I. The question of confidence
Should one hold strong opinions? Some say yes. Some say that while it’s hard to tell, it tentatively seems pretty bad (probably). There are many pragmatically great upsides, and a couple of arguably unconscionable downsides. But rather than judging the overall sign, I think a better question is, can we have the pros without the devastatingly terrible cons?
A quick review of purported or plausible pros:
- Strong opinions lend themselves to revision:
- Nothing will surprise you into updating your opinion if you thought that anything could happen. A perfect Bayesian might be able to deal with myriad subtle updates to vast uncertainties, but a human is more likely to notice a red cupcake if they have claimed that cupcakes are never red. (Arguably—some would say having opinions makes you less able to notice any threat to them. My guess is that this depends on topic and personality.)
- ‘Not having a strong opinion’ is often vaguer than having a flat probability distribution, in practice. That is, the uncertain person’s position is not, ‘there is a 51% chance that policy X is better than policy -X’, it is more like ‘I have no idea’. Which again doesn’t lend itself to attending to detailed evidence.
- Uncertainty breeds inaction, and it is harder to run into more evidence if you are waiting on the fence, than if you are out there making practical bets on one side or the other.
- (In a bitterly unfair twist of fate) being overconfident appears to help with things like running startups, or maybe all kinds of things.
If you run a startup, common wisdom advises going around it saying things like, ‘Here is the dream! We are going to make it happen! It is going to change the world!’ instead of things like, ‘Here is a plausible dream! We are going to try to make it happen! In the unlikely case that we succeed at something recognizably similar to what we first had in mind, it isn’t inconceivable that it will change the world!’ Probably some of the value here is just a zero sum contest to misinform people into misinvesting in your dream instead of something more promising. But some is probably real value. Suppose Bob works full time at your startup either way. I expect he finds it easier to dedicate himself to the work and has a better time if you are more confident. It’s nice to follow leaders who stand for something, which tends to go with having at least some strong opinions. Even alone, it seems easier to work hard on a thing if you think it is likely to succeed. If being unrealistically optimistic just generates extra effort to be put toward your project’s success, rather than stealing time from something more promising, that is a big deal.
- Social competition
Even if the benefits of overconfidence in running companies and such were all zero sum, everyone else is doing it, so what are you going to do? Fail? Only employ people willing to work at less promising looking companies? Similarly, if you go around being suitably cautious in your views, while other people are unreasonably confident, then onlookers who trust both of you will be more interested in what the other people are saying.
It is nice to be the kind of person who knows where they stand and what they are doing, instead of always living in an intractable set of place-plan combinations. It arguably lends itself to energy and vigor. If you are unsure whether you should be going North or South, having reluctantly evaluated North as a bit better in expected value, for some reason you often still won’t power North at full speed. It’s hard to passionately be really confused and uncertain. (I don’t know if this is related, but it seems interesting to me that the human mind feels as though it lives in ‘the world’—this one concrete thing—though its epistemic position is in some sense most naturally seen as a probability distribution over many possibilities.)
Perhaps this is the same point, but I expect my imagination for new options kicks in better when I think I’m in a particular situation than when I think I might be in any of five different situations (or worse, in any situation at all, with different ‘weightings’).
A quick review of the con:
- Pervasive dishonesty and/or disengagement from reality
If the evidence hasn’t led you to a strong opinion, and you want to profess one anyway, you are going to have to somehow disengage your personal or social epistemic processes from reality. What are you going to do? Lie? Believe false things? These both seem so bad to me that I can’t consider them seriously. There is also this sub-con:
- Appearance of pervasive dishonesty and/or disengagement from reality
Some people can tell that you are either lying or believing false things, due to your boldly claiming things in this uncertain world. They will then suspect your epistemic and moral fiber, and distrust everything you say.
- Appearance of pervasive dishonesty and/or disengagement from reality
- (There are probably others, but this seems like plenty for now.)
II. Tentative answers
Can we have some of these pros without giving up on honesty or being in touch with reality? Some ideas that come to mind or have been suggested to me by friends:
1. Maintain two types of ‘beliefs’. One set of play beliefs—confident, well understood, probably-wrong—for improving in the sandpits of tinkering and chatting, and one set of real beliefs—uncertain, deferential—for when it matters whether you are right. For instance, you might have some ‘beliefs’ about how cancer can be cured by vitamins that you chat about and ponder, and read journal articles to update, but when you actually get cancer, you follow the expert advice to lean heavily on chemotherapy. I think people naturally do this a bit, using words like ‘best guess’ and ‘working hypothesis’.
