I don’t even see groups
I want to foreground part of the subtext in my recent post on community and my problems with it. One underlying problem appears to me to be that I simply don’t perceive groups. Slate Star Codex writes about how important group membership is for making friends:
If I had written this essay five years ago, it would be be titled “Why Tribalism Is Stupid And Needs To Be Destroyed”. Since then, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve found that I enjoy being in tribes as much as anyone else.
Part of this was resolving a major social fallacy I’d had throughout high school and college, which was that the correct way to make friends was to pick the five most interesting people I knew and try to befriend them. This almost never worked and I thought it meant I had terrible social skills. Then I looked at what everyone else was doing, and I found that instead of isolated surgical strikes of friendship, they were forming groups. The band people. The mock trial people. The football team people. The Three Popular Girls Who Went Everywhere Together. Once I tried “falling in with” a group, friendship became much easier and self-sustaining precisely because of all of the tribal development that happens when a group of similar people all know each other and have a shared interest. Since then I’ve had good luck finding tribes I like and that accept me – the rationalists being the most obvious example, but even interacting with my coworkers on the same hospital unit at work is better than trying to find and cultivate random people.
Scott’s original social strategy is exactly how I go about making friends. Where it didn’t work, I just kept upgrading my social skills for one-on-one interactions. This I think is part of why some people think I have unusually poor social skills, and others say I have unusually good ones. I developed them unevenly relative to the norm.
I do use social networks I’m part of for some things, but mainly for their vetting function; if I’m part of someone’s social network, we’re each a known person to the other, and probably worth paying some attention to. Then I tend to vault straight to friendship, if someone seems like a kindred spirit. For instance, recently, someone I’d met a few times at parties but didn’t really talk with, shared on Facebook one of my blog posts I put a lot of myself into, calling it especially insightful. So I decided maybe we’re attuned in some relevant way and asked them if they wanted to meet one on one.
Allegiance to groups, and valorization of groups, means that people’s attention gets pulled away from the domain where I can make friends. It’s fine if it’s an accommodation for those who need it, and maybe they’re even in the majority, but I don’t like the talk as if it were the only way. Potential friends end up devoting a bunch of energy to building these groups or tribes or whatever that fill some need for them, that don’t help me at all, and give them less time to pay attention to me.
I don’t feel like people like me because their groups accept me. For me it’s exactly the opposite - I feel that their groups accept me because a few individuals in them like me a lot. This bears an interesting resemblance to how I feel about individual relationships:
When I have tried to build a relationship – whether romantic or simply friendly – with someone, it’s because I had already identified them as someone I’d like to spend time with. I wanted some of their time and attention, and the world seemed to require that I go through an arbitrary, laborious bonding ritual in order to have the kinds of nice interactions that I already knew we could have. I want to be in a relationship with them because I want to spend time with them. Other people seem not to do this – instead, often they want to spend time with me because we are in a relationship.
I was talking with a close friend who said it seemed broadly right that groups accept me because some particular individuals in the group like me a lot, but it wasn’t precise enough. In response, I proposed this analogy:
“Suppose you and I were perfectly good at communicating with each other but only by telepathy, and when talking with other people I had a lot of difficulty forming words or making out what other people were saying, to the point where they basically couldn’t understand me. You might bring me into a group, and they might tolerate my presence, but neither I nor the group would get anything out of that, we’d both be doing it for you.”
“Yes, but when I imagine this, the person’s actually getting along a lot better with the group than you do.”
“OK, imagine that the communication barriers are so strong that I appear to be severely mentally handicapped to everyone but you.”
“Oh, now it feels about accurate.”
When I try to participate in group dynamics - say, by hanging out with my housemates in the living room - I feel like signals I can’t quite make out are constantly whizzing by me, too fast to keep up. I’m missing some key channels of communication, including, I suspect, ones critical for group coordination:
From time to time, a friend will host some sort of game night. People talk about this as a way to make friends, saying that they get some sort of social feeling of closeness from it. This seems not to work on me – I don’t feel closer to the other people I’ve played a board game with afterwards, probably because I’m oblivious to the channel on which the important transactions are happening. I suspect that the relevant channel has to do with having a bunch of subtly positive interactions, using implicit communication, while in physical proximity to each other.
