Archive for April, 2011

The concept of “social reality”

April 28, 2011

Reality is a complex concept. We think of the world as fundamentally physical and distinguish between the objective physical reality and our perceptions of that reality, our subjective realities. To understand social dynamics, we need another concept of reality: the concept of “social reality”.

In a room full of people, everyone has his or her subjective reality with respect to the social system: the set of social perceptions and judgments he or she holds. The social reality of a group of people is the set of social judgments that the members of the group agree upon. In other words, it is the intersection of the group members’ subjective realities with respect to the social system.

If you look at a girl and she keeps eye contact, this means she is interested in you at some level – and you in her. But this is not the crucial point for further interactions. The crucial point is that you know she is interested and she knows you know (and vice versa). Social reality is a powerful shorthand for describing this mutual consciousness of mutual agreement about a social situation.

The eye contact makes the mutual interest a social reality between you and her (and anyone who sees and understands it). This social reality is what makes it easy to walk up and talk to her.

But perhaps you hesitate before walking up to her after the eye contact. This would show that you don’t believe in the mutual interest indicated by the eye contact. If it is not your subjective reality that there is mutual interest, then it is not social reality. During the eye contact, mutual interest was social reality between you and her. But your hesitation undoes that social reality of mutual interest. If you approach after hesitating, therefore, she will be unresponsive.

Note that this explanation of her unresponsiveness is subtly different from the more conventional notion that your hesitation indicates lack of confidence and thus makes you unattractive. Both explanations have merit. They could be taken to explain different phenomena. But perhaps they explain the same fundamental phenomenon from two different perspectives.

Let’s take a closer look at this. We can intepret the hesitation from two apparently opposite perspectives. We can say, your hesitation shows that you don’t understand the meaning of the eye contact. From this perspective, the eye contact had an objective meaning, but you suffer from a lack of social perceptiveness. Alternatively, we can say that your hesitation shows a lack of proactivity in defining a social reality that is constantly in flux. From this perspective, the eye contact was ambiguous, but opened a window of opportunity for defining social reality, of which you failed to take advantage.

Both of these perspectives parse the social dynamics into discrete events and emphasize opposite influences. In reality, social dynamics is time-continuous and the two perspectives describe a singular phenomenon. Perception and action merge in the singularity of the social moment.

Just as the meaning of interactions in social reality depends on the swift and fluid formation of implicit mutual agreement, so does a person’s social value, i.e. his or her value in social reality. A person that does not project high social value, cannot have high social value, simply because for the high value to be social reality requires agreement of all parties including the person in question.

Recall that social reality is defined as a function of a group of people. In a room full of people, we can say, there are as many social realities as there are (sub)sets of people. Ironically, a person projecting low social value can have high social value among all sets that exclude him or her, but not among any set that includes him.

Stop trading state and status

April 24, 2011

Someone told me, a good game of billiards consists in a series of easy moves.
This is an important insight, I think.

It means that in choosing each move, you should consider not only the immediate gains, but also the resulting state of the game. A good move is good at all time-scales: it may bring an immediate gain, but it also ensures that the resulting situation allows for further gains. We must resist the temptation of immediate gains that are smaller than the associated long-term costs.

The longer time-scale is harder to predict directly, but there are certain rules of style, or principles of action, that tend to prevent compromising the state of the game.

This insight is relevant beyond the game of billiards. For example, good interpersonal style ensures that we don’t compromise trust and long-term cooperation for short-term gain. Similarly, good programming style ensures that we will never run into confusion about our own code.

These are perhaps widely appreciated truths. But how does all of this relate to “state” and “status”?

By “state” I mean our psychological state, which has a cognitive and an emotional component. In choosing each move within our minds and in the world, we must ensure that we do not steer ourselves into confusion (cognitive cost) or into a negative, demotivated state (emotional cost).

One style of operation is to ignore the cognitive and emotional consequences of our thoughts and actions. If our priority is to understand the world or to get some task done, considering emotion can seem a hindrance. If we are to avoid the negative, we might ask, how can we see the world clearly or get the task done? Won’t we bias our perception of the world? Won’t we paint a rosy picture that will ultimately deceive us?

