Yearly Archives: 2016

Rational Relationships: The Illusion of Transparency

The illusion of transparency is a common cognitive bias wherein people overestimate both the degree to which their internal thoughts are apparent to those around them and the degree to which they understand the internal thoughts of others.

The classic example was a 1990 Stanford study where test subjects would tap out the rhythm of a well-known song (e.g. Happy Birthday or The Star-Spangled Banner) with their finger across from another test subject, who was supposed to listen to the taps and guess the song. Before the listener guessed, the tapper was asked to predict whether the listener would be able to guess correctly. Tappers predicted that listeners would guess correctly about 50% of the time. Listeners actually guessed correctly about 3% of the time.

The disparity came from the fact that tappers couldn’t help but hear the song in their heads as they tapped the rhythm, and had an enormous amount of difficulty imagining what it was like not to know the song. Try it yourself! Tap out the rhythm to a song, and try to imagine trying to guess what song it is. It seems much easier than it actually is. Meanwhile, the listeners are just hearing a sequence of taps with no context for what they mean, and tend to have no idea what the song could possibly be.

It’s not difficult to see how this could affect our relationships. The number one piece of relationship advice that tends to be given, especially in nonmonogamous relationships, is to communicate. The reason that this advice is so popular is because of the illusion of transparency. We tend to assume that our partners know what we want and how we feel to a much greater extent than they do. Likewise, we tend to assume that we understand how our partners feel to a much greater extent than we actually do.

Like most cognitive biases, the best way to avoid the negative consequences of the illusion of transparency is simply to be aware of it and expect it. If you want something from your partner, and you think it’s obvious, say it anyway. There’s a strong chance that your partner simply wasn’t aware of what you wanted. If you think you’re giving your partner what they want, make sure to check in periodically. It’s likely that there may be an issue that you weren’t aware of that your partner thought was obvious. This can happen with big topics, such as whether to have children, and small topics, such as what to have for dinner.1this is one reason why I recommend that all people planning to be married employ a marriage planning agreement We can overlook the fact that a partner is preparing to leave or the fact that a partner is deliriously happy.

Some people find it romantic to imagine a situation where partners “just know” what each other are thinking without having to say anything. Romantic as it may be, it’s a dangerous ideal precisely because it reinforces and encourages the illusion of transparency. In the real world. it’s almost always better to say what you’re thinking, even if you think your partner already knows.

Wesley Fenza is an attorney practicing in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His practice areas include divorce, criminal defense, and civil litigation. If you are in need of legal advice, please contact him.

   [ + ]

1. this is one reason why I recommend that all people planning to be married employ a marriage planning agreement

Political Responsibility

This past weekend, a North Carolina Republican field office was firebombed, with the words “Nazi Republicans leave town or else” and a swastika spraypainted on the walls. In response, within hours, a group of democrats raised $13,000 to pay to reopen the office. This has widely been hailed as an admirable move by the democrats for showing solidarity in the face of terrorism.
Not all commentary has been positive, though. In particular, some corners of the social justice community have been critical, for reasons mostly summed up in this article:

Last year, Texas Republicans made dramatic cuts to the Medicaid program that helps provide physical and speech therapy to severely disabled children, many of whom are in foster care. They used bad math, and didn’t think it through, and cut the program too much. In doing so, they forfeited a huge amount of free federal funding for the program. That means some 60,000 kids will have less access to the physical and speech therapy that used to help them walk, or communicate, or attend school. For some kids with severe physical disabilities, that means pain.

I’m friends with a number of Texas conservatives. I like them personally. They have an ideology that’s not mine, and part of being an adult in the world is learning how to interface with people who don’t think like you do. I write in opposition to them, but I’d be horrified if someone starting firebombing their offices. But just the same, I’d no sooner give them $100 than I would to a man who punched one of those kids on the street.

I disagree with this view. It’s arguing that, despite the abhorrence of the firebombing attack on the North Carolina GOP office, donating money to restore it goes to support an organization (the Republican Party) whose goals are to hurt the most vulnerable among us, and so donating to them is the wrong choice.
 
I disagree because I think one of the first priorities of any social movement, including a political party, is strong repudiation of its dangerous, radical, and/or violent followers. This wasn’t a random attack. The message spraypainted on the wall was “Nazi Republicans leave town or else.” I think it’s safe to say that this was an attack by left-wing radicals, inspired or influenced at least in some way by the democratic party.
 
We look down on Republicans, when violence breaks out at their rallies, for disclaiming all responsibility. We are disgusted with their cowardice when an abortion doctor is murdered, and they fail to admit that their over-the-top rhetoric was partly to blame. That, in this situation, the democrats have been better than that, have taken responsibility for repairing the damage, and have in all likelihood frustrated the aims of the attackers, is a good thing.
 
