People are full of crap. Some know they are, these people are bullshitters. They are motivated by the need or a desire to be believed. They don’t care about the truth one way or the other and will only tell it when doing so helps them to get other people to believe them.
Most people do not believe that they are full of crap and will say with complete honesty that they are truth seekers and that they do not lie. I have no reason to disbelieve them when they say this, and there is a lot of evidence that indicates that they ARE telling the truth and that they work in earnest to seek out and consume things that they believe are true.
“On Bullshit” is a 2005 essay written by Harry G. Frankfurt that covers some of this very effectively. The truth teller and the liar both have an important relationship with the truth. Both know what it is and act in predictable ways when dealing with it. The truth teller will take the steps that are required to uncover the truth and to always say and do things according to it. The liar will take very similar steps to uncover it and will then say things that are untrue and will allow other people to believe things that are not true. Liars do not always lie though, which makes life a little more challenging. However, if someone knowingly tells a lie, it is reasonable to conclude that they will do so in the future and to withdraw unconditional trust for them and to stop viewing them through the most charitable lenses.
Truth tellers will always tell the truth as they know it. This is not the same thing as always telling the objective truth because that would imply that they know what that is. While this fact complicates things considerably, it is no reason to completely give-up on people and withdraw from society. We just need to be aware that uncovering objective reality is hard work, and it may not even be possible some of the time. Life is very complicated and there is a lot to learn. Sometimes we need to believe things that we do not know and do our best with what we have. This is a part of the reason why honest people will speak untruths and it is why we need to be charitable towards others who do not actively set about to mislead us.
However, there are limits to this. Someone who shows a lack of willingness or ability to learn from their mistakes, or remains completely committed to their views when evidence to the contrary has been shared with them, are acting in a way that is at least to some degree dishonest. Updating world views is hard work but this effort is necessary in order to move forward in life with a better internal representation of the objective external world. Anybody who does not put in the work to adapt to their experiences should be demoted and assumed to be less than honest. Let’s call these people the truth impervious.
The transition zone between the truth impervious and the truth teller is not a clear line, and it probably shouldn’t be. In general, we want people to be very quick in updating their world view when presented with new information. The blurred line is the result of differing thresholds for what constitutes evidence of new information. The size of the blurred line is occupied by the truth resistant.
When we are young, the line is fairly well defined. We accept everything as truth and store all of it into long term memory. This maximizes our ability to learn in terms of speed and quantity while making us more susceptible to dishonest players who try to gain from getting us to believe lies or untruths. This is the reason why it is critical to tell children the truth as much as possible and to limit the lies that you are willing to tell them. There is a cost to every lie and it is the child, or the adult they will become, who will pay that cost. It’s probably fine to tell them certain cultural fairy tales in terms of holidays about rabbits, eggs and gifts, but it may not be. It is also better to avoid answering a question choosing to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not actually sure” than to make something up. Again, telling the truth is the best course of action, but sometimes it might not be appropriate to relate this information to them too soon. So long as the withholding of information is done to prevent too early an exposure and not as a way to make your life easier there may be some downstream benefit to doing it.
But there reaches a point when the only thing that gets shared is the truth, and this point will be more or less the moment when the truth impervious and the truth resistant begin to cleave themselves off from the honest. This occurs because the person as learned a massive amount of information and is now in a position to listen more critically and to interrogate what they hear / experience against what they have stored in long term memory. They will still continue to update their world view, but they will start to become more responsible for making the decision on what to do when something goes against it. This is a big leap forward in terms of shoring up their understanding of things as they will already have developed a general case for a lot of common knowledge. The ability to identify when something doesn’t match the general case is of upmost importance in generating an advanced or expert level of skill.
It goes something like this: an experience doesn’t match their internal view of reality, but since they have crossed into the realm of critical analysis, they take a moment of pause when they identify the error / in-congruence. It’s a moment of inflection in so far as they think “what do I not know and need to know as a result of what has just happened” or “this doesn’t match my world view and is therefore wrong and needs to be ignored.” Of these two thoughts, younger people tend to favor the first while people who are older will drift towards the second. Those who are honest and in the second group will, after enough experience, change their approach and open-up to letting in new information. The challenge is in getting to the threshold amount in so far as there is a disincentive to seeking out information that does not support our present world view. It is both work and experientially painful – while not in the same ballpark as getting hit with a baseball, the brain does not release reward chemicals when consuming information or having experiences that do not match the patterns we have stored in our long term memory. This is a critical fact that makes life much more difficult for some people than it needs to be. The essence however is that for people who lean towards viewing as false anything that is not compatible with what they know to be true UNTIL they get enough information to justify changing their world view, are honest people but will initially present as truth impervious in that they will not learn from experience and will seem to view things are wrong without any evidence other than what they have stored in their heads.
