Bindings and assurances

I've read a few business books and articles that contrast national styles of contract negotiation. Some countries such as the US have a style where a contract is meant to be fully binding such that if one of the parties could predict that they will likely break the contract in the future, accepting that version of the contract is seen as substantively and surprisingly dishonest. In other countries this is not seen as terribly unusual - a contract's just an initial guideline to be renegotiated whenever incentives slip too far out of whack.

More generally, some people reward me for thinking carefully before agreeing to do costly things for them or making potentially big promises, and wording them carefully to not overcommit, because it raises their level of trust in me. Others seem to want to punish me for this because it makes them think I don't really want to do the thing or don't really like them.

Contract improv

I earlier outlined a distinction between two these two ways of thinking about promises, which I called the Quaker and Actor types. (The obvious alternative model is that some people just take promises more seriously than others as a matter of degree.) In the comments, John Salvatier wrote:

Someone once broke up with me because I was insufficiently enthusiastic about their baking, even though I could tell they wanted me to be enthusiastic, I really didn’t want to fake it because it felt dishonest […]

The baking example is a concrete illustration of the divide between the attitude that enthusiasm in the direction of existing social momentum is prosocial and skepticism is antisocial, and the attitude that taking special care to avoid saying false things is prosocial, and saying things mainly to be agreeable is antisocial. John’s anecdote is a good intuitive fit for a difference in kind, and a poor fit for a mere difference of degree.

One way of thinking about Actors’ use of promises is that they’re participating in an extended improvisational game. In improv, no one’s checking whether statements are true, but it is important to say things that are responsive to what just came before. So you don’t think too hard about what you’re saying, you go along with the scene. It’s also important not to kill prosocial momentum – it’s common advice for improve actors to respond to any bid in improv with “yes, and…”. What happens now determines the future of the scene, not because characters are truly committed to keeping their promises, but because the actors’ future behaviors depend on the path they took.

One thing that makes it hard to tell when people are using words enactively, and when people are using them denotatively, is that many "scenes" and "roles" are sticky and last way longer than a stage play. My model of admonitions as performance-enhancing drugs would explain why even someone with a comparatively strong Actorlike disposition might expect to be able to affect their behavior with some substantial probability decades from now. By taking a lifelong pledge now, even if they don't actually model likely future scenarios first, they create momentum which will affect how the scene plays out.

In the other direction, humans are very good at imitating other humans, so people imitating those with Quakerlike dispositions will end up using words is pretty similar ways.

James Snowden's recent analysis of the implications taking the Giving What We Can pledge is another instructive example. He considers two potential effects of the pledge:

  1. Self-binding – by pledging, I create a strong future incentive to comply with the pledge, so that I'll be compelled to comply when I otherwise wouldn't want to.
  2. Self-determination – by pledging, I affirm my identity as a pledger, which helps transform me into the sort of person who wants to give at least 10% of my annual income to effective charities.

This seems like it describes the most relevant considerations when thinking about how the pledge directly affects one's own future actions. But the pledge is public for a reason, and it's worth considering how making this public pledge might affect others.

From this perspective – which is the most intuitive one to me – the pledge is also important as a report about one's likely future actions. You're staking some part of your reputation on the accuracy of this report, and asking others to behave accordingly.

Pledges as assets

When the United States Government borrows money and promises to repay it in the future, it creates a tradeable asset because its promise is credible. (Likewise, back when there was a gold standard, a dollar bill was an asset because it was a credible promise of gold on demand.) People can resell that asset because the promise is believed. This is an important component of the global financial system, and if that promise were substantially broken, vast amounts of “perfectly safe” financial assets would massively decline in value. Because in many financial models, treasury bonds are the standard risk-free assets.

If I tell my friend that I’ll attend their party, I don’t just make myself more likely to go – I may cause them to buy more food in expectation, or perhaps to invite fewer other people in order to keep the size manageable. Either way, this is a consequence I don’t want unless I’m actually going to the party. On the other hand, if I’m already pretty sure I’ll go to the party, then telling the host I’ll definitely go is cheap for me (since it’s unlikely to commit me to behavior I don’t want), and helpful for them.

A couple of years ago, a friend was considering a relocation that improved their expected lifetime impact substantially. Moving would potentially have put their personal finances under strain, so I offered to lend them a few thousand dollars if money should happen to be tight for a while. They found this offer sufficiently reassuring that they were happy to go ahead with the move without delay. I felt that the offer was morally binding on me barring severe unforeseen circumstances, but the point of my promise was neither to coercively bind my future self, nor simply to determine my future self's course of action by establishing some momentum. The point was to accurately report my future willingness to lend to my friend, with high confidence.

