The Pleasure of Guilty Pleasures

4 Apr 2019, 600 Words

I love finding out other peoples’ guilty pleasures.

I don’t mean the “I sometimes eat a whole tub of ice cream” kind. The kind that you’d admit to at parties. I mean the “I have an anonymous instagram account where I compile clips of Rick Grimes for my own later perusal” kind. The kind that you really, truly, genuinely don’t want people to know about.

Partly, I love it because it’s just nice to know secrets — it makes you feel special. But more than that, I love it because it gives a rare glimpse into what another person is really like.

We all have an internal state — who we really are — and an external state — how we come across to others.

External state is a “noisy channel” — it carries some information about what’s inside (signal), but it also carries a lot of other stuff (noise). To understand what another person is like — to know their internal state — we have to separate the signal from the noise.

Our external state can be made noisy from inside, or out:

Social Signaling

We sometimes do things, intentionally or not, because we want people to draw particular conclusions about us.

Job interviews are an extreme example of this — we say certain things and do certain actions to come across in a certain way. If you’re interviewing someone, you know to take their “greatest weakness” with a pinch of salt. On first dates, too, we might curate our behaviour to show our “best selves”.

Anytime somebody reveals something about themselves, signaling is probably part of why they did it.

(Ironically, signaling adds noise)

Social Appropriation

Much of our external state is just a reflection of our society. Explicitly, we knowingly adhere to social norms, etiquette, and a broadly similar lifestyle to the people around us. In a group where everybody’s read Sapiens, the fact that you have too doesn’t say a lot about what you’re like.

We’re also influenced by implicit incentive structures created by society. Certain things are socially acceptable, even encouraged, while others aren’t. Since health and fitness are socially encouraged, the fact that you go to the gym might have very little to do with what you’re like as a person. But if you’re the only gym-goer in your town, then that might say a lot about you.

It’s rare to experience another person completely independently of these corrupting forces. If you know something about them, the very fact that they’ve revealed it to you implies some chance of signaling. And if it’s something generally acceptable, or worse, encouraged, then social appropriation is, on some level, at play.

What does that leave? Well… things that aren’t revealed to others, and also aren’t socially acceptable. Guilty pleasures.

But if they aren’t revealed to others, how do you find them out?

Well… you almost never do. But if you’re lucky, it might happen by accident, or through exceptional circumstance.

There’s only one such circumstance I’ve experienced: it’s when someone else’s guilty pleasure happens to be the same as your own. It’s just innocent enough for you to reveal to them, and in doing so, you absolve their guilt and it all comes out. It’s really special.

Even in this case, since there’s an intentional reveal, maybe there’s some signaling going on. But if so, I think it’s one of the few acceptable types — the signaling to another person that the two of you aren’t all that different.

thanks for reading!

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