exists, in the brain, but (to borrow a phrase from Cialdini) we have a word for it in English: heart of hearts. That is where you cannot deceive yourself, and even if you succeed in some mutated sense, you can't do it perfectly.

    Some people are just incapable of deceiving themselves. Would that I were one.

    But the less common way, one I've never seen before, is to deconstruct "meaning" and "truth". What's left when you deconstruct "meaning" into its barest parts? Nothing. It is a word made out of cultural zeitgeist and subjective feelings. It is, in a way, meaningless. What happens when you deconstruct "truth"? Why, almost nothing at all. Gone is the idea that truth can make you happy or set you free, and gone is the idea that it is necessarily harsh and abrasive, but the core is still there, that there are ideas that correspond to reality.

    And that, on its own, wins the battle.

    1. I like this.

      If truth-orientation did help us make better decisions for ourselves AND others, there would be no dilemma. I, of course, believe that truth orientation would help us make better decisions for others (specifically reproductive decisions), but there are many examples where decisions for ourselves are probably helped by self-deception. Like that study with the athletes who are more likely to win races the more self-deceptive they score. However, the fact that self-deceptive people do better at life (if true overall) doesn't mean we can or should make ourselves more self-deceptive.

      I think your concept of a "heart of hearts" is useful - subjectively, introspectively, it's hard to imagine knowing self-deception being effective. There's some evidence to the contrary - that weird study that placebos work without deception, for instance.

      So let's apply this to real life-ish situations. Happiness research shows that people get a happiness boost from planning a vacation, but none from actually taking the vacation; should we plan, but not execute, vacations? Should we step out even further and note that the boost in the planning phase is self-deception, and refuse to do even that?

      Even more generally: what should we do, period? What should we value? If it is mental states, then self-deception seems a fine, maybe even necessary way to achieve them - experience machines for all (but maybe not?). If it's something other than mental states, almost all of that stuff can be deconstructed to reveal that what we valued in it is full of illusion, "meaning," etc.

      (I don't disagree with anything in your comment - just want to run with it, if that's not clear.)

    2. "Happiness research shows that people get a happiness boost from planning a vacation, but none from actually taking the vacation; should we plan, but not execute, vacations?"

      Incidentally, a friend and I do basically exactly that. We (individually) plan various purchases, compare options, talk about advantages and so on for months, but never actually buy anything.

      We know that most of the time, we're not actually ever going to get The Next Thing (like say a new MP3 player), even though we totally could buy it; it's just that once we actually *do* make a decision, we have to live with whatever trade-offs the ultimate choice has, and deal with the inevitable bugs and horrible support and all that crap.

      Also, RPGs and designing campaigns and characters you know you're not ever going to play, programmers writing proof-of-concept tools and lots of similar stuff.

      I'm not sure if calling it self-deception isn't smuggling in a nasty connotation. Planning and making drafts is fun, no need to bring "truth" into it.

  2. Well, the difference is that John Edwards deliberately hurts people for money, and that's not a person's goal when they find meaning in their own lives. It's an ethical difference. Do not create suffering, etc.

    1. I'm not sure he hurts anyone, other than taking their money for an illusion they clearly want to believe - how is he different from, say, a novelist or actor? Yes, I think he's a vagina sandwich, but I'm not at all sure he creates more suffering than pleasure.

    2. He's even a bigger douche than Ursula, the giant douche from the Horsehead Nebula, Station J-12. I'm not sure if he harms the people he takes money from, but he does help perpetuate the idea that we remain conscious and go to a better place after we die. I suspect that the belief that we live on after death makes people less motivated to find a cure for aging. Current people probably are happier if they believe that everyone gets a pony after they die, but future people might be harmed by the stunted progress.

  3. I'd rather a society with some form of law and order based on a 'noble lie' than a collection of 7 billion hedonists running around causing havoc in their lust for self-gratification. And let's not get too haughty: anyone who's an atheist and sees no point to life is only hanging around in the hope of getting a few more kicks before the reaper arrives, a choice as deluded and inanane as anyone who believes in a higher purpose.

    1. Some of us are here because we don't have good suicide methods, Karl.

    2. Karl - this is the interesting question, haughtiness aside. Yes - a "noble lie" is almost certainly good for a society, in the sense of keeping everyone behaving and striving (and breeding...). We're almost certainly in agreement that it's wrong to create new lives based on this lie, but if you're not gonna do that, is it the wrong course of action to get what pleasure you can from the deluded world? Doesn't the world owe that to us if we want it?

    3. Sister Y - Aren't you making the assumption that if somehow every society were to abandon its noble lie that atheism and then antinatalism would automatically follow? I think this is highly questionable. Nor does atheism automatically entail antinatalism. There are Christian antinatalists and Atheist breeders. People will always be able to justify procreation to themsleves, no matter what their metaphysical position may be.

