Is arrogance a symptom of bad intellectual hygeine?

post by enfascination · 2015-03-21T19:59:41.057Z · score: 12 (15 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 40 comments

I have this belief that humility is a part of good critical thinking, and that egoism undermines it.  I imagine arrogance as a kind of mind-death.  But I have no evidence, and no good mechanism by which it might be true.  In fact, I know the belief is suspect because I know that I want it to be true — I want to be able to assure myself that this or that intolerable academic will be magically punished with a decreased capacity to do good work. The truth could be the opposite: maybe hubris breeds confidence, and confidence results? After all, some of the most important thinkers in history were insufferable.

Is any link, positive or negative, between arrogance and reasoning too tenuous to be worth entertaining? Is humility a pretty word or a valuable habit? I don't know what I think yet.   Do you?

40 comments

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comment by Aquifax · 2015-03-21T21:54:25.019Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I think some behaviors which may be considered arrogant can be justified. For example, dismissing other people's opinions out of hand can be a good choice when actually surrounded by people with very low-quality opinions.

As for appearing arrogant to others - it may be a difficult-to-avoid side effect, or it may have value of its own - there are social contexts where acting arrogant is useful.

Is it arrogant for HPJEV to consider himself to know better than the adults around him? Maybe so, but he's right about a lot of these things. (I believe there's a significant subset of HPMOR would-be readers who found Harry insufferably arrogant. Does that mean he should change his behavior?)

Having tabooed "arrogance", one of the interpretations is "emotional attachment to the idea of one being right". That, I think is a real problem for an aspiring rationalist - you need to be able to consider the possibility of being wrong.

As DanielLC says, you should calibrate yourself and neither strive to underestimate nor overestimate your abilities.

I want to be able to assure myself that this or that intolerable academic will be magically punished with a decreased capacity to do good work

(If they aren't well-calibrated, that seems like a likely outcome.) Edit: not sure about this part.

comment by eternal_neophyte · 2015-03-22T01:49:03.451Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You've articulated what I think better than I did, so thanks :)

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-22T20:47:32.499Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Quote: I think some behaviors which may be considered arrogant can be justified. For example, dismissing other people's opinions out of hand can be a good choice when actually surrounded by people with very low-quality opinions.

This is to appear arrogant yes. This is stupid because you can dismiss ideas without being a dick.

To BE arrogant, to believe yourself superior, is bad for a rationalist, because it will hurt more if you are wrong and hence you will have a harder time cooping with new evidence.

Which is basically what you said in the end, you need to be open for the possibillity that you are wrong. But then we must conlcude that it is always bad to be arrogant while trying to be rational. Iit is likewise bad to SEEM to be arrogant if you can avoid it. And if you can´t avoid it then A) you have other problems or B) someone else is simply jealous and you are NOT arrogant.

comment by dxu · 2015-03-26T17:53:24.634Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Quote: I think some behaviors which may be considered arrogant can be justified. For example, dismissing other people's opinions out of hand can be a good choice when actually surrounded by people with very low-quality opinions.

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comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-03-22T13:49:46.831Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I think a lot of what folks call "arrogance" is just a basic failure to be instrumentally rational in interpersonal communication.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-30T16:31:23.534Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think that a lot of what folks call "arrogance" is just a basic failure to maintain a neutral attitude long enough to actually process statements and arguments.

comment by dxu · 2015-03-22T21:04:01.328Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But is arrogance justified in an epistemic sense? If you regularly score at, say, the 99.9th percentile on standardized tests or [insert-preferred-method-of-evaluation-here], does that entitle you to be dismissive of someone's arguments (even if you don't give any outward sign of it) until you see sufficient evidence that that person is likewise exceptional? (I'm not being rhetorical here; this is a question that I'm genuinely undecided on.)

comment by Emile · 2015-03-23T08:47:36.089Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'd say there are cases where it's reasonable to dismiss others' opinions out of hand (apart from politeness etc.) BUT it takes more than "I'm much smarter than them"; there should be a factor like "I have all the evidence they have / I know all they know on that topic" and of course "I have good reasons to believe I'm smarter than them and know more".

