Affordance Widths

by ialdabaoth4 min read10th May 201854 comments

130

Social & Cultural Dynamics
Frontpage

This article was originally a post on my tumblr. I'm in the process of moving most of these kinds of thoughts and discussions here.


Okay. There’s a social interaction concept that I’ve tried to convey multiple times in multiple conversations, so I’m going to just go ahead and make a graph.

I’m calling this concept “Affordance Widths”.

Let’s say there’s some behavior {B} that people can do more of, or less of. And everyone agrees that if you don’t do enough of the behavior, bad thing {X} happens; but if you do too much of the behavior, bad thing {Y} happens.

Now, let’s say we have five different people: Adam, Bob, Charles, David, and Edgar. Each of them can do more or less {B}. And once they do too little, {X} happens. But once they do too much, {Y} happens. But where {X} and {Y} starts happening is a little fuzzy, and is different for each of them. Let’s say we can magically graph it, and we get something like this:

Now, let’s look at these five men’s experiences.
 

Adam doesn’t understand what the big deal about {B} is. He feels like this is a behavior that people can generally choose how much they do, and yeah if they don’t do the *bare minimum* shit goes all dumb, and if they do a *ridiculous* amount then shit goes dumb a different way, but otherwise do what you want, you know?

Bob understands that {B} can be an important behavior, and that there’s a minimum acceptable level of {B} that you need to do to not suffer {X}, and a maximum amount you can get away with before you suffer {Y}. And Bob feels like {X} is probably more important a deal than {Y} is. But generally, he and Adam are going to agree quite a bit about what’s an appropriate amount of {B}ing for people to do. (Bob’s heuristic about how much {B} to do is the thin cyan line.)

Charles isn’t so lucky, by comparison. He’s got a *very* narrow band between {X} and {Y}, and he has to constantly monitor his behavior to not fall into either of them. He probably has to deal with {X} and {Y} happening a lot. If he’s lucky, he does less {B} than average; if he’s not so lucky, then he tries to copy Bob’s strategy and winds up getting smacked with {Y} way more often than Bob does.

Poor David’s in a situation called a “double bind”. There is NO POSSIBLE AMOUNT of {B} he can do to prevent both {X} and {Y} from happening; he simply has to choose his poison. If he tries Bob’s strategy, he’ll get hit hard with {X} *AND* {Y}, simultaneously, and probably be pretty pissed about it. On the other hand, if he runs into Charles, and Charles has his shit figured out, then Charles might tell him to tack into a spot where David only has to deal with {X}. Bob and Adam are going to be utterly useless to David, and are going to give advice that keeps him right in the ugly overlap zone.

Then there’s Edgar. Edgar’s fucked. There is no amount of behavior that Edgar can dial into, where he isn’t getting hit hard by {X} *and* {Y}. There’s places way out on the extreme - places where most people are getting slammed hard by {X} or slammed hard by {Y} - where Edgar notices a slight decrease in the contra failure mode. So Edgar probably spends most of his time on the edges, either doing all-B or no-B, and people probably tell him to stop being so black-and-white about B and find a good middle spot like everyone else. Edgar probably wants to punch those people, starting with Adam.

In any real situation, the affordance width is probably determined by things independent of X, Y, and B. Telling Bob to do a little more {B} than Adam, and Charles to do a little less {B} than Adam or Bob, is great advice. But David and Edgar need different advice - they need advice one meta-level up, about how to widen their affordance width between {X} and {Y} so that *some* amount of {B} will be allowed at all.

In most of the situations where this is most salient to me, {B} is a social behavior, and {X} and {Y} are punishments that people mete out to people who do not conform to correct {B}-ness. A lot of the affordance width that Adam and Bob have would probably be identified as ‘halo effects’.

For example, let’s say {B} is assertiveness in a job interview. Let’s say {X} represents coming across as socially weak, while {Y} represents coming across as arrogant. Adam probably has a lot going for him - height, age, socioeconomic background, etc. - that make him just plain likeable, so he can be way more assertive than Charles and seem like a go-getter, or seem way less assertive than Charles and seem like a good team player. Whereas David was probably born the wrong skin color and god-knows-what-else, and Edgar probably has some kind of Autism-spectrum disorder that makes *any* amount of assertiveness seem dangerous, and *any* amount of non-assertiveness seem pathetic.

Examples

There’s plenty of other values for {B}, {X} and {Y} that I could have picked; Some examples:

Gender Norms

Adam, as an attractive heterosexual man can appear as butch or as femme as he wants within pretty large limits and people are just going to compliment him on it.

Bob, a less-than attractive heterosexual man can act more masculine without too much fear of reprisal but can’t generally slip into more effeminate behaviours without negative comments about his presumed sexuality.

Charles, as a gay man, needs to ensure that he confirms to gendered expectations as much as possible to avoid derisive stereotyping for effeminate behaviours.

