I noticed recently that, although the term “affordance” seems to be in the LessWrong lexicon, there isn’t any article about it. I think it might be one of those concepts which you currently have to pick up from CFAR, or learn through osmosis. This seems like an important concept, so I’m going to attempt to do it justice in this essay.

The easiest way to define the term is with examples: a button affords pushing, a lever affords pulling, etc. An affordance is a vividly present option for action. Note that affordances vary from person to person: one person may have the affordance to dance at a party, while another person lacks that affordance.

When I google “affordances”, I mainly get results about UX design and human-computer interaction. This makes sense: a big part of designing products (be they software or hardware) is about making sure the user has all the right affordances. If you design a new kitchen implement which requires a pumping action, you want the user to immediately have a “pumping action” affordance when they see it.

The biggest hurdle to having an affordance is raising the possibility to attention. But that’s not quite all there is to it. For example, if you’re struggling to ask someone out on a date, but you just can’t, I would say you lack the affordance. You explicitly know what you want to do, but you “don’t have that menu option”.

A Toy Model

I’m going to use a system 1 /​ system 2 model to explain what might be going on.

System 1 has a vast array of possible actions it could take at any time; at least, all possible combinations of muscle tensions across time. To simplify planning, system 1 abstracts a small number of possibilities for our attention. We usually don’t even consider options that aren’t on this list, because this list just is the action-space to us, at least when we’re not thinking hard about it.

On the other hand, system 2 has its own abstract, simplified view of the world, and its own role to play in planning. Sometimes, then, system 2′s idea of the action-space will get out of sync with system 1′s. Thus, a shy person finds themselves tongue-tied when they try to ask an attractive person out. System 1 doesn’t present that menu option: we lack that affordance. If system 2 can manage to override system 1 at all, we’re turning off the auto-pilot, and steering manually. Forming coherent sentences suddenly seems difficult. We don’t know what to do with our hands.

System 1 is quite intelligent about which affordances to bring out. Often this is based on aspects of our self-image. (You can think of your affordances as part of your self-model: what you expect yourself to be capable of.) For example, when I briefly experimented with polyamory, I felt a huge shift in my affordances taking place, in a way which felt “automatic”/​”outside of my control”.

Engineering Your Affordances

More affordances

From a CFAR perspective, one of the most important things about affordances is that you may lack important affordances. When you lack an affordance, you’re often blind to that fact, because it’s just not something which exists in your attention.

As I mentioned, sometimes all you need to do is bring something to attention. “You mean I can just bake my own cookies any time I want?!” There are a number of exercises you can do to try to see new possibilities like this.

  • Be around other people who may do things differently from you.

  • Try and see yourself from a 3rd person perspective. What would you want for this person? What could this person be doing, that they aren’t seeing? Sometimes you know perfectly well how other people do things, but don’t apply that to yourself for some reason.

  • Simply raise the question: what could I be doing? Sometimes we’re stuck in the system 1 menu options, and just have to engage system 2 to analyze the situation in more detail.

Sometimes, however, just raising possibilities to attention isn’t enough. Sometimes we know perfectly well which affordances we’re missing, but we just … can’t.

(Note that in my model, this is very different from a situation where you have the relevant affordance, but never in fact do the thing. “I have the menu option, but I never press it” is different from “I don’t have the menu option”. However, I could understand disagreement with this distinction, since there isn’t an obvious difference in behavior.)

In those circumstances, system 2 models X as a possible action, but system 1 lacks the abstraction: it can’t smoothly generate a motor-plan which corresponds to what system 2 has in mind. Some reasons why this might be:

  • Maybe system 1 just needs practice, to actually try out motor sequences for the task. Let’s say, for example, that you teach a class and you want everyone to have the affordance to chat on the class forum you’ve set up. You might make an assignment for everyone to post one question on the forum and post one comment on someone else’s question. This ensures that forum participation is a concrete action represented in everyone’s system 1, rather than merely an abstract possibility in their system 2 world-model.

  • However, we should be cautious to “just force ourselves to try it” if we’re getting strong feelings of resistance from system 1. System 1 might be stopping us for an important reason. In this case, we want to use gentle exploration (similar to exposure therapy), and we want to try to figure out whether system 1 knows something important that system 2 is failing to recognize. For example, maybe we’re afraid to talk to our boss about problems we’re having at work because we expect our boss would take it badly. Rather than assuming those feeling are irrational and pushing through them, we can try to figure out where they’re coming from and whether they’re justified.

