Complicated “overlearning” vs. “underlearning”

Your truth is true but not necessarily TRUE.

Let’s accept that this one number from this one study is accurate: 6.25% of e-commerce transactions are attempted (or successful) fraud.

Now imagine we have three internet consumers:

  • Buyer #1 has completed 100 transactions and 6 of them were fraudulent.
  • Buyer #2 has completed 25 transactions and 3 of them were fraudulent.
  • Buyer #3 has never completed 500 transactions and 0 of them were fraudulent.

Each buyer has a truth about e-commerce. Each of those truths is based on real experiences and real feelings. But only Buyer #1 is likely to have his truth correctly map onto TRUTH. Buyer #2, on the other hand, is likely to have overlearned the lesson that fraud is possible due to his unlucky set of outcomes; if he transacted 1000 more times we would confidently expect his 12% fraud rate to drop by 50%. Sadly, those 1000 transactions may never occur since Buyer #2’s truth blinds him from TRUTH. We can dub him too skeptical, which protects his downside at the expense of his upside. Buyer #3 suffers the opposite fate. After a remarkable string of good luck, Buyer #3 is too trusting, which exposes him to all upside and downside.

To safely conclude that Buyer #1 has the “best” truth 1, we must assume that all buyers bear negligible responsibility in the outcome – they all buy from reputable sellers on Amazon.

Most situations, however, involve two-way blame.

Let’s accept that this one number from this one study is accurate: 20% of men cheat.2

  • Woman #1 has been in 10 relationships and 2 of her boyfriends cheated
  • Woman #2 has been in 10 relationships and 5 of her boyfriends cheated
  • Woman #3 has been in 15 relationships and 0 of her boyfriends cheated

In a way that’s far more salient than e-commerce, all of these women have truths about relationships. And given the relative infrequency of relationships, the sample sizes will always remain small making mean regressions unlikely. But even if the women did each have infinite relationships, Woman #2 and Woman #3 may never hit the 20% mark because their behaviors may be affecting their outcomes. That is, Woman #2 may be truly unlucky and Woman #3 may be truly lucky, or Woman #2 may be practicing certain habits that increase the likelihood of infidelity while Woman #3 practices different habits that decrease the likelihood. Of course, none of this is to say that anyone deserves to be cheated on; it is to say that it’s hard to fairly determine which woman has the “best” truth. In fact, it’s entirely possible that all of their truths are TRUE.

Well, TRUE in being able to correctly predict what percentage of future partners will cheat, which is only one level of TRUTH. Its achievement, a celebration for sure, does not guarantee self-knowledge about all the associated truths. The stories that endlessly circle our minds are about why, not about statistical probabilities. The why is the truth you should most want to be TRUE because the why necessarily offers lessons that, if absorbed, can change what is TRUE in the future. Experience does not guarantee such answers and, if you just happened to be unwittingly unlucky, may well hinder your path to wisdom.

This conundrum is best resolved through two forms of honesty. The first is self-honesty, which begins with an awareness of your biases. Are you usually too hard or too easy on yourself? Are you more likely to blame yourself or blame others? Are you more likely to catastrophize or toss on rose-colored glasses? If you are paying decent attention to yourself, you should be able to find patterns in these non-fixed answers. But the capacity for self-delusion is near infinite, so the second step involves outside opinions. From whom should you seek opinions to questions you don’t really want to ask? The people whose negative judgments would most hurt you and whose positive words would most fill you with pride. These people must, obviously, be willing to actually tell you the truth. And you must be willing to hear it: you always bear some responsibility in engendering candor.3

Then, after all that, you must still be okay with not fully knowing, for if you aren’t, you’ll restrict yourself to life largely devoid of equanimity.

  1. The more a truth matches reality, the better it is
  2. The study is about married men, but we are going to generalize and use the figure for all monogamous relationships.
  3. This goes way beyond speaking the words Tell me the truth.