Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Optimism, pessism: What is the synthesis?

January 8, 2012







Both Anthony Robbins and Alain de Botton explore how we can maintain emotional stability. Robbins stresses the importance of a positive vision, of instrumental optimism. De Botton stresses the importance of managing expectations, of instrumental pessimism. Both arguments ring true. But this insight begs the question of when to use each.

What’s the synthesis?

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.

Defining ‘nerd’

December 21, 2010

A nerd is someone who is focused on developing an explicit understanding of some content, rather than an intuitive feel for social dynamics. Because of the focus on content, a nerd will tend to miss the undercurrents of emotion and power in social interactions. A nerd can appear lost or out of touch, as a result of lacking a feel for what the interaction means to the power tectonics of the relationship with the other party.

Nerds are easily led. They tend to answer questions with naive accuracy.

The female sexual response is her emotional state multiplied by his perceived power. A male nerd is the prototypical anti-seducer because he doesn’t either create an emotional state or project power.

A woman of any sexual vibrancy will instinctually test for his tendency to be led within seconds of the the initial contact. If a tendency to be led is confirmed, she will be lastingly sexually turned off by the man. She might instantly turn cold, or she might remain warm, but in a merely friendly and asexual manner.

Whereas nerdiness is unsexy in males, it can be cute in females. Nerdiness emasculates, and so a man loses sexual appeal, whereas a woman might appear more feminine when her instinctual power play is tempered.

A male nerd can be sexy in a social environment like academia, which rewards his insights with status. A male nerd can also be sexy in conversation through direct intellectual domination of a female nerd who shares a deep interest in the same topics. This requires a subtle balance, as she needs to be intellectually inferior, but intelligent enough to feel her own inferiority. (If she is intellectually superior to him, she will be sexually turned off.)

Defining ‘nerd’ is a very nerdy thing to do. Although such a definition (and this entire blog) is about social dynamics (the nerd’s weak point, and arguably an unnerdy topic), it’s aimed at developing and explicit understanding, rather than an intuitive feel for it (thus nerdy).

Nerdiness becomes a problem, when you can’t switch it off. If you can be a nerd, but you can also play the game of social interaction with a bit of a streetwise feel for the underlying power dynamics, then you’ll be alright.

You and your role

December 12, 2010

It’s a fallacy that if you’re playing a role then it’s not you.

You are playing a role in every social interaction. Typically, it’s a role dictated by real or perceived expectations of others. Ideally, it’s a role scripted by you to serve your needs.

The question is not: Is it me or is it a role?

The question is: Does the role I am playing give me the power to express myself?

Clothes make men. And so do roles. You should confuse yourself with your role no more than you should confuse yourself with your clothes.

What role do you want to play?


Ass pinching = shit testing

September 21, 2010

Men like to pinch the asses of attractive female strangers. It’s natural. It feels good.

I’ve discussed in detail that female shit testing is really rubbing up against your manhood. Ass pinching, then, is the male equivalent of light variants of female shit testing. As such, it should be considered equally acceptable.

Both practices serve the same twin purposes: Testing before investing, and then also: just enjoying the other’s sexual quality. When we are slightly attracted to a stranger, these testing behaviors are hard to resist. Whatever the result of the test, it’s win-win for the testing party:

  • If he or she fails the test, then we’ve enjoyed whatever little desirable female or male quality the other party had to offer, and more importantly, we now know that we need not pursue.
  • If he or she passes the test, then we have escalated the interaction and know that we are going to take things to the next stage.

(A related argument is here.)

Like shit testing, ass pinching is a compliment. It means: I’m considering you.

Both ass pinching and shit testing are objectifying and, thus, slightly demeaning. That’s ok as long as it’s playful.

In the interest of gender equality, if shit testing is allowed then so must be ass pinching.

Perhaps ass pinching should be more acceptable than shit testing: After all ass pinching is healthy for women (a micro-massage), whereas shit testing stresses most men and reduces their life expectancy by a couple of years.

Ass pinching should be the average male’s goto response to a shit test. View the shit test as permission to pinch her ass. The only problem: You might not know that what she just said or did was a shit test. But then pinching without permission is sexier anyway.

Loving asshole

September 5, 2010

When a woman calls you an “asshole”, there is always an undertone of desire. And when a woman calls you “loving”, it often means that she is less sexually attracted to you and, thus, less in love with you. It’s fucked up, but that’s how it is.

We tend to think of lovingness and assholery as polar opposites.

This one-dimensional conception is useful as a rough first approximation. A man’s place on this continuum allows us to predict with surprising statistical accuracy the collective female sexual response he elicits. I suspect that the amount of behavioral variance this naive theory predicts is greater than for most textbook psychological theories.

However, lovingness and assholery are not actually opposite poles, but independent dimensions. And a man’s lovingness is by no means necessarily sexually repulsive to women.

The main problem with lovingness is that it tends to reduce dominance and to place excessive power in her hands. It is really these consequences that are deeply unsexy, not lovingness per se. If you can be loving without being a pushover, active sexual repulsion will be prevented. If you can be loving in a dominant way and on your own terms, it is actually attractive.

