Posts tagged with situational psychology

In game theory the word “strategy” means a fully specified contingency plan. Whatever happens—be it a sequence of things, a conditional branching of their responses and my responses—∃ a contingency.

I can’t prove this, but I do feel that sometimes people talk about others as constants rather than response functions.

(A function is a ≥1-to-1 association from elements of a source domain to elements of a target codomain. I’ll owe ya a post on how this is not the most intuitive way to think about functions. Because it depends which domains you’re mapping from and to. Think for example about automorphisms—turning something over in your hand—versus measures—assigning a size to something.)


For example, extraversion vs introversion. This is one of the less disputatious dimensions of human variation from the MBTI. We can observe that some people (like me) gain more energy by being around people and feel like sh*te when they spend too much time alone, whereas others (like my best friend) replenish their reserves by being alone and drain them when they go out in public.

So we observe one datum about you—but sometimes a discussion (eg, an economics debate) wants to veer over counterfactual terrain—in which case we need a theory about how things might else have been.

  • Maybe when you were young, your parents always made you do chores whenever they saw you, but didn’t particularly seek you out when you were out of sight. So you learned to hide in your room, avoid chores, and develop your personal life there. Hence became introverted as a response to environmental factors.
  • When I was young, I used to think I was introverted. Really I was just widely disliked and unpopular for being an ugly nerd. But later in life I developed social skills and had the fortune to meet people I liked, who liked me back. In response to who was around, I became extraverted.

I can think of other aspects of myself that are obviously responses to situational stimuli rather than innate constants.

  • If I were raised in a different culture, my sexuality would be different. In my culture, homosexuality is seen as “You boink / date / marry from your own sex”, but in ancient Sparta women all gayed on each other as a matter of ritual before the men came home from war. But they didn’t call themselves homos, and neither did the Roman men who sexually touched each other. It was just a different conception of sex (one I can’t fathom) where “Just because I regularly crave and do sexual stuff with people of my own sex, doesn’t mean I’m gay!”
    File:Pederastic erotic scene Louvre F85bis.jpg
    File:Banquet Euaion Louvre G467.jpg
    File:Pompeii - Terme Suburbane - Apodyterium - Scene V.jpg
    File:Nisos Euryalos Louvre LL450 n2.jpg
    Point being this is all the result of inputs; born Puritan, think sex = evil. Born Roman, "sexuality is a behaviour, not an identity".
  • If I ate more food and exercised less, my fat:muscle ratio would increase.
  • If I meditated more, I would feel more at peace.
  • If I read more maths, I would know more maths. More people would think of me as a mathematician—but not because it was inevitable or inherent in me to be a mathmo, rather because I chose to do maths and became the product of my habits.
  • If I fixed more bikes, I would be able to fix bikes faster.
  • If I made more money, I would go to different places, meet different people, be exposed to their response functions to their own pasts and presents and anxieties and perceptions, a vector field of non-Markovian baggage, and all of this history and now-ness would sum up to some stimuli-complex that would cause some response by me, and change me in ways I can’t now know.
  • Our friendship could have been so much more, but we sort of let it fall off. Not for any reason, but it’s not so strong now.
  • Our love could have been so much less volatile, but I slept around, which had repercussions for your feelings toward me, which repercussed to my feelings toward you, which repercussed …. (multiplier effect / geometric series)

Besides being motivation for me to learn more maths to see what comes out of this way of thinking about people when you layer abstract algebra over it, this view of people is a reminder to

  1. release the egotism, and
  2. not take too literally what I think I’m seeing of whomever I’m interacting with.

Someone who piss me off may not be “a jerk”, it may not be about me whatever, s/he may be lag-responding to something from before I was there. Or s/he may not have adapted to a “nice guy” equilibrium of interacting with me. Who knows. I’m not seeing all of that person’s possibility, just a particular response to a particular situation.

On the other hand, if they really are acting wrong, it’s up to me to address the issue reasonably right away, rather than let my frustration passive-aggressively fester. Wait ten years for revenge and they’ll be a different person by then.

The final suggestion of people-as-functions is that there’s always something buried, something untapped—like part of a wavefunction that will never be measured, or a button on a machine that never gets pressed. You may see one version of yourself or someone else, but there’s more latent in you and in them—if you’re thrown into a war, a divorce, the Jazz Age, the Everglades, a hospice, a black-tie dinner, poverty, wealth, a band, a reality show about life under cruel premodern conditions—that may bring out another part of them.


UPDATE: peacemaker points out the similarity between people-as-response functions and the nature/nurture debate. I think this viewpoint subsumes both the nature and the nurture side, as well as free will.

  1. Evolution shaped our genes in response to environmental pressures (see for example the flies’ eyes chart above).
  2. My assumptions & predilections are a response to a more immediate “environment” than the environment of evolutionary adaptation.
  3. And I exercise free will over how I respond to the most immediate “environment” which is just the stimuli I get from you and the Wu Tang Clan.

UPDATE 2: As I think through this again, I feel quantum measurement really is a great metaphor for interacting with people. You only evoke one particular response-complex from a person on that particular time. And the way you evoke it perturbs the “objective” underlying thing. For example if yo’re introduced to someone in a flirtatious way versus in a business setting.

This week I posted different viewpoints on The Self.

Particularly I’m interested in self as a function of inputs. Just as the size of eyes a fly is born with is a function of the temperature of the eggs, so too, many facets of ourselves are a function of the environment, other people’s behaviour toward us, game-theoretic strategy, incentives, and so on.

Other people’s theories of us can be seen as functions as well. (For example, a hiring manager’s view of employee performance may assume school quality or GPA to be positively related to human capital.)

  • Economics: I didn’t get to Jean Tirole’s theory of money-saving as bargains among multiple selves.
  • Psychology: Jim Townsend found that self-versus-other dichotomies can be expressed as a negatively curved metric space.
  • Personality: I’ve already written that the MBTI is too restrictive a theory of self. It maps from habits to [0,1]⁴.
  • Douglas Hofstadter's thoughts on the extension of the pronoun “we”. ‘We’ went to the moon, ‘we’ share a common ancestor with other primates, ‘we’ are overcrowding the planet, ‘we’ have a nice theory of quantum chromodynamics, ‘we’ do not know if ‘we’ are experiencing a simulation or actual reality, ‘we’ don’t really know what makes an economy grow.
  • Criminology: My criminal output is a function of the crime level in the neighbourhood I’m raised in. Except when it’s a function of strongly held beliefs.
  • Sociology: In contemporary OECD places, ‘we’ are coerced by our cultures to play roles. “There are” certain scripts — modifiable but still requisite or recommended in some sense; at the very least influential, even if only because benefits and rewards are socially tied to role performance.
  • The topic of cultural coercion … is something I’ll return to.
  • The concept of people-as-functions is one I want to return to later, in discussing historyeconomics, and a couple different ways of talking about human behaviour mathematically.

I can think of several other mathematics-inspired questions about ourselves. The difference between habit and personality; the yogic metaphor of a river cutting deeper as related to habituation; choice & free will; Markovian and completely-the-opposite-of-Markovian choices (how constrained we are by our past choices); … and a lot more. But you know what, writing is hard. So I do only a little at a time.

Update, 25 September 2013: I’ve written more on this topic now: