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; filling them in is left as an ex­er­cise for the reader.

Does this make sense to people?