David, as a trans man, is pretty much screwed if he acts the least bit feminine, but can occasionally avoid accusations of transitioning poorly if he loads up on balls out machismo.

Emily, being a trans woman, gets screwed over in that she can’t act effeminate without being accused of re-enforcing sexism and can’t act masculine without getting accused of not-being-trans-enough and pretty much gets assaulted with both negative outcomes simultaneously anyway.

Emily feels sick when she sees Adam dance around in lingerie she fears even buying, David considers punching Bob in the face for always being on his case about going to the gym too much.

Exercise

Not all examples are social. With exercise, X is when you aren’t really doing anything – heart rate isn’t up, muscles aren’t trying that hard - it’s not bad, but it’s not actually helpful in any way. Y is when you do too much, end up aching and exhausted in a bad way, maybe feel like barfing or just lying down and not moving for a week. Or worse. The goal zone is where it feels good - the pleasant burn, the breath lost but catchable, the actual building of muscle and slimming of fat and etc. Endorphins.

Most people are in the Adam or Beth group. I know people with muscle tissue disorder and a partially collapsed lung, who are Charlie – they prefer powerwalking and yoga. And I know people who are Denise or Elton, with chronic pain and no or very minimal win conditions.

130

53 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:47 AM
New Comment

This is an unusually difficult post to review. In an ideal world, we'd like to be able to review things as they are, without reference to who the author is. In many settings, reviews are done anonymously (with the author's name stricken off), for just this reason. This post puts that to the test: the author is a pariah. And ordinarily I would say, that's irrelevant, we can just read the post and evaluate it on its own merits.

Other comments have mentioned that there could be PR concerns, ie, that making the author's existence and participation on LessWrong salient is embarrassing. I don't think this is an appropriate basis for judging the post, and would prefer to judge it based on its content.

The problem is, I think this post may contain a subtle trap, and that understanding its author, and what he was trying to do with this post, might actually be key to understanding what the trap is.

Ialdabaoth had a metaproblem, which was this: he had conspicuous problems, in a community full of people who would try start conversations where they help analyze his problems for him; but if those people truly understood him, they might turn on him. So he created narratives to explain why those conversations were so confusing, why he wouldn't follow the advice, and why the people trying to help him were actually wronging him, and therefore indebted. This post is one such narrative. Here's another.

The core idea of this post is that spectrum-direction advice is structured as a pair of failure modes, which may have either a variably-sized gap or a variably-sized overlap, depending on the post. This is straightforwardly true. But I think that the next inferential step the post takes after that, about how people do and should respond to that, is wrong. Charles, David, and Edgar should all be rejecting the frame in which they're tuning {B}, and instead be looking for third options which make {B} irrelevant. This is easy to overlook when {B} is a generic placeholder rather than a specific behavior, but becomes clear when applied to specific examples. Edgar, in particular, is described as doing a probably-catastrophically-wrong thing, presented as though it were the obvious reaction to circumstances.

I suspect that, if this concept were widespread and salient, especially presented in its current form, the main effect would be to help people rationalize their way out of doing the obvious things to solve their problems, and to explain their confusion when other people seem to not be doing the obviously things. I think there's a next-inferential-step post that I would be happy with, but this one isn't it.

Charles, David, and Edgar should all be re­ject­ing the frame in which they’re tun­ing {B}, and in­stead be look­ing for third op­tions which make {B} ir­rele­vant. This is easy to over­look when {B} is a generic place­holder rather than a spe­cific be­hav­ior, but be­comes clear when ap­plied to spe­cific ex­am­ples. Edgar, in par­tic­u­lar, is de­scribed as do­ing a prob­a­bly-catas­troph­i­cally-wrong thing, pre­sented as though it were the ob­vi­ous re­ac­tion to cir­cum­stances.

Do you have examples of what this (“look­ing for third op­tions which make {B} ir­rele­vant”) might look like? I confess to skepticism, otherwise; this seems very much like the sort of advice that sounds deeply wise, but in practice is impossible to apply. I would be happy to be convinced otherwise; a world where what you say is valid and sensible advice, would be a better and more fair world than one where it is not!

EDIT:

Edgar, in par­tic­u­lar, is de­scribed as do­ing a prob­a­bly-catas­troph­i­cally-wrong thing, pre­sented as though it were the ob­vi­ous re­ac­tion to cir­cum­stances.

Edgar is described as doing a probably-catastrophically-bad thing, but whether it is a wrong thing is contingent on what you say in the bit I quoted being true and applicable. If, instead, what you say is false or inapplicable, then Edgar’s response does seem to be the obvious one after all.

I seem not to have noticed this post at the time, but now the review process has brought it to my attention, I have strong-downvoted it and would disrecommend it for any "Best Of" list.

