The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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How a sale is made

It’s always nice when three blogs in your “must read” folder happily converge. First, Jason Kottke pulls a couple of super-tight paragraphs from a Chronicle of Higher Ed article by Clancy Martin, philosophy professor and onetime salesman of luxury jewelry, about how he plied his former trade:

The jewelry business — like many other businesses, especially those that depend on selling — lends itself to lies. It’s hard to make money selling used Rolexes as what they are, but if you clean one up and make it look new, suddenly there’s a little profit in the deal. Grading diamonds is a subjective business, and the better a diamond looks to you when you’re grading it, the more money it’s worth — as long as you can convince your customer that it’s the grade you’re selling it as. Here’s an easy, effective way to do that: First lie to yourself about what grade the diamond is; then you can sincerely tell your customer “the truth” about what it’s worth.

As I would tell my salespeople: If you want to be an expert deceiver, master the art of self-deception. People will believe you when they see that you yourself are deeply convinced. It sounds difficult to do, but in fact it’s easy — we are already experts at lying to ourselves. We believe just what we want to believe. And the customer will help in this process, because she or he wants the diamond — where else can I get such a good deal on such a high-quality stone? — to be of a certain size and quality. At the same time, he or she does not want to pay the price that the actual diamond, were it what you claimed it to be, would cost. The transaction is a collaboration of lies and self-deceptions.

This structure is so neat that it has to be generalizable, right? Look no further than politics, says Jamelle Bouie (filling in for Ta-Nehisi Coates). In “Why Is Stanley Kurtz Calling Obama a Socialist?“, he writes that whether or not calling Obama a socialist started out as a scare tactic, conservative commentators like Kurtz actually believe it now. He pulls a quote from Slacktivist’s Fred Clark on the problem of bearing false witness:

What may start out as a well-intentioned choice to “fight dirty” for a righteous cause gradually forces the bearers of false witness to behave as though their false testimony were true. This is treacherous — behaving in accord with unreality is never effective, wise or safe. Ultimately, the bearers of false witness come to believe their own lies. They come to be trapped in their own fantasy world, no longer willing or able to separate reality from unreality. Once the bearers of false witness are that far gone it may be too late to set them free from their self-constructed prisons.

What’s nice about pairing these two observations is that Martin’s take on self-deception in selling jewelry is binary, a pas de deux with two agents, both deceiving themselves and letting themselves be deceived. Bouie and Clark don’t really go there, but the implication is clear: in politics, the audience is ready to be convinced/deceived because it is already convincing/deceiving itself.

There’s no more dangerous position to be in, truth-wise, than to think you’re getting it figured out, that you see things other people don’t, that you’re getting over on someone. That’s how confidence games work, because that’s how confidence works. And almost nobody’s immune, as Jonah Lehrer points out, quoting Richard Feynman on selective reporting in science. He refers to a famous 1909 experiment which sought to measure the charge of the electron:

Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that.

It’s all little lies and adjustments, all the way down. Where else can I get such a good deal on such a high-quality stone?


Rings true. When I sold cell phones years ago, customers used to get indignant when I was honest about models that where overpriced or were less reliable than others. I can remember one particular guy started getting irate and appeared ready to complain to my manager until I agreed to contradict myself and tell him the complete lie he essentially put in my mouth. It was as if he’d been insulted — like I’d made him feel not important enough to be pampered with lies.

Alexis Madrigal says…

Great post, Tim. Sometimes that’s all that needs to be said.

Ben K. says…

Great… And this fits right in:
(newyorker on the decline effect…)

Tim, the last link is broken.

Tim Carmody says…

You have no idea how broken that last link was. There was a whole paragraph of the blockquote inadvertently cut-and-paste in there.

Darwin was fastidious about writing down results or ideas that tended to contradict his theories to make sure he didn’t forget them. He didn’t need to write down the positive stuff.

Also (from memory) didn’t Robert Wright argue just this point in The Moral Animal? As I recall the argument was that being persuasive is an evolutionary advantage (you can get the biggest piece of meat, or the fertile female, etc) and that the best way of being persuasive was to believe yourself. Voila: an evolutionary antecedent for self-justification.

I believe this whole notion is encapsulated in the saying: “If you can’t be right, be sure.” Which notion really works by the way, as repeatedly demonstrated by Bush43.

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