Crossposting from 80,000 Hours.
I feel like I’ve observed a lot of situations at big companies, where you can see this person acting as though they’re in Game of Thrones. And you come back in two years and… they just haven’t gotten anywhere.
The following are excerpts from interviews with people whose work we respect and whose answers we offered to publish without attribution. This means that these quotes don’t represent the views of 80,000 Hours, and indeed in some cases, individual pieces of advice explicitly contradict our own. Nonetheless, we think it’s valuable to showcase the range of views on difficult topics where reasonable people might disagree.
The advice is particularly targeted at people whose approach to doing good aligns with the values of the effective altruism (EA) community, but we expect most of it is more broadly useful.
This is the ninth in this series of posts with anonymous answers. Other entries have asked:
- “Is there any career advice you’d be hesitant to give if it were going to be attributed to you?”
- “How have you seen talented people fail in their work?”
- “What’s the thing people most overrate in their career?”
- “If you were 18 again, what would you do differently this time around?” And other personal career reflections.”
- “How risk averse should talented young people be?”
- “What bad habits do you see among people trying to improve the world?”
- “What mistakes do people most often make when deciding what work to do?”
- “What’s one way to be successful you don’t think people talk about enough?”
How honest and candid do you think high-profile people ought to be?
The devious don’t win out
I think a lot of people naturally tend to assume that playing politics is going to get them a lot of benefits that I don’t think it’s going to get them, and that being honest is going to get them a lot of pain that I don’t think it’s going to get them.
I’m not an absolutist, I think there are times to not be honest. But I see way more people screwing up in the other direction.
I feel like I’ve observed a lot of situations at big companies, where you can see this person acting as though they’re in Game of Thrones. And you come back in two years, and they just haven’t gotten anywhere. And you kind of assumed that they were going to win the Game of Thrones, because that’s what happens on TV. You know, the devious liar usually gets at least some kind of temporary victory somewhere in the plot, otherwise what’s the point of that character? But I’ve been very underwhelmed with how far these people get in real life. And people who are just really good at what they do, who are really honest all the time — I’ve seen them do really well. I don’t think it’s an absolute by any means, there are certainly exceptions.
People who are dishonest are just way more obvious than they think they are. Everyone catches on to it really fast. They start suffering the costs really fast — faster than they probably think. And people who are honest become trusted, and that’s a big deal.
It’s one of these things where I wonder if entertainment screws up our expectations, because in real life things are just way more boring. People trust trust-worthy people, and being trusted is really valuable.
You can convey a message in many different ways
I think it’s really important that effective altruism be a community in which important, true things can be said. It would be pretty damaging if there were important things that the effective altruism community had to strongly discourage all its high profile people from saying — and so we’ve got to figure out how to create conditions where that’s not the case.
But I also encounter people who seem to be picking fights that they don’t need to pick — that aren’t important. If you’re a high-profile person, you should make sure that you’re standing up for things for good reasons, and not just because you’re a contrarian.
Sometimes people seem like they’re deliberately taking bigger social penalties than they had to. They could have said things in a way that didn’t upset people nearly as much, but they didn’t on principle. And I think that’s an immoral principle. Doing good sometimes means trying very hard to make sure that the most important ideas land as well as possible. You should be willing, on principle, to make sure that you’re trying to communicate in a way that doesn’t make people mad. That instead of trying to look clever, you’re just trying to improve our collective understanding of the world. And usually if you do that, you won’t face a lot of controversy.
I think very honest. In general I think being dishonest is a bad strategy.
But one thing I really want to distinguish is being honest vs. choosing your words carefully. I think different topics have different levels of sensitivity, and you can often convey a message in many different ways with a very different tone and connotation via a different choice of words. And sometimes, especially people who have more of a contrarian bent, will take one message that could be phrased in many ways and either deliberately phrase it in a contrarian way or phrase it in a way that is not being generous to the listener. And I think that’s actively bad.
And sometimes people will defend that, by saying “oh, I’m just being honest”. But speech is not just literal communication. When you say something, you’re doing a lot of things. You’re not just conveying literal meanings of words. And so, if you’re talking about a particularly sensitive topic, then being attuned to that, and taking the time to think about what sort of other messages you might convey and then choosing your words such that you convey the right connotation as well as the right literal meaning — I think that’s very important.
I’m generally in favour of increasing honesty where possible, but it doesn’t mean that you have to be blunt or offensive.
But I think there’s a virtue to not shading things too much based on who you’re talking to.
If you say a lie often enough, you can start to believe it
I generally think it matters more that we be honest in our approach compared to other people. Part of that is I feel some non-utilitarian value to being moral.
Some of the most costly things that can happen to a movement happen because of dishonesty.
I think that sometimes people come up with an idea that has some merit, but that they think is much more persuasive than they should.
I’ve seen people convince themselves of the craziest things, because that’s what they felt they had to keep saying to donors. And once they’d said it enough, it seemed like it was too psychologically costly for them to admit that they’d been exaggerating for such a long time. By the end they actually believed that a pretty ineffective intervention was the absolute most effective thing — even though it would have seemed ridiculous to them if they’d never had to advocate for it.
