I feel like my models of communication have matured significantly in the past few months, and through observing this process I’ve been trying to figure out if there were principles that guided this— and if so, what are they?
In this essay I mean communication in the broadest sense: as a speaker and as a listener; for sharing information and for bonding; with others and with yourself.
So far I’ve tried to codify such communication principles like these
- “Do not dismiss what others have to say”
- “Assume good faith”
- “Notice uncertainty”
- “Be curious and ask questions”
However, none of these feels fundamental, and most if not all of these have valuable exceptions. But I do have one idea, though I almost find it silly and not worth saying: say the truest thing you can.
I think saying the truest thing you can comes from a belief that the best strategy for the game you’re playing involves not deceit, not even a little bit, but only honesty.
But to explain this I must first explain a few concepts.
Finite and Infinite Games
def. Game: anything with players. There are at least two distinct types of games, finite and infinite.
def. Finite game: a game with bounds in space and time (i.e. it starts and ends at specific point in time), for which there also exist agreed win conditions and therefore also exist clear metric(s) of success. The purpose is to win.
- tennis, baseball, sports
def. Infinite game: a game with no bounds in space or time, no fixed rules, and no win conditions— or, everything else with players but without boundaries and win conditions. Therefore, there is no purpose (except, possibly, to continue the game).
- biological life
- non-transactional relationships, e.g. marriage, parenting, friendship
- (when not as a competition)
- (when not bounded in time)
- (when played without a time-limit)
- improving the world
- pursuit of beauty, goodness, and truth
- There is no winning, for example, marriage. The games doesn’t end, and a victor can never and will never be declared. You can do “well”, but only on arbitrary metrics of success that others might not even agree to respect. Instead, the closest definition of “winning” might just be keep playing and enjoy doing so.
- (Note that individual players have finite lives and they do die, but the game lives on.)
For a more complete discussion on this, see (at least the first chapter of) Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse. (As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.) (Note that I currently only comprehend the first chapter of this book.)
(You should also know the definitions of zero-sum and positive-sum games.)
I’ll use friendship as an example of an infinite game. Note that friendship is of course also positive-sum. And so when we enter a friendship, we go into it with the intention to cooperate, and to always cooperate. At any given point it might locally advantageous to engage in zero-sum actions against your partner (e.g. to “borrow”-but-actually-steal money, attention, or secrets), but it wouldn’t make sense to do so because this would also destroy the relationship and the potential for all future positive-sum collaborations. The relationship could just go on forever to both of your benefit.
Now let’s say that you’re playing iterated rounds of Prisoner’s Dilemma with someone. If you knew that you would be playing the game forever (or even just for a very long time into the future), you would keep cooperating with your partner and would not defect. Again: At any given point it might locally advantageous to engage in zero-sum actions against your partner (defection), but it wouldn’t make sense to because this would also destroy the relationship and all future positive-sum collaborations. You know that if you started defecting, so would they, so you don’t defect.1 You could just keep cooperating forever.
I claim that the best strategy in any finite game that locally rewards defection (zero-sum behavior) more than cooperation is a strategy that includes deceit. For example, if you’re playing iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma with a partner and you know the game is certainly ending soon, what do you do? Well, you will probably start defecting in the last few rounds because you can squeeze out a couple extra units of value from your opponent. And this does happen, e.g.: I have a friend whose landlord was very amicable all throughout his lease until the last few months when the landlord transformed into an abominable, grifty monster.
- not clear to me that defection is deceit in prisoner’s dilemma
- me: I think I need to explain that there’s an implicit tit for tat thing going on
- the correct strategy is to defect where the game is to zero-sum beat the only person, but not so when you care about the number of points (rather than whether you won more points than the other person)
- not clear to me that defection is deceit in prisoner’s dilemma
The best strategy in a positive-sum2 infinite game is obviously one of infinite cooperation. The best strategy in any finite portion of an infinite game, however, will involve deceit, e.g. a defection in the last round. Thus the best strategy in a finite game that (locally) rewards zero-sum behavior (more it does than positive-sum behavior) will always be one that includes deceit.
==I should look into the unexpected hanging problem here?==
==note that I’m also obscuring the definitions of finite and infinite game here. I’m talking about infinite games as if there is an agreed upon objective and that need not be true?==
This doesn’t work in positive-sum infinite games, though, because any deception will inevitably be picked up by your opponent. Because the game is indefinitely long, they will essentially always eventually figure out your intentions, and you will forever after lose out on infinite cooperation.3
“Becoming” an infinite player
So, “just play the infinite game”, right? However, I’m not so sure about this. I cannot imagine a player of a finite game deciding to play as if they are an infinite player: How are they to measure the outcome of this action from within their current finite regime? (After all they cannot conceive of— nor compare— the infinities that are required.) If anything the strategy that will appear more attractive to them is to pretend to be an infinite player until it is most convenient for them not to be. (Similar to pickup artistry and pretending to be attractive.) Thus I don’t think a finite player can just choose to become an infinite player and stick with it for the reason that “it would be more advantageous to me”.4
However I do believe there’s a way out of this: we’re all already infinite players, but we often get stuck in finite games. The solution, then, is to decide to stop playing our finite games and let them die. To decide to stop playing any game that will result in anything less than infinite value forever towards the future. In which case you don’t become “more infinite” but less finite.
Saying the truest thing you can
My next claim is that communicating well is equivalent to the decision to let one’s finite games die.
Take, for example, the communication class of accusations, e.g. “You betrayed me.”
I think one root cause of poor communication is that we often speak in terms that could be made less subjective and more objective. I claim that subjective frames are necessarily privileging a particular finite objective. For example, statements like “you betrayed me” seem to me to often be said from an intention of wanting something else from the other person in order to make things “fair”, and this is a finite game.