Yes, if we compulsively avoid negative thoughts and perceptions, we limit our ability to appreciate the world for what it is. This is known as “avoidance behavior” and its internal equivalent is “repression”. Avoidance and repression are central to the models of psychological disorder of behavioral therapy and psychoanalysis, respectively.

If we compulsively avoid something whose consideration promises insight or growth, we might have a problem. However, there is no objective rule that tells us just how much attention a negative thought deserves. What is the right balance between positive and negative?

If we choose to spend a sunny day in the garden, are we avoiding our dark, dusty basement? Are we repressing what’s in the basement? Of course not. As long as we know what’s down there, why dwell on it unproductively. We can prove that we are not avoiding the negative, by spending the sunny day breathing the dust in the basement. But this is not healthy behavior.

Avoidance and repression refer to unhealthy tendencies of turning away from the negative. However, we also harbor potentially unhealthy tendencies to turn toward the negative. This is known as “negativity bias” in the psychological literature.

Negativity bias refers to the fact that we tend to prioritize consideration of risks and losses over consideration of opportunities and wins. If an option is associated with both 50% risk of losing $10 and a 50% chance of winning $10, human subjects tend to decline the option. Similarly, perceived or imagined dangers command our attention more strongly than opportunities. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Dangers require attention. If all is well, we can relax instead.

In the present-day western world, however, physical threats are much reduced. The cost of trading the quality of our state in order to consider a potential threat or get a task done might often not be justified. The cost of constant fretting might be higher than the cost of missing a threat. Or, conversely, the benefit of fretting might be smaller than the benefit of seeing opportunity everywhere, inspiring others with our ideas, and infecting them with our positive and expansive emotional state.

Slipping into a negative state is the psychological equivalent of bad posture. Bad posture can result from overreaching: We might want to reach further than is healthy without first adjusting our posture. As a result, we act clumsily.

How do these considerations relate to status? By “status”, for now, I mean our momentary social status in any given interaction. Status can be considered at different time-scales and in different societal contexts. Here I am interested in the micro-scale of moment-to-moment social interaction, where each participant’s status is constantly in flux.

Every interaction can be seen from the perspective of what it says about status. In his excellent book “Impro” on improvisational theater, Keith Johnstone argues that scenes appear natural and interesting to audiences to the extent that they express status relationships and status struggles.

We may not like the status perspective. Wouldn’t it be nicer if we could just agree to be equals? Certainly. This widely held view is sweet and seductive. And we can strive for equality in our interactions. However, ignoring status doesn’t make it less of a reality.

Status is an aspect of any interaction and to the extent that we ignore or blind ourselves to it, we are socially impaired. No matter how much we try to ignore status, we feel it distinctly when our status rises or falls and this affects our unconscious responses. We might offend people by disrespecting the status they claim. Conversely, we might slip into an unconscious habit of lowering our own status, as this elevates the other party and makes us instantly unthreatening, and perhaps likable – for the cheap validation we provide. This is trading of status for a short-term gain.

When we trade status, we withdraw a little from the scene of improvisation, from the social scene. Perhaps we consider status worthless and thus fool ourselves that there is no cost to giving it up. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the competitive aspect of social exchange, and feel that we need to soften the interaction.

Realizing the ideal of equality requires constant adjustment of relative status from both sides. Lowering our own status might be appropriate when the other party currently lacks status, and we wish to create a sense of equality. Lowering our own status can also be a playful way to highlight a larger social reality of our solid high status. This is the charm of self-deprecating humor from a powerful person. It can be the small weakness that highlights the overall picture of strength. It can make a star approachable and further heighten his glamour.

In any other situation, lowering our own status is inappropriate. When we make ourselves unthreatening, we might expect the other party to reciprocate to maintain equality. However, the other might not play that particular game and prefer to accept the superior position we have assigned them.

Thanking someone slightly lowers your status. Apologizing lowers it more substantially. We should thank when appropriate and apologize when it is really necessary. Thanking is appropriate when the other party has given us something good that we cannot just take without excessively lowering their status. Apologizing is appropriate when we seriously intend to keep the implicit promise to not repeat the behavior in question.

The key thing is to realize that these behaviors lower our status and that this has real consequences. If our status is fragile, these behaviors make it easier for the other party to dominate us.

Trading state and status are the psychological and social equivalents, respectively, of assuming a bad posture. And bad posture can be the physiological expression of these behaviors.