Yes, the money will go to an evil organization whose main goals involve doing great harm to many vulnerable people. But that’s exactly how each side views the other. Whatever choices we make here, we are in no position to complain when the other side makes the same choices. However bad and evil we view them, they view us as just as bad and evil.

One of the great harms the Republican party has done since 2001 is to change the rules of the game. Filibusters did not used to be a big problem. Presidential signing statements were not used to change the meaning of legislation. Bipartisan deals could be made so both parties could get things done, instead of the gridlock we have now. Presidents were more hesitant to designate documents “classified.” The Senate didn’t refuse to vote on Supreme Court nominees. There was a sense of fair play, that it wasn’t right to use any means necessary to stop the opposing party, especially when they had been fairly elected.

That isn’t the case anymore. Since 2001, the GOP has steadily become more and more extreme, using any trick available to prevent Democrats from governing effectively. There is some hope that this may calm down in the next legislative session, but it is speculation at best.

The easy thing to do would be to match their extremism – to declare that any means necessary are to be used to defeat this enemy – to argue, as the quoted article does, that any helping hand extended to this enemy is wrong and leaves us worse off. I can’t agree with that. I want to live in a world where we take responsibility for the extremists that are ostensibly on our side, and work to repair the damage that they do. I want to live in a world where it is not acceptable to use any means necessary to defeat the enemy. I want there to be rules to the game. I think this small gesture helps to encourage that world, so I support it.

Polite Poly

This post grew out of a conversation with my friend Heina Dadabhoy, who writes Heinous Dealings at the Orbit, a new blog network focused on social justice minded atheism. Heina has a companion blog post with their take on this issue here.

Like other unpopular groups, the poly community has developed somewhat defensively. Only a very small percentage of the world is polyamorous, so understandably, a number of the norms and ethics that are popular in the poly community developed to be as nonthreatening as possible to mainstream society. Andrea Zanin discussed this issue in her 2013 post The Problem With Polynormativity:

At its most basic, I’d say some people’s poly looks good to the mainstream, and some people’s doesn’t. The mainstream loves to think of itself as edgy, sexy and cool. The mainstream likes to co-opt whatever fresh trendy thing it can in order to convince itself that it’s doing something new and exciting, because that sells magazines, event tickets, whatever. The mainstream likes to do all this while erecting as many barriers as it can against real, fundamental value shifts that might topple the structure of How the World Works. In this case, that structure is the primacy of the couple.

The media presents a clear set of poly norms, and overwhelmingly showcases people who speak about and practice polyamory within those norms.

Zanin skillfully exposes the fact that the media tends to represent a very narrow view of polyamorous people that doesn’t reflect the overall diversity of the community. In addition to that, though, I’ve noticed that a lot of the discussion that takes place within poly communities tends to present a narrow set of values that not everyone shares, and in private conversations it’s become clear that not everyone shares those views, but that dissenters don’t always feel safe speaking up. With that in mind, I’ve come up with a set of rules that I see enforced in “polite poly society,” and why I disagree with them:

Polite Poly Rule #1: Don’t Speak Ill of Monogamy

In nearly every discussion of polyamory, poly people will trip over each other rushing to be the first person to indicate that, while we may choose to live the lifestyle we do, there is of course nothing wrong with monogamy and we support anyone’s decision to be monogamous. The position is valid, of course. There is nothing inherently wrong with sexual exclusivity, if practiced in a truly voluntary and non-coercive way. But it’s very difficult to discuss monogamy critically, even within poly communities, without facing accusations of arrogance, anti-monogamous bias, or believing in “one true way” to have relationships.

Truthfully, I do feel that the majority of the ways that monogamy is practiced throughout the world are coercive and unethical. I think that having monogamy as a cultural norm is harmful. I think that the way mainstream American culture promotes, depicts, and enforces monogamy is awful. I think that many fewer people would choose monogamy if it they felt they had a meaningful choice. And I think we ought to be able to say so without the conversation getting derailed over the (obvious) fact that it’s not impossible to be monogamous in an ethical way.

This rule is the clearest example of how poly society has evolved to be nonthreatening to mainstream society. It might as well be “don’t scare the normals.”

Polite Poly Rule #2: Don’t Enable Cheaters

In polite poly society, it is considered unethical to have sex with a person who has a monogamous partner. Despite the fact that the hypothetical “other woman” or “other man” has made no promises or commitments to either member of the relationship, the community still has no problem placing part of the ethical responsibility for avoiding cheating on the third party.