There is an unpleasant genre of posting in which someone says, "Suppose someone did X, Y, and Z, which are really bad! Don't you agree that would be really bad?" and it is obvious that this is a thinly disguised self-justifying whine about some real incident. It is also clear that no-one else involved would recognise it as an account of the matter.

This posting fits squarely into that genre.

ialdabaoth is Edgar. Charles and David only exist to interpolate between Edgar and all the (in ialdabaoth's view) horrid, nasty, happy Adams and Bobs hating on Edgar and unjustly excluding him. This post is of no more epistemic worth than a political cartoon. It is not even an argument, but a picture — literally — constructed in a medium that will put up with whatever you draw on it.

And if Edgar asked me for advice, what I would say, which I never would unless asked, would be "Sucks to be Edgar. Tough shit, Edgar."

What behavior of Edgar's is it that draws your ire? You acknowledge that Edgar's position is poor, he believes he has no good options, yet you feel it necessary to blame him for choosing a bad option.

it is obvious that this is a thinly disguised self-justifying whine about some real incident.

Plenty of rational thought in a social sphere comes from analyzing striking personal events using our repositories of stored information. Plenty of valuable rational thought stems from self-justification. Do you want Edgar to self-reflect on his behaviors and devise a scheme in which he is a bad person? Edgar's not going to view himself as a moral mutant no matter how evil you think he is.

We rarely get the opportunity to delve into the thought patterns of evil people. We will likely never know what the 9/11 hijackers were thinking because they are all dead. We rarely hear rational justifications from murderers and rapists (we just hear their lawyer's best arguments) because the large majority of murderers and rapists don't care to express themselves rationally.

This means that if Edgar is evil (as you seem to believe) then his insights are more valuable than the insights of a non-evil person. Rational, evil people are in short supply and even moreso are rational, evil people willing to expound on their evil nature.

If Edgar provides faulty reasoning, refute it! Or if you want to, disregard it and allow others to do so. The absolute worst thing to do is to blind yourself to rational discussion from evil people and to force others to do the same. That will just make it so that when a potential victim hears faulty, evil reasoning straight from the source it will be their first time and they might be convinced!

Edgar is an imaginary person, for whom you can invent whatever background story you like. Edgar is not making an argument and has nothing to say, because he does not exist. ialdabaoth is making an argument through the picture of Edgar, but I have seen enough of his writings here and elsewhere to stand by my characterisation of his vignette.

This is not about "blaming" Edgar or Edgar being "evil". If I met an Edgar (I have never met ialdabaoth) I would merely not care to know him. It is up to him to learn, but not up to me to teach. Perhaps he never will. Sucks to be Edgar, tough shit, Edgar.

As you can see, the milk of human kindness flows thinly in my veins, especially towards the Edgars of this world. Let those who think Edgar worth taking on as a project do so, and the best of luck to them.

We will likely never know what the 9/11 hijackers were thinking because they are all dead.

We know what they were thinking well enough from the accounts of similar people who have been taken alive, or announced their intentions before their deeds, and the propaganda of their supporters. Allahu akbar etc. There is no mystery about what they think. They want you to know and will tell you, so clearly and unambiguously that there is no scope for wondering about it.

ETA: Re this other comment of yours, I note that I had formed a negative opinion of ialdabaoth/Brent long before seeing the allegations of sexual harassment.

Definitely makes sense. A commonly cited example is women in an office workplace; what would be average assertiveness for a male is considered "bitchy", but they still suffer roughly the same "weak" penalties for non-assertiveness.

With the advice-giving aspect, some situations are likely coming from people not knowing what levers they're actually pulling. Adam tells David to move his "assertiveness" lever, but there's no affordance gap available for David by moving that lever -- he would actually have to move an "assertiveness + social skill W" lever which he doesn't have, but which feels like a single lever for Adam called "assertiveness". Not all situations are such; there's no "don't be a woman" or "don't be autistic lever". Sometimes there's some other solution by moving along a different dimension and sometimes there's not.

I suspect there's a practise effect here as well. Figuring out how to be assertive without being domineering or bossy is hard. People who have grown up being assertive will have had the opportunity to learn, but those who try to become assertive because they know its important for the workplace won't have developed the judgement yet.

It seems to me that for any given {B}, the vast majority of Adams would deny {B} having this property, or at the very least deny that they are Adams in the given case. I think that's what it feels like from the inside, too - recognizing Adamness in oneself feels difficult, but it seems like a higher waterline in that regard is necessary to stop the phenomenon of useless or net-negative advice among other downstream consequences.

Since others have done a contextualized review, I'll aim to do a decoupled review, with a caveat that I think the contextual elements are important for consideration with inclusion into the compendium.

Okay. There’s a social interaction concept that I’ve tried to convey multiple times in multiple conversations, so I’m going to just go ahead and make a graph.
I’m calling this concept “Affordance Widths”.

I'd like to see a clear definition here before launching into an example. In fact, there's no clear definition in the whole post as far as I can tell, and would like to see that added to the post.