I don’t like this plan much, though admittedly I basically haven’t tried it. For your new fake beliefs, either you have to constantly disclaim them as fake, or you are again lying and potentially misleading people. Maybe that is manageable through always saying ‘it seems to me that..’ or ‘my naive impression is..’, but it sounds like a mess.
And if you only use these beliefs on unimportant things, then you miss out on a lot of the updating you were hoping for from letting your strong beliefs run into reality. You get some though, and maybe you just can’t do better than that, unless you want to be testing your whacky theories about cancer cures when you have cancer.
It also seems like you won’t get a lot of the social benefits of seeming confident, if you still don’t actually believe strongly in the really confident things, and have to constantly disclaim them.
But I think I actually object because beliefs are for true things, damnit. If your evidence suggests something isn’t true, then you shouldn’t be ‘believing’ it. And also, if you know your evidence suggests a thing isn’t true, how are you even going to go about ‘believing it’? I don’t know how to.
2. Maintain separate ‘beliefs’ and ‘impressions’. This is like 1, except impressions are just claims about how things seem to you. e.g. ‘It seems to me that vitamin C cures cancer, but I believe that that isn’t true somehow, since a lot of more informed people disagree with my impression.’ This seems like a great distinction in general, but it seems a bit different from what one wants here. I think of this as a distinction between the evidence that you received, and the total evidence available to humanity, or perhaps between what is arrived at by your own reasoning about everyone’s evidence vs. your own reasoning about what to make of everyone else’s reasoning about everyone’s evidence. However these are about ways of getting a belief, and I think what you want here is actually just some beliefs that can be got in any way. Also, why would you act confidently on your impressions, if you thought they didn’t account for others’ evidence, say? Why would you act on them at all?
3. Confidently assert precise but highly uncertain probability distributions “We should work so hard on this, because it has like a 0.03% chance of reshaping 0.5% of the world, making it a 99.97th percentile intervention in the distribution we are drawing from, so we shouldn’t expect to see something this good again for fifty-seven months.” This may solve a lot of problems, and I like it, but it is tricky.
4. Just do the research so you can have strong views. To do this across the board seems prohibitively expensive, given how much research it seems to take to be almost as uncertain as you were on many topics of interest.
5. Focus on acting well rather than your effects on the world. Instead of trying to act decisively on a 1% chance of this intervention actually bringing about the desired result, try to act decisively on a 95% chance that this is the correct intervention (given your reasoning suggesting that it has a 1% chance of working out). I’m told this is related to Stoicism.
I notice that people often have ‘opinions’, which they are not very careful to make true, and do not seem to straightforwardly expect to be true. This seems to be commonly understood by rationally inclined people as some sort of failure, but I could imagine it being another solution, perhaps along the lines of 1.
(I think there are others around, but I forget them.)
I propose an alternative solution. Suppose you might want to say something like, ‘groups of more than five people at parties are bad’, but you can’t because you don’t really know, and you have only seen a small number of parties in a very limited social milieu, and a lot of things are going on, and you are a congenitally uncertain person. Then instead say, ‘I deem groups of more than five people at parties bad’. What exactly do I mean by this? Instead of making a claim about the value of large groups at parties, make a policy choice about what to treat as the value of large groups at parties. You are adding a new variable ‘deemed large group goodness’ between your highly uncertain beliefs and your actions. I’ll call this a ‘stance’. (I expect it isn’t quite clear what I mean by a ‘stance’ yet, but I’ll elaborate soon.) My proposal: to be ‘confident’ in the way that one might be from having strong beliefs, focus on having strong stances rather than strong beliefs.
Strong stances have many of the benefits of confident beliefs. With your new stance on large groups, when you are choosing whether to arrange chairs and snacks to discourage large groups, you skip over your uncertain beliefs and go straight to your stance. And since you decided it, it is certain, and you can rearrange chairs with the vigor and single-mindedness of a person who knowns where they stand. You can confidently declare your opposition to large groups, and unite followers in a broader crusade against giant circles. And if at the ensuing party people form a large group anyway and seem to be really enjoying it, you will hopefully notice this the way you wouldn’t if you were merely uncertain-leaning-against regarding the value of large groups.