      As for the pleasure issue, I don't believe the world owes us anything, nor do I think we owe the world. The only people whom I believe a watertight case for obligation can be made against are parents. Personally, I'm of the conviction that breeders should arrange for the financial subsidisation of their products for the duration of their (the offspring's) lifetime.

      On the wider front, just because an antinatalist may resent existing, this does not exempt him or her from the same set of duties and obligations towards others that anyone else who chooses to live has.

    4. "Some of us are here because we don't have good suicide methods, Karl."

      This is my plan, and means, for that matter.

    5. Thanks Christoph. It is surprising to me that after years of web research, I still find new method descriptions that I hadn't heard before.

  4. I sort of approach it like so: I have my generalizations that I rely on in everyday life so that my brain doesn't explode, but I can also step back and remember that everything is a lot more complicated than those generalizations would make it seem. To choose a happy delusion/generalization (though not one I subscribe to, as mine tend to be pessimistic rather than happy), I could generalize that hard work will pay off, but also be able to step back and remember that there is also a good deal of luck and the actions of others that are also involved in these outcomes. This way, I don't have to keep in mind ALL of those caveats every time I think about the outcomes of my hard work, but I also won't be confused when I fail.

    As far as happy delusions making for happy people: maybe? I can't believe they would make me happy, largely because I just refuse to engage them. Learning from experience, my generalizations/delusions tend to be that things suck because things have sucked a majority of the time in my life. (Which is itself, of course, a delusion. There are far more categories in which I have "won". I have been consistently clothed, fed, sheltered, educated, not murdered, etc. But those categories hold less weight in my mind, they have gone smoothly enough that I have the privilege of not worrying about them at all.) Happy delusions seem to me to be outlandishly delusional. I want my delusions to at least be realistic; I want my delusions to reflect the "average" of reality. If I held happy delusions, I think I would still end up depressed because something must be Extra Super wrong if I Never match with the delusional expectation. I can't imagine how that is supposed to work. (Though, perhaps, that is because my own delusion is that things go badly, therefore, the happy delusion's expectation will never happen. Still, in reality as a whole, the happy expectation won't always happen.)

    1. It does introspectively feel possible to skate back and forth to different levels of abstraction within our minds, "heart of hearts" notwithstanding. And I think it's an important point that not all self-deception is in the happy direction. I am certainly a bit of an Eeyore.

      I like your point that even though each of us has "won" in countless ways, it doesn't feel satisfying in the way that maybe it should. This is the sting behind the "first world problems" meme - hedonic treadmill, adaptation level theory and all that. Experientially, wins just don't feel as good as losses feel bad.

  5. Deliberately deceiving yourself seems bad for all the obvious reasons, many of which have been mentioned (alongside countervailing ones.)

    One form of self-deception (of a sort) that I don't think should lead to a slippery slope - though I haven't really thought enough about this - is suspending curiosity in cases where vividness is an issue. Suppose the classic case of suspected adultery. Someone might have a preference that they not be cheated on, and preference utilitarianism would count their being cheated on as a harm to them whether or not they found out and felt sad about it. But! Someone might reasonably suspect that their current preferences are, for vividness reasons, not "as strong" as their immediate reaction would be. Thus someone who had the rational estimate that they had a 50% chance of being cheated on might suppose that actually discovering this would be more than twice as much disutility as merely knowing its probability, even without suspicion. So it would be bad to investigate further.

    Possible generalizations of this principle:
    * when disasters occur, not googling for pictures of the dead bodies
    * not reading racist literature, because having those models in your head might impact your behavior
    * not learning about how deceptive people are in everyday interactions, because you expect that being trusting of others (except in cases where there are the warning signs you already know about) will make you happier
    * ...?

    1. That's an interesting case. I immediately think of United States v. Jewell - in which a drug smuggler turns his back and whistles while the good folks load his car with drugs, then claims not to have "knowingly" transported the drugs. The court holds that "consciously avoiding enlightenment" is the same, for practical purposes, as knowing the information, especially under circumstances that would lead one to suspect the truth. The court uses the term "deliberate ignorance." It's an interesting sub-species of self-deception, and a particularly useful one, if not in criminal contexts, then at least in non-criminal ones.

      I would be impressed at the compartmentalization skills of a person who could truly remain deliberately ignorant and not naggingly suspect a nasty truth. However, to the extent this feat is possible (I like the googling example), it doesn't seem obviously wrong to me.

      Unless others are involved. Not getting tested for Huntington's Disease is fine, as long as you're not going to have biological children.

  6. "In The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking (ordered, but I haven't read it yet), Matthew Hutson seems to come down firmly on the side of using self-deception for our benefit. I am interested to see how he proposes to keep us from deceiving ourselves as to precisely what "our benefit" is - not to mention that of others."

    I look forward to your thoughts on Hutson's perspective. I just finished the book and was disappointed by it. I'm not sure if Hutson even believes self-deception can be beneficial because he spends most of the book showing how self-deception impacts our lives negatively. I get the impression that he succumbed to editorial pressure or just the simple desire to make money by appealing to the mass yearning for optimism.

