Romance, misunderstanding, social stances, and the human LLM

1. Cross-sex friendships

I saw a tweet recently that was talking about one of the possible conditions where (heterosexual) men and women have an easy time being “just friends”:

if the “lovers” symbol energy is already bound up in something else, and/​or if there is another archetypal relationship that holds more power and more draw for these two, both enough to actually crowd out the call of “lovers” equilibrium

I liked that, but it probably isn’t very clear to everyone. So let me try to explain how I understand it.

A friendship can bring up feelings of affection, closeness, vulnerability, and even sexual attraction. Many people might associate those primarily with a romantic relationship. If the feelings and the association are strong enough and other necessary conditions[1] are in place, the people may feel drawn toward the “shape” of that association.

In “Goodhart’s Law inside the human mind”, I talked about how automatic pattern completion is a pervasive aspect of human thought. If your balance is slightly off, it feels wrong, and (assuming that you are a healthy able-bodied adult) you are automatically drawn into a posture that feels more right. Or if you have learned a skill slightly wrong and have to unlearn bits of it, it’s going to be difficult at first, because the “right” way of doing it feels wrong. Until you relearn what the “right” shape is, you will be automatically drawn back into your old pattern.

There’s a model[2] that developing expertise in something is all about learning to perceive things as having particular kinds of shapes, that your mind/​body can then automatically fill in.[3]

  • Learning to walk involves developing a sense of it’s like to maintain balance while being upright and moving forward. Eventually, your body comes to automatically carry out the right pattern for maintaining that feeling and correcting deviations from it.

  • Learning to be polite in conversation involves developing a sense of what it’s like to be polite to someone. Eventually, your mind comes to automatically carry out the right pattern for maintaining that feeling and correcting deviations from it.

  • Learning to solve systems of algebraic equations involves developing a sense of what it’s like to carry out the right steps to solve them. Eventually, your mind comes to automatically carry out the right pattern for maintaining that feeling and correcting deviations from it.

Likewise, if someone has a stored pattern saying that a romantic relationship involves affection, closeness, and vulnerability… and all of those are present in a particular friendship, then it may feel wrong for the sexual attraction to be missing. Like a pattern that’s subtly deviating from what it should be, with there being an automatic impulse towards correcting it by adding a sexual component.

There’s an observation that many men don’t get to experience emotional vulnerability with their male friends. Instead, they associate it as something that can only happen with a woman they are romantically involved with.

A female friend of mine once had to politely tell a male friend of hers that she wasn’t romantically interested in him. “But why have you spent all this time hanging out with me and having these deep conversations with me, then?”, was his response. “Uhh, because we’re friends?”, was hers.

It was like the pattern of “an emotionally deep friendship with a woman without sex and romance” wasn’t available for him, so anything that was creating emotional depth felt like it was obviously moving towards the “romantic relationship” pattern.

Also, you can even have sexual attraction in an otherwise Platonic relationship. People might flirt with each other without ever intending or having an interest in escalating beyond that. Yet, if someone has a pattern where sexual attraction and sexual acts are intrinsically linked together, then this may become a self-fulfilling prophecy where experiencing attraction toward someone might make the person feel like they are compelled to escalate their acts.

But if one’s mind has available the pattern of “a friendship that includes affection, closeness, vulnerability, and sexual attraction, while still remaining Platonic”… then it can instead autocomplete to that.

Or if one has a very strong pattern of “I will only have one romantic relationship at a time” and is in a committed relationship, then the thought of one of their friendships also turning romantic may just be so incompatible with that overarching pattern, that it never happens. Any potential for romance gets overwritten by the stronger pattern.

2. Cross-sex friendship frustration as mismatched social stances

There’s a particular kind of pattern that I experience, that I’ve taken to calling a social stance. You could say that it’s a special case of a pattern that one wants to either experience or avoid, where other people’s behavior is also included in the pattern.

Suppose that I’m mostly only aware of two possible relationship patterns that I can have with my friends. One is that of a somewhat emotionally distant friendship, and the other is that of an emotionally close romance.

A friend now pulls me towards the “romance” pattern, so I start doing things that I feel are associated with that pattern—being vulnerable, telling the other person how much I like that person, and so on.

