John, Lester, and the story of hidden information
We can get information from other people. We can get it from polls, surveys or studies, and we can get information from many other different information sources. We choose information sources, and our choice is based on the answers that we think we will receive from those sources. Information not provided in those answers may be hidden from us, and hidden information may cause us to neglect other sources, sources that may provide to us better forms of information. I want to introduce a hypothetical story of two individuals, John, and Lester because I want to demonstrate an intuitive example of hidden information. The story has been fabricated by me, and in writing the story I have tried to bring together sources of information, hidden information, and the reasons people may hide information so that the consequences of hidden information will become clear to you as you read the story.
Lester wants to buy a television set, and Lester thinks John has the information he needs. Lester goes to John for information. But John is hiding some information about his experience from Lester, information that would certainly influence Lester, and may even stop Lester from going to John in the future for television related information. The last three times John bought a television, the television he bought failed miserably. Lester though isn’t aware of John’s past television experience. Even though Tom in house 3 b has a large Panasonic with a fully functioning 3d super set up, Lester still ignores Tom for information to go only to John, and John would do anything to keep himself as the streets TV top dog in Lester’s mind. John even uses technical terms like, ‘high dynamic range and ‘4K resolution’, terms that Lester doesn’t understand, but terms that John can use to persuade James that he is still the tv top dog.
Lester cannot see a crucial piece of information, and his belief is influenced as a result. Lester’s belief that John’s advice is valid may last over a period of time, and within that period of time the belief may be verified. But temporary verification is dangerous, because when we experience temporary verification of our beliefs, it influences the amount of time that we consider a belief to be true, despite any changes in circumstances or the introduction of different sources of information. Lester buys the television that John recommends, and Lester expects the television to work indefinitely. On the other hand, John may not be sure what to expect from the television, he may think that his previous television purchases were just bad luck, and that he has refined, and ‘developed as a person’ as a result. Each time Lester watches the television, the belief he has about the television is put to the test. And each time Lester watches the television, and it doesn’t break, Lester is verified in his belief that John’s advice was the right advice to listen to. But when it does break, it is those initial verifications of Lester’s belief that may be the most harmful to him, because when he watches the television each day and it doesn’t break, the television not breaking confirms to Lester that John’s advice was correct. So when the TV does eventually break, Lester will then go back to John for further advice, still unaware of John’s hit ratio that contains 3 losses to zero wins.
Whenever we are prompted to make an assessment of possible outcomes, we tend to believe strongly in certain outcomes, with other possible outcomes receiving much less psychological weight. That assignment of weight is expressed either in our confidence that an outcome will occur, or our assignment of weight is evident in the reasons we give to convince ourselves of an outcome. In other words, we assign weight either because we have no reason to believe a certain outcome will not happen, or because it is our intention to believe that a certain outcome will happen. Lester believes that each time John has bought a television, John has been successful in the televisions he has chosen. So when Lester assess the many possible outcomes of listening to John’s advice, he attaches a lot of weight to one outcome, the outcome that John’s advice leads to Lester buying a working television. John may believe that the television Lester buys will eventually break, but he may then reduce the amount of weight he attaches to this outcome for other reasons. Lester has invested his money in a television, and he invested his money because he felt confident in John’s advice. Lester may lose money because he trusted John, and because John decided not to make Lester aware of the his past television experience. John convinces himself to attach more weight to the outcome of a successful long living television, and he does this to serve his intentions in relation to his appearance to Lester.
We acquire information through interacting with an object, a person, or other sources of information. We receive feedback from those sources of information, and the guesses and beliefs we create from that information proceed via this feedback as we change beliefs that match the feedback we receive from our information sources. But when information is hidden from us, we can’t determine the information source that links to feedback we receive. We may continue to hold on to faulty beliefs because knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of some of these beliefs may be hidden from us. Lester is not aware of John’s hit ratio, so he cannot accurately create a belief about the quality of John’s advice, and he cannot accurately assign weight to the number of different possible outcomes. But because John’s hit ratio is hidden from Lester, when Lester’s television breaks, he will not know which belief to blame. Hidden within John’s experiential information regarding his past TV purchases, is the information he has about the risks attached to his television purchases, what he knows about his strengths and it’s weaknesses, and other pieces of information that Lester may use to assign weight to his belief. Crucially Lester does not have any of this information, it has been hidden from him by John. So the risk of Lester making the same mistake again without knowing he is doing it is unchanged.
Primary Source: Silver, Nate. The Signal And The Noise. New York: Penguin Press, 2012. Print