Accuracy and Precision in Value-Judgments

A Value Orientation

In helping some Thinking Labbers make accurate, precise value-judgments, I was reminded of a song I learned as a child. The lyrics as I remember:



Nobody loves me.
Everybody hates me.
I’m going out and eat worms!


The first one was easy.
The second one was greasy.
The third one stuck in my throat!


Nobody loves me.
Everybody hates me.
I’m going out and eat worms.

This is quite hilarious when you’re 8, but not so hilarious if you are thinking this way as an adult.

Exaggeration is natural

When you are thinking about problems, it is common to exaggerate them. Threat-oriented emotions get triggered automatically and they draw your attention to the bad aspects of the situation. That is their function. But if you don’t hold the full context, you will have a distorted view of the situation.

The first step in holding the context is to translate your emotions about the problem into words. What is the implicit evaluation that gives rise to this particular emotion? It’s okay if the implicit evaluation is exaggerated because the second step is to make that value-judgment more precise.

For example, suppose you were feeling lonely, and expressed that as, “Nobody loves me.” Let’s stipulate it is not literally true. If instead you tried to restate that value-laden statement in the most objective way possible, you might rewrite it as:

  • I do not have a romantic partner…
  • OR I have lost the people I was closest to…
  • OR I would like to have some closer friends…
  • etc.

This is a hypothetical example, so we don’t know which formulation would most precisely name the situation. But a more accurate, precise statement would help you zero in on the critical issue that you face. You had the emotion because there is a value at stake. These reformulations help you focus on the value that you want to act to gain and keep.

Notice that the value is different in each reformulation. In the first, it’s romance. In the second, it’s some particular people whom you had particular relationships with. In the third, it’s friends in general.

These are three different kinds of values, which would need to be sought by different means. Making value-judgments precise is a powerful step in motivating yourself for action because it helps you identify the direction to put your energy.

In contrast, the words “Nobody loves me” only re-focus you on your isolation. They just reiterate the problem; they don’t help point you to a particular solution.

Make every clause more precise

Sometimes you need to do this translation in stages. We worked through some examples in a recent Thinking Lab class.

One value-judgment started as something like, “I’m not getting visibility for my work from anyone I respect.” That turned out to be false and misleading. A more exact statement of the facts took a few sentences:

  • I have gotten some visibility for my work.
  • I respect several of the people who have given me this visibility.
  • I have not gotten visibility for my work from a couple of other sources.
  • I particularly wish those other sources would give me visibility.

These sentences clarify the situation dramatically. They raise the question: why is it so important to have those particular sources give you visibility? This wish is distorting your evaluations in a way that makes you miserable. That’s important food for thought.

Sometimes the problems are subtle

Another value-judgment started out as something like, “I’m never going to find a central purpose that I’m passionate about.” The first-pass fix was to reword it as “I have not yet found a central purpose that I’m passionate about.”

This still includes a couple of different evaluations, so we broke it down to something like:

  • I want a lot of meaning in my work.
  • I haven’t found a purpose that gives me that meaning.

When I heard this, the word “found” set off warning bells for me. The statement is based on a misunderstanding of how passion develops.

Passion develops by strengthening the underlying values. You strengthen the values by acting to gain and keep them! That means you create passion by choosing a general direction that is in principle meaningful to you, and then you take value-oriented steps to gain and keep values in that area. This requires a particular process for planning work that ensures that the short-term goals are sufficiently motivating that you both do them and see that they are building to the long-range goal.

I grant you, the problem with the word “found” was subtle. Most people could not catch it without studying my course on “Developing a Central Purpose” in the Thinking Lab and/or my series of blog posts on this topic.

But that doesn’t mean that naming the issue as “I haven’t found a purpose that gives me that meaning” is unhelpful. This statement, which is much more accurate than the original statement, at least lets you frame the issue more clearly. It suggests you need to figure out what values have meaning for you.

For example, are you wanting to make the world a better place? If that’s what could give your work meaning, then you could look at possible careers from the perspective of how they would do that. Or maybe you more specifically want to improve the culture. That would give you a slightly different perspective. Or maybe it’s your own creativity that gives you the most meaning. If so, you would look at careers from that perspective.

Whether your general profession is teacher, engineer, store manager, businessman or anything else, you could find a way to add that kind of high-level meaning to your specific job.

“But that’s not exactly what I meant”

After doing these analyses, each of these Thinking Labbers objected at a certain point that “that’s not exactly what I meant.” In other words, the original formulation did not actually capture exactly what they were concerned about.

This raises the question: why should you analyze a statement that you can see is imprecise and inaccurate?

Because if you are having a strong emotion based on a mixed-up implicit value-judgment, this means your knowledge and values in this area are a little mixed up. The emotions don’t accurately reflect reality, but they do accurately reflect the way your memory banks are currently organized. And the way that memory is organized currently is bad for you — it is making it hard to understand what the problem is. It’s sending you off to look at red herrings.

If you genuinely want to get recognition for your work or to have a career that has meaning, you need to have your ideas and values organized in this area. When they’re disorganized, they trigger confusion and emotional overload.

But never fear if you experience that kind of confusion or emotional overload. Noticing that you are a little mixed up is the first step in re-organizing your memory banks. By taking the words that occur to you seriously, and then vetting them for accuracy and precision, you literally reprogram that area to be more precise and accurate. Finding that you’re mixed up is the first step to seeing what the real issue is. Taking the time to precisely formulate your mixed-up thought helps re-organize your memory so that it is easier and easier to think about your values in this area.

You can’t reorganize your memory banks and values all at once; you do it one little step at a time every time you find something that is off.

Think of it this way: if you have a goal that matters to you, part of the work of achieving that goal is reshaping your mind into the perfect tool to help you achieve it. And it’s not hard per se. It’s a lot of little steps, all within your capacity.

To repeat, one of those little steps is taking your own words seriously enough to vet them and, if needed, correct them for accuracy and precision to the best of your ability. This sets up a virtuous cycle of increasing clarity about your own values and how you gain and keep them.

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