==is it though? it could encourage future collaboration… Though, I suppose that this isn’t the way you’d do that. If you wanted to encourage future collaboration you would do so by just not collaborating with them for a while. Tit for tat (with random forgiveness) in the domain in question, not in this weird other domain of accusations.==
However, I would rather state the above example as “I felt let down when you did X” or, even better, “I noticed that I felt let down when I saw you do X.” Here, the statement has been made less subjective and more objective by asking a few questions:
- Did I really feel it? → Prepend “I noticed that…”
- Did you really intend to betray me? → Replace the claim “betrayed me” with the communication of the feeling “felt let down”
- Did you really do it? → Add “when I saw you do X”
This equally applies to praise, e.g. “You’re so smart”. Note that this praise is said as if it’s a fact, even though it can neither be measured nor tested. It’s a nonsense statement! Meanwhile something like “I think that you’re smart”5 makes more sense, and I think such a statement does properly acknowledge it’s own subjectivity.
However, “I think that you’re smart” is not my preference; instead, I would prefer to say something like “I heard you say Y, and I wouldn’t have thought of that! Your addition helped me think about this in a new way.” Saying it like this is not only more meaningful to receive, but also more grounded in reality and more true.
I suspect that a problem with praise is that it is usually judgmental and/or manipulative? (Even if this is not the conscious intent.) And judgment and manipulation necessarily exist within finite games.
A more elucidating example might be how I imagine many women feel when they hear “You’re cute”. This seems almost objectifying? But I imagine that it would feel different and better to hear “I think you’re cute” instead.
For more about praise, see my essay Praise that doesn’t feel uncomfortable.
Overall, when a statement acknowledges it’s own subjectivity, I think it becomes more true in some sense. It becomes less of a statement about what certainly is, and more like a collaborative search for what is true.
More examples of this
- “I was rejected from the program.” → “The program did not accept my application at this time.”
- You ≠ your application!
- (Also, note that I said “the program did not accept my application” and not “the program chose not to accept my application”: you don’t know whether they chose—e.g. they might have decided stochastically— you only know (“know”) the outcome.)
- “My model of this situation is…”
- “I am inclined to believe that…”
- This is also generally how I try to journal. (See examples on the page.)
Cf. Fair Witness
- it’s very easy to Goodhart on these examples. pickup artistry.
So now that you’re trying to say the truest thing you can, you naturally express uncertainty when you speak. Instead of saying “X is true.” you might say “I believe X.” or “Y made me think X.”
You will then also become much more aware that you don’t know what you don’t know. So you might instead say “I saw Y which had me consider X, however there might also be other explanations that I don’t know that I don’t know about. What do you think?” At which point, uncertainty causes you to become curious and ask questions.
Additionally, when you’re aware that you don’t know what you don’t know, it can then be difficult to judge others because you can’t rule out that their actions can be explained by reasonable reasons that are unknown to you. So from trying to say the truest thing we can we derive uncertainty, and from that we derive acceptance and non-judgement.
Similarly, we will be less inclined to preemptively dismiss what others have to say— we know that everything is said for a reason (even if we don’t know what the reason is).
And in general we might also take to assuming that others always have good intentions? (Depending on the world you want to live in, that is.)
I don’t mean this literally
I don’t mean “say the truest thing you can” literally. There are cases where this breaks too. And I do think that skillfully omitting details and plausible deniability often makes for good communication (vagueness can be intentional, vagueness can be true).
The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
Definition of creepiness
Sometimes we enter relationships— relationships that we expect to be infinite games— and then we discover that the other party treats it as if it is a finite game. This I define as creepiness: when you see other players playing strategies of finite games inside of what you had thought was an infinite game. The epitome of this is if you’re a women and you’re looking for a long term partner, and you meet a guy who you thought was also looking for a long term relationship, but later you discover that he actually wanted a brief fling. To this end, you will notice that he must’ve said, or implied, statements about his intended maximum level of commitment that were not true. You were treating it as an infinite game (a long relationship) and he was treating it as a finite game (~temporary sex), and the moment you realized this will have been quite jarring.
- you’re stating this as advice rather than “these are things that I’m thinking about and these are my current models”, and this feels jarring
- how ironic
To be precise, I mean this for diverging positive-sum infinite games: If a game is positive-sum game but each successive round of cooperation is, for example, half as rewarding as the last but each successive round of defection is of constant reward, then this breaks. So I only mean games for which the integral of value(cooperation) - value(defection) dtime is divergent. ↩
For this reason I think it is also beneficial to assume that your thoughts and intentions leak out into the world, and that others will be able to see those intentions with time. This is relevant because I think neglecting this is a common way to misunderstand Newcomb’s Problem, so this has larger implications on social interaction. Moreover, on the subject of dating (or other long-term relationships) I find the heuristic that “dating is predetermined” to be useful. We interact on the level of intentions, not actions. I intend to write more about this in the future. ↩
Note that while I do believe that the incentives of finite games cannot cause one to become an infinite player, I do believe that they can cause one to try it. I know someone who from a young age was skeptical and untrusting of other people. Her natural inclination then was to be grifty with others, and to use others towards her finite motivations. However, because of this she did incidentally the try making friends things and actually found it rewarding in its own right. So her extrinsic motivations kickstarted her pre-existing (though hidden) intrinsic motivations (even if her extrinsic motivations do not now sustain her intrinsic motivations). ↩
I imagine that “I think you’re smart” is what most people would say they mean if they say “You’re smart”, however it still feels quite different to me and otherwise I’m not sure why. ↩
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