You will know that it is a truth impervious person when they do not seek out evidence to support the accuracy of the new information they were exposed to and remain unmoved by evidence that is presented to them. Honest people may have a threshold for triggering change and they will change their behavior when presented with evidence. They may not update their world view, but they will not flat out deny reality. When they actually hear the evidence, it will be clear that their brain has started to process it and is beginning to answer the question “what do I not know that would make this information correct?” They will be curious as they consider what it is that they do not know.
So this is what we are left with:
Bullshitters, liars, the truth impervious, the truth resistant and the honest.
You’ll stay away from bullshitters and keep liars at arm’s length. The truth impervious will, over time, reveal themselves as unchanging and allow you to keep them at whatever distance makes the most sense. They are not the same as the other two – those who do not care about truth and those who know what it is but are willing to avoid it to get something they want or need – because they are simply just not letting in anything that doesn’t map directly onto what they know. They are useful and are only dangerous when you mistakenly believe that they are truth resistant.
The truth resistant and the honest are who you will seek out, identify, and choose to surround yourself with; assuming that you are either one of these types of people. This is the method for creating the most ease in your life and that will give you the greatest number of opportunities to learn, grow, contribute, and succeed. It is definitely worth putting in the work to find as many of these people as you can and to take the steps necessary to remain as one yourself.
This is going to require constant effort, a willingness and the ability to tolerate the discomfort of being wrong, and the willingness to seek out experiences and information that does not cause the release of any reward chemicals. This last one is the bigger challenge because as you already know, your brain releases reward chemicals when it makes correct guesses and when it matches patterns; reading something that confirms our world view is chemically rewarding and in no way punishing while reading something that doesn’t match our world view is not chemically rewarding and very likely to be punishing.
Honestly, I don’t know why anyone would do it, except for the fact that in the long run it might be better because it can make life easier and this will allow us to get more done. In the immediate time frame, it is not an innately rewarding experience. You can however condition your brain to release reward chemicals in response to learning. Making this link will serve to fuel your future quest for wisdom and truth. Doing this is relatively simple, but it requires a lot of hard work, particularly early in life, and this work can be perceived as punishment or sacrifice. If a love for learning was not instilled during childhood and adolescence, it can be developed later in life by re-framing the experience as a positive and a sound investment into your future or by learning how to pay absolute attention to the things you are learning. Suffering, that is a negative emotional experiences in the absence of physical pain, is the result of too much focus on yourself. When we pay attention to what we are learning or what is going on from moment to moment, we are no longer capable of paying attention to ourselves and this will eliminate whatever negative experience was occurring. This will serve as a reinforcement if for no other reason as the reduction in pain. Overtime, our brains learn the response and will begin to trigger it as a result of the learning.
So this is truth, learning, how to make life easier and therefore potentially better, and the categories of people in terms of their possible relationship with honestly.
The fact of the matter is that life is both work and very complicated. There is an incentive to avoid work and complexity because doing so helps to conserve energy, making it available for later in the event there is an emergency that we need to deal with. This makes sense when we consider where our species is coming from – the past when food scarcity was a reoccurring problem that killed off a lot of people each time it showed-up – but it has been much less of a concern over the last few thousand years as a result of the discovery of farming. However, the genes of our ancestors do not disappear in response to changes in the environment. They disappear either through mutation, meaning they code for something entirely different, or the individuals with those genes die before they are able to reproduce which might, over the long run, see them removed from the species IF the genes are not contained in the code of the individuals who do mate successfully. The conservation of energy genes however are ubiquitous across all species and all areas of the planet. They are not going anywhere meaning that for the foreseeable future human beings are going to default to conserving energy by any means possible and will only choose to spend it through an act of will OR in an attempt to receive a reward.
