Analyzing Quotes Objectively and Socially

stucchio and Mason

stucchio retweeted Mason writing:

"Everything can be free if we fire the people who stop you from stealing stuff" is apparently considered an NPR-worthy political innovation now, rather than the kind of brain fart an undergrad might mumble as they come to from major dental work

There’s no substantial objective-world content here. Basically “I disagree with whatever is the actual thing behind my straw man characterization”. There’s no topical argument. It’s ~all social posturing. It’s making assertions about who is dumb and who should be associated with what group (and, by implication, with the social status of that group). NPR-worthy, brain fart, undergrad, mumble and being groggy from strong drugs are all social-meaning-charged things to bring up. The overall point is to attack the social status of NPR by associating it with low status stuff. Generally smart people like stuchhio (who remains on the small list of people whose tweets I read – I actually have a pretty high opinion of of him) approve of that tribalist social-political messaging enough to retweet it.


Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote on Less Wrong (no link because, contrary to what he says, someone did make the page inaccessible. I have documentation though.):

Post removed from main and discussion on grounds that I've never seen anything voted down that far before. Page will still be accessible to those who know the address.

The context is my 2011 LW post “The Conjunction Fallacy Does Not Exist”.

In RAZ, Yudkowsky repeatedly brings up subculture affiliations he has. He read lots of sci fi. He read 1984. He read Feynman. He also refers to “traditional rationality” which Feynman is a leader of. (Yudkowsky presents several of his ideas as improvements on traditional rationality. I think some of them are good points.) Feynman gets particular emphasis. I think he got some of his fans via this sort of subculture membership signaling and by referencing stuff they like.

I bring this up because Feynman has a book title "What Do You Care What Other People Think?": Further Adventures of a Curious Character. This is the sequel to the better known "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character.

Yudkowsky evidently does care what people think and has provided no indication that he’s aware that he’s contradicting one of his heroes, Feynman. He certainly doesn’t provide counter arguments to Feynman.

Downvotes are communications about what people think. Downvotes indicate dislike. They are not arguments. They aren’t reasons it’s bad. They’re just opinions. They’re like conclusions or assertions. Yudkowsky openly presents himself as taking action because of what people think. It’s also basically just openly saying “I use power to suppress unpopular ideas”. Yudkowsky also gave no argument himself, nor did he endorse/cite/link any argument he agreed with about the topic.

Yudkowsky is actually reasonably insightful about social hierarchies elsewhere, btw. But this quote shows that, in some major way, he doesn’t understand rationality and social dynamics.

Replies to my “Chains, Bottlenecks and Optimization”


I think I've given away over 20 copies of _The Goal_ by Goldratt, and recommended it to coworkers hundreds of times.

Objective meaning: I took the specified actions.

Social meaning: I like Goldratt. I’m aligned with him and his tribe. I have known about him for a long time and might merit early adopter credit. Your post didn’t teach me anything. Also, I’m a leader who takes initiative to influence my more sheep-like coworkers. I’m also rich enough to give away 20+ books.

Thanks for the chance to recommend it again - it's much more approachable than _Theory of Constraints_, and is more entertaining, while still conveying enough about his worldview to let you decide if you want the further precision and examples in his other books.

Objective meaning: I recommend The Goal.

Social meaning: I’m an expert judge of which Goldratt books to recommend to people, in what order, for what reasons. Although I’m so clever that I find The Goal a bit shallow, I think it’s good for other people who need to be kept entertained and it has enough serious content for them to get an introduction from. Then they can consider if they are up to the challenge of becoming wise like me, via further study, or not.

This is actually ridiculous. The Goal is the best known Goldratt book, it’s his best seller, it’s meant to be read first, and this is well known. Dagon is pretending to be providing expert judgment, but isn’t providing insight. And The Goal has tons of depth and content, and Dagon is slandering the book by condescending to it in this way. By bringing up Theory of Constraints, Dagon is signaling he reads and values less popular, less entertaining, less approachable non-novel Goldratt books.

It's important to recognize the limits of the chain metaphor - there is variance/uncertainty in the strength of a link (or capacity of a production step), and variance/uncertainty in alternate support for ideas (or alternate production paths).

