Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Self Deception Is Vague

From a forthcoming study [pdf] in Cognition (HT Vaughan Bell):
We hypothesized that such self-deception depends on imprecision in the environment that allows leeway to represent one’s own actions as either observations or interventions. Four experiments tested this idea using a dot-tracking task... Precision was manipulated by varying the vagueness in feedback about performance. As predicted, self-deception was observed only when feedback on the task used vague terms rather than precise values ...

Self-deception requires imprecise feedback on performance. Simply having vague terms (‘fast’, ‘slow,’ or ‘average’) is sufficient to satisfy this requirement. Precise feedback makes it too obvious that the agent is intervening.

The more precision you seek, the more you honestly want to know the truth. That's instead of just wanting to seem like you want to know the truth, to others or to yourself. But before you go all rational-fu on me, recall Mezulis et al:
The self-serving attributional bias has been associated with greater self-reported trait happiness, less depression, more positive mood states, better problem solving, better immune functioning, and lower mortality and morbidity longitudinally. By contrast, an attenuated or absent self-serving attributional bias has been associated with depression; worse physical health; and worse academic, work, and athletic performance.

It may or may not be worth it to excommunicate your self-serving biases. There's a good chance you won't be able to do so even if you try. If you can, you'd probably like to be able to turn on the precision-seeking for topics you care about and remain vague on topics about which you don't particularly care for the truth. Unfortunately, it might not be that easy. As David Foster Wallace wrote, the truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.

Ref: doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2009.12.017, pdf here. And doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.130.5.711, abstract. here.