Goal-factoring as a tool for noticing narrative-reality disconnect

[The idea of this post, as well as the opening example, were relayed to me by Ben Hoffman, who mentioned it as a thing that Michael Vassar understands well. This was written with Ben’s blessing.]

Suppose you give someone an option of one of three fruits: a radish, a carrot, and and apple. The person chooses the carrot. When you ask them why, they reply “because it’s sweet.”

Clearly, there’s something funny going on here. While the carrot is sweeter than the radish, the apple is sweeter than the carrot. So sweetness must not be the only criterion your fruit-picker is using to make his decision. He/she might be choosing partially on that basis, but there must also be some other, unmentioned factor, that is guiding his/her choice.

Now imagine someone is describing the project that they’re working on (project X). They explain their reasoning for undertaking this project, the good outcomes that will result from it: reasons a, b, and c.

When someone is presenting their reasoning like this, it can be useful to take a, be and c as premises, and try and project what seems to you like the best course of action that optimizes for those goals. That is, do a quick goal-factoring, to see if you can discover a y, that seems to fulfill goals a, b, and c, better than X does.

If you can come up with such a Y, this is suggestive of some unmentioned factor in your interlocutor’s reasoning, just as there was in the choice of your fruit-picker.

Of course this could be innocuous. Maybe Y has some drawback you’re unaware of, and so actually X is the better plan. Maybe the person you’re speaking with just hadn’t thought of Y.

But but it also might be he/she’s lying outright about why he/she’s doing X. Or maybe he/she has some motive that he/she’s not even admitting to him/herself.

Whatever the case, the procedure of taking someone else’s stated reasons as axioms and then trying to build out the best plan that satisfies them is a useful procedure for drawing out dynamics that are driving situations under the surface.

I’ve long used this technique effectively on myself, but I sugest that it might be an important lens for viewing the actions of institutions and other people. It’s often useful to tease out exactly how their declared stories about themselves deviate from their revealed agency, and this is one way of doing that.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s