The ideal seducer is the loving asshole; he is simultaneously very loving and very asshole.

Mere mortal men struggle to combine these qualities. They simply cannot fathom how to amp up the assholery without losing their lovingness or vice versa. We will need to explore in depth how to achieve this later on. For inspiration, consider loving acts performed unexpectedly or against her will, combined with a gruff refusal to follow her explicit wishes. In conversation, an attitude of loving condescension is quite magical in its effect on women.

There is a class of shittest, in which the woman presents you with an apparently binary choice between loving and asshole. Choose loving, and you will have cut the sexual tension like a taut rubberband. You will feel it in her very next response. The goto solution is to choose asshole. She will be mad, but – though she will try to pretend otherwise – the game is on.

It takes genius to parry such shittests as a true loving asshole. It must not be just a playful response: A joke would be too weak. And it must be a single act of loving assholery, not one act of each: An asshole act followed by a loving act, or vice versa, is even worse than just a loving act. Not only will the sexual tension be out the window, but her respect for you as well.

The assholery must be a fart in her face, truly offensive, with the lovingness felt in its wake, as she comes to her senses and appreciates what has just happened.

Nobody said it was easy.

As a working hypothesis, I propose that how much you get laid follows this function of your lovingness and your assholery.

If lovingness is not inherently unsexy, we can ask whether assholery is inherently sexy. It might be just the consequences or concomitants of assholery – such as dominance, excitement, and sexual escalation – that cause the female sexual response. However, I like the concept of assholery, because it captures, without extenuation, the tendency to recklessly impose one’s will. This tendency springs from a combination of a strong will and a callous disregard for the other’s preferences. There is something uniquely delicious about this to the sexual beast inside her.

I’m a thug, I’m a lover, I’m a dog, I’m a father…

August 27, 2010

Meredith Brooks sings:

I’m a bitch, I’m a lover
I’m a child, I’m a mother
I’m a sinner, I’m a saint
I do not feel ashamed
I’m your health, I’m your dream
I’m nothing in between
You know you wouldn’t want it any other way

Imagine a male version, a smoky, ultra-masculine voice singing:

I’m a thug, I’m a lover,
I’m a dog, I’m a father
I’m a sinner, I’m a saint
I do not feel ashamed
I’m your h/wealth, I’m your dream
I’m nothing in between
You know you wouldn’t want it any other way

The interesting thing is: this gender inversion renders the final line “You wouldn’t want it any other way” true.

This is because the original lyrics are in fact a confused inversion of the reality of gender dynamics.

While women love assholes, men do not love bitches.

Women love assholes because they project power, which is what women are primarily attracted to. Men do not love bitches, because being a bitch does not enhance beauty, which is what men are primarily attracted to.

Being highly desired, can cause arrogance in either gender, turning a woman into a bitch and a man into an asshole. However, the reverse causality only works on women. So for a man acting the asshole increases his sex appeal. But for a woman acting the bitch doesn’t increase her sex appeal.

The misguided inversion of genders sometimes leads females to try seduction tactics on men that are bound to fail. For example, I’ve had women neg me to seduce, saying things like: “I don’t like you.” and “You don’t have any sense of rhythm.”

Now, of course, it could be that she just really didn’t like me or I don’t have any rhythm. However, in these situations it was obvious from context that she was just trying to get my attention.

This phenomenon is fascinating. The technique is unlikely to have ever worked for her on a man. That she is using it reveals her thought process: she knows it would work on her, and she assumes that men are the same.

There’s even a book selling this misguided idea to unsuspecting women…

Embrace the situation

August 25, 2010

Embrace the situation in its full complexity. Feel: the ambiguity intrigues me. When you see an interesting woman, embrace everything within you that attracts you to her and everything that deters you and at the same time perceive the social scene as a whole. If you then gravitate toward her, fully conscious and open to the complexity within and without you, you will be humble, free, and confident. The hubris of pretending that the dynamics can be predicted or controlled will fade from your mind. Let go of that control. Let prediction wither as perception blooms. Entrust yourself to the dynamics and let your boundary become permeable, to the inflow (prediction withering as perception blooms) and to the outflow of information (conscious control withering as spontaneous expression blooms). Breaking these barriers will put a twinkle in your eye. She will not be able to resist you.

Honest grandmother

August 24, 2010

“Women are an unpredictable race. They always want the unattainable. You need to proceed strategically: remain unattainable. No one can take that right from you.”

– My grandmother’s words (I remember the exact phrasing because I wrote it down immediately after the conversation)

Sex to her: like dancing to me

August 21, 2010

I love dancing – with women – as part of the game. It’s a metaphor for sex.

But when she is mine sexually, my motivation to dance with her and my enjoyment of it diminishes.

Is dancing just a means to the end of seduction for me then?

No. I genuinely enjoy it for the experience itself – but it is irresistible to me only in the context of seduction.

Sex to a woman is like dancing to me. She loves sex. But when a man is thoroughly hers, her enjoyment of sex with him diminishes somewhat. Is sex just a means to the end of conquering a man to her then? No. She genuinely loves it – but it is irresistible to her only in the context of seducing a man to fall in love with her.