Monthly Archives: May 2014

Trusting the Untrustworthy

trustWhen trust is broken in a relationship, and the people in the relationship decide to stay together, often people’s first question is “how do we rebuild trust?” This is a great question for the person who broke the trust to ask. It shows an understanding that trust has been destroyed and a willingness to do the work to build it back up. This is especially important in poly relationships, which tend to involve more freedom than mono relationships, and thus require a higher degree of trust.

The problem is that I’ve heard this more often from the party who was betrayed. The party whose trust was broken should not be attempting to rebuild their trust. When you trust someone who then betrays that trust, the only reasonable conclusion is that you were wrong to trust that person in the first place. You misjudged that person’s trustworthiness. Your goal moving forward should be to accurately judge the other person’s trustworthiness, which is necessarily less than you previously believed it to be.

I read a post on r/polyamory today by a woman whose long-term boyfriend lied to her about condom use (an issue that my household has some experience with), and then went ahead and lied to her again. Her questions was “What can I to get back ability to trust him again?”


Don’t trust him. You shouldn’t have trusted him before. The fact that you were surprised by his behavior shows that you misjudged his trustworthiness. He’s willing to lie to you in order to get what he wants or avoid conflict. Therefore, you should not trust him to tell you the truth when telling the truth could cause conflict or prevent him from getting what he wants. Your goal should not be to rebuild your trust to where it was before – that’s putting yourself in the same position. The only reasonable goal is to accurately assess his trustworthiness and conduct yourself accordingly.

Sadly, I see this sort of thing all the time. My theory is that it’s a kind of motivated reasoning that looks something like this:

(1) good relationships require trust
(2) I want this to be a good relationship
(3) Therefore I must learn to trust this person

This sort of reasoning is, of course, completely backward. A person isn’t worthy of your trust just because you want them to be. A person is trustworthy because they tell the truth, even when it’s unpleasant, even when it causes conflict, and even when it could result in unwanted consequences. Unless you have specific, articulable examples of a person doing this, your trust is nothing more than blind faith.

The Value of Reluctant Attention



“Seduction isn’t making someone do what they don’t want to do; seduction is enticing someone into doing what they secretly want to do already.”
-Benjamin T. Russell

Enthusiastic consent is a phrase that’s rather familiar to anyone with any exposure to the feminist movement. As Project Respect describes it:

Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games.

Consent is a whole body experience. It is not just a verbal “yes” or “no” – it involves paying attention to your partner as a person and checking in with physical and emotional cues as well.

Consent is also mutual (both people have to agree) and must be continuous. You can stop at any time, you can change your mind, and just because you said yes to one thing doesn’t mean you have consented to anything else.

Among decent people, this idea has proliferated for reasons that ought to be self-evident. Showing respect to a partner means respecting their wishes, and deferring to their wishes when it comes to whether to have sex.

That last sentence in the quote above is one of the most important: “You can stop at any time, you can change your mind, and just because you said yes to one thing doesn’t mean you have consented to anything else.” No matter what you’ve agreed to or implied, you can change your mind at any time, and you are under NO obligation to meet your partner’s (admittedly legitimate) expectations.

Undeniably, this idea has caught on among decent people. It appeals to me (and I suspect many others) for the reasons given by its advocates (i.e. it shows respect for your partner), but also because reluctant sex is unfulfilling and ungratifying. Why would I want to have sex with someone who doesn’t actually want to be having sex with me? How is that any fun at all? Isn’t that what masturbation is for?

grumpy-cat-says-noThis begs the question, then: why not require enthusiastic consent for ALL social interactions, not just sex? I can’t see any reason not to do so. This is an idea that’s being advocated as part of consent culture:

I don’t want to limit it to sex. A consent culture is one in which mutual consent is part of social life as well. Don’t want to talk to someone? You don’t have to. Don’t want a hug? That’s okay, no hug then. Don’t want to try the fish? That’s fine. (As someone with weird food aversions, I have a special hatred for “just taste a little!”) Don’t want to be tickled or noogied? Then it’s not funny to chase you down and do it anyway.

When I previously wrote about consent culture, I was baffled by people’s insistence that checking a smartphone while you were out socially with someone was rude:

I got into an argument on Facebook the other day about whether it’s rude to be using your smartphone while you’re out with someone socially. My policy is that social interactions should be entirely consensual, so if Person A longer wants to engage with Person B, they should stop engaging and do what they want (my friend Miri has a similar view). This is apparently a hugely controversial position. People seemed to view a social invitation as a form of contract, whereby if Person A agrees to spend time with Person B socially, they’ve promised to pay attention to Person B for the duration of the event.

Since then, I’ve debated this topic several more times, and these attitudes are shockingly common. People truly think that agreeing to spend time socially with someone creates an obligation to pay attention to that person throughout the experience. Directing your attention elsewhere (or in particular to a smartphone) is “rude.” More than one person has analogized the situation to the signing of a contract, whereby both parties have pledged their attention to one another.