Objective meaning (up to the dash): Goldratt’s chain idea, which is a major part of your post, is limited.

Social meaning (up to the dash): I’ve surpassed Goldratt and can look down on his stuff as limited. You’re a naive Goldratt newbie who is accepting whatever he says instead of going beyond Goldratt. Also calling chains a “metaphor” instead of “model” is a subtle attack to lower status. Metaphors aren’t heavyweight rationality (while models are, and it actually is a model). Also Dagon is implying that I failed to recognize limits that I should have recognized.

Objective meaning continued: There’s some sort of attempt at an argument here but it doesn’t actually make sense. Saying there is variance in two places is not a limitation of the chain model.

Social meaning continued: saying a bunch of overly wordy stuff that looks technical is bluffing and pretending he’s arguing seriously. Most people won’t know the difference.

Most real-world situations are more of a mesh or a circuit than a linear chain, and the analysis of bottlenecks and risks is a fun multidimensional calculation of forces applies and propagated through multiple links.

Objective meaning: Chains are wrong in most real world situations because those situations are meshes or circuits [both terms undefined]. No details are given about how he knows what’s common in real world situations. And he’s contradicting Goldratt who actually did argue his case and know math. (I also know more than enough math so far and Dagon never continued with enough substance to potentially strain either of our math skills sets).

Social meaning: I have fun doing multidimensional calculations. I’m better than you. If you knew math so well that it’s a fun game to you, maybe you could keep up with me. But if you could do that, you wouldn’t have written the post you wrote.

It’s screwy how Dagon presents himself as a Goldratt superfan expert and then immediately attacks Goldratt’s ideas.

Note: Dagon stopped replying without explanation shortly after this, even though he’d said how super interested in Goldratt stuff he is.

Donald Hobson

I think that ideas can have a bottleneck effect, but that isn't the only effect. Some ideas have disjunctive justifications.

Objective meaning: bottlenecks come up sometimes but not always. [No arguments about how often they come up, how important they are, etc.]

Social meaning: You neglected disjunctions and didn’t see the whole picture. I often run into people who don’t know fancy concepts like “disjunction”.

Note: Disjunction just means “or” and isn’t something that Goldratt or I had failed to consider.

Hobson then follows up with some math, socially implying that the problem is I’m not technical enough and if only I knew some math I’d have reached different conclusions. He postures about how clever he is and brings up resistors and science as brags.

I responded, including with math, and then Hobson did not respond.


What does that even mean?

Objective meaning: I don’t understand what you wrote.

Social meaning: You’re not making sense.

He did give more info about what his question was after this. But he led with this, on purpose. The “even” is a social attack – that word isn’t there to help with any objective meaning. It’s there to socially communicate that I’m surprisingly incoherent. It’d be a subtle social attack even without the “even”. He didn’t respond when I answered his question.


There is another case which your argument neglects, which can make weakest-link reasoning highly inaccurate, and which is less of a special case than a tie in link-strength.

Objective meaning: The argument in the OP is incomplete.

Social meaning: You missed something huge, which is not a special case, so your reasoning is highly inaccurate.

The way you are reasoning about systems of interconnected ideas is conjunctive: every individual thing needs to be true.

Objective meaning: Chain links have an “and” relationship.

Social meaning: You lack a basic understanding of the stuff you just said, so I’ll have to start really basic to try to educate you.

But some things are disjunctive: some one thing needs to be true.

Objective meaning: “or” exists. [no statement yet about how this is relevant]

Social meaning: You’re wrong because you’re an ignorant novice.

(Of course there are even more exotic logical connectives, such as implication or XOR, which are also used in everyday reasoning. But for now it will do to consider only conjunction and disjunction.)

Objective meaning: Other logic operators exist [no statement yet about how this is relevant].

Social meaning: I know about this like XOR, but you’re a beginner who doesn’t. I’ll let you save face a little by calling it “exotic”, but actually, in the eyes of everyone knowledgeable here, I’m insulting you by suggesting that for you XOR is exotic.

