Beware Social Coping Strategies

by Lulie7 min read5th Feb 201824 comments


EmotionsSocial & Cultural DynamicsSubagents


The world is a huge, complex, scary place.

Winter used to freeze us dead, and today lives are still destroyed by natural disasters like tsunami and forest fires. Plagues used to destroy our communities, and people still die from disease every day. We want more power over our surroundings — more intelligent computers, better space rockets — but construction is difficult and often dangerous. As a child, navigating the world directly is also terrifying: sharp objects, distressingly loud sounds, heights, electric shocks, etc. It takes an incredible amount of thought to merely understand and predict the world, let alone to avoid being hurt by it.

The social world is even worse.

Every person is a world in themselves. Every person has their own model of the world, plus their own thoughts and dreams and desires and morality. These may not always be consistent with your own, and that can cause conflicts. Their preferences are not always consistent with the preferences of other people, and conflicts between them can affect you. Individuals can also have conflicts inside themselves, making them unpredictable and confusing.

And it's not just individuals you have to navigate. When people get together, they form groups and institutions. You are born, and find it's not just sharp objects you have to watch out for, but violating codes that were made up by people you've never met. You find yourself in complicated systems with their own logic and rules: government, school, a family structure, religious or political groups. These systems are additional worlds to learn — and they share the frustrating property of individuals that they are not entirely consistent.

Navigating all these worlds, and learning how to follow or evade their rules without getting hurt, is tough.

Being Thwarted

As if that weren't bad enough, the social world has a special property that the natural world doesn't have: adaptive problems. That is, problems which adapt when you try to solve them[1].

In the natural and abstract world, problems are broadly static. If you move a rock out of your way, it stays there. When you realise 1+1=2, it doesn't change its mind and become 3. But if you try to solve a problem in the social world, people are constantly changing the problem landscape. They can intentionally thwart you — using their own creativity to adapt the problem and make it harder for you to solve.

It's like you solve the problem of stubbing your toe on rocks by looking ahead more, and then they notice this and jump out to meet your foot. (So then you make sure to avoid rocky paths... only to find the rocks have formed a committee to ban walking around flat ground.)

How might this look (in lieu of bureaucratic rocks)?

Your parent puts cookies on the top shelf. You solve this using your genius understanding of the natural world: objects can be moved and climbed on — so you push a chair and triumphantly retrieve your cookie. But your parents are like magic cookie-quest homing missiles, which somehow know when you're about to succeed in your quest and then put endless barriers in your way: put them higher, take away your broom, lock them in a cabinet, eat them first.

Then you discover that you can get the cookies if you solve the problem in a different way: doing things that please the parents! Pleasing parents is a difficult problem. They seem to respond well to being adorable — but also to being impressive? Hmm, these seem to push in different directions. They act impressed when you solve this block puzzle, but they smile when you give them a cuddle when they're making that frowny-face. But sometimes they don't smile and instead tell you to go away. Confusing. Okay, so either try ignoring them (maybe they will leave you alone if you don't respond?), or try to understand this parent-moods thing...

Two Coping Strategies

When we go through life, we develop coping strategies for dealing with the reality of all these worlds that are other human beings.

Two common coping strategies for dealing with the social world are:

  1. Be hyper-attentive / track it. Put effort (consciously or not) into understanding and reading people — how they think, how they respond, what they want.
  2. Avoid it. Block out the social world, and focus on the analytic world instead.

Both of these coping strategies come from an over-sensitivity to the presence of other people's wishes — an inability to hold one's own wants and other people's in mind at the same time (without feeling conflict/pressure).

Both of these coping strategies come with large costs. But in return, they act to make the world a little more predictable. If you can't get something nice, you can at least get something predictable. When the choice is between 'fairly bad and unpredictable' and 'even worse, but at least predictable', there is incentive to choose the latter: in those situations, one can make progress (you can build your life around a sucky-but-predictable world); but in an unpredictable world, progress is difficult — being thwarted takes a constant stream of creativity to overcome.

These aren't the only two strategies. Some people, for instance, find ways of being focused on the analytic world while also feeling at ease socially. By coping strategy, I mean to indicate it's not a full solution — it's a bandage, a way of managing. (I discuss solutions in the last section.) It's also common to use a mix of strategies, or use different strategies in different situations. People may not fall strictly into one category or another.

1. Hyper-Attentive Tracking

People who adopt the first strategy cope by being hyper-aware of and sensitive to the people around them. They are preoccupied by the wants of others; and one way this plays out is that they try to keep everyone happy, even at the expense of their own wants.

This coping strategy tends to cause problems with anxiety (tracking people is hard — so much info! — and people, even individuals, often want contradictory things, and it feels bad when there is conflict). Other common problems with this coping strategy include: discomfort when alone; lack of strong sense of self (own needs taking less priority than the needs of others); lacking interests that can be done without people; difficulty regulating emotions, and highly influenced by the emotions of other people.

It can feel like being at the mercy of others' wishes. Counter-intuitively, the way this coping strategy works is by controlling them: understand someone's wishes enough to be what they want, so that they do what you want them to do (such as accept you, or stop being in conflict with you).