In these conversations, I am finding myself increasingly bewildered. Do people really find this sort of attention – the type given reluctantly as part of a bargain – valuable? I don’t. In the same way that I don’t want sex with people that don’t actually want to be having sex with me, I don’t want conversation with people that don’t actually want to be talking with me. Reluctant social attention is no more rewarding for me than reluctant sex.

So why do people buy into these etiquette rules that suggest that directing your attention where you want to direct it is rude? If looking at your phone (or a newspaper, or a TV that’s on, or whatever) is rude, the implication is that the polite thing to do is to give your reluctant attention to the person you’re with (often without even letting them know that you’d rather do something else). That’s a terrible solution! In that circumstance, nobody gets what they want. You don’t get to direct your attention where you want, and I end up with only our reluctant attention. I think it’s a much better that you look at your phone and enjoy yourself until you think of something (or I suggest something) that you’d like to discuss with me. In a social setting, your job is not to entertain me. I can entertain myself if you’d rather do something else, and I’d much rather entertain myself than receive your reluctant attention.

I get the other side. It’s no fun to go out expecting to spend time with someone only to find that their nose is buried in their phone the whole time. I’m not arguing that people should go around agreeing to hang out with other people, and then ignoring them the whole time. That would suck. I don’t want to hang out with people who do that. I’m arguing that the fail in that situation occurs when you make the agreement if you had reason to know that it was likely that you would not be interested in actually spending time with that person. If something unpredictable happened which changed your mind (and you communicated that in a timely fashion), then nobody is to blame. Likewise, if you prefer to interact with people in short bursts (interrupted by something more solitary), rather than in a continuous hours-long interaction, that’s fine, and if people can’t deal with that, they just shouldn’t make plans with you.

What I’m strongly advocating against is the suggestion that, because you’ve agreed to pay attention to someone, then you should do so, even if you don’t really want to. I’d rather live in a culture where people only value enthusiastically consensual interactions. This idea is intuitive when it comes to sex, so why not apply it to all social interaction?

The Unified Theory of Humor

For many people, humor is difficult. It is often mysterious. Most are content to allow it to remain a mystery, but NOT ME! As with most things, I am compelled to analyze it to death. In doing so, I have reached a theory:

Humor is the creation of a certain range of cognitive dissonance (“CD”). Too little CD, and it doesn’t have much of an effect. Too much CD, and we feel uncomfortable or confused. But almost everyone has a sweet spot where just the right amount of CD can inspire laughter.

“I know why we laugh. We laugh because it hurts, and it's the only thing to make it stop hurting.” -- Robert Heinlein

“I know why we laugh. We laugh because it hurts, and it’s the only thing to make it stop hurting.” — Robert Heinlein

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

According to Wikipedia, “cognitive dissonance is the excessive mental stress and discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time.” Cognitive dissonance is a concept that is familiar to many atheists, as it is often starkly encountered among the religious. For instance, many religious people believe that God is all-knowing, all-just, and all-powerful, yet they also believe that evil exists in the world or that their actions have meaning. Attempts to engage in conversation on this topic with religious people are often met with evasions, anger, and/or changing the subject, as it causes people stress to dwell on contradictory ideas.

The magnitude of cognitive dissonance produced depends on two factors: Factor 1: the personal value that a person puts on each belief; and Factor 2: the proportion of dissonant to consonant elements in the two beliefs. To produce maximum CD, the two conflicting beliefs should both be monumentally important but completely opposite (e.g. you will be rewarded in the afterlife/there is no afterlife). Small amounts of CD can be produced by beliefs which are frivolous and only slightly incompatible (e.g. green & blue don’t look well together/a person on the street looks good in green & blue).

Humor tends to work best with moderate levels of dissonance from each factor, though certain types of humor can get by reliance only on a single factor (predominantly Factor 2).

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance in Humor

In humor, cognitive dissonance is most often inspired by subverting our expectations (playing off of Factor 2). Many classic forms of humor rely on the idea that something unexpected happens. Monty Python has basically made a career out of absurdity. South Park successfully lampooned the show Family Guy by pointing out that all of their humor was basically a confluence of four or five different random words, which were only funny because people didn’t know what to expect, which created a good amount of dissonance from Factor 2.

Humor Chart

Parody (where a work intentionally mimics another) works as humor, but only where one is familiar with the work being parodied. The original work lets us know what to expect, and then the parody deviates in ways that are (hopefully) unexpected, resulting in humor! Puns work the same way. We know what to expect, but then we get something different. Funny!* With all of these, comedians and writers tend to use various subject matter with varying levels of success, as different subject matter will inspire different levels of dissonance from Factor 1.