That might have been confusing, since I don’t know of good words to describe the type of mental attitude I’m proposing. Here are some things I don’t mean by ‘I deem large group conversations to be bad’:
- “Large group conversations are bad” (i.e. this is not about what is true, though it is related to that.)
- “I declare the truth to be ‘large group conversations are bad’” (i.e. This is not of a kind with beliefs. Is not directly about what is true about the world, or empirically observed, though it is influenced by these things. I do not have power over the truth.)
- “I don’t like large group conversations”, or “I notice that I act in opposition to large group conversations” (i.e. is not a claim about my own feelings or inclinations, which would still be a passive observation about the world)
- “The decision-theoretically optimal value to assign to large groups forming at parties is negative”, or “I estimate that the decision-theoretically optimal policy on large groups is opposition” (i.e. it is a choice, not an attempt to estimate a hidden feature of the world.)
- “I commit to stopping large group conversations” (i.e. It is not a commitment, or directly claiming anything about my future actions.)
- “I observe that I consistently seek to avert large group conversations” (this would be an observation about a consistency in my behavior, whereas here the point is to make a new thing (assign a value to a new variable?) that my future behavior may consistently make use of, if I want.)
- “I intend to stop some large group conversations” (perhaps this one is closest so far, but a stance isn’t saying anything about the future or about actions—if it doesn’t get changed by the future, and then in future I want to take an action, I’ll probably call on it, but it isn’t ‘about’ that.)
Perhaps what I mean is most like: ‘I have a policy of evaluating large group discussions at parties as bad’, though using ‘policy’ as a choice about an abstract variable that might apply to action, but not in the sense of a commitment.
What is going on here more generally? You are adding a new kind of abstract variable between beliefs and actions. A stance can be a bit like a policy choice on what you will treat as true, or on how you will evaluate something. Or it can also be its own abstract thing that doesn’t directly mean anything understandable in terms of the beliefs or actions nearby.
Some ideas we already use that are pretty close to stances are ‘X is my priority’, ‘I am in the dating market’, and arguably, ‘I am opposed to dachshunds’. X being your priority is heavily influenced by your understanding of the consequences of X and its alternatives, but it is your choice, and it is not dishonest to prioritize a thing that is not important. To prioritize X isn’t a claim about the facts relevant to whether one would want to prioritize it. Prioritizing X also isn’t a commitment regarding your actions, though the purpose of having a ‘priority’ is for it to affect your actions. Your ‘priority’ is a kind of abstract variable added to your mental landscape to collect up a bunch of reasoning about the merits of different things, and package them for easy use in decisions.
Another way of looking at this is as a way of formalizing and concretifying the step where you look at your uncertain beliefs and then decide on a tentative answer and then run with it.
One can be confident in stances, because a stance is a choice, not a guess at a fact about the world. (Though my stance may contain uncertainty if I want, e.g. I could take a stance that large groups have a 75% chance of being bad on average.) So while my beliefs on a topic may be quite uncertain, my stance can be strong, in a sense that does some of the work we wanted from strong beliefs. Nonetheless, since stances are connected with facts and values, my stance can be wrong in the sense of not being the stance I should want to have, on further consideration.
In sum, stances:
- Are inputs to decisions in the place of some beliefs and values
- Integrate those beliefs and values—to the extent that you want them to be—into a single reusable statement
- Can be thought of as something like ‘policies’ on what will be treated as the truth (e.g. ‘I deem large groups bad’) or as new abstract variables between the truth and action (e.g. ‘I am prioritizing sleep’)
- Are chosen by you, not implied by your epistemic situation (until some spoilsport comes up with a theory of optimal behavior)
- therefore don’t permit uncertainty in one sense, and don’t require it in another (you know what your stance is, and your stance can be ‘X is bad’ rather than ‘X is 72% likely to be bad’), though you should be uncertain about how much you will like your stance on further reflection.
I have found having stances somewhat useful, or at least entertaining, in the short time I have been trying having them, but it is more of a speculative suggestion with no other evidence behind it than trustworthy advice.
Feels like this interfaces with the problem of policy level decisions that are globally good but locally bad. There’s always the question of how much local bad you’ll put up with and how much making local exceptions erodes the global optimum.