If you're hurt by someone, you naturally try to control them: make them stop hurting you. Or if not make them stop, at least make it predictable. For example, some forms of defiant naughtiness in schools involve deliberately provoking a teacher in order to get punishment. When punishment is predictable, you can just do what you always do, instead of having to creatively come up with new ways to fend off threats all the time.

Coping strategies often start in adverse circumstances, like the above, but then continue to be used even in neutral or friendly circumstances. People find themselves being manipulative or inauthentic and don't know why. It then takes effort and practice to re-learn authentic ways of interacting.

2. Avoiding

People who adopt the second strategy cope by chronically averting their attention from the wants of other people. Their coping strategy is to limit the amount of information coming in.

For instance, some people close or avert their eyes from their conversation partner when speaking. In most conversations, there is a lot of information being exchanged even from the silent party: whether they're following along, whether they want to interrupt, how they're feeling about what you're saying, etc. If you have trouble with knowing how to incorporate this information while not losing your own thoughts, the simplest solution is to limit it.

They may also try to limit the amount of information going out, too. Monotone speech, neutral expression, static body language — don't move a muscle, or else people will be able to read your mind! (Not realising that you ain't fooling no one — people can read your mind anyway.)

This strategy cripples connections with other people, which require a lot of back-and-forth of information. People who cope this way usually know they can have trouble in groups and with making friends — or at very least they find social situations and people stressful to deal with.

Inner World

Someone with the avoidant coping strategy might be content with a small, chosen group of friends. They're happy to only make connections with certain kinds of people, and generally focus on their own pursuits over playing 'social games'.

If this were the only problem with this limiting-information coping mechanism, it wouldn't be a big deal — you'd just have a less-social lifestyle. Yeah, you might get lonely sometimes, or not get high in certain career ladders, but it's not a bad life.

But it's worse than that. The problem is bigger:

The different sides of you also have that information leak.

We have lots of different parts of ourselves. Whenever we're feeling conflicted, that can be thought of as two sides having a disagreement. [2]

Internal disagreements come up a lot between the conscious or explicit part of our mind vs the subconscious or inexplicit part of our mind. Thoughts vs feelings. System 2 vs System 1.

In reality, these shouldn't be warring sides. A well-adjusted person takes seriously all sides of their mind, and doesn't privilege one side or the other. If there's a disagreement, simply declaring one side is right is an epistemologically authoritarian move: you can't know which side is right before resolving the conflict between them.

The coping strategies that sabotage the information flow from other people also sabotage the information flow inside a single mind.

This is why 'social' and 'feelings' are often lumped together (contrasted with 'intellectual'). Social interaction uses the same mental logic as navigating disagreeing thoughts and feelings inside one mind.

Why do some people struggle with motivation to work on their goals? Because they're in a highly conflicted state. Many people get so good at severing the connection between their emotions and thoughts that they can't even tell what what they want or what they're conflicted about. It's just this vague sense of deadness.

Sabotaging this information flow can feel like internal discomfort, or suppression, or feeling stuck, or stress, or boredom, or lacking in motivation or focus. Taking feelings and forbidden thoughts seriously can feel terrifying, so we shut them down.

Your relationship with other people is a macrocosm of your relationship with yourself. [3]

You're just even better at shutting off that information when it's internal.

Secure Solution

It's possible to get through life without resorting to either of these coping strategies. Someone can be a happy hermit — not blocking people out, but not focusing on them either. Or someone could be quite social, but not feel anguish or pressure when people want things from them, and instead take the "different strokes for different folks" attitude: we can agree to disagree, you're okay, I'm okay, it's all okay.

When you're a child, you really are totally reliant on adults to provide for your needs. You may not have the option to 'agree to disagree'. You may experience school as being forced in a room with other people you have to interact with, by threat of punishment. If you're unlucky, you won't find a nice way of navigating this, and you'll form a coping strategy to make it bearable.

But when you're an adult, you are independent. You have choice to decline interactions you find unpleasant. You don't need everyone you know to like you to have a functioning life. There are still people and institutions to navigate, but they aren't out to get you. They won't thwart your cookie quests. You are free.

[1] CFAR uses the phrase 'adaptive problems' to mean a slightly different but related concept:

"A problem whose solution contains steps or methods that are unknown or uncertain, often requiring experimentation, novel strategies, or entirely new ways of thinking."

Here, I'm emphasising problems that adapt to become harder when you try to solve them. Problems that adapt responsively.

[2] CFAR uses this concept for their Internal Double Crux method of resolving internal conflict.

[3] Here, I've been talking about how the avoidant coping strategy has consequences for how you deal with different parts of your own mind.

But the logic of the attentive coping strategy could also have consequences: Under this coping strategy, if you have internal conflicts, you may be inclined to control the different parts of your own mind. This may manifest as hyper-vigilance over your own thoughts.

I think this kind of controlling attentiveness may manifest in other ways, but I haven't come up with many examples yet. If anyone has any thoughts about this, leave them in the comments!