Trustworthy Advice and Mental Process

We just got back from a trip to Alaska, and in a moment of vacation-induced clarity and relaxation, I discovered a gap in my mental model that I didn’t know existed: I don’t have a process to go back and ‘edit’ the trustworthiness of advice when I later┬álearn that the advice-giver is untrustworthy. I found this to be a pretty fascinating brain problem and I’m enjoying thinking about solutions to it.

Here was the scenario:

  1. We get on a tour bus to see the cultural history of Ketchikan. I give the tour guide the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s an informed guy since he’s worked here for 6 years giving the same tour.
  2. As we drive around the touristy parts of downtown, he points out a candy shop that sells chocolate-covered oreos and says that they’re delicious. At this point I’m assuming he’s correct and I’m envisioning something gooey, melty, and decadent. We plan to go get one once the tour is over.
  3. The tour goes on for a few hours, and our guide proceeds to toss his credibility out the window bit by bit. We learn interesting cultural nuggets like: “Bill Clinton signed an act to create the Tongass National Forest Preserve in the 1970s”, “There’s a boat stuck in the mud, must have been stranded at low tide”, and “Here’s Ketchikan’s tanning salon.” It becomes apparent pretty quickly that he’s not exactly the man for the job.
  4. Afterwards we still go to the candy shop to try a chocolate-covered oreo. It’s pretty terrible, unfortunately – just bland confectioner’s chocolate crusted onto a regular oreo out of a package. Not exciting in any way.

As I’m eating the disappointing oreo, I realize that I’m not at all surprised that the tour guide’s recommendation was poor and not well-thought-out… but the problem was, once I learned that his credibility was low, I never went back and added any suspicion to my mental concept of “we should go get a chocolate-covered oreo”. I’m fairly confident I would have been hesitant if he’d mentioned it at the end of the tour, but it never even occurred to me that it was an issue because I had already filed away the original fact before ever learning that he was untrustworthy.

This was a fairly scary realization for me; it seems likely that I’m leaving context clues on the table when taking advice from people and then acting on it much later. Fortunately it’s rare for my opinion of someone’s trustworthiness to drop so significantly, but I suppose it must happen sometimes. I’m not sure that I always even maintain the link between the nugget of information and the person who told it to me, depending on how much time has passed.

So far the best solution I’ve come up with is to focus specifically on the problem case: a major drop in the trustworthiness of someone I’ve met. If I run into a scenario like this, I hope to go back in short-term memory and do the editing based on that index while I still remember more details about the linking. This seems like a more pragmatic use of mental energy than trying to remember who told me each piece of information for eternity, but it doesn’t handle the case of a trustworthiness drop far into the future once short-term memory is exceeded. I’m not sure I have a viable solution for that scenario other than increasing my general skepticism up front, which I’m very hesitant to do.

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