Let’s say there’s some behavior {B} that people can do more of, or less of. And everyone agrees that if you don’t do enough of the behavior, bad thing {X} happens; but if you do too much of the behavior, bad thing {Y} happens.

I'd like to see a concrete example here, which may just be a stylistic choice but is also I think just easier to follow as a human. A simple example would be something like "If you're over-confident, then you appear arrogant, but if you're underconfident, then you appear weak". This is done way later with the job interview example, but I have the preference to start concrete then generalize.

Bob understands that {B} can be an important behavior, and that there’s a minimum acceptable level of {B} that you need to do to not suffer {X}, and a maximum amount you can get away with before you suffer {Y}. And Bob feels like {X} is probably more important a deal than {Y} is. But generally, he and Adam are going to agree quite a bit about what’s an appropriate amount of {B}ing for people to do. (Bob’s heuristic about how much {B} to do is the thin cyan line.)
Charles isn’t so lucky, by comparison. He’s got a *very* narrow band between {X} and {Y}, and he has to constantly monitor his behavior to not fall into either of them. He probably has to deal with {X} and {Y} happening a lot. If he’s lucky, he does less {B} than average; if he’s not so lucky, then he tries to copy Bob’s strategy and winds up getting smacked with {Y} way more often than Bob does.
Poor David’s in a situation called a “double bind”. There is NO POSSIBLE AMOUNT of {B} he can do to prevent both {X} and {Y} from happening; he simply has to choose his poison. If he tries Bob’s strategy, he’ll get hit hard with {X} *AND* {Y}, simultaneously, and probably be pretty pissed about it. On the other hand, if he runs into Charles, and Charles has his shit figured out, then Charles might tell him to tack into a spot where David only has to deal with {X}. Bob and Adam are going to be utterly useless to David, and are going to give advice that keeps him right in the ugly overlap zone.
Then there’s Edgar. Edgar’s fucked. There is no amount of behavior that Edgar can dial into, where he isn’t getting hit hard by {X} *and* {Y}. There’s places way out on the extreme - places where most people are getting slammed hard by {X} or slammed hard by {Y} - where Edgar notices a slight decrease in the contra failure mode. So Edgar probably spends most of his time on the edges, either doing all-B or no-B, and people probably tell him to stop being so black-and-white about B and find a good middle spot like everyone else. Edgar probably wants to punch those people, starting with Adam.

The word choice here is editorializing in a way that feels not useful for truthseeking. Its' clearly saying Bob is an asshole for not understanding poor Edgar's plight, when it should be working to get across the concept that people have different allowances for their behavior.

Why I think this concept is useful:

So, I think the post is not amazing at getting across the concept. But I think the concept itself is quite useful, here's why:

When I read Scott Alexanders "Different Worlds" post, I was not at all surprised or amazed or enlightened by the post. I knew people had vastly different experiences of the world, and one of the reasons for that was having shifted my affordance widths in various domains in the past.

I had shifted things so that I could be more clear about my desires without seeming pushy, or less manic in my work without seeming lazy, for example. When I told other people about this, they had never even realized there was such a thing as an affordance width they could shift.

In comparison to them, I had seen how by changing my affordance width, it changed my experience of the world. I feel like if the concept of an afforadance width was in more people's vocabulary, they would both me more understanding of people with different worlds, and have more agency to realize they could change the experience of their own world.

In addition, I've also experienced the phenomena of different affordance widths in different contexts. For instance, when I moved to the UK, the affordance width for confidence leading to arrogance was much narrower, whereas the afforadance width for talking about certain topics without being ostracized was much higher.

Being able to point at that thing as a concept is certainly useful, both to be able to talk about the thing, as well as to be able to shift the thing (for instance, the affordance for consensual touch without being perceived as weird was too low for my tastes at the EA hotel, and I worked to raise that affordance width).

So, I think this post talks about a concept that's important, and useful, and I'd like to see it reworked to do a better job of getting across the underlying concept without editorializing too much about how awful it is to have low affordance widths.



The concept is valid, but I don't think its new.

I don't have best words to explain my point (find an expert on whatever subject this fits into and there's probably already a term), but a few phrases sprang to mind:

  • Social norms. Acceptable behaviour.
  • Tolerance limits - changing with location/time/social group etc etc.
  • Learning to fit in - assessment and adaptation of behaviour.
  • Some people are just a-holes.

Reading the post, that's what I got and so don't think it is worthy for the 2018 review.


I don't think those quite get as specific or easy to talk about as this term For instance, the concept of "society isn't made nice for humans" is not new, but having moloch and inadequate equilibria as concepts still pushed forward the discourse

For instance, the concept of "society isn't made nice for humans" is not new, but having moloch and inadequate equilibria as concepts still pushed forward the discourse

Nod. And in particular, I saw this post as something like "taking the concept of 'privilege', and fleshing it the gears of one particular facet of it." (Privilege also being a concept that's interwoven with some broader narratives or political maneuvering that I don't fully endorse, but is nonetheless have found quite useful)

Yes, I didn't frame the post in those terms but you doing so made a bunch of things click for me.