I’ve written before about the ethical issues I have with this attitude, and I’ve discussed it at length in private conversations and on social media. In public, there seems to be a strong consensus toward the idea that enabling a cheater is wrong.1There is also a more reasonable consensus – that one should be reluctant to trust a person who is willing to cheat with you, and that it’s often a bad idea to have sex with someone you can’t trust. However, the discussion is often had in moralistic terms about what’s right or wrong, or what a person should or shouldn’t do. The discussion often overlooks the fact that in other contexts, poly communities respect the idea that a person is free to have sex with whoever they want and determine for themselves how much to trust someone, and how much trust in necessary before engaging in a sexual relationship. It is only in this context (and STI risk, as discussed in Rule #3) where people feel qualified to instruct others about who they ought to be having sex with. I guarantee, if this post gets more than five comments, someone will derail with something like “well, why would you want to sleep with a cheater???” Fundamentally, I feel this is an attitude that is reliant upon the centralization and promotion of the monogamous couple as the ideal in our society.

In general, we do not hold people responsible for enabling people to break promises. We would not blame a bartender for serving someone who made a promise to his pastor not to drink anymore. If my friend promised his mother that he would spend Saturday evening with her, I’m not a jerk for inviting him to my party. If a PETA member wants to break her commitment to the group to avoid eating meat, her sister is not a jerk for cooking her a steak.

It is only in the context of a sexually exclusive couple that we feel the need to place responsibility on non-parties to help enforce an agreement. This attitude reflects the mainstream belief that monogamous commitments are so important and so valuable that we should all accept the responsibility for enforcing them. And I think the poly community should be the first to speak up against this idea. Monogamous commitments are not any more important than other commitments. I don’t accept the responsibility for enforcing them, and I don’t think we should be telling anyone else to do so. If individuals would like to accept that responsibility, that is their choice, but I don’t believe that anyone has the right to place that responsibility on someone else.

Polite Poly Rule #3: Be Extra-Super-Duper-Careful About STI’s

In poly communities, the more careful one is about STI’s, the better. High-status poly people boast about getting “full panel” STI tests every six months (which, of course, always come back negative) and insist on seeing a prospective partner’s up-to-date results before any sexual contact. In public spaces, discussions tend to center around how best to avoid STI’s and what precautions to take. It’s often assumed (or stated outright) that sex with a person who has an STI is out of the question. In private, however, many people will comment that STI’s are unfairly stigmatized, STI’s like HSV, HPV, and others are a minor inconvenience in most cases, and that actual transmission rates are very low for most infections.

I tend not to stress about STI’s. I take reasonable precautions, but I don’t insist on strict rules. I don’t freak out if there’s a chance of exposure. I generally trust my partners to make their own decisions and inform me if there’s anything to worry about. In my experience, this is how a lot of people operate, but publicly, people are often reluctant to say so.

The disconnect seems to be a reaction to the “dirty slut” stereotype. Mainstream society tends to assume that (a) anyone who has a lot of sex gets STI’s (and only people who have a lot of sex get STI’s); (b) all nonmonogamous people have a lot of sex; and therefore (c) nonmonogamous people all have STI’s. So naturally, poly people overcompensate to show that they’re not like that. The problem is that in reacting that way, we tend to validate the problematic and false mainstream assumptions noted above. When we rush to insist that we are free from STI’s, we too often insinuate that there’s something wrong or blameworthy about having STI’s. When we go out of our way to make sure everyone knows we’re very selective about sexual partners, we suggest that there’s something wrong with promiscuity. When we suggest that certain precautions are mandatory, we can’t help but exaggerate the negative effects of becoming infected, adding to STI stigma and further marginalizing people who have contracted infections.

Allowing more critical discussions of monogamy, recognizing that third parties aren’t responsible to enforce other people’s monogamous commitments, and dialing down the panic level about STI’s probably won’t help our image in mainstream society. But I do think it will improve our communities. To me, that’s the more important goal. I’d rather not sacrifice the quality and diversity of our conversations in the name of public relations.

   [ + ]

1. There is also a more reasonable consensus – that one should be reluctant to trust a person who is willing to cheat with you, and that it’s often a bad idea to have sex with someone you can’t trust. However, the discussion is often had in moralistic terms about what’s right or wrong, or what a person should or shouldn’t do. The discussion often overlooks the fact that in other contexts, poly communities respect the idea that a person is free to have sex with whoever they want and determine for themselves how much to trust someone, and how much trust in necessary before engaging in a sexual relationship. It is only in this context (and STI risk, as discussed in Rule #3) where people feel qualified to instruct others about who they ought to be having sex with. I guarantee, if this post gets more than five comments, someone will derail with something like “well, why would you want to sleep with a cheater???”