Advocates are really prone to this, because of the importance placed on confidence. If you’re going on television, or fundraising — you don’t feel able to say “well, I think there’s a 70% chance that this intervention is a good idea”. In the real world, for people to want to work to pass your law or donate millions of dollars, they want you to be certain. So there might be a value to acting this way sometimes, but there is this real risk that you’ll end up believing your own hype.
We’re social creatures
I think radical honesty is misconceived. Some people think “if only people just told the truth all the time everything would be fine”, but I don’t think that’s the case. People say “I don’t do small talk, let’s get straight to the issues” — but I think that overlooks that we’re complicated social creatures. We’re not just exchanging information, it’s a signal of cooperation and friendliness. In general, I think we should be really careful before we propose anything that seems to steamroll over the top of hundreds of thousands of years of highly nuanced social norms.
I think once you say something publicly, you’re saying it to yourself too. We often haven’t formed a view on a topic before we’re asked, but once we are we just say something — and whatever that is can become our “view”. It may not be true, but we’re now more likely to think it is.
Good reasons for not sharing information
I don’t think people should lie, but I think there are many good reasons for not sharing information.
The most common is sharing negative information about people or groups. If you know that someone is far less competent than they’re claiming to be, that’s extremely useful information — but can also be uniquely damaging to that person, and even to the dynamics of a community. The taboo that exists broadly against sharing this kind of negative information publicly exists for a reason.
One consequence is that as soon as you have a reputation for sharing information, people stop talking to you. They’ll self-censor before that information gets to you.
There’s a difference between lying and not being forthcoming. I don’t have a problem with not talking about things that might get you into trouble.
Honesty makes sense to me as a general principle, unless you have a really good reason to avoid it.
There are real consequences for being completely candid
I think openness is generally very good. The thing that makes me hesitate is that people can be so punished by being very open. It’s so much to ask.
I don’t want people to be deceptive about the way they think about things, I certainly don’t want them to lie. It rubs me the wrong way if you’re thinking about everything in a very PR sensitive way about how your views might impact on the image of something, because I think that generally leads to deception.
I think deception is really easy to pick up on. I think people know when you’re doing a PR spin, and at the same time people will punish you for being forthright if they don’t like what you have to say. It frustrates me sometimes that the same people who don’t like the kind of PR, super washed-out views, still heavily punish people who state views that they disagree with.
I know a lot of people who have been really harmed for even somewhat considered public statements they’ve made that have been controversial. And the harms are so great, that I can’t say “oh, yeah, high-profile people should be super forthright about everything that they believe”. Because people get sent threats and have their lives ruined for doing that.
And so you’re put in a dilemma while those norms exist; you want to support complete honesty, but you also want to live in a world where people don’t have to worry about their personal safety and welfare if they’re completely honest, which can happen for expressing opinions on a lot of different topics — animal rights, feminism, religion etc.
Openness is altruism
From the perspective of a not-so or not-yet successful person, they should want high-profile people to be really honest so that you can understand how they achieved their success.
So I think it would be altruistic if more high-profile people expressed their views more openly. But maybe there are reasons it would be costly to them, e.g. to tell the story honestly they’d have to bring up an awkward fact, or show support for an unpopular position, or tell a story that portrays them in a bad light.
Present things differently in different contexts, but don’t distort the facts
It makes sense to present things differently in different contexts. But I think it’s important that you’re telling the truth in a different way, as opposed to actually distorting the facts. Common sense morality, as well as the pragmatic views of “what if I get caught?” — all seem to align on the position that you should basically just be honest.
People shouldn’t be forced to discuss everything
I’m generally very in favour of honesty. I don’t like deception, at all. But it feels like people should be entitled to some privacy. As in, if they have views that they think of as controversial, and they don’t want to discuss them, I don’t think they should be forced to. For example, if you’re religious and you’re aware that not a lot of people around you are religious — I don’t think you should have to talk about that. Not everyone is entitled to know everything about your beliefs.
Spend your ‘weirdness points’ where it really counts
If in doubt, I think people should generally err on the side of being more diplomatic. It’s easy to get caught up in your bubble — to think that everyone else thinks the same way that you do — and then it’s easy to put your foot in your mouth. But most of the senior people who hold most of the power probably don’t think the same way you do. So if you’re going to be weird, try to spend your weirdness quotient where it really counts, and try to be as normal as possible the other times.
Honesty in the effective altruism world
I think people in effective altruism, including high profile people, are doing very well in terms of honesty. For cases I can think of in effective altruism where people haven’t adhered to the norms of transparency, of coordinating — those have gone very badly. People have been really upset, and it creates a bad reputation.
Admit mistakes publicly
They should be quite honest on pragmatic grounds. I don’t think lying is a successful long-term strategy — I don’t think you’ll get away with it.
I encourage people to admit mistakes publicly. It’ll actually show a level of confidence — it shows that you’re confident enough to admit you have flaws.