Note: He’s wrong, I know what XOR is (let alone OR). So did Goldratt. XOR is actually easy for me, and I’ve used it a lot and done much more advanced things too. He assumed I didn’t in order to socially attack me. He didn’t have adequate evidence to reach the conclusion that he reached; but by reaching it and speaking condescendingly, he implied that there was adequate evidence to judge me as an ignorant fool.

Perhaps the excess accuracy in probability theory makes it more powerful than necessary to do its job? Perhaps this helps it deal with variance? Perhaps it helps the idea apply for other jobs than the one it was meant for?

Objective meaning: Bringing up possibilities he thinks are worth considering.

Social meaning: Flaming me with some rather thin plausible deniability.

I skipped the middle of his post btw, which had other bad stuff.


I really like what this post is trying to do. The idea is a valuable one. But this explanation could use some work - not just because inferential distances are large, but because the presentation itself is too abstract to clearly communicate the intended point. In particular, I'd strongly recommend walking through at least 2-3 concrete examples of bottlenecks in ideas.

This is an apparently friendly reply but he was lying. I wrote examples but he wouldn’t speak again.

There are hints in this text that he actually dislikes me and is being condescending, and that the praise in the first two sentences is fake. You can see some condescension in the post, e.g. in how he sets himself up like a mentor telling me what to do (and note the unnecessary “strongly” before “recommend”. And how does he know the idea is valuable when it’s not clearly communicated? And his denial re inferential distance is actually both unreasonable and aggressive. The “too abstract” and “could use some work” are also social attacks, and the “at least 2-3” is a social attack (it means do a lot) with a confused objective meaning (if you’re saying do >= X, why specify X as a range? you only need one number.)

The objective world meaning is roughly that he’s helping with some presentation and communication issues and wants a discussion of the great ideas. But it turns out, as we see from his following behavior, that wasn’t true. (Probably. Maybe he didn’t follow up for some other reason like he died of COVID. Well not that because you can check his posting history and see he’s still posting in other topics. But maybe he has Alzheimer’s and he forgot, and he knows that’s a risk so he keeps notes about stuff he wants to follow up on, but he had an iCloud syncing error and the note got deleted without him realizing it. There are other stories that I don’t have enough information to rule out, but I do have broad societal information about them being uncommon, and there are patterns across the behavior of many people.)


I posted in comments on different Less Wrong thread:


Are you interested in extended discussion about this, with a goal of reaching some conclusions about CR/LW differences, or do you know anyone who is?


I am evidently interested in discussing it, but I am probably not the best person for it.

Objective meaning: I am interested. My answer to your question is “yes”. I have agreed to try to have a discussion, if you want to. However, be warned that I’m not very good at this.

Social meaning: The answer to your question is “no”. I won’t discuss with you. However, I’m not OK with being declared uninterested in this topic. I love this topic. How dare you even question my interest when you have evidence (“evidently”) that I am interested, which consists of me having posted about it. I’d have been dumb to post about something I’m not interested in, and you were an asshole to suggest I might be dumb like that.

Actual result: I replied in a friendly, accessible way attempting to begin a conversation, but he did not respond.

Concluding Thoughts

Conversations don’t go well when a substantial portion of what people say has a hostile (or even just significantly different) social (double) meaning.

It’s much worse when the social meaning is the primary thing people are talking about, as in all the LW replies I got above. It’s hard to get discussions where the objective meanings are more emphasized than the social ones. And all the replies I quoted re my Chains and Bottlenecks post were top level replies to my impersonal article. I hadn’t said anything to personally offend any of those people, but they all responded with social nastiness. (Those were all the top level replies. There were no decent ones.) Also it was my first post back after 3 years, so this wasn’t carrying over from prior discussion (afaik – possibly some of them were around years ago and remembered me. I know some people do remember me but they mentioned it. Actually TAG said later, elsewhere, to someone else, that he knew about me from being on unspecified Critical Rationalist forums in the past).

