Sunday, July 09, 2006

Honesty

(another oldie, placed here for future reference)

In some other post I ask "what's wrong with honesty?" Let me expand on this a little. As usual, input is welcome.

Just for the duration of this sentence, let me commit the sin of oversimplification by separating communicative environments into competitive and collaborative ones. It is understood that very few (if any) real situations will fall squarely into either of these categories, but that we have to understand real, human, interaction as a composite of both; sometimes a little more to the one side, sometimes a little more to the other. Sometimes quite clearly on either side. Sometimes pretty much in the middle.

I am separating the two, since they present different communication-paradigms and since therefore they will result in different optimum strategies.

In a collaborative environment, things are simple: You are as honest as you can. If you benefit from my being well-informed, then it is in your own best interest to keep me well-informed. Even to the point where you might want to review what information I have available to me and correcting it if you see problems with it. At all times, it would hurt you if you withheld information from me or if you presented me intentionally with false information.

In a competitive environment, things get trickier: if you can benefit from my misinformation, then there's an incentive to lie. At least occasionally. The optimum strategy goes something like this:

A) Be honest as often as necessary to maintain credibility. If you lie too often, people will simply not believe you and language as a tool becomes useless.

B) Lie as often as necessary to obtain the maximum possible gain from lying that is possible without getting in conflict with (A) above.

Understanding these situations, there's certain obvious strategies in dealing with them. Obviously, your strategy is going to depend on your perception of the situation: it doesn't really matter whether any situation is "really" competitive or if competitiveness can be measured or any such thing: you are going to adopt a competitive strategy if you think that you're in a competitive situation.

If you adopt a competitive strategy, then my response to it is simple: I will be as skeptical of your words as I can. The more skeptical scrutiny I can muster, the more I can effectively force you to be honest, since you'd get away with less lies as per the above. A competitive response to a competitive strategy.

The other alternative is to establish cooperative environments. If I can convince you that it is in your own interest if I am as well-informed as possible, I can expend less resources on critical
examination of your statements and more on producing content. Essentially, I have to convince you to examine your own thoughts with the same critical scrutiny that I would have to expend
otherwise.

As usual when communicating about communication, all these have obvious abuse-potential built into them, once you understand them and if your intentions are other than well-meaning.

I am bringing this up here mostly to give a bit of a background to my own communications: First off, I tend to try to be as honest as I can. And as honest as is appropriate: if I tell you a yarn that is clearly marked as a yarn and serves the purpose of entertainment rather than information-transmission, then that's a different item, obviously.

Second, you will find me fiercely skeptical of people's claims, simply because that will force them into honesty (or into hiding, if they think that they must be competitive and that I am undermining their ability to do so). On the other side I am really trying to encourage discussion and interaction: I am not skeptical because I dislike people or any such thing - I am skeptical because I see this as the only tool at my disposal to compel other people to be honest.

This means that my communication-strategy has the same two-way structure as the above:

A) Be as skeptical as possible.

B) Establish as much of a cooperative (rather than competitive) feeling to the communicative environment as is possible without violating (A) above.

This is how I try to establish honesty. I'd be curious to hear alternative strategies or alternative methods of arriving at them.

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