I suspect that this is also part of why I find homosocial bonding difficult.
Perception and attentional control
I suspect that some sorts of social awareness are only possible if you allow the relevant social cues to control your attention. I don’t trust groups enough to give over this sort of cognitive control, and thus end up oblivious to what’s going on.
A few years ago, I was consciously working on learning to read fine social and emotional cues, applying previously theoretical knowledge I’d learned from reading highly social novels such as those of Jane Austen. I found that as I learned to be aware of social signals, I became involuntarily emotionally affected by them. As I became less oblivious, I became thinner-skinned.
This seems like part of a broader phenomenon, for which I have a tentative model. In order to perceive patterns, our minds build substructures, subprocesses, that take in raw data and report out some summary of this. (Some comparatively universal and possibly hardwired subprocesses include ones that detect edges or faces in our visual data - usually the output isn’t directly consciously available here - and ones that detect a situation where it’s advantageous to punish someone and output anger.) These subprocesses are allocated more resources when they seem more useful to other mental processes. Kevin Simler lays out a similar model:
The basic idea is that there's a level of abstraction where we can describe the brain in terms of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of little modules, more or less independent of each other, each with its own functional purpose or goal. These modules have agency, of course, but are fairly limited in scope. Examples include edge detectors (in the visual system), finger controllers (in the sensorimotor cortex), and verb conjugators (in the language system).
Modules inherit some of the same type of agency — i.e., selfishness — as the neurons out of which they're built. There's a real sense in which a module 'wants' to keep it's 'job', because when it's out of work its neurons wither away. Sometimes these unemployed modules can be quite clever about taking on new jobs, as when the visual system gets repurposed for Braille.
At the level above simple modules, but below the self, are poised what I will call sub-personal agents. These are systems like drives or instincts — hunger, lust, curiosity, greed, addictions — that have agency recognizable even to lay-people. We don't need neuroscience to reason about these agents because we can 'feel' them, through introspection, pulling at our psyches — faintly or insistently, gently or violently. And indeed, people have been reasoning about these systems, as agents, for thousands of years.
Sub-personal agents aren't capable of using language directly (like the self is), so their agency is limited and less outward-facing. But they nevertheless have real power, in that they're capable of influencing the cognition, emotions, and behavior of the human creatures they inhabit. They're also capable of co-opting the reasoning process to justify their desires.
Sub-personal agents also have immense explanatory power. This is most visible in the life of an addict. The addict 'himself' often doesn't want to keep up the addiction, but he keeps doing it anyway. Thus the addict is often described, even by himself, as powerless, and perhaps the best, most parsimonious explanation for his behavior is that there's literally another agent inside his brain — his inner addict — realized as a particular cabal of neurons and modules.
A nascent perceptual process gets rewarded - and therefore gets bigger and more salient - for two reasons: intelligibility and relevance. Intelligibility is the extent to which the raw mass of sensations can be reasonably transformed into a coherent pattern. Relevance is the extent to which other parts of the brain use the output from this process.
An example of intelligibility is that it’s easy to ignore as “noise” conversations in a language you don’t know, or using jargon you’re unfamiliar with. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is a related example - once you notice something for the first time, it will often turn out that you were hearing about it all the time and just not registering it.
An example of relevance is that it’s easy to ignore as “noise” conversations you can understand perfectly well, where you don’t care about the topic.
Slate Star Codex gives a visual example of the intelligiblity effect:
[...] To most people, it looks formless. Even once they hear that it’s an old black-and-white photograph of a cow’s head, it’s might still require a bit of staring before you catch on. But once you see the cow, the cow is obvious. It becomes impossible to see it as formless, impossible to see it as anything else. Having given yourself a top-down pattern to work from, the pattern automatically organizes the visual stimuli and makes sense of them.
I suspect that my inability to get high-quality peripheral sensory data at an early age, because of my vision and hearing problems, promoted perceptual processing that was a good fit for high-focus activities, and deprioritized anything that depended on the data that was getting muffled or blurred irrecoverably:
My poor eyesight caused me to have glasses, which cause me to get visual data and feedback only from places near the center of my vision. This made me better at narrow-focus activities like reading, computer use, one on one social interaction, and strength training (because peripheral visual info wasn’t good enough to be distracting) and worse at awareness-based activities like navigating larger social groups, or sports. A friend recently noted that when he switched from glasses to contacts, widening his effective field of vision, all of a sudden the outdoors became appealing. This seems like it’s probably generalizable. [...]