Even if you’re aware of social meanings, there are important objective meanings which are quite hard to say without getting offensive social meaning. This comes up with talking about errors people make, especially ones that reveal significant weaknesses in their knowledge. Talking objectively about methodology errors and what to do about them can also be highly offensive socially. Also objective, argued judgments of how good things are can be socially offensive, even if correct (actually it’s often worse if it’s correct and high quality – the harder to plausibly argue back, the worse it can be for the guy who’s wrong).

The main point was to give examples of how the same sentence can be read with an objective and a social meaning. This is what most discussions on rationalist forums where explicit knowledge of social status hierarchies is common look like to me. It comes up a fair amount on my own forums too (less often than at LW, but it’s a pretty big problem IMO).

Note: The examples in this post are not representative of the full spectrum of social behaviors. One of the many things missing is needy/chasing/reactive behavior where people signal their own low social status (low relative to the person they’re trying to please). Also, I could go into more detail on any particular example people want to discuss (this post isn’t meant as giving all the info/analysis, it’s a hybrid between some summary and some detail).

Update: Adding (on same day as original) a few things I forgot to say.

Audiences pick up on some of the social meanings (which ones, and how they see them, varies by person). They see you answer and not answer things. They think some should be answered and some are ignorable. They take some things as social answers that aren’t intended to be. They sometimes ignore literal/objective meanings of things. They judge. It affects audience reactions. And the perception of audience reactions affects what the actual participants do and say (including when they stop talking without explanation).

The people quoted could do less social meaning. They’re all amplifying the social. There’s some design there; it’s not an accident. It’s not that hard to be less social. But even if you try, it’s very hard to avoid any problematic social meanings, especially when you consider that different audience members will read stuff differently, according to different background knowledge, different assumptions about context, different misreadings and skipped words, etc.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (14)

Social Dialog with Analysis

Communications and actions have two main interpretations: social and objective.

Objective interpretations look at the literal meaning. They use rational and scientific analysis. They try to avoid logical errors. They aim to account for all the evidence and contradict none. They don’t judge the truth of ideas by the attributes of the person who thought of or communicated the idea.

Social interpretations consider the speaker or actor in relation to other people. What is he trying to do to or get from others? How does the action/communication affect the status of the actor and others? Is someone being needy or reactive? Is someone showing weakness? Is someone socially attacking someone else? Is someone becoming more or less connected with something high or low status (e.g. tribe allegiance signals).

Social interpretations are allowed to focus on some evidence and ignore or contradict other evidence. They can be illogical and unscientific. Some evidence is impolite to use or mention. Some conclusions are jumped to on a basis like “since the social meaning of that action/communication is so strong and obvious, you must have done it intentionally and chosen that social meaning on purpose, no matter what you say about a misunderstanding or that you were focusing on an objective goal.”

Example (try to read hyper literally, and look at this really logically, in order to understand Sue’s perspective):

Joe: I don’t understand what you said.
Sue: What are you planning to do about that?
Joe: I just asked you to explain.
Sue: You didn’t make a request or ask a question.
Joe: I just did. wtf!

Joe is focused on the social world while Sue is in objective, logical mode. Joe expects that, when he speaks, Sue will guess what he wants from her and why he said it. Joe takes this for granted so much that he doesn’t notice the difference between him asking for something explicitly or via hints – he uses hints and thinks he asked. Sue thinks Joe’s statements provide information and that it isn’t her job to read Joe’s mind. Mind reading always runs into a bunch of ambiguity that’s hard to make guesses about, and the whole point of a conversation is for people to communicate their ideas themselves.

The conversation can easily get worse. Let’s continue it:

Sue: Quote?
Joe: “I don’t understand what you said.”

This is actually somewhat unrealistic. People like Joe often won’t quote at all or will misquote. Often they ambiguously explain which message like “the statement we’re talking about” or “the message that starts with ‘I’”. Sometimes they say that asking for quotes is unreasonable or unnecessary, or they stop replying. But let’s not get distracted by those problems.

Sue: Is that an imperative or interrogative sentence?
Joe: No.
Sue: What are the verb and grammatical subject?
Joe: “do understand” and “I”.

These are atypically accurate and patient grammar answers by Joe. Things could have gotten a lot worse here. They’re atypical because they’re objective-mode answers, not social-mode answers.