If it had turned out to be somewhat harder than anticipated to lend my friend the money, I would have considered myself obliged to work hard to figure out a solution. I don't think this was especially related to the fact that the behavior I was making a promise about was mine. If I ever make an assurance to someone, and they end up harming themselves because it turned out to be a false assurance, I consider myself at least somewhat obliged to try to make them whole.

It's quite difficult to model others well enough to figure out whether they'll take the optimal action as you see it, but potentially easy to decide whether to believe their promises. This makes coordination easier. You might be reluctant to take a giving pledge, not just out of a worry that you'll bind your future self to a wrong decision, but out of a worry that if your future self acts differently, people in the meantime will have made decisions based on your assurance.

Giving What We Can, for example, uses the number of people who have taken the pledge as a measurement of its impact. Giving What We Can itself and potential GWWC donors make decisions about whether promoting the pledge is a good use of resources, based on both the observed behavior of pledgers, and some beliefs about how serious pledgers' intent is. When considering publicly pledging, you should consider not just its effect on you, but that you're either providing accurate information or misinformation to those who are paying attention.

My sense is that that serious pledges should not be entered into unless the pledge is either easy (i.e. you predict with high confidence that you would do the pledged behavior anyway) or very important (you predict that taking the pledge gives you options much more valuable than the ones that might otherwise be available). An example of an easy pledge would be assuring a future houseguest that coffee will be available (if you regularly stock coffee). An example of a very important pledge might be marriage, in which by promising to stick with someone, you get them to promise the same to you - though many people delay getting married until they expect the promise to be easy to fulfill.

If that's not an intuitive framing to someone – if they use the pledge enactively to affect their own future, but not denotatively as an assurance they're responsible for double-checking before letting others to use in planning – then they're thinking about the meanings of words differently than I am.

I'm not saying the other way is always wrong. I'm saying we need to bear in mind that there's a meaningful difference.

7 thoughts on “Bindings and assurances

  1. Elizabeth

    As a "Quaker" who does actually does improv, this was an interesting read. I've noticed that I'm sometimes surprised by other people's flaking because I take obligations unusually seriously. I'm loathe to commit because if I do, that means nothing short of a broken car or trip to the ER will prevent me.

    1. Benquo Post author

      Do you ever try clear maybes or conditional responses? If so, do you ever feel like people unfairly round that down to "no but you want to hedge," or do people seem to take it at face value? If not, why?

      1. Elizabeth

        I will do conditional, but I tend to be so clear about it that I'm understood. I'll say, "I'll probably do this, but there's X chance that I won't because of Y reason, so please plan accordingly."

  2. John Salvatier

    I feel somewhat slow in engaging with these posts because they feel slow, not very catchy, but most importantly, its not clear where you're going with this. You haven't sold me on your vision, so its hard for me to jump on board. If this were an in person conversation I would be asking you why this seems so important to you and trying to absorb your sense of why.

    This is a bit hard to do asynchronously because its normally a high feedback thing, but I'm procrastinating something else, so let me try anyway.

    Clearly you sense that something is wrong. I also somewhat have that feeling. In my words: People, even those ostensibly strongly interested in the truth, don't seem very good at epistemic cooperation, and the big institutions like GiveWell while much better than the "the management class" writ large don't seem that great either.

    What's the worst thing that's going wrong in your eyes? Is it things like the failure to fully fund things? Is it just that that indicates a serious problem and the true costs will be elsewhere? Is it that you expect things like signing fake pledges to get worse? Is it that lack of ability to coordinate epistemically suggests means we won't be able to *accumulate* knowledge?

    I am now guessing you mean something like the last thing.

    If it is, though, I think you have to do some work in convincing me that this kind of problem you're talking about is causing the non-accumulation. Its obvious to me that non-accumulation is a problem, but I don't yet buy that you've identified the source of the problem.

    (full disclosure, I also think I know the source of the non-accumulation problem, but think its different. We should fight about it sometime.)

    1. John Salvatier

      By the way, it was your facebook comment about wanting more substantive long-run engagement that made me think to write my above comment. People often don't seem that open to substantive engagement on blog posts (think robin hanson). And that's especially true if the main thing to engage about is "You haven't convinced me why this is important".

      Maybe consider writing a post about what kind of engagement you want and why you want it?

      1. John Salvatier

        Also, in case its not obvious: if you *do* convince me that the sort of thing you're talking about is a primary factor in non-accumulation (or other important thing I haven't thought of), I'm likely to engage very thoroughly.

    2. Benquo Post author

      Thanks for the feedback, I think this is helpful. This particular post is part of a response to what I perceive as a subtle but pervasive cultural gaslighting of people engaged in the process of contributing to a process of building shared accurate models of the world. I'm trying to claim that this sort of activity is both *possible* (some people really do it but it's not universal), and *valuable* (it helps for achieving convergent goals and you shouldn't expect to succeed without it).

      I'm making some related claims in other posts, and I'll try to give you a more complete account of the thing soon.


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