And now I have the expectation that the other person will reciprocate—that when I act in ways I associate with romance, the other person will also do similar things. For a physical analogy, if friendship is walking with each other and romance is dancing together, then I might start leaning towards the other person and extending my hand—expecting them to grab the hand and join in a dance, hopefully before I lean forward so much that I fall.

I’m using this metaphor because in my experience there’s something of an almost kinesthetic feeling of different “stances” people might be in, in different social situations. And someone not sharing the same vocabulary of stances may mean that I feel metaphorically “out of balance”, stumbling until I get back to some more recognizable stance.

I lean towards another person, intending to settle into a “lover” stance. I’m expecting the other to likewise lean toward me, into a “lover” stance. But suppose that the other person instead takes the “close Platonic friend” stance and only leans forward a little bit, and then stops—then I might be caught off-balance and not know what stance I am expected to take.

In this situation, if I lack the “close Platonic friend” stance, I can only see the other person as being in either the “friend” or the “lover” stance. To me, it may also feel like they started moving towards the “lovers” stance, only to then pull back and go back to the “friends” stance.

A less metaphorical way of describing the experience is that it feels like the other person is acting erratically and inconsistently, maybe even leading me on. Do they want to be lovers or not? Sometimes they seem to want that, when they are emotionally vulnerable, but at other times they don’t seem to, when they reject romantic advances. What’s going on?

In this situation, I see there being a “two people becoming lovers” pattern and I try to complete it, the same way I would try to complete other patterns. But as it involves two people, I can’t complete it alone—I can only do my part and then let the other person do theirs. And since they are perceiving the situation through the lens of a different pattern, they don’t respond the way that I am expecting (indeed, they might be totally unaware of the fact that there’s anything going on that I might be frustrated by).

Some of this may happen even if one has an intellectual understanding of what’s going on. Expectations about social stances are frequently stored as emotional schemas. Even if one part of my mind has an intellectual concept of a deep Platonic friendship, the part of my mind that experiences the other person’s behavior as ambivalent doesn’t necessarily have it. So I may be able to make the conscious decision to stay as just friends, even as this causes discomfort as different interactions keep swinging my emotional expectations between “this person is just my friend and I should have the ‘friend’ stance” and “this person could become my romantic partner and I can move towards the ‘lovers’ stance”.

This is not the only possible failure mode. It can also happen that I understand the other person is not interested in me (possibly because they are already in a committed monogamous relationship) and I’m actually not romantically interested in them either. But, I am afraid that they will interpret certain kinds of emotional intimacy as me trying to get them to do something inappropriate. As a result, I end up avoiding the kind of intimacy that I might want, but fear would send the wrong message.

This isn’t necessarily wrong—if they do have a pattern where such intimacy is only associated with sex or romance, then they might very well interpret things in that way. But if I don’t see this as a pattern that people might or might not share, then it might never even occur to me that this person (as well as that person’s partner) could also be totally fine with that level of intimacy.

3. The unhelpful interviewer’s stance

A book on counseling technique that I was reading included this excerpt (thankfully as an example of what not to do):

Nor is it necessary to be coy and avoid giving information, as in this example:

CLIENT: So how do people find a job in this area?

INTERVIEWER: You’re really wondering about that.


INTERVIEWER: You’re curious how people get jobs.

CLIENT: Yes, I am.

INTERVIEWER: And you wish someone could give you some ideas.

CLIENT: Yes! Do you have any?

INTERVIEWER: You’d like to know if I have any ideas.

If you’re like me, that passage was almost painful to read. I imagine that the client is getting increasingly frustrated during this conversation—in the second-to-last line, I read them almost getting excited that the interviewer is finally about to answer, only for the client’s hopes to be dashed again. Or maybe the client didn’t get excited at that point, and it was rather their frustration building up to a point that they asked the question a bit more pointedly.

The way people usually expect conversation to go is that a question-asking stance is followed by something like an answering stance from the other person. You ask how people find a job, and the other person answers to the best of their ability—or says that they don’t know, or at least somehow acknowledges that an ask has been made. Quite possibly, the client may perceive the interviewer as having a stance that’s something like “being intentionally frustrating”.