The social-mode meaning of “Is that an imperative or interrogative sentence?” is that Sue is acting like a teacher and putting Joe in an inferior student role. Sue asks the questions and Joe has the role of being questioned. Sue can initiate things of her choice and Joe has to react to Sue’s whims. She’s pushing this kind of framing on the situation. So typically someone like Joe will avoid answering the question in order to deny and push back against that framing. He’ll try to get Sue answering his questions or otherwise establish social power over her. He’ll avoid compliance on purpose. He might say something especially sophisticated to try to prove how grown up he is. He’ll think Sue is calling him dumb by asking him a fairly basic grammar question about the sort of thing he was supposed to have learned in school over 10 years ago.

Sue: So isn’t it a declarative statement about yourself?
Joe: You knew what I meant.

This doesn’t answer Sue’s question. It’s also asking for mind reading. It’s the sort of thing that only works with similar people. It’s a reasonable guess about most people from Joe’s subculture (they knew what he wanted and are being difficult on purpose), though there’s evidence throughout that Sue has a pretty different perspective on the world than Joe and genuinely found it problematic to assume instead of relying on communication. Joe’s attitude makes conversation very hard with people very different from himself. It’s bad at engaging with other frameworks or points of view.

Asking multiple questions in a row amplifies the teacher/student dynamic. That increases the pressure on Joe to break out of it. Sue isn’t thinking about the social meaning of what she says, so she doesn’t control it, but Joe keeps looking for it and reacting to it. If Sue were to consider the social meaning of each of her statements before saying it, she’d find it much harder to converse. Like if asking clarifying questions is socially aggressive (both in a “you answer to me” sense and a “you were unclear” accusation sense), what should she do to fix it? You can’t just skip clarifying questions in general. And how many are needed is out of her control. Sue can try to minimize the number of clarifying questions Joe needs to ask her, but it’s up to Joe to minimize how many Sue needs to ask him.

Sue: I thought I did. I thought you were providing information about the state of your understanding.
Joe: I was asking for help.
Sue: But that isn’t what your words mean. Why don’t you use standard English to say what you mean?

Joe feels highly insulted. But from an objective perspective, it’s a reasonable thing to be wondering and talking about. Joe literally says X and then acts like he’d communicated Y. Why not just say what he means?

Joe: Why don’t you just put two and two together?

Joe doesn’t ask the question, asks a counter-question that’s socially insulting to Sue (it implies she’s being dumber than like a 4 year old who can’t add 2+2 correctly)

Sue: There are dozens of reasonable ways to proceed given the information you provided. That’s why I asked which one you were planning.

Even with such an insulting question that wasn’t meant to be answered, Sue still takes it at face value and tries to explain the answer.

Joe: Why won’t you just tell me what you meant?
Sue: You haven’t asked me to.

Again Sue immediately answers Joe’s question. She’s responsive and still operating with good will. She doesn’t care about who is reacting to who and how it looks for social power. And Joe’s tilted (since Sue’s first or second message in the example dialog) but Sue isn’t.

Joe: I just did.
Sue: When?
Joe: Right now. I just asked.
Sue: Quote?
Joe: “Why won’t you just tell me what you meant?”
Sue: I answered that question.

This is similar to how the dialog started. Things haven’t been sorted out. Even though Sue explained her perspective earlier, Joe still isn’t taking it into account and adjusting his communications and expectations. Sue, meanwhile, doesn’t know what to change to make things work better. She knows she’s logically right. She thinks Joe ought to try discussing in a way that isn’t logically wrong and that it’s easier to have conversations which build on that foundation. If Joe doesn’t have the skill to do that, he should try to learn it and ask for help instead of trying to have a conversation he’s incapable of handling productively.

Joe: After all this, I can’t get any answers out of you. Goodbye forever.

Objectively, Sue did answer all of Joe’s questions and was responsive to all direct, explicit requests. But Sue kept ignoring the social world meanings of both Joe’s and her own words.

