Multiple Negatives and Believable Lies

July 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

At Language Log (here ), Mark Liberman posted this sentence from a CNN interview with Michael Hayden, CIA director in the Bush 43 administration, about the Mueller investigation.
I would not be surprised
if this were not the last indictment we see
that- that doesn't mention
an American

[emphasis addded]
Does this statement mean that Hayden thinks more Americans will be indicted?

Jake Tapper quickly translated
so in other words there will be another indictment, and you think there'll be Americans involved
Oh those multiple negatives, cancelling each other out. Hayden has three nots.

You have to cut Hayden some slack. He was speaking extemporaneously. But what about writers? I’ve blogged before about problem of multiple negatives in multiple-choice test questions and even the GSS (here).

In today’s New York Times, Mark Landler (here) matches Hayden’s three-in-a-sentence construction. Here’s the second paragraph of Landler’s piece.

Mr. Trump’s declaration that he saw no reason not to believe President Vladimir V. Putin when he said the Russians did not try to fix the 2016 election was extraordinary enough. But it was only one of several statements the likes of which no other president has uttered while on foreign soil. [emphasis added]

I won’t say that Landler’s sentence is not less than incomprehensible. And maybe “Trump said he found Putin’s statement believable” is imprecise and overstates Trump’s credulity. Maybe — but not by much. Here’s what Trump said,

My people came to me, Dan Coats [Director of National Intelligence] came to me and some others, they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. . .  So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.


Trump does not use multiple negatives. That may be because they pose problems of logic for the speaker, not just the listener. But whatever the reason, this avoidance may be one of the things that fosters the impression that he is a “straight talker.” What he says on a topic may change from one day to the next, but when he voices his view of the day, he states in absolute terms – no reservations, no qualifications.

Double negatives are ambiguous. If we say that someone is “not unfriendly,” we leave open the entire spectrum. from  “possibly somewhat friendly” to “absolutely the friendliest person in the world,” as Trump might put it, especially if he were talking about himself. Trump’s world has no ambiguity. Things that are not good are the worst. Things that are good are the greatest.

Maybe Putin’s denials to Trump about election meddling were similarly uncomplicated — no multiple negatives — allowing Trump to ascribe to Putin’s lies the same credibility that conservatives in the US give to Trump’s lies.

UPDATE:  The press conference happened yesterday. Today Trump issued a clarification that reinforces my point that he doesn’t know how to state ideas involving multiple negatives. In the press conference Monday, on the matter of who was responsible for the hacking and other meddling in the election, Trump said, “ I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Today, Tuesday, Trump corrected himself, reading from a script probably written by Stephen Miller:  “I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’. The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative,”

He’s probably lying about what he meant to say. But even if he’s telling the truth, he’s saying that the logic of that double negative is a bit too complicated for him, which is why he couldn’t speak it correctly at the time.


A Behavioral Econ Lab Is Not a Restaurant

July 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Great title for an article
We should totally open a restaurant:
How optimism and overconfidence affect beliefs
It will be in the August issue of the Journal of Economic Psychology. The link popped up in my Twitter feed this morning.


No, the failure rate for restaurants is not 90% in the first year as a 2003 American Express ad claimed. But most restaurants don’t make it to three years. So it’s only natural to ask about the people who think that their new restaurant will be among those that beat the odds. This was an article I wanted to read.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the article was not at all about people who started up a restaurant. True, the word restaurant appears 13 times in the article, plus another seven if you include restauranteur [sic – the preferred term is still restaurateur, no n]. But the data in the article is a from a laboratory experiment where subjects try to guess whether a ball drawn from an urn will be white or black. No chefs brilliant but overweaning, no surly waitstaff, no price-gouging suppliers, no unpredictable customers, no food, and no location, location, location. Just opaque jars with white balls and black balls.

The procedure is too complicated to summarize here – I’m still not sure I understand it – but the authors (Stephanie A. Hegera and Nicholas W. Papageorge) want to distinguish, as the title of the article says, between optimism and overconfidence. Both are rosy perceptions that can make risky ventures seem less risky. Optimism looks outward; it overestimates the chances of success that are inherent in the external situation. Optimism would be the misperception that most restaurants survive for years and bring their owners wealth and happiness. Overconfidence, by contrast, looks inward; it is an inflated belief in one’s own abilities.

Both in the lab and probably in real life, there’s a strong correlation between optimism and overconfidence. People who were optimistic also overestimated their own abilities. (Not their ability to run a restaurant, remember, but their ability to predict white balls.) So it’s hard to know which process is really influencing decisions.

The big trouble is that the leap from lab to restaurant is a long one. It’s the same long leap that Cass Sunstein takes in using his experiment about “blaps” to conclude that New York Times readers would not choose a doctor who was a Republican. (See this earlier post.)

