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.

There’s plenty of other values for {B}, {X} and {Y} that I could have picked; filling them in is left as an exercise for the reader.

Does this make sense to people?

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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.

People are always claiming this, but the only "experiment" that I know of attempting to test this found the opposite result.

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.

I'd really like to see that done with MULTIPLE men and women

So would I, at least this is more than anything I've ever seen cited to support the claim.

unprimed audience.

Except the audience was predisposed to dislike Trump and like Hillary, i.e., the opposite of the ultimate result.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.