In the social world, direct requests are often too pushy. People often phrase statements as questions to weaken them (“That is a dog?” which is expressing some uncertainty and making it easier for the person to disagree or confirm) and questions as statements (“I wonder if that’s a dog.” which is asking if the other person thinks it’s a dog).

Sue: I don’t understand why people come to discussion forums when they clearly don’t have a basic grasp of English and logic, and they also aren’t aiming to learn those things. What they’re doing will never work.
Joe: wtf! Leave me alone.
Sue: I did. I didn’t expect you to return. I’m just post morteming my discussion and hoping someone else may have insight. This has nothing to do with you.
Joe: You’re flaming me and attacking my reputation.
Sue: I’m just analyzing public evidence. If I made an error you can point it out. I’m not trying to flame; I’m aiming for accuracy. If you don’t want people to think about what you say, don’t post it. If you want to look good when analyzed, improve your skill level. Now leave me in peace. I’ve got several more thoughts to post.
Joe: You have no right! I didn’t sign up to be treated this way!
Sue: People thinking about and discussing things you said is exactly what you signed up for when you posted them.
Joe: [Leaves and holds a long-lasting grudge.]
Sue: When he said “You knew what I meant.” I was tolerant, lenient and generous by letting him change topics in the middle of my grammar point. Right as I was getting to a conclusion he ignored my question, seemingly because he knew he was about to lose the debate. I wasn’t rewarded for being so helpful. He didn’t reciprocate with good will towards me. Maybe I would have been better off repeating my question until he answered it, or pointing out that he wasn’t answering.
Sue: I don’t understand how, after a long conversation about how he hadn’t made a particular request, he still didn’t get it enough to realize he still hadn’t actually made that request. Which new statement did he think constituted a request to explain something to him?
Sue: Does anyone understand why most people are like this? I have such good will but it never seems to be enough. On my initiative, I asked about his plans, thinking perhaps to help with them. My reward was that he derailed the conversation. And as usual he doesn’t want to discuss what went wrong. He did begin the process of clearing up misunderstandings, but he was creating new misunderstandings faster than we could resolve stuff. Why won’t people just calm down and use English in a simple, correct way? Why do they rush through conversations and make huge messes and then give up?
Sue: What is life like for such a person? Do none of his conversations work? What happens when two Joes talk? Is it pure chaos or does it seem to work, somehow? Maybe if they both say and want sufficiently stereotyped things they can stay on the same page with almost no communication, merely by assuming stereotypes.
Sue: Why is no one else talking? Is this a dead forum? Does no one here care about trying to understand how to have rational conversations with typical people? Don’t you guys run into problems like these and want to figure out what to do about them? Or are you all similar to Joe and hiding it with your silence?
Joe: [Reads all this and intensifies his grudge.]

It could easily go worse than this more quickly. But I wanted to draw it out a bit and show the ongoing perspective clashes.

The other people on the forum are more attuned to the social world than Sue.

Sue doesn’t think that attuning to the social world more herself will actually result in intellectual progress on topics like science, epistemology, AGI, etc. People need to think objectively to contribute to those topics anyway.

Routinely, people’s social status is inaccurate in some way. Then the truth threatens the status. What could Sue do when talking to people who need to admit weakness and try to learn some stuff but who prefer to dishonestly pretend to be better than they are and who don’t want Sue to speak the truth? What’s to be done with such people besides detecting and ignoring them (and maybe criticizing them if they’re public figures)?

Lots of people try to debate sorta like Sue but they aren’t actually very good at logic themselves. Joe has experience with that. He’s dealt with people who are mostly focused on social, and screw up logic, but they do some Sue stuff as an act. He assumes Sue is like that too. He doesn’t actually have the skill to judge whether Sue got anything wrong or not. But Joe thinks he does. So what happens is Joe will misunderstand something, think Sue made a mistake, and conclude that Sue isn’t as logical as she thinks she is. From Joe’s pov, Sue seems to be about as good at logic as Joe or worse – because whenever she uses superior skill there’s a good chance that Joe doesn’t get it, and when Joe doesn’t get it there’s a good chance that he attributes the error to Sue. (These things are not a matter of random chance. But if you look at many similar events, you’ll find sometimes it goes one way and sometimes the other. And it’s too hard to analyze the detailed causality.)