This creates an interesting situation when we factored into our understanding of the truth and learning. Sugar is sugar, and it is as useful for one specific aspect of metabolism as any other aspect of it. The brain doesn’t care HOW it saves energy, it is just coded to try and save it. Our brain uses about twenty percent of our basal metabolic energy and it is more or less on all of the time when we are awake. Heavy sessions of deep thought might theoretically burn more energy than a session of equal length involving us watching waves or sitting quietly in a darkened room but the evidence for this is inconclusive. What is clear is the increased cost of recovery from or adapting to the intense session of deep thought. When what is sensed, perceived and experienced is different from what is stored and represented in long term memory, assimilating this information will cost energy in terms of the organic cell growth of the new neural networks that contain the new and updated information. When the information that flows in is the same as the information that is already stored, nothing needs to happen.
This means that living beings have a survival incentive to avoid new information because adjusting to it will use energy that might be better spent elsewhere or held onto in the event it is needed for an emergency. Phrased another way, it is easier and cheaper in the short term to remain ignorant than it is to invest the effort to cultivate knowledge or wisdom. Any argument about medium and long term costs of this need to be tempered with the reality that the future is an abstract thing and therefore does not exist in any tangible way. Do not allow this fact to derail your understanding here because it is fairly trivial and has very little consequence to how the brain operates. The future is brain activity in the frontal cortex, the past is the organic material that comprise all of the neural networks that make-up our long term memories and the present is the influx of sensory signals and the corresponding mental processes that they trigger. The only way the future exists is when we have the part of the brain that is responsible for generating it and when that part of the brain is active; otherwise it just isn’t a thing that the brain has any awareness of or access to.
Narratively it is safe to say that learning as much as possible is an investment in the future but in practice this isn’t exactly the case. The body will adapt to EVERYTHING that it does in a way that will make doing it again a little bit easier. The improvement in capability and efficiency with each subsequent repetition will be small, but there is an improvement. The general rule of thumb is that each time you double the reps you do, you will become 20% more effective. Over time, if a skill is not practiced, no new tissue will be laid down to support it and this will result in skill decay as cellular turnover reduces the number of dedicated cells. This is why practice makes us better and is critical for maintaining high levels of skill fluency.
All of this is to say that if we are never going to do something again, it is cheaper for us to avoid doing it in the first place because this will allow us to avoid all of the metabolic costs associated with this 20% increase in efficiency. Since important things occur often and unimportant things occur very infrequently, unless it is an emergency or a life or death situation, we are statistically better off if we ignore something the first few times we are faced with it because this will prevent us from wasting energy on the insignificant and allow us to focus energy on what is important or save it for use later.
I like math and I love how useful statistics are at telling a very interesting story about what is going on, but statistics are NOT real life. They are an amalgamation of many individual stories that are themselves real life. Just because we are statistically better off doing something does not necessarily mean that we are individually better off doing it. Think about it this way, the mean is the average of all of the values. If we have to guess what any individual number is and have no other information to go on, our best option is to pick the mean value because half of the numbers will be larger and half of them will be smaller, and the mean is based on something – an average of ALL of the numbers – but not much more than that. Say we have 10 people who take a test that is scored between 1 and 10. The results have a person score each of the whole numbers between 1 and 10; one person gets 1, one person gets 2, one person gets 3, etc…. You are told nothing about the test, are told that the mean score is 5.5 out of 10 and are then asked to guess the score of person 7. You go with the mean which is about the best you can do, but are wrong because they scored 8. And guessing the mean will always be wrong because the test doesn’t give out half marks. In this case any whole number would will have a 1 in 10 chance of begin correct vs. 100% certainty of being incorrect.
This is how I think about learning from what happens. While there is energy to be saved by ignoring reality the first few times it presents itself, there is very little reason for me to worry about this energy. My body fat level puts me into the realm of being able to go without any food for at least 10 days before I might enter a danger zone in terms of starvation. There is no food scarcity where I live and, if I ever find myself in a position that the energy that was spent learning something actually makes a difference, that would be the least of my problems. I would argue that one of the major benefits of technology is the enhanced learning environment and potential that these technologies have created. I can “waste” energy learning things that don’t matter, doing things that do not enhance my chances of surviving, and adapting to novel or otherwise meaningless stimuli simply because of the work the previous 450 generations did to create a surplus of food, safety, security, and shelter. Whatever energy I save by waiting until something happens three or four times before dealing with it makes no difference in my life. I probably throw out enough food each day to pay attention to and learn from practically everything that comes along.