And even then it's the kind of thing that's reasonable "on average", i.e. it can be a decent time-saving heuristic if needed, but it can still get wrong. Say Alice is studying for a Masters degree in physics and Bob, a high-schooler who's not exceptionally bright (Alice had better science grades then him in high school), disagrees with her on something about black holes. As a rule of thumb, Alice is probably right BUT it happens that Bob just spent the summer camping with a family friend, Calvin, who's a physicist and just wouldn't shut up about black holes, explaining a bunch of concepts and controversies to Bob the best he could. Now it's pretty likely that Bob is actually right (though Alice might be justified in not listening anyway, depending on how good Bob is at explaining his position).

comment by dxu · 2015-03-23T15:49:55.094Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

there should be a factor like "I have all the evidence they have / I know all they know on that topic" and of course "I have good reasons to believe I'm smarter than them and know more".

Yes, of course I agree. Domain expertise should also be included in your analysis.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-03-21T23:48:35.920Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Probably for most people, the unwillingness to assent to the opinions of the higher status, the authorities, or the majority is intellectual "arrogance".

How dare you think that you can know better than The Bosses, The Authorities, The Masses?

I'm increasingly of the opinion that truth as correspondence to reality is a minority orientation.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2015-03-23T09:53:01.747Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are probably many different things packed in one word "arrogance". It more or less means "dismissing the opinion of someone whom I consider important", without explaining why exactly does the speaker consider that source important. That could be a good reason, or a bad reason.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-03-23T18:41:56.772Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"dismissing the opinion of someone whom I consider important"

In the interpersonal cases, yes. More generally, it's not giving someone's opinion it's "due", where what's due can range from complete deference to pro forma acknowledgment.

In the correspondence to reality sense, it's dismissing some facts or evidence in favor of your theory.

comment by imuli · 2015-03-21T20:25:14.798Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You might say that they are both traps, at least from a truth seeker's perspective. The arrogant will not question their belief sufficiently; the humble will not sufficiently believe.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-21T22:13:20.240Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I disagree. Why would a humble person have problem to believe evidence? I think you confuse the concepts.

comment by imuli · 2015-03-22T15:50:37.750Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I was speaking more to how someone acts inside than how someone presents themself. If they believe themself unworthy or unimportant or without merit, they tend not to reject ideas very well and do a lot of equivocating. (Though, I think, all my evidence for that is anecdotal.)

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-22T18:10:05.609Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, and that is what I mean when i say you confuse the concepts :) Modesty is perhaps the better term here. Humlilty is modesty in all aspects of life. Compare it with Piety.

Humility means that you don´t overstate your own importance even when you are successful and that you respect others even if they are less intelligent/successful. It is the opposite of arrogance. If you are successful and brawl much you are arrogant, if you are successful and modest/humble, you don´t brawl.

Besides, shouldn´t a person who believe himself unworthy tend to accept ideas that contradict his own original beliefs more easy? E.g. Oh, Dr. Kopernikues claims that the earth ISN`T flat? Well, who am I to come and believe otherwise?

comment by imuli · 2015-03-22T19:42:18.270Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think you understand the concept that I was trying to convey, and are trying to say that 'humble' and 'humility' are the wrong labels for that concept. Right? I basically agree with the OED's definition of humility: “The quality of being humble or having a lowly opinion of oneself; meekness, lowliness, humbleness: the opposite of pride or haughtiness.” Note the use of the word opposite, not absence.

Besides, shouldn´t a person who believe himself unworthy tend to accept ideas that contradict his own original beliefs more easy? E.g. Oh, Dr. Kopernikues claims that the earth ISN`T flat? Well, who am I to come and believe otherwise?

That's exactly the problem, at best one ends up following whoever is loudest, at worst one ends up saying "everybody is right" and "but we can't really know" and not even pretending to try to figure out the truth.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-22T20:48:08.934Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The Oxford Dictionary defines humility as to be humble OR having a lowly opinion of oneself. Well, if one is meeky, that could be a problem. I agree. My theory is that if you are modest, you have superior advantage in critical thinking compared to an arrogant person :)

Let us say that an arrogant scientist and a modest scientist is doing research. A modest person will be more open to hypotheses that seems unlikely. If evidence later is updated, I think that a humble scientist will have an easier time cooping with it and maintain his critical thinking while an arrogant person will be more likely to try to find evidence supporting his own claims.

comment by imuli · 2015-03-22T21:24:28.081Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ok, then, humble from the OED: "Having a low estimate of one's importance, worthiness, or merits; marked by the absence of self-assertion or self-exaltation; lowly: the opposite of proud."