Asymmetric hearing loss (almost no hearing in one ear, diminished hearing in the other) also contributed. It meant I would miss softer audial cues, again penalizing awareness-based activities more than narrow-focus ones. It also meant that I’d often want to turn my good ear towards people when conversing with them instead of looking at them, which meant I got even less feedback from their face, and accustomed me to paying attention to the words and not the expressions.
As a personal example of relevance, for a long time I tried to get better at reading body language and facial expressions, to little success. I read books on the topic, and I dutifully tried to remind myself to look at how people were holding themselves. No change. I gave up on this project.
Years later, I was trying to get better at conversations, and noticed that there were two cases where I needed data and didn’t know how to get it. First, sometimes I wanted to check whether someone was engaged or uninterested, and asking them verbally often permanently derailed the conversation, even if they had been interested before. Second, sometimes I couldn’t tell whether a pause in the conversation was because they were thinking hard, or because they were waiting for me to say more (or just stuck). I didn’t want to interrupt them if they were thinking hard, but asking which situation we were in would be itself an interruption.
Then I realized that I had, in principle, a solution that didn’t pull at their attention at all: I could just look at their face. And immediately, faces became interesting to me, because I had a particular case in which I could use it, a specific felt need, that reading facial expressions could solve. At first it even felt creepy, like I was intruding on their privacy with my telepathic powers, until I realized - everyone else already does this! And it didn’t just work actively when I remembered, but sometimes passively, automatically, even when I don’t consciously allocate attention to figuring out what people’s faces are telling me.
Now I understand how for someone who is very sensitive to this kind of data - whose mind perceives facial expressions as extremely relevant and therefore extremely salient - even slightly dissonant microexpressions could be distracting, jarring, throw them off balance. This is why the occasional appearance of inattention or distraction on my part - even if it’s because I’m thinking about what they just said - can throw off some of my socially perceptive conversation partners.
That is the cost of being able to perceive things: it gives them power over your attention, and sometimes even over your decisions. If something in your environment threatens to pull your attention away from where you want it to go, I can think of four major ways to respond:
- Control the environment.
- Block the signal.
- Practice nonattachment.
- Give in.
Control the environment
Cleaning up one’s desk or tidying one’s room can make it easier to think. Softly lit quiet rooms full of soft things can help some people relax. Walking down a busy city street can bring my tempo up, but can also frazzle me if I’m under the wrong kind of stress.
New people, who have little practice regulating their attention, might be especially strongly affected by their environments. Divia’s recent post on boundaries suggests this:
It’s very important to me to maintain a strong boundary around my internal experience of the world, so people can’t write over it without my consent. It’s vital for me to keep track what I like, what matters to me, and how I think the world works. It used to be hard for me to remember all that in the presence of certain people. I since upgraded my mental OS to the point where I haven’t worried about reality distortion fields in years. [...]
[L]ittle kids often have really strong, inflexible boundaries around stuff that adults wouldn’t. Lydia still finds it very hard to handle when other people change her physical environment, even when the stuff involved isn’t hers. She doesn’t like it when we move the chairs around for the party. She didn’t like it when a guest of ours took a book off our shelf and moved it. She has a boundary about stuff staying where she thinks it should be unless she’s the one to move it. (Though this is less true than it was just a few months ago!) [...]
I only have guesses about why those things bother her, but by watching her responses I’m confident she experiences them as boundary violations. It’s much easier for her to function when she can expect stuff to stay where she leaves it. It’s not practical for her to have this boundary, though we accommodate it as best we can, and we empathize otherwise. And she’s just beginning to trust her own sense of epistemic confidence, and I think she correctly perceives that it’ll screw up that process if she just defers to trusted adults.
Divia's explicitly pointing out the extent to which being aware of one's environment, without some internal layers of sophisticated attention-management, can mean being helplessly affected by it. This is at the core of why I think it's hard for me to participate in group cognition. Revealingly, one exception is when I’m leading the discussion - in these cases it’s easy for me to follow and understand what’s going on, because it’s bottlenecked on me. One-on-one conversations focused on the other person have this attribute too, since I can always pause when it’s my turn to talk, for as long as it takes to think about what they just said.