One of the converaations I had recently made me realize my affordable widths with risk taking for money were much different from others, because I don't need tons of money for health issues and my parents can and will support me when worst comes to worst (and I don't have to accept something like abuse to get their help).

This made me really conscious of my privilege around money.

I'd really like to see that done with MULTIPLE men and women, and unprimed audiences. My intuition says that which PARTICULAR man and woman are used matters, a lot.

On one hand this picture is appealing and I can intuitively immagine what being each of the characters might feel like.

But on the other hand I would strongly prefer a view where everyone is basically the same. In this view everyone has the same Adam's graph. But Edgar still constantly suffers X and Y, not because they overlap, but because he has no idea how much B he is really doing, so he is constantly jumping from low B to high B. I believe that this is a large component in any social-skill problems.

For example, if a deaf man tried to vocalize, he would be either way too loud of way too quiet most of the time, and he would suffer the corresponding consequences of both. For him to accurately guess the appropriate volume is near impossible. On the other hand, Adam who has a perfectly good hearing and a good control over his voice, is able to accurately speak louder or quieter while still fitting into the appropriate volume range, and he is feeling very free. There is a difference in their experience, but it is not because they are treated differently, or have different minds.

One reason I don't like your graph is that I have no idea how to suffer both X and Y at the same time, for the same action. I don't know how a single action can be both too assertive and too weak, as in your example.

Another issue is that it's not clear to me whether the affordance width is a property of your mind, or a property of how society treats people like you. The latter does make sense when the punishment is also social. But the former doesn't really fit your examples, because people don't actually know what your mind looks like, unless you choose to reveal it by doing a weird amount of B.

One reason I don't like your graph is that I have no idea how to suffer both X and Y at the same time, for the same action.

Imagine an audience with non-overlapping preferences. Suppose you have control over the thermometer, and someone likes the temperature above 20 degrees C, and another likes it below 15 degrees C. There's no way to get less than 1 person complaining about your choice.

This is true, but then Adam and Edgar both face those same overlapping punishments. Of course, it's possible for the audience to treat the two characters differently due to some prejudice, but I don't think that's a significant factor in e.g. autism.

but I don't think that's a significant factor in e.g. autism.

I think this is actually pretty much the case with autism – although you can frame it as prejudice, or as radically different preferences about how to communicate, or what sort of communication skills you possess.

"Prejudice" and "what sort of communication skills you possess" are on the exact opposite ends of the spectrum I want to talk about. Both cases may feel the same from the first person view, but they are not just interchangeable framings.

The difference is in who controls the affordance width. In the case of prejudice, society determines that Adam's width will be x and Edgar's width will be y, and neither of them can do much about it. In the case of lacking skills, Edgar has a lot of agency and practices of self-awareness, introspection, observation and imitation are useful to him, even if it is impossible to learn the skills to the same extent as Adam.

E.g. the deaf man, with enough observation, can figure out in what contexts it's better for him to be completely silent and in in what contexts it's okay to be too loud, even if he never learns to produce the appropriate volume.

For assertive-but-weak, the example that's coming to mind is Brendan Fraser's character at the start of Bedazzled (a mediocre film). He tries to playfully tease his coworkers, he invites himself to their plans; but his body language says he'd run away if you looked at him funny, and he's scared to talk to his crush.

Or if X is "this person is incompetent" and Y is "this person is arrogant", then the sweet spot is "competent but humble" and the overlap is "arrogant and incompetent". That seems entirely achievable.

in this frame the differences between the characters is how granular their levers for changing things is, which seems closer to correct to me. Edgar simply has much too large jump sizes to ever get lucky and land in a white zone.

I think that fidelity of control and double-binds are BOTH underlying gears of this model. At this stage I'm just trying to capture the phenomenon.

" One reason I don't like your graph is that I have no idea how to suffer both X and Y at the same time, for the same action. I don't know how a single action can be both too assertive and too weak, as in your example. "

I would think the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement would provide a good case study here. Black/African American leaders seemed to be faced with that dilemma -- the nonviolent view was often seen as passive and ineffective but the threat of violence, much less actual violence, would also be criticized. I think it is inherent in social settings where some form or group affiliation is clear but the group itself covers various factions.

Perhaps the events in Hong Kong over the past 6 month would fit into this analysis as well.

It seems to make sense to make this graph 2-dimensional, with axes {A} and {B}, and plot Adam-Edgar as points on it. Clearly this isn't about {B}, and avoiding {X} and {Y} through adjusting {B} is hopeless. Clearly this is about {A}, and the right course of action is to figure out what {A} is.

