Perfect principles are for bargaining

When people commit to principles, they often consider one transgression ruinous to the whole agenda. Eating a sausage by drunken accident can end years of vegetarianism.

As a child I thought this crazy. Couldn’t vegetarians just eat meat when it was cheap under their rationale? Scrumptious leftovers at our restaurant, otherwise to be thrown away, couldn’t tempt vegetarian kids I knew. It would break their vegetarianism. Break it? Why did the integrity of the whole string of meals matter?  Any given sausage was such a tiny effect.

I eventually found two explanations. First, it’s easier to thwart temptation if you stake the whole deal on every choice. This is similar to betting a thousand dollars that you won’t eat chocolate this month. Second, commitment without gaps makes you seem a nicer, more reliable person to deal with. Viewers can’t necessarily judge the worthiness of each transgression, so they suspect the selectively committed of hypocrisy. Plus everyone can better rely on and trust a person who honors his commitments with less regard to consequence.

There’s another good reason though, which is related to the first. For almost any commitment there are constantly other people saying things like ‘What?! You want me to cook a separate meal because you have some fuzzy notion that there will be slightly less carbon emitted somewhere if you don’t eat this steak?’ Maintaining an ideal requires constantly negotiating with other parties who must suffer for it. Placing a lot of value on unmarred principles gives you a big advantage in these negotiations.

In negotiating generally, it is often useful to arrange visible costs to yourself for relinquishing too much ground. This is to persuade the other party that if they insist on the agreement being in that region, you will truly not be able to make a deal. So they are forced to agree to a position more favorable to you. This is the idea behind arranging for your parents to viciously punish you for smoking with your friends if you don’t want to smoke much. Similarly, attaching a visible large cost – the symbolic sacrifice of your principles – to relieving a friend of cooking tofu persuades your friend that you just can’t eat with them unless they concede. So that whole conversation is avoided, determined in your favor from the outset.

I used to be a vegetarian, and it was much less embarrassing to ask for vegetarian food then than was afterward when  I merely wanted to eat vegetarian most of the time. Not only does absolute commitment get you a better deal, but it allows you to commit to such a position without disrespectfully insisting on sacrificing the other’s interests for a small benefit.

Prompted by The Strategy of Conflict by Thomas Schelling.

8 responses to “Perfect principles are for bargaining

  1. However, this sort of commitment seems to crop up in all sorts of maladaptive contexts. For instance, dieting, exercise, or financial prudence. The same logic that makes a single slice of bacon invalidate a lifetime of vegetarianism also results in people pitching their diet out the window because they had a Snickers two days running.

    When the desired goal is actually a long term one, with an attached success metric (i.e., saving $990 when you wanted to save $1000 is better than saving $0, reducing carbon footprint by 50% is still good even if you were aiming for %100), binary commitment thinking tends to lead to less optimal outcomes than a best effort commitment.

    (And then there’s the issue of people who live by binary commitments alienating other people who would do a lot if they could only make best effort commitments. Slacktivists can be productive allies, but activists often despise them.)

    • I’m not sure those are maladaptive – willingness to sacrifice the greater goal for small transgressions is what makes the possibility of that a credible threat the rest of the time.

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  4. Good post. Since not many people commented I would guess that most people agree.

    Even Kamileon is just nitpicking a little.

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  6. Did people see this work by Hugo Mercier nicely excerpted here?

    “The Problem:
    “The direction reasoning takes is mostly determined by the participants’ initial intuitions. If they have arrived at the conclusion themselves, or if they agree with it, they try to confirm it. If they disagree with it, they try to prove it wrong. In all cases, what they do is try to confirm their initial intuition.”
    “Human reasoning is not a profoundly flawed general mechanism; it is a remarkably efficient specialized device adapted to a certain type of social and cognitive interaction at which it excels.”
    “…contrary to common bleak assessments of human reasoning abilities, people are quite capable of reasoning in an unbiased manner, at least when they are evaluating arguments rather than producing them, and when they are after the truth rather than trying to win a debate.”

    Key Points:
    * Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes not because humans are bad at it but because they systematically look for arguments to justify their beliefs or their actions.
    * People can be skilled arguers, producing and evaluating arguments felicitously. This good performance stands in sharp contrast with the abysmal results found in other, no argumentative, settings
    * We outline an approach to reasoning based on the idea that the primary function for which it evolved is the production and evaluation of arguments in communication. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade.
    * Reasoning enables people to exchange arguments that, on the whole, make communication more reliable and hence more advantageous.
    * Reasoning contributes to the effectiveness and reliability of communication by enabling communicators to argue for their claim and by enabling addressees to assess these arguments. It thus increases both in quantity and in knowledge quality the information humans are able to share.
    * Reasoning is often used to find justifications for performing actions that are otherwise felt to be unfair or immoral. Such uses of reasoning can have dire consequences.
    Abstract: Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to knowledge distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. “

  7. Pingback: Hidden motives or innocent failure? | Meteuphoric

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