However, regulating one’s environment in order to control one’s attention can often lead to unenforceable or extremely costly boundaries, which is why we learn to regulate our responses to these stimuli, rather than just the external world.
Block the signal
Not every possible perception is allocated enough relevance to become salient. Sometimes even if a perceptual ability seems hard-wired, our minds can decline to connect it to other things. When my subconscious noticed that universal empathy would hurt unbearably, it seems as though it decided to block some of my ability to empathize with other living things:
My working model for why I wasn’t able to connect with plants at all is based on my model for how I’d been relating to touch and ticklishness. Previously, I thought I’d desensitized myself to tickling, but it turned out that instead of learning to integrate the sensation and respond proportionally, I’d learned to shield myself against it and not respond at all. [...] Similarly, while I initially thought I’d felt nothing for plants because of a lack of underlying empathy with them, it turns out that I had built up a shield and was blocking my awareness of them because of the risk of empathy overload.
If this model is right, many people in chronic pain will also have problems being aware of their bodies, because to cope with the pain, they will have trained themselves to screen out sensations – which deprives them of useful as well as useless signals from their bodies.
However, inability to perceive part of one’s environment can get one into trouble. In addition, if the block is very thorough, it can be difficult to undo.
It took me a lot of thought and effort to undo my block around reading people’s faces, and it was well worth it.
I was able to experience more empathy for other living beings - and, as it turned out, become more aware of my own internal experiences more generally - when I cultivated practices of nonattachment:
I suspect this is related to why cognitive self-knowledge through reasoning and meditation, reducing attachments to particular things in the world, and empathy for all living things, seem to be connected in traditions such as some Buddhist ones. Full awareness implies full empathy. But if you’re attached to what you’re attentive to, if you feel compelled to alleviate the suffering of anyone whose suffering you’re fully aware of, then you’re caught between denying or hiding from reality, and empathizing a world of searing pain. Only when you can accept the suffering of others without having to fix each instance, can you notice just how much suffering there is. [...]
This substantially increased my estimation of the value to me of [...] meditation. I already favored it as a general tool for improving my control over my own awareness and cognitive processes, but the connection to empathizing with other living beings (via lovingkindness meditation) and lack of attachment now seem like additional evidence that it will further my goals, rather than distractions.
The main disadvantage of nonattachment is that it’s difficult. A secondary disadvantage is that if you mindfully fail to engage a subprocess too much, the neural pattern withers up and may eventually stop giving you processed outputs at all. In mild cases this can lead to relief from pain. In extreme cases it might could turn you into a vegetable.
There’s a reason why we say that someone falls in love, and often use the word “surrender” to refer to it. There’s a threat that your well-being will be controlled in large part by someone else’s state. You can block it, or you can give into it and let yourself be changed by it.
The spirit of the group
When I’m with a group, the group often seems to make decisions almost before I’m even aware that there’s a decision to be made, and I don’t see any way to “break in” and get my input processed at a reasonable cost.
For instance, a group of people I’m with might be deciding where to go to eat, and people seem to be aimlessly mentioning various preferences and ideas without making any explicit bids, so I figure I’ll indicate my preferences once there’s a proposal. Then suddenly it seems like everyone agrees we’re going to the Thai place down the street, and it’s too late to gracefully weigh in.
I suspect that this is partly because I’m refusing to process signals from the group except in a slow way, bottlenecked by conscious attention, while proper members of the group are able to process things fast by delegating large parts of their attentional control to the group itself. Someone brings up an option, and they immediately say the first thing that comes into their head, which is often information about their preferences that gets taken into account by others. This attunement process bears some resemblance to the establishment of physical rapport:
What I mean by physical empathy is something narrower: automatically reading others’ emotional state by picking up on their involuntary physical expressions of emotion, and mimicking the brain state most likely to produce them. [...] Physical empathy requires an initial process of progressive attunement for people to start cooperating, where tentative and small gestures of generic friendliness are exchanged before people start communicating anything interesting. [...]