Double entendre is funny because it involves something that means two things at the same time, creating dissonance. However, double entendre is only slightly dissonant regarding Factor 2. After all, lots of words have multiple meanings, so it’s not that out of the ordinary. Because of that, the second meaning has to be a wildly inappropriate thing to say in the given context (usually something sexual), so it creates CD from Factor 1 also, bolstering the joke. In a society that was more comfortable with sex, sexual double entendre wouldn’t be funny.

Sean Connery

Satire works like parody, but it increases the value of the conflicting beliefs (Factor 1) and decreases their incompatibility (Factor 2). This is why when you see Sean Connery on SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy, he has to be wildly over the top with his racism, stupidity, and aggression (parody), while Senator Bulworth can be much less of an extreme character (satire) because the subject matter he’s making fun of (politics) is so much more important than the antics of celebrities on gameshows.

Slapstick humor tries to walk the line right between funny and tragic. It works best when the pain is unexpected, which causes dissonance from Factor 2. Then to succeed, it has to cause enough pain to inspire some dissonance from the Factor 1, but no so much pain that it causes too much dissonance. So, guy getting hit in the nuts, but no permanent damage? Funny. Guy getting head blown off? Not funny. BUT, you’ll notice, that people who are especially empathic or who have more personal experience with physical pain tend to find slapstick humor less funny. This is also the reason why pain caused to cartoon characters can be much worse than live-action characters and still be funny. We know there will be no permanent damage, so we never really get to uncomfortable levels from Factor 1.

The Unified Theory Explains Humor Fails

[CN: this section discusses rape jokes]

Because everyone’s starting place is different, different people are going to experience varying levels of CD at the same joke. Mainstream tv jokes try to go for the largest appeal possible, so they tend to focus on areas that (in the writers’ estimation) are near-universal in the target demographic (which is why so many jokes are about heteronormative relationships). However, I’ve seen it often where a sizable minority won’t find something funny, either because (a) they find it more or less dissonant than the minority (Factor 2), or (b) they find the dissonant ideas more or less important than the majority (Factor 1).

This explains why gay jokes (specifically, jokes about how a masculine male character was gay) were all the rage in the early 90’s, but have since fallen off. In the early 90’s, in the eyes of the majority, gay people were a strange, alien “other,” so the suggestion that a “normal” man was gay would be very dissonant. The effect was magnified by the fact that being gay was seen, for men, as the worst possible thing to be, so the value difference between the two dissonant ideas (“he’s gay” vs. “he’s not gay”) was huge for the majority of Americans. However, as dominant cultural attitudes have shifted, such jokes have lost their potency. Currently, we’re in a situation where part of the population is still in early-90’s mode, but a large part of the population understands that being gay is not particularly absurd or problematic, so we don’t see the “joke” as funny. Further, people intuitively understand some of what it would take for the joke to be funny, so we get offended at the suggestion that being gay is something to laugh at.


The same thing happens with rape jokes. To decent, well-informed people, rape is horrifically tragic and widespread. However, certain segments of the society see rape as (a) something that doesn’t happen to nice girls who take care of themselves, and (b) no big deal. So when Daniel Tosh says “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” it fails on two levels for decent people: (a) a woman getting raped isn’t out of the ordinary, so it doesn’t subvert our expectations and creates very little dissonance from Factor 2, and (b) the value difference between the two conflicting ideas (girl gets raped vs. girl doesn’t get raped) is ASTRONOMICAL, so it sends the dissonance level from Factor 1 into the stratosphere. However, for dudebros like Daniel Tosh, the idea that she would actually get raped is absurd AND he doesn’t really care all that much if she gets raped, so it seems funny to him.

One of my favorite types of humor (and one of the easiest to screw up) is countersignaling. As Scott Alexander explains in the linked post, “countersignaling is doing something that is the opposite of a certain status to show that you are so clearly that status that you don’t even need to signal it.” Alexander’s post discusses how people who are good friends will often say mean, cruel things to one another as a way to show what good friends they are. For me, that sort of thing hits my sweet spot of CD like nothing else. I get a good amount from Factor 2 because a good friend is behaving like they hate me, and I also get a good amount from Factor 1 because it’s important to me that my good friends like me. However, it doesn’t go to uncomfortable levels because I know it’s a joke, so I don’t REALLY start questioning my belief that this person is my good friend.

However, countersignaling goes horribly wrong when you haven’t built up that kind of credibility with your audience. Often, attempted countersignaling will be seen as sincere, which ratchets up the CD from Factor 2 to seriously uncomfortable levels. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve offended by attempting countersignaling humor too early in our relationship, before I’ve made it clear that I would never say those things in earnest. Seriously. It’s a problem.


There is no formula for humor. Humor is tough, and extremely audience-dependent. However, my hope is to understand it a little more, and I think this lense allows me to do that. What do you think?


*anyone who wants to argue that puns aren’t funny can GTFO right now. Puns are the best.