Imagine you’re on the fringe of a circle of people talking. They’re having a heated conversation about a topic that matters very deeply to you, and you want to contribute. How and when do you jump in?

As a chronic interrupter, I’ve thought long and hard about how to make this decision in a way that doesn’t make me seem like a jerk for cutting someone off accidentally or ruining someone’s flow. Then, I began to wonder about my thought process in those split-moments. What factors turn the switch in my head from “shut up” to “now’s your chance!”?

It turns out that, for me at least, that decision largely hinges on a Expected Social Value.

In math, expected value is understood as the average outcome of a variable, calculated by taking a weighted average of possible outcomes and their corresponding probabilities.

So, how does this apply to social moves? Take the earlier example of cutting into a conversation. Let’s say I interrupt. Consider two possible outcomes: X (group members think I’m rude as hell) and Y (group members appreciate my insight). I’d associate a certain probability with X and with Y, and obviously, Y would be of higher value than X. All of these metrics are of course, variable on the people involved, topics being discussed, my confidence level, etc.

The closer Expected Social Value came to higher value outcomes, the more likely it’d be that I’d take the shot. In doing so, I’d try very hard to estimate the reaction of people around me and act in ways that theoretically would yield high value results.

Can you think of any situations where you use Expected Social Value to navigate a course of action? I’ve noticed it being used in various ways: pretending to have a shared interest to cultivate common ground or purposeful ignoring someone in a play-hard-to-get way to invite more attention.

Here’s a few of the flaws I’ve identified with this model:

1) Our estimated probabilities of a person doing X after we do Y can be wildly off. The less you know someone, the less likely you are to be able to guess what they are going to do. Of course, there are certain general human reactions that are predictable. Most people would be shocked if you dangled a spider in front of their face. Most people would be angry if you told them you slept with their wife (unless.. nvm). But quite a lot of the time, it is hard to assign probabilities correctly, or to even identify outcomes correctly.

2) We inadvertently assign higher probabilities to outcomes we desire. If I’m someone who relies heavily on staying within my comfort zone, I may tell myself that the probability that my friend would want to go on an impromptu vacation is too low to even ask. Regardless of whether this is true, my mind is already biased towards the more safe option (staying home), so it tricks itself. This is somewhat related to imposter syndrome.

3) The equation doesn’t always take into account your feelings or long term consequences. Notice how, in my calculation of when to jump in, my own emotions were very much disregarded. This is an issue in more critical situations. Thinking of snitching on someone who you dislike? Expected Social Value points towards that being a decent option, as it negatively impacts them and possibly boosts your ethos. However, you might experience a guilt afterwards that Expected Social Value didn’t take into account.

So how do we know what to do, then?!?

I don’t think the answer is as simple as “your actions should be independent on what people think of you!” because realistically, interactions are a two way street.

It may be helpful to center the events in your equation around what happens to you rather than what other people do. Take the cutting into conversation example from earlier. If I were to orient the events around myself, they may look something like event X being that in which I feel bad for interrupting and event Y being that in which I feel good about contributing. Feelings are transient, making this difficult. However, the level of awareness that this takes is astonishing, and in my opinion, it is a helpful practice to remind yourself that you are also a player in any situation. You have agency. Use it!

Expected Social Value is a flawed equation by which to analyze social moves, but given the complexities of human interaction, I don’t have a better replacement. However, being conscious of the fact that this is part of my thinking is immensely helpful in understanding my actions, and I hope that this piece helps you in this way as well.

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I think this is how I do make decisions in social contexts where I'm not running on instinct. I'm less convinced that expected social value is its own category. Seems more like applying regular expected value to a problem that happens to be social

Also, nitpick:

  1. Our estimated probabilities of a person doing X after we do Y can be wildly off.

It doesn't make too much sense to say that you assign the wrong probabilities. (What are the right probabilities?) It's more that your probability distribution has a lot of uncertainty.[1]

And (2) is also not really specific to social contexts.


  1. "entropy" would be the corresponding mathematical property ↩︎

Yep I don't think it's a category in and of itself, but I have noticed that when it comes to decisions taken in non social settings, where others aren't involved, most of the outcomes I think about are more me-centered than trying to predict what someone else will think or do - and imo, it's a lot easier to predict me-centered things!

I see your point with "wrong" probabilities, and I agree that it's more about uncertainty. Thanks for your thoughts :-)