I have probably used the concept of "Affordance widths" 3 or 4 times since this post, not as much as some others but still enough.

More importantly, I think it builds upon the ideas in Scott Alexander's "Different Worlds": https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/10/02/different-worlds/ in more testable ways, and I would love to see more experimentation with the concept of affordance widths and perception

I feel like the question of how different people are perceived is core to understanding group dynamics.

In most of the situations where this is most salient to me, {B} is a social behavior, and {X} and {Y} are punishments that people mete out to people who do not conform to correct {B}-ness.

Notwithstanding this, I note that the model of affordance widths also seems apt for modeling binds in situations where the constraints are imposed by uncaring parts of the universe, rather than the social web.

Take as an example the task of riding a bike, where potential hazards include {X} riding too slowly and falling over and {Y} riding too quickly and losing control. Here, taking speed as {B}, it seems quite natural that different people might have different affordance widths for speed.

What does this buy us? Well, once again we see that the natural advice on "how to ride a bike better" for [A] might be actively misleading for [C], and the best advice for [D] and [E] might be in a different class entirely. So the concept seems like a useful tool for anyone considering how to give advice to other people on how to do things.

(A more complicated example that I've been thinking about recently is the task of forming predictions under uncertainty, where {B} is something like "trust your intuition"; generating various kinds of {X} and {Y} are left as an exercise.)

Although normally I am all for judging arguments by their merits, regardless of who speaks them, I think that in this particular case we need to think twice before including the essay in the "Best of 2018" book. The notoriety of the author is such that including it risks serious reputation damage for the community, especially that the content of the essay might be interpreted as a veiled attempt to justify the author's moral transgressions. To be clear, I am not saying we should censor everything that this man ever said, but giving it the spotlight in "Best of 2018" seems like a bad choice.

Despite my general stance in favor of free speech and open discussion, I don’t necessarily disagree with this; in this case it seems like reputational concerns are, indeed, worth considering.

However, separately from whether this essay is included in the collection, I think that this is something that it’s worth it for us to discuss, here on Less Wrong:

… the con­tent of the es­say might be in­ter­preted as a veiled at­tempt to jus­tify the au­thor’s moral trans­gres­sions

Veiled attempt or not, does the content of this essay have any bearing on the author’s moral transgressions? If yes—in what way? Are there, in fact, serious problems with the perspective and the analysis presented in this essay? (Note: I upvoted the essay; if there are implications or consequences of its analysis that I’ve overlooked, I would very much like to be shown what they are.)

In short: if such an accusation might conceivably be made, it would behoove us to give it serious thought and discussion.

in this case it seems like reputational concerns are, indeed, worth considering.

Reputation is a two-place function. Do we really care about impressing people who don't understand the concept of "Endorsement of the text of a specific blog post does not constitute endorsement of anything else about the author"?

does the content of this essay have any bearing on the author's moral transgressions? If yes—in what way?

Suppose Francis commits a moral transgression. Community members propose that Francis be ostracized for the safety of the community. Francis says, "But others are guilty of just as much of the transgressive behavior as I—you're just scapegoating me because I have a narrower affordance width. Have you read the post about affordance widths?—it was nominated for the Best-of-2018 collection!"

In this hypothetical scenario, community members are probably going to be pretty suspicious that Francis is just trying to use the "affordance widths" concept to evade punishment—it's the sort of thing a guilty man has an incentive to say even if it's false. A few might go even further, and point out that the very concept of affordance widths is something a guilty man has an incentive to invent, even if it's not useful. (Although, obviously, the questions of whether others besides Francis are also guilty, and whether the concept of affordance widths is useful, need to be judged on their own merits.)

Rep­u­ta­tion is a two-place func­tion. Do we re­ally care about im­press­ing peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand the con­cept of “En­dorse­ment of the text of a spe­cific blog post does not con­sti­tute en­dorse­ment of any­thing else about the au­thor”?

I don’t know; do we? The question, I think, is: at whom is this “Best Of” collection aimed? Who’s the target audience, who are the expected audiences, etc.? I don’t know the answers to that—presumably the LW team do. Clearly, though, there exist plausible answers to these questions in the context of which the answer to your question is “yes, we do”. Do you disagree? (LW team folks—care to weigh in on the question of target audience?)

In this hy­po­thet­i­cal sce­nario …

I see, yes, this is a fair point.

Do you disagree?

I think I'm logically required to? Earlier this year, you defended my work on the grounds that it's wrong to

attack[ ] someone's writings [...] not because there is anything at all mistaken about them, but because of some alleged "sinister context" that [one is] bringing in from somewhere else.

(The ellipsis snips out a clause specifying the subject matter of "abstract epistemology and Bayesian inference", but a subsequent comment broadens the scope to "or any on-topic claims".)