This may or may not be the interviewer’s actual experience. If, for instance, the interviewer has been taught that reflecting the other person’s words back is just good active listening (and they have taken this lesson a little too far), the interviewer may experience themselves as being in some other stance, such as “being a good and empathetic listener who encourages the client to find their own solutions”.

Regardless of what the interviewer’s experience is, the way I imagine the client responding is by a desire to dislodge the interviewer from that stance and get them to just answer the fucking question.

4. Social stances as physical stances and vice versa

I suspect that these things feel to me natural to describe in terms of “stances” because they are in fact employing some of the same machinery involved in physical stances.

A very physical kind of stance might be someone aggressively yelling and coming at you. You might respond to this by getting startled and instinctively drawing back. The aggressive person has something like an attacking stance, while you have a defensive stance. Or you might respond more aggressively yourself, in which case you might go into a fighting stance.

These stances mobilize different kinds of reactions and processes in your body because they are preparing you for different kinds of physical responses (attacking or defending/​fleeing). You orient to them differently, both in terms of literal physical orientation and what kinds of things you pay attention to (a person in an aggressive stance might look for openings in their opponent’s defenses, and a person in a frightened stance might look around to find help or an escape route).

In the example above, the interviewer might be focusing on ways in which they feel like they are doing “good listening”, while client may be focusing on the question of “how do I get this fucker to respond already”. And you also orient differently to a person depending on whether they are a friend or a lover—which also includes differences on a purely physical level and the kinds of hormones etc. that your body releases when interacting with them.

If you are having a physical fight with another person, you probably want to maintain the kinds of stances that let you fight well while sabotaging their stance—so that they e.g. fall down on their face and can’t defend themselves. And sabotaging the interviewer’s stance may be exactly what the client would have wanted to do.

If you are a trained martial artist, you may have been taught to maintain different kinds of explicitly defined stances. They have become patterns that your body seeks to automatically maintain and to transition between them in the right circumstances. And if your opponent goes into a particular stance, you may know to react by going into another one yourself.

Separately, in dance, you have various positions where you hold your body in a particular way while trusting your dance partner to hold their body in a compatible way. If the other person doesn’t move in ways that are compatible with yours, the dance may fall apart. It’s collaborative rather than confrontational, but it still involves responding to the other person’s pattern with a pattern of your own.

Social stances feel to me analogous to physical stances in that people learn to experience themselves as being in one stance and another person as being in a different stance. They also learn various expectations about how to transition from one stance to another. These transitions may be collaborative or adversarial. And like physical stances, it may feel acutely unstable and uncomfortable to be in a position that’s partway between two stances.

5. Misunderstood stances

I’ve been in situations where it feels like the other person perceives me to be inhabiting a stance I don’t feel like I have. I say something and they respond in anger, but I don’t quite get what exactly it is that they’re arguing against.

It feels like they’re trying to push me but I’m kind of incorporeal. So they keep pushing but it doesn’t really affect me in any way, and I just remain faintly puzzled.

Sometimes I’m upset at someone and try to lash at them with my words, but it feels like their stance is off from what would be required for my offensive to work. As a result, it feels like my words keep either glancing off or missing entirely. In those cases, I feel like their stance is that they are saying X, so I try to argue against the X—but they probably experience themselves as saying something completely different.

This kind of thing seems to happen pretty often online.

Person A: “I like blueberries.”

Person B: “So you think that romantic comedies should be banned?! Don’t you have any human decency?”

Person A: “Huh, what?”

Person B: “Just admit that you are secretly jealous of all the actors in romantic comedies!”

Person A: “...I only said that I like blueberries?”

Person B: “See? See? You said you like blueberries! So you admit that you hate romantic comedies!”

Person A: “… uhh, okay.”

6. A few more stances and related expectations

Here are a few more examples[4] of expectations that people might have—sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly—that I can experience in terms of stances. Many of these have a symmetric complement, e.g. if B expects that A expressing upset puts an obligation to B to take care of that upset, then A may also have (or not have) that expectation.

  • Person A taking a stance of being self-deprecating and expecting person B to take a supportive stance in return (“Now I know my art isn’t good…” “Don’t say that, you have great art!”)

