Tag Archives: Rational Relationships

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.

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

Rational Relationships: The Motte-and-Bailey Doctrine

MotteandBailey

The motte-and-bailey doctrine is a concept created by Nicholas Shackel as a critique of post-moderism. I was introduced to it through Slate Star Codex

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

An example:

The religious group that acts for all the world like God is a supernatural creator who builds universes, creates people out of other people’s ribs, parts seas, and heals the sick when asked very nicely (bailey). Then when atheists come around and say maybe there’s no God, the religious group objects “But God is just another name for the beauty and order in the Universe! You’re not denying that there’s beauty and order in the Universe, are you?” (motte). Then when the atheists go away they get back to making people out of other people’s ribs and stuff.

SSC give several more examples, which are very helpful if you’re not quite getting the concept. To me, it refers to a situation where your position is not easily defended, so you retreat to a stronger position when challenged. Then, after the challenge is over, you go back to the weaker position.

We do this all of the time in relationships. The most common area I see this in is STI risk. STI’s are a real danger, and taking precautions against STI’s is an extremely defensible position. “What?! I just want to be safe” is the motte. The bailey ends up being all kinds of emotional needs, accommodating jealousy, or soft veto power. There is almost no restriction that one could put on a partner that could not be somehow justified by pointing at STI risk. Want veto power (bailey)? Just say you don’t trust the other person’s sexual safety (motte). Want to cut your partner’s dating pool significantly (bailey)? Insist that all partners receive extensive STI testing by our sponsors every six months (motte). Want to be the only person who gets to do kink with your partner (bailey)? Point out that it’s riskier from a sexual health perspective, and say you’re not comfortable with that risk level (motte).

It can also be used with other legitimate concerns. Don’t want your partner to stay overnight with other partners (bailey)? Claim that you can’t sleep alone (motte). Want to limit the amount of time your partner can spend away from home (bailey)? Come up with a household duty schedule that conveniently requires your partner to be home most of the time (motte). Want to make sure your partner stays closeted (bailey)? Say that your boss is a total bigot and would fire you if they found out you were poly (motte).

The motte-and-bailey doctrine is so dangerous precisely because the “motte” positions are really good reasons. It’s totally legit to want to minimize your STI risks, and communicating that to a partner is something we should all do! Some people can’t sleep alone! Some people have terrible bosses! There is no way to tell the difference between when someone has an honest issue and when someone is just trying to control their partner.

Worse, we can even fool ourselves with motte-and-bailey thinking. Human motivation is complicated, and there are often multiple reasons motivating us for a single action or position. Often, when examining our motivations, we will seize on the most palatable motivation and ignore the others. So it’s possible that we can have legitimate fears about STI’s, but weigh those fears more heavily because we have unaddressed insecurities which motivate us to control our partner(s). Our fears about coming out may be less about getting fired and more about wanting to avoid conflict or awkwardness with our friends.

The only real solution is to rigorously examine and communicate our motivations, which can be incredibly demanding and difficult. It’s not easy to sort out your primary motivation from numerous contenders. The key question is this: but for your stated reason, would you be comfortable with the behavior at issue? For example, if there was no risk of STI’s, would you be ok with your partner dating promiscuous people? If your job was safe, would you have any objection to coming out? If you would still object, then your stated reason is not your actual reason.

Knowing and admitting our motivations is a key step toward personal growth, and the growth of a relationship. We must always be vigilant that our motivations are what we think.

Rational Relationships: The Sunk Cost Fallacy

“We must do whatever it takes to justify what we’ve already done” – Stephen Colbert

The sunk cost fallacy is one of my favorite concepts. I first encountered it in business school. In the business word, “sunk costs” are any past costs that cannot be regained. The sunk costs fallacy describes an occurrence whereby managers will overvalue a project based on the sunk costs invested in it, rather than the prospective future gains.

A simple example is buying a stock. If you pay $1000 for ten shares of stock, that $1000 is a sunk cost. The current value of the stock is independent of the price that you paid for it. The only way to accurately value the stock is to determine its price at the current moment or to attempt to estimate its future value. However, if the market will currently pay only $900 for your ten shares, then there is psychological pressure on you to continue to think of your stock as worth $1000, even if its actual value is less than that.

The sunk cost fallacy comes from people’s natural tendency toward loss aversion. For almost everyone, the pain of receiving something and then losing it is greater than never having it in the first place. In other words, we tend to feel losses more strongly than we feel corresponding gains. Because of this, we tend to try to avoid losses more than we try to pursue gains. The sunk cost fallacy is a result of loss aversion, because we tend not to see sunk costs as “losses” until we dispose of the object paid for. When you buy those shares of stock, you have lost $1000, but it doesn’t feel like you’ve lost $1000 because you’ve simultaneously gained a stock that’s valued at $1000. If the price of the stock drops to $900, you’ve lost the equivalent of $100, but it doesn’t feel that way unless you sell the stock. If you sell the stock for $900, you’ve gained $900, but it feels like a loss of $100. This is the feeling that enables the sunk cost fallacy.

This is a problem for business people. Let’s say my company decides to research a new widget, incurs substantial R&D costs, and tasks me with the decision whether to introduce the widget into the market. There is a temptation to see the large amount of R&D put into the widget and conclude that the widget will be profitable and we should launch it. However, the amount of R&D spent has no bearing on whether there is sufficient demand for the widget. If I actually relied on the sunk costs to make my decision, it would be a disaster. Profitability depends on demand, production costs, overhead, advertising, and a whole host of other factors, none of which are sunk costs. Sunk costs are completely irrelevant to the value of the widget.

The sunk cost fallacy is that little voice that encourages us to finish the book once we’ve read half of it and decided that we don’t like it. It’s what keeps us driving the wrong direction rather than turn around (literally and figuratively). It’s what keep us using the fancy $150 universal remote long after it’s apparent that the cheap $10 remote is more user-friendly and useful.

It’s also what keeps us in bad relationships. People change. Often, those changes will result in formerly good partners no longer being good matches for each other. In those circumstances, it’s best that couples break up or transition to some other form of relationship. It is often the case, though, that couples will look at their history and conclude that too much time, effort, and energy has been invested in the relationship to end it.

This is a mistake. There are certainly plenty of reasons why long-standing partners might not want to break up. Their experience with each other may show them that they are only in a temporary rough patch. Their lives may be so entangled that leaving the relationship would be incredibly painful. Their issues may just not be as bad as they seem.

But it’s a mistake to think that the amount of investment in a relationship automatically adds value to that relationship. It doesn’t. The value of the relationship consists of what is happening in the present and in the future. The past is done. The past is useful in predicting the future, but the past by itself doesn’t actually add any value. The length of a relationship or the amount of effort put into a relationship doesn’t actually add value. If it’s clear that a relationship won’t serve you in the future, your previous investment in the relationship won’t change that.

Rationally evaluating our relationships requires acknowledging that their value is derived only from our reasonable future expectations. Sunk costs are unrecoverable.

Copyright 2014 by Wesley Fenza