Prosocial manipulation

post by KatjaGrace · 2017-10-01T05:30:00.210Z · score: 15 (5 votes) · LW · GW · 6 comments

There is an axis of social calculativeness: whether your speech and social actions were carefully designed for particular outcomes, versus being instinctive responses to the situation.

This is related to an axis of honesty: whether your words represent your actual state. I suppose because the words most likely to produce the best response naively are often not true. Though I’m not sure if this is reliably true: feelings in the moment are often misleading, and honesty is often prudent.

Another axis is selfishness versus pro-socialness: whether your actions are meant to produce good outcomes for you (potentially at the expense of others) or a larger group such as the world.

The calculativeness axis seems widely expected match the selfishness axis well. Manipulative people are bad. I don’t see why they should go together though, in theory. You can say what you feel like in conversation, or say things calculated to achieve goals. Shouldn’t people saying things to achieve goals do so for all kinds of goals, many venerable? In about the same distribution as people doing other things to achieve goals?

A natural question is whether calculated behavior really is reliably selfish, or whether people just feel like it is for some reason. I can think of cases where it isn’t selfish. For instance, a diplomat trying to arrange peace is probably choosing their words very carefully, and with regard to consequences. But it is hard to say how rare those are.

Perhaps we just don’t think of that as being calculative? Or I wonder if we do, and while we like it if peace is arranged, we would still be somewhat wary of a very good diplomat in our own dealings with them. Because even if they are acting for the good of the world, we suspect that it won’t be for our good, if we are the one being calculated about.

After all, we are presumably being led away from whatever our default choice would have been after hearing the person just represent their internal state as came naturally. And moving away from that sounds probably worse, so more likely that manipulation means to exploit us somehow than to secretly help us get an even better outcome. This is closely related to the honesty axis, and would mean ‘manipulative’ doesn’t really imply ‘globally consequentially bad’ so much as ‘dangerous to deal with’.

I am speculating. Are there common positive connotation terms for ‘socially manipulative’ or ‘calculating’? Is that a thing people do?


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by hamnox · 2017-10-01T19:59:02.057Z · score: 10 (4 votes) · LW · GW

A common positive connotation term for socially manipulative is "charming".

comment by spiralingintocontrol · 2017-10-02T17:55:28.297Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Normally, facial expressions and body language and tone of voice are credible signals. They are hard to fake for most people, which creates trust.

If you know that a specific person is good at faking those signals, they instantly become less trustworthy. They could have your best interests at heart, sure, but how would you know?

comment by AndHisHorse · 2017-10-02T22:35:26.120Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · LW · GW

One reason I suspect that "manipulative" is often assumed to go along with "selfish", even when the two could be unrelated, is that risk aversion kicks in: a manipulative selfish person may be more harmful than a manipulative selfish person is helpful, and both will be more impactful than a naive selfish or selfless person. So rounding off an uncertain estimate of "manipulative, selfishness unknown" to "manipulative, selfish" may be a good defense. The costs of a failed alarm are higher than the costs of a false one.

This is particularly true if you don't believe that you need to be manipulated in order to be helped. If you believe that you are capable of making good decisions based on honest information, the expected value of an interaction with a naive selfless person rises relative to the expected value of an interaction with a manipulative selfless person. If you are on the side of truth - and of course you are! - then you have no need for helpful lies. Selfless manipulation then seems at best condescending.

comment by PDV · 2017-10-01T18:26:19.058Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I definitely agree with the "interacting with a calculative person is dangerous" interpretation. If someone is presenting their unfiltered view, and I know them, I can interpret it in light of their goals and values and how they relate to mine and to me (and in fact do this instinctively). If they are calculating (in excess of my discernment) I cannot.
Some people maintain that maneuvering people to better serve their own best interests is a distinct skill from manipulating people toward arbitrary goals. I don't believe that, so it is hard to get evidence that someone - who by stipulation is manipulating me in ways I can't perceive - has my best interests at heart.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2017-10-01T14:25:35.748Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Representing your internal state is bothersome when it's significantly subtle, with a first impression misleading and clarification difficult. It's just not efficient, so you round up in the direction that won't raise an issue instead of being direct. This seems like manipulation (eluding notice as the goal of concealing the most salient aspects of a position), but I think it's commonplace and not seen as manipulative.

Perhaps we just don’t think of that as being calculative?

So this seems right, deliberate speech you don't approve of is branded "calculative", but the same weapon is not used on the speech you accept. It's like reverse motte-bailey where a (superweapon) category inflates when you are on the offensive (motte-bailey is where a category shrinks when under attack).

comment by lahwran · 2017-10-01T17:00:49.334Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Trying to say things that will create a correct impression of your state in the other person's head


Trying to say things that, if taken literally, are true


Trying to do both of these at once