Not all communication is manipulation: Chaperones don’t manipulate proteins

Epistemic sta­tus: Origi­nal work, ex­pla­na­tion of a men­tal model that I de­vel­oped for a few years that brings to­gether knowl­edge from ex­ist­ing fields.

Is all com­mu­ni­ca­tion ma­nipu­la­tion? I hear this sen­ti­ment fre­quently ex­pressed and want to ex­plain in this ar­ti­cle that there’s non­ma­nipu­la­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion by us­ing pro­tein fold­ing as an in­tu­ition pump.

It is com­mon knowl­edge within molec­u­lar biol­ogy that pro­teins fold into their na­tive state. That na­tive state is the folded shape that pos­sesses a min­i­mum of free en­ergy. Find­ing global min­ima is how­ever a hard prob­lem. For big­ger pro­teins, it’s at the time of writ­ing—still im­pos­si­ble to calcu­late the shape.

Even in vivo pro­tein fold­ing is a hard prob­lem. Cells are densely packed with many differ­ent molecules that push against each other. Fre­quently, re­sources are wasted when a pro­tein mis­folds into a shape that’s not its na­tive state.

Na­ture is clever and de­vel­oped a way to help pro­teins fold into their na­tive state. Cells pro­duce chap­er­ones. A chap­er­one sur­rounds an un­folded pro­tein to pro­tect it from out­side in­fluences to help the pro­tein to fold into its na­tive state. A chap­er­one doesn’t need to know the na­tive state of a pro­tein to help the pro­tein fold into that state. In­stead of ma­nipu­lat­ing the pro­tein like a sculp­ture, it holds space for a pro­tein to be safe from out­side in­fluences, while it folds into its na­tive form.

This al­lows a chap­er­one that works in an un­com­pli­cated way to achieve a re­sult that very com­plex ma­chine learn­ing al­gorithms cur­rently don’t achieve. The ma­chine learn­ing al­gorithm tries to figure out the best way for the pro­tein to fold while the chap­er­one just lets the pro­tein find this way by it­self.

The psy­chol­o­gist Carl Rogers ad­vo­cated that good psy­chol­o­gists act in the same way non­ma­nipu­la­tive with their pa­tients. In his view, it’s not the job of the ther­a­pist to solve the prob­lem of their pa­tient by ma­nipu­lat­ing the pa­tient into a healthy form. A good ther­a­pist isn’t like ta sculp­tor sculpts a sculp­ture. The job of the ther­a­pist is rather to hold a space for the pa­tient in which the pa­tient is safe from cer­tain forces that pre­vent the pa­tient from find­ing their healthy au­then­tic na­tive state.

I don’t in­tend to ar­gue for non­ma­nipu­la­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion from a moral per­spec­tive. In cases where you know how to fix the prob­lem of the per­son you are talk­ing with and are con­fi­dent that the other per­son will fol­low your ad­vice, go ahead. If you don’t know what will help a per­son, tak­ing a non­ma­nipu­la­tive ap­proach is of­ten more effec­tive than giv­ing the per­son ad­vice that they have already heard a dozen times.

If you tell an obese per­son that they should lose weight again, you add ad­di­tional stress which can make it harder for them to think about the is­sue. In the Roge­rian model effec­tive change isn’t about cre­at­ing enough pres­sure by tel­ling the obese to lose weight till they fi­nally get it. For an obese per­son who feels shame for be­ing obese, it can be hard to clearly think about the is­sue when they are alone. Pro­vid­ing the per­son a space where they can speak about their challenges in a way where they aren’t feel­ing judged can help them to make progress for them­selves.

There’s a mys­tic qual­ity to be­ing non­ma­nipu­la­tive. Even Carl Rogers, who pro­posed the ideal, that all in­ter­ac­tions should be non­ma­nipu­la­tive, some­times fell short of it. For prac­ti­cal pur­poses it’s of­ten more use­ful to do what makes sense in the mo­ment and what helps the other than to live up to an ideal of be­ing perfectly non­ma­nipu­la­tive.

On the other hand, hav­ing a men­tal model of what it means to be non­ma­nipu­la­tive can be very helpful to un­der­stand com­mu­ni­ca­tion prac­tices like Roge­rian psy­chother­apy, Gestalt Ther­apy and Cir­cling.

I in­vite you to ex­plore com­mu­ni­cat­ing in a way that holds the space for oth­ers to find them­selves.