Clicking out.

comment by Slider · 2015-03-21T23:58:31.191Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I guess the "modest" could have been a better description overhumbleness. However you could frame arrogance also as confidence so that it can't be overdone.

comment by DanielLC · 2015-03-21T20:41:02.136Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

By "arrogance" do you mean overestimating your abilities, or just being annoying about it? The first one is problematic, but so is underestimating. You should calibrate yourself and get an accurate view of your abilities. The second one seems to be more about some kind of signalling. It has an obvious disadvantage of alienating people, but it must have some kind of advantage or people wouldn't do it.

comment by dxu · 2015-03-22T21:00:31.118Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It has an obvious disadvantage of alienating people, but it must have some kind of advantage or people wouldn't do it.

Advantage: a successful display of arrogance could elevate one's social status? That's the first explanation that leapt to my mind, anyway.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-03-23T16:01:45.658Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

a successful display of arrogance could elevate one's social status?

Yes, very much so. Arrogance is a high-risk strategy, though -- if you are shown wrong, your fall is very painful.

comment by enfascination · 2015-03-21T21:00:14.583Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't buy arguments of the form "it must be good otherwise we wouldn't do it," but that's just a quibble. I'd buy a signaling argument and you're right that I'm not clear on my terms. This is a stab, but the way I think I'm using arrogance is as using your high abilities to justify a inflated sense of self worth. OK, applying that back to the question, I don't see how an inflated sense of self-worth could make you a worse critical thinker. Maybe? I have to think about it more.

comment by Unknowns · 2015-03-22T06:51:25.087Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

People usually think that someone else is being arrogant in an annoying way when it feels like he isn't listening to what they think and their reasons. And usually people feel that way when, in fact, the person is not doing much listening, probably because he thinks he has nothing to learn from the conversation. That could make you a worse critical thinker because there is almost always something to learn.

comment by eternal_neophyte · 2015-03-22T01:46:37.956Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Somebody might come across as arrogant because he can anticipate arguments other people come up with and understands their position better than they do, and disinclination to engage them from what is in the other guy's perspective an honest and satisfactory fashion could easily be interpreted as arrogance. I'm imagining someone like House MD (fictional evidence, I know). In such a case the "arrogant" academic might not perceive himself that way.

There is also the real life case of John Nash who IIRC others described as highly arrogant, but was nevertheless brilliant. He still had his capacity to produce useful work damaged by schizophrenia but that was probably due to genetic causes seeing as his son suffered similar problems.

Perhaps arrogance impacts different people differently? If you're brilliant to begin with, you may be able to do great work regardless of your arrogance, whereas arrogance in someone who is merely bright might cause a severe reduction in effective intelligence.

comment by csvoss (Terdragon) · 2015-03-23T16:07:25.574Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Discussing "humility" and "arrogance" is difficult without careful definitions. I was thinking about this recently; this is how I would like to define them.

Whenever I end up feeling like I have been arrogant, it is because I underestimated someone else's abilities, and I ended up surprised by what they were capable of. If humility is the opposite of arrogance, then humility is the ability to accept, as your prior, that somebody you meet just might end up being more wise or more accomplished than you. To be arrogant is to fail to realize that you might have something to learn from other people.

(These definitions of arrogance and humility thus only relate to mental habits, not to social behaviors.)

Note how this makes humility valuable -- if you expect everyone around you to be dumb and inferior and not worth learning from, if you don't give others the chance to prove you otherwise, you're going to miss out on everything that you could be learning from them. I wouldn't expect your putative arrogant academic to have very many fruitful collaborations.

So yes, I would say that arrogance is bad intellectual hygiene -- it's having the wrong priors about the people around you.

Note also that it's also possible to be unfair to oneself in this way. Impostor syndrome should not be confused for humility. High self-esteem should not be confused for arrogance.

... I realize only after writing all of this that there's also intellectual arrogance and intellectual humility; it seems that they can be modeled the same way, but with ideas instead of people.

comment by enfascination · 2015-03-28T09:37:17.571Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe this says more about me than about the world, but if this was StackOverflow, this comment would get the star. Thanks.

comment by csvoss (Terdragon) · 2015-03-30T05:56:53.156Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks!

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-22T16:54:08.324Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I believe you're confusing arrogance and closedmindedness. There is a correlation between openmindedness and intelligence. I do believe openmindedness is a form of rationality. I'm not sure how good rationality training is at increasing it. Personality Psychology indicates Openness to Experience is a fairly stable trait; not one that can be taught.

comment by enfascination · 2015-03-28T09:27:20.902Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I believe you're confusing arrogance and closedmindedness.