    I think the book could have been a great exploration of how much self-deception one should entertain in life and how to distinguish the benefit from the harm. Instead, he fails to offer anything but a casual wave of the "ignorance is bliss" hand.

  7. James again. So after being forcibly hopitalised I had to have my hands in casts because I broke them hitting the wall in anger. I was given an antidepressant in hospital and I got symptoms (nearsightedness and akathisia eg. restlessness) from the fluanxol. I ascribed the symptoms to other things and stupidly allowed them to give me another after 3 weeks.

    Now today I learn my right hand pinkie didn't heal properly and I have to go for surgery again tomorrow. Ironic thing is that I'm an accomplished pianist and these injuries will have kept me away from the keyboard for 6 weeks min. Every day is a struggle to keep me busy and distracted from the hell my life has become. Sometimes I just want to die so badly and be rid of this life once and for all, but there's no one to listen to.

    With everything I've gone through my mother and grandmother just want to convert me to Christianity which I have a lot of respect for but can't get my rationalistic mind to believe in. Funny, my granny believes I should believe in Him all the more because of all the suffering I am going through.


    1. No one to _talk_ to rather. I just think it's funny how my parents/grandparent seems to think I should believe in Him now, whereas my inclination is the opposite, if I ever had any inclinations that weren't based on rationality.

    2. Anyway I'm feeling better now. Started working again and the medication's almost worn off. I'm sorry to see so many intelligent people who cannot find an avenue in life that's fulfilling. This capacity for feeling and deep intellect used to be welcome in the arts as you can see in classical music. Might'nt your powers have been used in such an area, were it still available? Classical music really does have the capacity to create another world, not so ordinary as our own. James.

  8. Somewhat on topic:

  9. Once we allow some amount of self-deception in the door for its instrumental benefit, how do we keep it from infecting everything? Perhaps more importantly, once we become admitted deceivers, what standing do we have to cast stones at more egregious deceivers?

    Once we allow some criticality in our thinking for its ability to discern what is factual, how do we keep it from infecting everything?

    I think structured, rational intellects, like those possessed by people who post here, want to find purchase on something that always gives the right answer. Really, I think we have to muddle through. We have to reflect, and discuss, and to challenge each other. We may never find a philosophically solid position, but we can keep ourselves close to a humane and utile position.

    We just have to live with the uncertainty, and adopt some vulnerable faith in how we go about our lives.

  10. It seems pretty real to me
    And I am pretty convincing
    I could probably make it real for you too
    And that’s not fair to you
    is it?

    Because your skies are blue right now,
    aren’t they?
    Why should I make them grey, just because I can, or need to?

    Sometimes I need someone to talk to
    So badly
    Someone that has seen the truth of it all
    And can still find a reason to go on
    Cause the truth is
    There was really no reason to start
    So why continue?
    You were not given a choice whether to start
    It was all started for you
    And they try to govern how you continue
    And it’s illegal for you to quit when you want
    In fact you are crazy if you do and selfish too
    Your life was never yours
    was it

    All my towers, all my love, all my progeny
    Means nothing….except to me
    They will someday all be gone
    Why do I exist and fight so hard for that existence?
    Why bother?
    What was the point of it all?
    I’m not important enough for a Lifetime Movie
    Or even a blurb on the news
    I don’t have a blog
    And no one would read it anyway

    There are millions like me
    Like lighting bugs
    With the light – we are gone

    Turn on the light


  11. Secular liberalism has a base value. It's pure reason. At least that's what its proponents think.

  12. I don't listen to John Edwards, but I think I'd be much less harmed believing that I can communicate with dead loved ones than believing that my stock broker knows how to beat the market.

    Another good example would be medicine: while it's oftentimes a good idea to see a doctor about something, we have a great many prescription drugs and elective treatments that are dangerous and unnecessary. While being a Christian Scientist in this day and age might be a bit impractical when there's a serious medical issue, consider the benefits one likely gets from avoiding excessive treatment for non-fatal symptoms. I believe, though I don't know for sure, that it was only in the 20th century that medicine became epistemically sound enough that people were on average helped rather than harmed by doctors; in that scenario, it's not a bad idea to have a spiritual healer to keep you away from doctors. I also think, though I'd have to look up the source, that statistics show that when doctors go on strike, many people end up entirely cancelling their postponed elective surgeries--suggesting that their condition got better with time.

    1. Also, cold-reading was originally a practice by healers, and was used to distract the patient while they looked for tacit clues about the real problem at hand. Our mental and physical health sometimes seems so intertwined with our social bonds that it feels futile to try to fully comprehend these things from an objective/disembodied epistemology.

    2. That's a great example - it reminds me of the lucid description B. Traven gives in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre of the method used by the healer/witch doctor.

      Indeed, it was completely minus-EV to obtain medical treatment prior to around the 1940s. Many forms of medical treatment are minus-EV today - perhaps even most. I had not heard the post-strike data before!


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