Most real discussions have a lot of intentional social by both parties. This is a stylized example that turns up the contrast between characters. Actually what sort of social counts as “intentional” is a tricky question. Most of it is automated in childhood. Most social by adults is done without conscious intention at the time they do it. So “I wasn’t trying to social you” is no defense – in the past you learned how to do that kind of social to people and practiced it until it was second nature. You’re responsible for that! This explains part of why people have trouble turning it off. And it explains why people assume that most social is intentional in the sense of there was an intent in the past when the person learned to do it. They aren’t doing it now randomly or accidentally. The main excuse is “autism” which is the most standard term for a person who didn’t learn, practice and automate a bunch of social dynamics (or somehow managed to stop and change), so then they might actually honestly not be playing the social game.

This is all complicated by the social rules of evidence. Lots of social dynamics are deniable even when everyone knows they were done on purpose. You did them right and people approve, so you’re allowed to get away with them rather than be called out for the social manipulations (if the call out is sufficiently socially savvy it can often work, but just a blunt, direct logic-focused callout doesn’t work). So it’s common that everyone knows social happened and it wasn’t an accident, but everyone pretends not to know.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (23)

Social Maneuvering

People prefer giving orders to taking them. They prefer granting permission (or not) to having to ask permission. They prefer questioning others over being questioned. They prefer more pressure on others to answer to them, and less pressure on themselves to answer to others.

People try to figure out how to achieve these things. This begins in early childhood when they discover that their parents have social (and physical) power over them. Then they have to answer to their teachers, to babysitters, to the parents at a friend’s house they’re visiting, to adult relatives, and more.

They find at the peer level that some people get what they want more, are listened to more, are respected more, and so on. Doing better with peers is realistically achievable in the short term.

They find they look weak when they’re insecure, needy, unconfident, reactive, seeking approval from others, acting like a follower not a leader, etc. They learn how to act to get others to put in more effort than they do, to have people come to them, to get approval while looking like you aren’t trying to get approval, to hide their effort, to make comments highlighting others’ weaknesses without being considered an aggressor, to recognize and follow trends a little on the early side. They learn to hide weakness and ignorance. They learn to be dishonest. Some things are not even really considered dishonest, socially, they’re just normal. But they aren’t how a scientist thinks. A scientist volunteers relevant info in pursuit of truth instead of looking for opportunities to withhold unfavorable info. And in short, doing anything less than an idealized scientist would is dishonest to some extent.

People discover there are both formal and informal social power structures. Being a teacher, parent or boss is a formal position. It’s an explicit label. The leader of a group of friends is an informal position. There’s no contract or clear rules. It can just change as opinions change.

Sometimes formal and informal social power have a mismatch. A general may not have the respect of the soldiers he gives orders to. A boss may struggle to get his subordinates to listen to him – formally he’s in charge but informally people don’t see him that way.

Mismatches aren’t terribly common. People whose informal social power is significantly below their formal position often get replaced. More often, people don’t get positions in the first place if they don’t have an appropriate informal social status. Mismatches are often caused by giving out positions due to favoritism instead of merit, e.g. getting a position for one’s child who didn’t (socially) earn it (and often didn’t earn it on objective world merit, like knowledge and skill, either). Sometimes mismatches develop over time – things started out OK but a person lost respect or got undermined or something over time. Status can be unstable. People often get promotions to positions they’re expected to probably be able to handle, but there’s no guarantee and it doesn’t always work out.

However, mismatches are extremely common when no one cares what the subordinates think or want. If the subordinates are there voluntarily – e.g. customers or people who could get a different job or transfer to a different division in the company – it puts pressure against mismatches. However, when the subordinates are children, prison inmates, involuntary psychiatry patients, or the elderly in an old folks home, then the people in power may be hated by their subordinates and stay in power anyway. This is also a big problem with the government and its citizens – there is some accountability but generally not enough.

Anyway, people learn how to behave so they do well in terms of informal social status. There are incentives and benefits there, and it’s also one of the main things that leads to gaining and keeping formal social status.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)