Well, maybe that's the question. They're different, and you can have one without the other, but do they cooccur above chance? Maybe arrogance reduces your exposure to the occasional clever ideas that will inevitably come from people you've dismissed. That isn't closemindedness, it something more like as-if-closemindedness, but it would come to the same thing.

comment by Toggle · 2015-03-22T05:00:15.193Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I forget who said this originally, but much of rationalism is internalizing the fact that you, yes you, are prone to all manner of biases and mental tics that lead to error. If 'arrogance' as it's being used here is something that interferes with recognizing the errors that you're making in any given moment, then arrogance is certainly antithetical to rationalism.

On the other hand, I'm fairly used to people thinking of me as arrogant in person-to-person communication, and when they give me that label it never has much to do with my willingness to admit error. Usually it has to do with my vocabulary, or other patterns of behavior that they interpret as a desire to be seen as intellectually superior. If that's what 'arrogance' means, then it's more orthogonal to rationalism. Heck, arrogance as an affect might even be rational in certain circumstances, depending on how you want to be seen during particular social situations.

If you are actually concerned quite a lot with being better than other people, and your challenges are not directly competitive or collaborative in nature (if you're trying to invent something in your garage, or write well, or do well in classes that aren't graded on a curve), then that form of arrogance is probably a failure mode. It implies that you're performing a social role, not trying to succeed, and so you'll tend to optimize for best appearances and not best results.

comment by lmm · 2015-03-22T14:14:18.233Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Unless the appearance (or the result of it) is what you value.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-03-21T22:46:21.151Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are times where being skeptical pays of. There are other times where it's useful to have a low bar of accepting new information. When a startup CEO goes pitching to investors he has to project confidence. On the other hand there are times in his business when it's very useful to think critically about the assumptions the business makes.

The important thing is to have behavior that makes sense in a particular context.

comment by Pool · 2015-03-29T12:11:09.391Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, if I take my English's dictionary :

Arrogance :

  1. offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.

Humble :
1. not proud or arrogant; modest: to be humble although successful. 2. having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc.: In the presence of so many world-famous writers I felt very humble. 3. low in rank, importance, status, quality, etc.; lowly: of humble origin; a humble home. 4. courteously respectful: In my humble opinion you are wrong. 5. low in height, level, etc.; small in size: a humble member of the galaxy.

Considering humility is the supposed opposite of arrogance, I am assuming that humility mainly imply inferiority which means that it isn't really a good behavior either.

Rationally speaking if arrogance is 10 and humility is -10 wouldn't 0 be the rational answer as of how to act considering the society seems to value humility due to the desire or rather good feeling humans feel when someone act as inferior toward them ?

If the above is true it means that both humility and arrogance are "bad" and should be seen from a different perspective.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-03-23T16:16:09.732Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"Arrogance" could mean different things.

One is closing your mind -- "I know this to be so and no empirical facts will make me change my mind!" That seems to be unambiguously bad.

Another is showing disdain for others -- "What such a stupid creature like you could possibly know about this?" That can certainly by justified (I recommend reading comments on popular sites such as YouTube if you doubt this), but also has obvious failure modes. There are additional complications here as arrogance in this sense is often seen and/or used as a form of status signaling.

Yet another is thinking you know better -- "Hold mah beer and watch this!" In this sense Jackass is all about arrogant people. This meaning boils down to the willingness to take large risks in highly uncertain situations and the value of this characteristic is debatable. I think I can make an argument that this is a personally dangerous but socially priceless trait -- you do want to have mad experimenters around, though you would not necessarily want to be one yourself.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2015-03-23T10:18:58.123Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The failure mode for the arrogant is different from the failure mode of the humble. These are deep personality traits, that are hard to change; I think the better idea is to manage the drawbacks of whatever you have (and to be aware of it - since most people are arrogant and humble in different situations, we might not be self aware as to what is the dominant trait).

It's certainly useful to be arrogant with respect to action, for many reasons. It's often useful to be humble with respect to knowledge.

But don't confuse epistemic humility with social humility. I think I am much better at predicting most technological innovations than almost everyone. Why? Because I know that the uncertainties in any prediction are much higher than any predictors seem to admit, and they positively reek of overconfidence, even when they disagree with almost all other predictors. So my attitude seems to be an epistemic humility that causes a social arrogance.

comment by passive_fist · 2015-03-22T23:27:41.842Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're looking at this the wrong way, I think. Arrogance and humility can be useful instruments in certain situations. As Aquifax is saying, there are social contexts where acting arrogant is useful, but there are also contexts where acting humble is useful as well.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-21T22:17:51.949Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A truly humble person will be more open to hypotheses that seems unlikely. If evidence later is updated I think that a humble person will have an easier time cooping with it and maintain his critical thinking. While an arrogant person will try to find evidence supporting his own claims?