The Hegera-Papageorge article left me hungry for an ethnography about real people starting a real restaurant. How did they estimate their chances of success, how did they size up the external conditions (the “market”), and how did they estimate their own abilities. How did those perceptions change over time from the germ of the idea (“You know, I’ve always thought I could . . .”) to the actual restaurant and everything in between — and what caused those perceptions to change? On these questions, the lab experiment has nothing to say.



But you’ve got to admit, it’s a great title. Totally.

Minority Rule, the Legitimacy of Courts, and a Penny Bet

July 12, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s almost certain that the Republicans in the Senate will confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. And when they do, they will speak glowingly about democracy and convince themselves that they are carrying out the will of the people.

In 2006, I was having coffee at Zabar’s café one morning with a conservative I knew. We were talking about Bush’s nomination of Alito to the Supreme Court. The Democrats were wrong to oppose Alito, said my coffee companion, because most Americans wanted him confirmed. (He also said that those who opposed Alito were “disloyal,” but that’s another matter.)

As Robin Hanson says, a bet is a tax on bullshit, so by way of calling bullshit on him, I offered him a bet — a penny bet.

“When the Judiciary Committee votes on Alito,” I said,”some will vote for him, others will vote against. America is a democracy. Our senators are elected democratically. So I’ll give you a penny for every person who voted for the senators who vote for Alito. Then you give me back a penny for every person who voted for the senators who vote against.” I offered him the same bet for when the full Senate would vote on the nomination.

He declined my offer. He may have been deluding himself about what the American people wanted, but he wasn’t stupid enough to take the bet.

I’d love for someone to take this same penny bet on Kavanagh. After all, the Republican senators outnumber the Democrats 11-10 . But if the vote goes along party lines, I’ll walk away with nearly $80,000. Another penny bet on the full Senate would add about $20,000.

Far more important than my potential $100K windfall, is the issue of legitimacy.

In December 2000, the Supreme Court ruled against Al Gore, halted the Florida recount, and gave the presidency to George W. Bush.. The majority of the justices had been appointed by Republican presidents (including one appointed by Bush’s father). The next day, Gore made a speech saying that while he disagreed with the Court’s decision, he accepted it. He was upholding the legitimacy of the Court and the president-elect. Can anyone imagine Trump doing anything like that?

The Court, like other political institutions is losing the confidence of the American people, at least according to Gallup.


I’m not sure whether surveys like Gallup are measuring reactions that are specific to the Court or just a more general feeling about government. But the current and future Court provides ample material for questions of legitimacy. Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million, and his first Court appointment, Gorsuch, was made possible through an unprecedented and blatantly political maneuver by Mitch McConnell, whose party represented a minority of voters as it will when it confirms Kavanagh.

What will happen to the Court’s legitimacy if Trump’s appointees wind up ruling on cases directly involving Trump that emerge from the Mueller investigation?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to Me . . . Or Not

July 8, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post, I wondered why Republican women surveyed by Pew saw Donald Trump as having “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of respect for women. One of the explanations I didn’t consider is that people don’t always answer the question that researchers are asking. The Pew survey asked dozens of questions. Several were about respect — how much respect does Trump have for women, men, Blacks, Hispanics, Evangelicals, and more. Others asked how believable Trump is, whether he keeps his business interests separate from his presidential decisions, whether he respects democratic institutions. (Results from the survey are here.)

But maybe to the people being interviewed, these were all the same question: Trump – good or bad?

Claude Fischer blogged recently (here) about this difference between questions researchers think they are asking and the questions people are actually responding to. Sometimes people give incorrect answers to basic factual questions. But it’s not that these respondents are ignorant.

an interesting fragment of respondents treat polls not as a quiz to be graded on but as an opportunity for what survey scholars have termed “expressiveness” and partisan “cheerleading.”

I would broaden this kind of poll responding to include “self-presentation” or, more simply, “sending a message.” That is, there are respondents who treat some factual questions not as chances to show what they know but as chances to tell the interviewer, or data analyst, or reader, or even themselves something more important than facts.

If expressing feelings or sending a message underlie people’s responses to factual questions,  those same purposes should have even more importance when it comes to subjective judgments, like whether Trump has a lot of respect for women.

Fischer seems to side with the “sending a message” explanation. But that phrase suggests, to me at least, an intention to have some specific effect. For example, proponents of harsher criminal penalties claim that these will “send a message” to potential criminals. The obvious corollary is that these punishments will have an actual effect – less crime.

When pollsters call me, I’m often tempted to send a message. I consider what the implications of my answer will be when it’s reported in the survey and how that might affect politicians’ decisions. I’m even tempted to lie on demographic questions (age, income, party affiliation). Maybe my preferences will swing more weight coming from a young Independent.

But my hunch is that in most of the Pew questions about respect, people are not trying to influence policy. They’re just expressing a global feeling about Trump. The message, as Fischer says, is that they want others to know how they feel.        

Which is it — a deliberate strategy or an expression of sentiment? The trouble is that the only way to know what people are thinking when we ask them whether Trump respects women is to ask them and to listen to their answers instead of giving them four choices and them moving on to the next question. That is the great limitation of questionnaire surveys.