Why rational agents may react negatively to honesty

Emotional people may of course dislike an honest person, just because his truthful opinion hurt their feelings. In contrast, rational agents’ payoff cannot decrease when they get additional information, so they always benefit from honest feedback. However, rational decision makers may still adjust their attitude to be more negative towards a person making truthful, informative statements. The reason is Bayesian updating about two dimensions: the honesty of the person and how much the person cares about the audience’s feelings. Both dimensions of belief positively affect attitude towards the person. His truthful statements increase rational listeners’ belief about his honesty, but may reduce belief in his tactfulness, which may shift rational agents’ opinions strongly enough in the negative direction to outweigh the benefit from honesty.

The relative effect of information about how much the person cares, compared to news about his honesty, is greater when the latter is relatively more certain. In the limit, if the audience is completely convinced that the person is honest (or certain of his dishonesty), then the belief about his honesty stays constant no matter what he does, and only the belief about tact moves. Then telling an unpleasant truth unambiguously worsens the audience’s attitude. Thus if a reasonably rational listener accuses a speaker of „brutal honesty” or tactlessness, then it signals that the listener is relatively convinced either that the speaker is a liar or that he is a trustworthy type. Therefore an accusation of tactlessness may be taken as an insult or a compliment, depending on one’s belief about the accuser’s belief about one’s honesty.

If tact takes effort, and the cost of this effort is lower for those who care about the audience’s emotions, then pleasant comments are an informative signal (in the Spence signalling sense) that the speaker cares about the feelings of others. In that case the inference that brutal honesty implies an uncaring nature is correct.

On the other hand, if the utility of rational agents only depends on the information content of statements, not directly on their positive or negative emotional tone, then the rational agents should not care about the tact of the speaker. In this case, there is neither a direct reason for the speaker to avoid unpleasant truths (out of altruism towards the audience), nor an indirect benefit from signalling tactfulness. Attitudes would only depend on one dimension of belief: the one about honesty. Then truthfulness cannot have a negative effect.

Higher order beliefs may still cause honesty to be interpreted negatively even when rational agents’ utility does not depend on the emotional content of statements. The rational listeners may believe that the speaker believes that the audience’s feelings would be hurt by negative comments (for example, the speaker puts positive probability on irrational listeners, or on their utility directly depending on the tone of the statements they hear), in which case tactless truthtelling still signals not caring about others’ emotions.

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