Of course my DNA, brain, and operating system do not consider my level of body fat or the richness of the food I waste when faced with new information. The default is to ignore, resist, and justify doing nothing. Which is fair and a big pain in the ass when it comes to the truth. There is a huge evolutionary drive for us to be right because being in that state means we do not have to do anything. There is nothing to learn when we are right because being right is an indication that we have already learned what it was to know. Great, except being right and wrong are only things that exist when you take the time to consider them. Other than what we have stored in our long term memories that we are able to access and bring to mind from moment to moment, the only things that are real are the things for which there is a stream of sensory data flowing in. Everything else doesn’t exist.
This is a type of conundrum because in order to assess something for accuracy or truth, it needs to exist and the only way it can exist is if the sensory data is allowed to enter into your brain. If it isn’t let in, the thing isn’t right or wrong, it’s so much less than that. The thing isn’t a thing at all.
There is a potential cost to letting the stuff in because if it doesn’t match what we have stored in our brains, we will need to spend energy to adapt to the new information. So this leaves us with a choice, do we ignore things and be certain to save the energy or do we pay attention to them and risk having to spend the energy? Of course, there’s a third choice which is to already know what it is we are paying attention to – or to be right about the things we are letting in.
Personally, I’m a fan of letting the stuff in and learning as much as possible, even when it may never be needed in the future. But I understand the drive of staying closed or of consuming only things that confirm a preexisting piece of knowledge. That doesn’t mean I agree with these approaches, nor does it mean that I respect the conservation efforts of people who engage in them.
The truth resistant are made-up of people who employ these tactics when dealing with reality. They’ll ignore reality for a while until they deem it time to let the new information in.
The truth impervious will also use these tactics, but they’ll rely on always “being right” when cherry picking what to let in to ensure that they never need to do anything differently. The remarkable thing about this is just how simple it can be to maintain rightness in the face of contradictory information so long as that information never makes it into the brain or when it accidentally leaks in, it is perceived in a particular way that ensures there is nothing new to learn.
If you are curious to see this in action, take a look at the web site https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/. This site deals with political biases and is an attempt to rank news sources as left bias, left leaning, least biased, right leaning and right bias. You are able to get a list of sources that match each of these categories, along with a few others, and read the sites write-up about the source.
What is most interesting is that on the page that contains the write-up, you can follow a link to the source site and read their articles for yourself. Not that big a deal, except when you start to really pay attention to what is going on in your brain and your body. We don’t simply consume information and feel nothing while doing it. Oh no, we do so much more. Whatever biases we have, whatever preconceived notions that exist inside our brains and whatever we know as the truth play a role in determining how we emotionally respond to things. When faced with erroneous information, we respond, when faced with correct information, we respond, when faced with ambiguous information, we respond. The unconscious parts of our brain that deal with complex information fire-up, do their thing, and trigger specific emotions based on their interpretation of the sensory stimuli.
If I was forced to say, I would suggest that I am a social liberal and have a slight right lean financially. I don’t think the government knows what it is doing most of the time, so I don’t believe it has a place in telling the citizens how to behave. If you are not harming other people and only engage in consensual interactions, the government should pay no attention to you. I’m a believer in public health care and some social programs, but I believe that people should work as much as they can to pay their own way unless they have a strong reason why they are not able to or have been able to get someone to consent to paying for them. I have very low expectations for politicians and I expect them to lie because I don’t think a completely honest person could effectively run a country.
All of this being said, I have a tendency to avoid news sources that have a right bias and notice that I feel off when I am consuming news that has a strong left bias. The right stuff seems like superficial nonsense and the left stuff seems too over the top and unreasonably fatalistic. The stuff in the middle lands better because it just seems like they are revealing a series of facts about things that happened. It is as though they are reporting the news as a kind of boring list of things that occurred and leave the rest of it up to me to figure out.
This is much closer to what the world is actually like. Nothing is as good or as bad as it seems in the moment. What a thing is will become clearer over the days and weeks that follow. Was it good or bad that such and such won an election? Well, it was both. Things will be different because of it, some of the things that were good will get better, some that were bad will get worse, some things will stay the same, other things will reverse valence.
But in the moment, it’s amazing, or awful. It feels like it matters more than anything else ever could or ever will. Which is true, given that the future only exists as brain activity in the present moment, but in a few minutes you’ll have moved off of it and onto something else that matters more than anything ever could or ever will.
This is the reason why we need to consume information from all sides of an argument, particularly from the side that we do not align with. You may never change your mind about it, but it is important that you understand that there are people who believe things that you do not believe and that you know what these things are. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle between two polarized points of view. But you’ll only find it when you allow for the existence of the other pole. When you know with certainty that they are wrong, you close off to the truth and become a little less useful at being a human being.