If I take this literally as a specification of the real rule, then I don't see why it wouldn't apply even when the alleged sinister context is a pattern of sexual abuse with multiple witnesses. The difference between adjudicating the social legitimacy of objections in the comment section, and inclusion in the Best-of-2018 compilation, doesn't seem that relevant to me—does it seem so to you? Or am I missing something else?

I feel slightly awkward pointing this out, because the observation that my work has benefitted from the same kind of procedural consideration that might also benefit the work of someone who has committed serious crimes, might cause someone using vague pattern-matching rather than actually paying attention to cast doubt on my moral character. But I have a general policy of refusing to care about impressing people who don't understand the concept of "Procedural rules defend both wholly innocent people, and people who are guilty of other crimes not governed by the particular rule in question."

Without disagreeing with anything you say in this comment, let me note that the question I was asking was a narrow one, concerning only the matter of whether ‘we’ (by which I took you to mean: “the Less Wrong community”) do, or do not, care about impressing (or, more generally, care about our reputation with) unspecified people, or groups thereof, outside said Less Wrong community, who lack certain epistemic skills or norms.

Now, if the answer to this question is a flat “No”, then we are done here and nothing more needs to be said; all my earlier comments (to which you allude) apply, all your comments also apply, and in general we know where we stand.

However, supposing that the answer is instead (a suitably qualified) “Yes”, then there’s a conversation to be had.


That narrow point having been made, here’s a tentative start to that possibly-necessary conversation (to be disregarded if the “No” option is taken).

The differ­ence be­tween ad­ju­di­cat­ing the so­cial le­gi­t­i­macy of ob­jec­tions in the com­ment sec­tion, and in­clu­sion in the Best-of-2018 com­pila­tion, doesn’t seem that rele­vant to me—does it seem so to you? Or am I miss­ing some­thing else?

Well, perhaps you are. As far as the “social legitimacy of objections in the comment section” goes, if we ban certain sorts of comments (along the lines discussed in the threads you linked), then we’ve crippled our own ability to have epistemically productive conversations, and generally speaking this sort of thing is a serious wound against the epistemic health of the community.

Does this apply to inclusion in a “Best Of” compilation? It’s not clear to me whether it does or does not. By compiling the list, we are saying: “here is the best work done on Less Wrong in [time period]”. But to whom are we saying this? To ourselves, so to speak? Is this for internal consumption—as a guideline for future work, collectively decided on, and meant to be considered as a standard or bar to meet, by us, and anyone who joins us in the future? Or, is this meant for external consumption—a way of saying to others, “see what we have accomplished, and be impressed”, and also “here are the fruits of our labors; take them and make use of them”? Or something else? Or some combination of the above?

What, in other words, is the purpose of compiling this list? (And it does no good, please note, to reply that “well, it’s to report the truth, isn’t it, since in fact there are some posts which are the best posts, and we had better be truthful about which ones they are!”. Out of many possible facts about the corpus of all material published on Less Wrong to date, we choose to report this particular fact—that as a result of such-and-such a procedure, meant to compile a list chosen ostensibly on the basis of such-and-such a supposed set of criteria, we have here the following set of such a number of posts… and so on, in all the particulars—that cannot be motivated merely by a generalized principle of “discern and report the truth”. There are too many bits of selection from among a myriad of possibilities!) Tell me the purpose, and I will say whether it is good or bad to exclude an author’s work on any given basis.

The “social legitimacy” argument is entirely based in “if we don’t hold to these epistemic standards, we are destroying our very purpose, i.e., truth-seeking”. The “inclusion in a ‘Best Of’ list” argument cannot be justified in this way.

I ended up deciding to reply to this over on my shortform. (I'd kinda prefer this meta conversation to happen somewhere other than this post, so that discussion on this post can focus on the merits of the OP)

The reply focuses directly on the "who is the target audience" question without getting into the broader questions here, which I agree are all important but require more careful nuance than I have bandwidth for at this moment. 

I did in fact consider this when nominating the post for review. Ultimately, I thought that a review, that perhaps points out the potential biases in the post, and also the places where it has merit, might actually improve the post with necessary context, and give a chance to separate some of the ideas that have merit from perceived biases of the author.

I do think that this is something that the mods will have to consider when deciding after a review whether to include this post. Both not including it even if they think it has good content, and including it even though they don't support the actions of the author, would have implications for the values that they support.

The notoriety of the author

I'm out of the loop here -- what happened with ialdabaoth?

I remember thinking when I originally read this 'oh this is insightful' and then again when I re-read it I had the same thought. Then I realized that's exactly the type of one feels-like-an-insight thinking the review is trying to get us away from! I've never used the concept or even thought about it since I first read the post, nor encountered it elsewhere, despite assuming I would do so. Bad sign.

Unprimed audience is a huge part of this, as ialdbaoth says, and that experiment was also very different in setting than an office environment, for example.

It does make sense and I like the visual presentation of the situation as well.

