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.