Let them eat cake: Interpersonal Problems vs Tasks

by HughRistik 4 min read7th Oct 2009575 comments


When I read Alicorn's post on problems vs tasks, I immediately realized that the proposed terminology helped express one of my pet peeves: the resistance in society to applying rationality to socializing and dating.

In a thread long, long ago, SilasBarta described his experience with dating advice:

I notice all advice on finding a girlfriend glosses over the actual nuts-and-bolts of it.

In Alicorn's terms, he would be saying that the advice he has encountered treats problems as if they were tasks. Alicorn defines these terms a particular way:

It is a critical faculty to distinguish tasks from problems.  A task is something you do because you predict it will get you from one state of affairs to another state of affairs that you prefer.  A problem is an unacceptable/displeasing state of affairs, now or in the likely future.  So a task is something you do, or can do, while a problem is something that is, or may be.

Yet as she observes in her post, treating genuine problems as if they were defined tasks is a mistake:

Because treating problems like tasks will slow you down in solving them.  You can't just become immortal any more than you can just make a peanut butter sandwich without any bread.

Similarly, many straight guys or queer women can't just find a girlfriend, and many straight women or queer men can't just find a boyfriend,  any more than they can "just become immortal."

People having trouble in those areas may ask for advice, perhaps out of a latent effort to turn the problem into more of a task. Yet a lot of conventional advice doesn't really turn the problem into the task (at least, not for everyone), but rather poses new problems, due to difficulties that Alicorn mentioned, such as lack of resources, lack of propositional knowledge, or lack of procedural knowledge.

Take, for example, "just be yourself," or "just meet potential partners through friends." For many people, these pieces of advice just open up new problems: being oneself is a problem of personal identity. It's not a task that you can execute as part of a step in solving the problem of dating. Having a social network, let alone one that will introduce you to potential partners, is also a problem for many people. Consequently, these pieces of advice sound like "let them eat cake."

Society in general resists the notion that socializing (dating and mating in particular) is a problem. Rather, society treats it as a solved task, yet the procedures it advocates are incomplete, dependent on unacknowledged contextual factors, big hairy problems of their own, or just plain wrong. (Or it gives advice that consists of true observations that are useless for taskification, like "everyone is looking for something different" in a mate. Imagine telling a budding chef: "everyone has different tastes" in food. It's true, but it isn't actually useful in taskifying a problem like "how do I cook a meal?")

Even worse, society resists better attempts to taskify social interaction (especially dating and mating). People who attempt to taskify socializing and dating are often seen as inauthentic, manipulative, inhuman, mechanical, objectifying of others, or going to unnecessary lengths.

While some particular attempts of taskifying those problems may indeed suffer from those flaws, some people seem like they object to any form of taskifying in those areas. There may be good reasons to be skeptical of the taskifiability of socializing and mating. Yet while socializing and dating may not be completely taskifiable due to the improvisational and heavily context-dependent nature of those problems, they are actually taskifiable to a reasonably large degree.

Many people seem to hold an idealistic view of socializing and dating, particularly dating, that places them on another plane of reality where things are just supposed to happen "magically" and "naturally," free of planning or any other sort of deliberation. Ironically, this Romantic view can actually be counterproductive to romance. Taskifaction doesn't destroy romance any more than it destroys music or dance. Personally, I think musicians who can actually play their instruments are capable of creating more "magical" music than musicians who can't. The Romantic view only applies to those who are naturally adept; in other words, those for who mating is not a problem. For those who do experience romance as a problem, the Romantic view is garbage [Edit: while turning this into a top-level post, I've realized that I need more clarification of what I am calling the "Romantic" view].

The main problem with this Romantic view is that is that it conflates a requirement for a solution with the requirements for the task-process that leads to the solution. Just because many people want mating and dating to feel magical and spontaneous, it doesn't mean that every step in finding and attracting mates must be magical and spontaneous, lacking any sort of planning, causal thinking, or other elements of taskification. Any artist, whether in visual media, music, drama, or dance knows that the "magic" of their art is produced by mundane and usually heavily taskified processes. You can't "just" create a sublime work of art any more than you can "just" have a sublime romantic experience (well, some very talented and lucky people can, but it's a lot harder for everyone else). Actually, it is taskification itself which allows skill to flourish, creating a foundation for expression that can feel spontaneous and magical. It is the mundane that guides the magical, not the other way around.

Sucking at stuff is not sublime. It's not sublime in art, it's not sublime in music, and it's not sublime in dance. In dating, there is nothing wrong with a little innocence and awkwardness, but the lack of procedural and propositional knowledge can get to the point where it intrudes ruins the "magic." There is nothing "magical" about the experience of someone who is bumbling socially and romantically, and practically forcing other people to reject him or her, either for that person of for those around. Yet to preserve the perception of "magic" and "spontaneity" (an experience that is only accessible for those with natural attractiveness and popularity, or luck), society is actually denying that type of experience to those who experience dating as a problem. Of course, they might "get lucky" and eventually get together with someone who is a decent without totally screwing things up with that person... but why is society mandating that romance be a given for some people, but a matter of "getting lucky" for others?

The sooner society figures out the following, the better:

1. For many people, socializing and dating are problems, not yet tasks.

2. Socializing and dating can be taskified to the extend that other problems with similar solutions requirements (e.g. improvisation, fast response to emotional impulses of oneself and others, high attention to context, connection to one's own instincts) can be taskified. Which is a lot of the way, but definitely not all the way.

3. Taskification when applied to interpersonal behavior is not inherently immoral or dehumanizing to anyone, nor does it inherently steal the "magic" from romance any more than dance training steals the magic from dance.

Until then, we will continue to have a social caste system of those for whom socializing and dating is a task (e.g. due to intuitive social skills), over those for whom those things are still problems (due to society's accepted taskifications not working for them, and being prevented from making better taskifications due to societal pressure and censure).