One thing I would also mention, given we're talking about social interactions and behaviors, is that we might not just want to see {B} as the causal source of {X} or {Y}.

I do think that we can consider {B} as a multi-margin type observation-- so we don't get to just look at some metric call amount but also need to look at some qualitative aspect, how {B} is done. I think that is in line with the comment below about being assertive without domineering being a learned skill as much as just learning to be assertive.

But I think {X} and {Y} also need to be put in that social behavior space where we need to learn how to do those as well. If so we might see that David and Edgar's dilemma is less about the amount of {B} they do or quality/how they do {B} but perhaps more about how the culture or society related to those two. Is it really {B} that is driving the response? If not are those {X} and {Y} appropriate or correct responses to David or Edgar doing {B}?

This is a good name for a concept I've encountered in other fields. Consider climate change. {B} is the amount of fossil fuels we burn. {X} is "climate change breaks agriculture beyond repair and billions die". {Y} is "we do not have enough energy to run civilization as we know it and billions die". We're Adam if we can create abundant renewable energy in a short timeframe and also develop effective carbon sequestration technology, and we're Edgar if we remain dependent on rapidly-depleting fossil fuels.

[-]Vaniver1y Moderator Comment7

ialdabaoth is banned, as discussed in more length there. Review comments should focus on whether or not the post is a useful idea, rather than on whether or not it would hurt the reputation of LW or the review to contain this post in it.

Rest assured that if this post is included in the final book, it will include some sort of disclaimer or warning about why the author was exiled, and how that impacts how we think the idea should be read.

I've had a read of this post.

It seems rather whiny. I'm struggling to see the value to the advancement of rational thinking.

edited to add - Imagine if this was an English comprehension test and the question was "with which character does the author most identify with?"

To me, the most useful part of this post is that it introduces this idea that affordances are personal, i.e. some people are allowed to do X while others are not. I like to see this as part of the pervasive social machinery that is Omega.

I imagine people of a certain political background to want to sneer at me, as in, "why did it take someone in your in-group to tell you this?"

To which I admit that, indeed, I should have listened. But I suppose I didn't (enough), and now I did, so here we are with a post that made my worldview more empathetic. The bottom line is what matters.

I'd like to see more examples, though it's quite possible they're sensitive or otherwise bad to discuss in public. But right now I feel that I understand the model in theory but not at all where I should be applying it.

General ambitious-ness, in any given field, where {X} is not accomplishing much and {Y} is committing to projects you don't have the skills for: Adam has opportunities to do some important things and is skilled enough that they aren't too hard for him. Bob has a range of opportunities of varying significance, so he needs to think about whether something is at his level before trying it. Charles is newer to this field than Bob, so he has to be extra-careful not to be overambitious. David would be in the same situation as Bob, but his boss has really high standards, so if he's careful not to be overambitious, he'll take criticism for not getting enough done. Edgar didn't know he was going to need this skillset, but has been forced into it for one reason or another.

Having a detailed plan, where {X} is disorganization and {Y} is lack of flexibility. Affordance widths depend on what it is that you're planning - how organized and flexible it needs to be.

Self-improvement (or any kind of effort to improve something), where {X} is inefficiency and {Y} is premature optimization. Affordance widths depend on how beneficial your default behavior is, and how much effort it takes to change.

There was some context to this in this meta thread about using personal examples of social stuff on frontpage posts, which I've just added some additional thoughts to. tldr: I think fictionalized examples are basically fine.

Fictionalized examples, of course, give a convenient amount of wiggle room as to who's on which side of the example in the non-fictionalized real world.

If your goal is to make it clear who is on the side of a given thing, that's fine, just not for frontpage. The point of frontpage is to be relevant regardless of how embedded in the rationality community you are.

Note: non-frontpage posts that deal with tribal/social stuff tend to get more traction than frontpage posts, so this doesn't strike as particularly censorous.

The term "affordance width" makes sense, but perhaps there's no need to coin a new term when "tolerance" exists already.

I think I disagree; "tolerance", to me, seems to point more towards the special case where {B} is some external events and {X} and {Y} are internal reactions. To talk about social affordances, as the OP does, you'd have to talk about the tolerances of others for {B} done by different people [A-E] -- and you've made less obvious the fact that the tolerance of [Q] for {B} done by [A] is different than the tolerance of [Q] for {B} done by [E] -- the entire content of the post.

I would like to see a post on this concept included in the best of 2018, but I also agree that there are reputational risks given the author. I'd like to suggest possible compromise - perhaps we could include the concept, but write our own explanation of the concept instead of including this article?

I think someone else writing their own version of this post, or own explanation of the underlying mechanistic models of privilege, would be fine; I do think it would nevertheless be important to have an acknowledgement of the source. It's one thing to have your own spin on something, or be bringing an idea to a new community, and another to simply take credit for a thing made by another.

[+][comment deleted]1y 2