Thursday, November 11, 2010

Who proselytizes?

Those who believe less.

So says a paper about 3 psychological experiments called: "When in Doubt, Shout!"

Why would this be the case? Maybe there's a spectrum that explains why people hold their beliefs strongly. On one end of the spectrum, people value truth for its own sake. Their aim is to figure out what's actually true, and believe that. (I'm not saying anyone's motives are so pure; this is a theoretical extreme.)

On the other end of the spectrum, people select their beliefs, as Robin Hanson has explained, "to signal loyalty and ability." Hanson is keeping a list of signs you may be closer to that end of the spectrum. (The original list was just the first 11, but he added more based on feedback in his comments section and the comments in this post by Tyler Cowen.)

I'm not convinced by all Hanson's points. (He wasn't either; he crossed out one of them.) Here's one "sign" I disagree with:

17. You are especially eager to drop names when explaining positions and arguments.
If Hanson dislikes name-dropping, fair enough . . . but I still don't think name-dropping suggests that you're more interested in signaling loyalty than in pursuing truth for its own sake. Maybe you just like giving credit where credit is due. Or maybe you do like to show off your knowledge of specific commentators; this could be to signal, "Look, I cite Howard Zinn, so I fit in with our left-wing milieu," but it could just as well be to signal that you're not afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom of that milieu since you mention Thomas Sowell. Conversely, those who want to signal group loyalty through their beliefs might prefer not to attribute those beliefs to specific individuals but to state them as free-standing maxims — things "everyone knows" rather than one person's opinion.

But I do agree with most of Hanson's "signs," especially these:
9. You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid. . . .

13. You care more about consistency between your beliefs than about belief accuracy.

14. You go easy on sloppy arguments by folks on “your side.” . . .

18. You find it hard to list weak points and counter-arguments on your positions.

19. You feel passionately about a topic, but haven’t sought out much evidence.

20. You are reluctant to not have an opinion on commonly discussed topics.
A commenter on Tyler Cowen's post does the inevitable turning of the tables:
This list is an attempt to signal Robin Hanson's ability to find truth, but ends up being a signal of Robin Hanson's ability to attribute signaling to all human actions, and inability to distinguish between merely not-truth motives, and actively loyal or able motives.