One CFAR class used the example of stretching before a workout: apparently, some research suggests that stretching involves a strong cognitive component. The brain has a body-model which includes information about which physical configurations are safe vs unsafe. What we experience as a physical inability to stretch beyond a specific point, is often system 1 putting on the brakes before we hurt ourselves. However, system 1′s body-model is not perfect. Stretching allows us to gently explore what happens when we put ourselves in different positions, and the safety information we gain often allows system 1 to relax some limitations.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy would advise us to cash out the feeling of resistance into a hypothesis, and come up with a way to test that hypothesis safely. For example, if we expect our boss to blow up at every little thing, we might be able to test that hypothesis with something small before trying to talk to our boss about what’s really bothering us.

The connection between affordances and identity which I mentioned earlier suggests another thing we can try: play with our identity in order to shift affordances. Another CFAR class I took involved a technique like this, using a time-boxed improv session to experiment with alternative personality traits.

Less Affordances

The previous section explored the idea of increasing our affordances. However, system 1 limits our affordances for good reason!

  • We can’t include everything on our list of affordances without experiencing cognitive overload. That’s the whole reason the list exists in the first place. Adding an item might effectively boot some other item, due to our limited attention.

  • Keeping something off the list of affordances might be a good way to avoid it. For example, do you wish you had more of an affordance to lie? Probably not, right?

An affordance is a lot like an “open loop” in the Getting Things Done sense. If this is true, then if you have your phone in your pocket, the possibility of taking it out to check something takes some sliver of subconscious attention. On this model, you can increase your attention by removing things like this.

Just as you might place a book prominently near where you sit in order to give yourself the affordance of reading it, you might similarly take away any distractions from around where you habitually sit, to decrease affordances which might be distracting you.

Relatedly, you might hide the cookie jar in a cupboard so that you don’t think of taking one every time you pass by it.

The Affordance Model of Human Behavior

I want to finish off this post with what I consider to be my one personal contribution: a very simple model of human behavior. This model says: “we can mostly predict what humans will do by what they have an affordance to do.”

As some famous mountaineers have said when asked why climb Mount Everest: “Because it is there.” According to this theory, the major reason people do things is because it’s a salient possibility.

Why do people collect tiny spoons? Because it is there! Why do people try for high-scoring spots on the work pinball machine? Because it is there!

Some children go through a phase where they have a serious biting problem, frequently biting the fingers and other body parts of other children or adults. Why?? What purpose could this serve in the mind of the child? One possibility occurs to me: “because it’s there!” When I try to put myself in the mindset of such a child, an outstretched hand is simply a wonderful opportunity. It doesn’t have to be about anger or any desire to harm. The “biting” action is simply what an outstretched hand affords.

I am a decent juggler. For a time, juggling was one of my main social crutches at parties. It gave me an easy way to interact with people. However, that interaction often involved me trying to do tricks, while non-jugglers tried to distract me or steal my juggling balls or similar antics. This isn’t particularly difficult. Nothing especially satisfying happens when they succeed. So why is this so common?

I think it’s similar to the reason why a child often wants to knock over another child’s block tower. It’s not out of spite. It’s just because it’s there! A button affords pushing, a lever affords pulling, and a tower affords toppling. People interfere with my juggling because they don’t have other ways to interact. It’s not out of some general mischievous desire to spoil what others are trying to do. It’s just that “make the balls fall” is an affordance, whereas actual collaboration with the juggling isn’t.

(Which is why my next move is to try to rope them into pair-juggling tricks, which can often be executed successfully even by non-jugglers. This puts a more constructive option on the table.)

Another important aspect of this model is social contagion. For example: why do people keep diaries? Most of the reason is “explained” by the fact that they’ve simply heard it’s a thing you can do. On this model, a whole lot of human behavior is explained by assuming humans are dumb imitation learners who mostly decide what to do by looking around and copying what other people are doing.

Now, obviously, the affordance model of human behavior isn’t going to be perfect. Clearly there are other important factors. But I think it’s a useful model nonetheless. It’s too easy, otherwise, to underweight the importance of mere salience. Get too caught up in a climber’s personal story about why they climbed Mt. Everest, and you might forget that statistically, a whole lot of whether-someone-climbs-mt-everest is probably statistically explained by whether they encountered situations which created the affordance.