This sort of attunement ritual is carried over into circumstances where, if you just looked at the nominal protocols, you’d think that people were wasting a bunch of time. For instance, in many business cultures, if you’re trying to make a deal, you can’t start by talking business. You have to do a bunch of courtship stuff first, and sometimes even in the middle. This makes more sense if you think of all this as a thing most people can only do at all by carrying over the cognitive patterns that work for cooperation through physical empathy.
Routine signals of acknowledgement and liking are also used to indicate that someone’s open to interaction. I think that most people get a lot of emotional lift out of direct physical signals of acknowledgement and liking, so they let those signals control their attention. But for me none of it means anything unless I think the person understands me well enough to feel like they are expressing positive feelings towards me as the person I enduringly am:
I don’t know exactly what my infancy was like, but for a long time I have felt as though love doesn’t really make me feel like I can rely on someone unless they could pick my soul out of a lineup, unless it’s love on account of understanding who I am and loving that. The only kind of personal love that registers as unconditional love of me is love that’s conditional on the object of the love being me. I don’t have the subjective experience of feeling loved unless I feel like, if my external identity were erased but my soul were intact, or they developed amnesia about me, I’d be confident they’d still recognize me as someone to love. I think this is because love that’s not conditional on that feels like it’s not really directed at me in the important sense. It feels tenuous in a kind of bizarre counterfactual sense: in the alternative possible worlds where I don’t have this particular history with these particular people, their love for me doesn’t persist.
This ends up producing a lot of misunderstanding and lost signals, I think. I don't acknowledge the presence of people I'm not actively trying to interact with unless I'm burning energy to perform well socially, and as a result they feel like I don't like them or care about them and like I'm scary or unpredictable, even though to me it seems counterintuitive that they'd care at all. (Possibly in part as a result of this, people have told me that they’re more uncertain whether a conversation I’m in is interruptible, than for conversations not involving me - because I don’t automatically adjust to accommodate nearby people I’m not focused on.) On the other hand, if I do spend effort to send these signals, people respond in kind, which doesn't mean anything to me, and don't do things like ask me questions when they don't understand my behavior, so then I feel ignored, neglected, not cared about.
All this means that I don’t get internal rewards for giving myself over to group coordination.
My understanding of tacit group coordination isn’t strictly limited to that of an outsider; I’ve learned to do it in a highly specialized and bounded context, where everyone else was being acculturated at the same time I was:
People were always expected to wait until whoever was talking was done. People would apologize not just for interrupting someone who was already talking, but for accidentally saying something when someone else looked like they were about to speak. This seemed totally crazy. Some people would just blab on unchecked, and others didn’t get a chance to talk at all. Some people would ignore the norm and talk over others, and nobody interrupted them back to shoot them down.
People started saying less at a time. [...] With 15-20 people in a seminar, this also meant that no one could try to force the conversation in a certain direction. When you’re done talking, the conversation is out of your hands. This can be frustrating at first, but with time, you learn to trust not your fellow conversationalists, but the conversation itself, to go where it needs to. If you haven’t said enough, then you trust that someone will ask you a question, and you’ll say more.
When people are interrupting each other – when they’re constantly tugging the conversation back and forth between their preferred directions – then the conversation itself is just a battle of wills. But when people just put in one thing at a time, and trust their fellows to only say things that relate to the thing that came right before – at least, until there’s a very long pause – then you start to see genuine collaboration.
And when a lull in the conversation is treated as an opportunity to think about the last thing said, rather than an opportunity to jump in with the thing you were holding onto from 15 minutes ago because you couldn’t just interrupt and say it – then you also open yourself up to being genuinely surprised, to seeing the conversation go somewhere that no one in the room would have predicted, to introduce ideas that no one brought with them when they sat down at the table.
This points to another relevant aspect of group coordination: when people get together into groups, the group itself can be thought of as behaving a little bit like a mind, having thoughts, in ways that can’t be well-modeled as the individuals in the group separately thinking things through. In the very limited, carefully guided environment of a seminar, I felt comfortable giving myself over to this, relinquishing control over what I focus on. But when the group might decide to get up and do something, to extract commitments from its members, it doesn’t feel quite so safe.
I distrust group cognition. I dislike being asked to give myself over to this thing, when no one’s explained to me why or what’s going on or who’s in charge of making sure the spirit of the group doesn’t walk us right off a cliff. Whatever’s going on with them, I don’t want to give it control over my mind.