Affordance Widths

This article was originally a post on my tumblr. I’m in the process of moving most of these kinds of thoughts and discussions here.

Okay. There’s a social interaction concept that I’ve tried to convey multiple times in multiple conversations, so I’m going to just go ahead and make a graph.

I’m calling this concept “Affordance Widths”.

Let’s say there’s some behavior {B} that people can do more of, or less of. And everyone agrees that if you don’t do enough of the behavior, bad thing {X} happens; but if you do too much of the behavior, bad thing {Y} happens.

Now, let’s say we have five different people: Adam, Bob, Charles, David, and Edgar. Each of them can do more or less {B}. And once they do too little, {X} happens. But once they do too much, {Y} happens. But where {X} and {Y} starts happening is a little fuzzy, and is different for each of them. Let’s say we can magically graph it, and we get something like this:

Now, let’s look at these five men’s experiences.

Adam doesn’t understand what the big deal about {B} is. He feels like this is a behavior that people can generally choose how much they do, and yeah if they don’t do the *bare minimum* shit goes all dumb, and if they do a *ridiculous* amount then shit goes dumb a different way, but otherwise do what you want, you know?

Bob understands that {B} can be an important behavior, and that there’s a minimum acceptable level of {B} that you need to do to not suffer {X}, and a maximum amount you can get away with before you suffer {Y}. And Bob feels like {X} is probably more important a deal than {Y} is. But generally, he and Adam are going to agree quite a bit about what’s an appropriate amount of {B}ing for people to do. (Bob’s heuristic about how much {B} to do is the thin cyan line.)

Charles isn’t so lucky, by comparison. He’s got a *very* narrow band between {X} and {Y}, and he has to constantly monitor his behavior to not fall into either of them. He probably has to deal with {X} and {Y} happening a lot. If he’s lucky, he does less {B} than average; if he’s not so lucky, then he tries to copy Bob’s strategy and winds up getting smacked with {Y} way more often than Bob does.

Poor David’s in a situation called a “double bind”. There is NO POSSIBLE AMOUNT of {B} he can do to prevent both {X} and {Y} from happening; he simply has to choose his poison. If he tries Bob’s strategy, he’ll get hit hard with {X} *AND* {Y}, simultaneously, and probably be pretty pissed about it. On the other hand, if he runs into Charles, and Charles has his shit figured out, then Charles might tell him to tack into a spot where David only has to deal with {X}. Bob and Adam are going to be utterly useless to David, and are going to give advice that keeps him right in the ugly overlap zone.

Then there’s Edgar. Edgar’s fucked. There is no amount of behavior that Edgar can dial into, where he isn’t getting hit hard by {X} *and* {Y}. There’s places way out on the extreme—places where most people are getting slammed hard by {X} or slammed hard by {Y} - where Edgar notices a slight decrease in the contra failure mode. So Edgar probably spends most of his time on the edges, either doing all-B or no-B, and people probably tell him to stop being so black-and-white about B and find a good middle spot like everyone else. Edgar probably wants to punch those people, starting with Adam.

In any real situation, the affordance width is probably determined by things independent of X, Y, and B. Telling Bob to do a little more {B} than Adam, and Charles to do a little less {B} than Adam or Bob, is great advice. But David and Edgar need different advice—they need advice one meta-level up, about how to widen their affordance width between {X} and {Y} so that *some* amount of {B} will be allowed at all.

In most of the situations where this is most salient to me, {B} is a social behavior, and {X} and {Y} are punishments that people mete out to people who do not conform to correct {B}-ness. A lot of the affordance width that Adam and Bob have would probably be identified as ‘halo effects’.

For example, let’s say {B} is assertiveness in a job interview. Let’s say {X} represents coming across as socially weak, while {Y} represents coming across as arrogant. Adam probably has a lot going for him—height, age, socioeconomic background, etc. - that make him just plain likeable, so he can be way more assertive than Charles and seem like a go-getter, or seem way less assertive than Charles and seem like a good team player. Whereas David was probably born the wrong skin color and god-knows-what-else, and Edgar probably has some kind of Autism-spectrum disorder that makes *any* amount of assertiveness seem dangerous, and *any* amount of non-assertiveness seem pathetic.


There’s plenty of other values for {B}, {X} and {Y} that I could have picked; Some examples:

Gender Norms

Adam, as an attractive heterosexual man can appear as butch or as femme as he wants within pretty large limits and people are just going to compliment him on it.

Bob, a less-than attractive heterosexual man can act more masculine without too much fear of reprisal but can’t generally slip into more effeminate behaviours without negative comments about his presumed sexuality.

Charles, as a gay man, needs to ensure that he confirms to gendered expectations as much as possible to avoid derisive stereotyping for effeminate behaviours.

David, as a trans man, is pretty much screwed if he acts the least bit feminine, but can occasionally avoid accusations of transitioning poorly if he loads up on balls out machismo.

Emily, being a trans woman, gets screwed over in that she can’t act effeminate without being accused of re-enforcing sexism and can’t act masculine without getting accused of not-being-trans-enough and pretty much gets assaulted with both negative outcomes simultaneously anyway.

Emily feels sick when she sees Adam dance around in lingerie she fears even buying, David considers punching Bob in the face for always being on his case about going to the gym too much.


Not all examples are social. With exercise, X is when you aren’t really doing anything – heart rate isn’t up, muscles aren’t trying that hard—it’s not bad, but it’s not actually helpful in any way. Y is when you do too much, end up aching and exhausted in a bad way, maybe feel like barfing or just lying down and not moving for a week. Or worse. The goal zone is where it feels good—the pleasant burn, the breath lost but catchable, the actual building of muscle and slimming of fat and etc. Endorphins.

Most people are in the Adam or Beth group. I know people with muscle tissue disorder and a partially collapsed lung, who are Charlie – they prefer powerwalking and yoga. And I know people who are Denise or Elton, with chronic pain and no or very minimal win conditions.