A thing I often find helpful is to shift from strong beliefs that something is true to strong beliefs that something is worth trying. Often this takes the form “If X is true, then Y will have good outcome. If X is not true and Y has a good outcome, then Y had a good outcome so it was worth trying. If X is not true and Y has a bad outcome, then that gives us useful information about the fact that X is not true. Given the relative costs and benefits of these scenarios, Y is worth trying regardless of whether X is true.”
To use one of your examples, suppose I had a 1% belief that vitamin C cures cancer (in reality I of course assign a much lower probability than that). Taking vitamin C is very cheap. Therefore if I had cancer, I might have a strong belief that it is worth my taking vitamin C – it might help, the cost is low, and if I die of cancer anyway then at least that’s some useful information which I guess is some consolation? However I would not have a strong belief that it is worth my taking vitamin C *instead* of doing normal cancer treatment, because that is something with a high cost if I am wrong.
Perhaps “A strong belief that it is worth doing Y” is a stance in your model?
To add to your third list, would “I’m gonna act as if large groups at parties are bad, and see where it gets me” be a stance?
That is, you aren’t actually sure about the value of large groups at parties at all, but you have decided that the costs of uncertainty (or more precisely, indecisiveness) outweight the costs of being wrong about it in either direction (your parties would just be a little worse because you banned large groups – or because you didn’t!). So you pick a side. (Note: for cancer treatment the costs are the other way around, so you wouldn’t use stances)
In this particular case this has the benefit of providing you with additional data (run a few parties without large groups and see if they’re better than average), but that is not a necessary feature of stances. Both picking A and picking B are better than sitting around twiddling your thumbs and wondering. Even if you never get to know which of A or B is better, even if you pick the wrong one, and even if doing one for a while does not provide you with any additional data, by having picked one you’re still strictly better off than by not having picked anything.
To go back to policies, in broader life, there might be benefits to applying clear and consistent rules all the time. Any rule you pick might be flawed in some terrible way, evaluating all possible rules isn’t feasible, but having no rules (no stance, no policy) is worse of all (in terms of material returns on cognitive effort), so you pick *something* that seems right, with no expectation that you got it particularly right (and no real need to justify yourself).
A stance is a concession to, and an embracing of, bounded rationality. It makes you better off in practical terms (by being a cheap and fast approximation to an optimal decision) but worse off in idealised epistemic terms (by being a cheap and fast approximation to an optimal decision).
It brings all the benefits of being delusional and overconfident without actually polluting your thoughts processes or lying to yourself.
I think another big benefit of confidence is that it makes you more likely to treat your impressions seriously (as opposed to only treating your ‘beliefs’ as though they matter). Two effects:
1) I think information cascades become much more likely when a community of people only act on and report their beliefs instead of their impressions. It becomes really hard to tell how much each other person’s view is actually evidence of an independent evaluation of a question.
2) Taking your impressions seriously provides a public good by contributing new ideas to a community. Let’s say your impression is P(A) = 0.8 but everybody else thinks P(A) = .01 right so your belief is that you must be wrong and P(A) < 0.1. If you take your impression seriously, you'll argue for A and might contribute ideas and reasoning that the community hasn't heard before. You're also more likely to elaborate on A and work out its consequences. In some sense, your comparative advantage might be in taking A seriously. If you just act on your beliefs, you'll mostly go around assuming ~A like everyone else and are less likely to make those contributions.
There’s a flavor of ‘motivation hacking’ to all of this, but I think it’s both sometimes necessary and sometimes useful. It’s often hard to judge among options without adopting what you’re calling a ‘stance’ whereby you (temporarily) commit to acting ‘as if’ something is true, and thereby more fully explore whether it is true or useful or beneficial.
It puts me in mind of software architecture or design and the benefits of ‘running with’ a design, or a sketch thereof, to ‘exercise’ it fully. That’s often more productive for better understanding the relevant tradeoffs among the possibilities than reasoning alone. But, as you point out, there’s an element of *something like* wishful thinking or double-think involved. Tho maybe that’s not really true. I seem to remember doing just as well thinking that I’m just ‘running with’ an idea versus convincing myself ‘this is going to work’. One problem with the latter being that almost any idea *can* work, given sufficient effort (and this seems to be fairly clearly map to something like rationalization for purely epistemic stances).