If you’re not familiar with it, Social Desirability Bias is the tendency for people to slightly exaggerate or outright lie in the direction of socially-acceptable answers. For instance, if you talk to your mother once a month, and someone asks how often you call your mom, you might fudge a little and say “every week” or “a few times a month.” You’re very unlikely to lie in the other direction – you’re not likely to lie and say “only twice a year,” because why would you?

Social Desirability Bias explains a LOT of stuff, by the way. It’s definitely one of those things where once you learn about it, you see it everywhere. One version of it that almost everyone is aware of is the “follow the money” thought process, where we sort of inherently distrust people that stand to make money if we believe them. Think of TV salesmen on infomercials. We take what they say with a grain of salt, because there’s an obvious incentive for them to lie in a particular direction.

The reverse of that, of course, is that you can be much more certain that someone is telling the truth if they’re saying something you don’t want to hear, or that damages their reputation in some way. If I tell you that the product I’m selling is bad for you and you shouldn’t buy it, you have an easier time trusting that because I have no obvious incentive to lie about that.

I think about SDB a lot. As someone who communicates for a living, who is sort of geeky about politics, and who reads lots of economics and social science books for fun, I end up thinking about it almost daily.

There’s a big negative side effect to that. I’m overly critical of the things I say, no matter how sincere.

For instance, a very true fact about myself (almost core to my personality) is that I get enormous pleasure out of watching other people succeed. Other people’s thrill at their accomplishments is really contagious to me, and it improves by a factor of ten when I was involved. Seeing someone I coached accomplish the thing I was coaching them on might be my favorite thing in the world.

But if that wasn’t true, it would still be socially desirable for me to say it. If I said “I hate other people’s success, and I want everyone else to fail,” few people would think I was lying. They would think I was a jerk, but an honest jerk.

But when I say “I love other people’s success,” it sounds hollow to me. No matter how true I know it is, I know that talk is cheap. You shouldn’t just believe me because I say it.

But here’s the positive: That gives me a huge bias for action. How do you counter someone else’s Social Desirability Bias? You follow their actions, not their words. Someone who talks a lot about the plight of the homeless but never donates a dollar isn’t being sincere. But if they donate a huge chunk of their income to causes they believe will help, then you can be more sure they mean what they say.

So I don’t just say I love other people’s success. I help them accomplish it. I am terrified of becoming a hypocrite, and that motivates me to make sure my deeds match my words. I am certain I will fall short at times, but it won’t ever be for lack of sincerity in my attempt.

One thought on “Sincerity

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