  • Person A sharing something about themselves and person B sharing something of a similar nature in return, where B finds themselves as taking a reciprocative stance and expecting A to react positively (“I’ve been having difficulties getting my taxes done” “Oh yeah that always happens to me too”)

  • Person A expressing upset and person B feeling like this puts an obligation on B to take a helping stance

  • Person A being ask culture and asking B for a favor, expecting that B can choose how to respond to A’s asking stance

  • Person A being guess culture and feeling like they are compelled to respond to an ask with a helping stance

  • Person A acting helpless and saying that they’re unable to do something, with the expectation that this will shift person B into a rescuer stance

  • Person A coming across as helpless to person B, with B feeling like A is basically begging for help and like B has to comply with a rescuer stance to A’s victim-like helpless stance (“Okay let me do that for you”) (“Hey I never asked for your help”) (“Well what was I supposed to do, just leave you hanging there?”)

  • Person A asking if person B wants to hang out, getting a “would like to but too busy right now”, and expecting that B will feel pressured if A persists in asking again later—causing A to take a respectful stance of not asking again

  • Person A asking if person B wants to hang out, getting a “would like to but too busy right now”, and expecting that B will feel glad if A takes the initiative in asking again later—causing A to take a friendly stance of asking again

  • Person A sharing something about their feelings, and expecting person B to take a stance of offering emotional support (“Things are going really badly at work today…” “Oh no, how do you feel about it?”)

  • Person A sharing something about their feelings, and expecting person B to take a stance of problem-solving (“Things are going really badly at work today…” “Oh no, what have you tried to change that?”)

  • Person A taking an upset stance in response to something that person B said, and expecting to B to take a guilty stance that implies B was in the wrong to upset A. (“What? That pisses me off.” “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t meant to…”)

  • Person A taking an upset stance in response to something that person B said, and not expecting B to take any stance in particular (“What? That’s pisses me off.” “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t meant to…” “It’s okay, I didn’t mean you did anything wrong—I was just sharing how I felt”)

  • Person A having an enthusiastic stance about something and expecting person B to also react with an enthusiastic stance (“Did you hear about Elvis coming to town? Isn’t that great!” “Oh wow Elvis?”)

  • Person A taking a playful teasing stance and expecting person B to respond with a similarly playful stance (“Hey, did you get lost on your way here again?” “Haha, you know me, navigationally challenged!”)

  • Person A showing vulnerability and expecting person B to take a comforting and reassuring stance (“I’m feeling really insecure about my presentation tomorrow.” “Don’t worry, you’ve prepared well, and I know you’ll do great.”)

  • Person A taking an advice-seeking stance and expecting person B to respond with an expertise stance (“I’m not sure which career path to choose, any thoughts?” “Well, considering your skills and interests, I would recommend...”)

  • Person A expressing excitement about an accomplishment and expecting person B to take a congratulatory stance (“I just got a promotion at work!” “That’s amazing, congratulations!”)

  • Person A taking a defensive stance during a disagreement and expecting person B to take a conciliatory stance (“I don’t think I was wrong in that situation.” “Okay, I understand where you’re coming from, let’s find a compromise.”)

  • Person A admitting a mistake and expecting person B to take a forgiving stance (“I’m sorry I forgot our anniversary.” “It’s okay, we all make mistakes. Let’s celebrate it this weekend instead.”)

  • Person A sharing a personal struggle and expecting person B to take a compassionate stance (“I’ve been feeling really down lately.” “I’m sorry to hear that, do you want to talk about it?”)

  • Person A taking a supportive stance towards person B’s goals and expecting person B to feel motivated and appreciative (“I believe in you, you can achieve anything you set your mind to!” “Thank you, that means a lot to me.”)

  • Person A expressing a need for space or solitude and expecting person B to take an understanding stance (“I think I need some time alone right now.” “Of course, take all the time you need.”)

  • Person A sharing a humorous story or joke and expecting person B to take an amused stance (“So then the chicken says, ‘Why did the human cross the road?’” “Haha, that’s a good one!”)

  • Person A expressing a concern and expecting person B to take a validating stance (“I’m worried about this upcoming deadline.” “I understand, it’s a lot of pressure, but I know you can handle it.”)

  • Person A taking an appreciative stance and expecting person B to take a humble stance (“Your presentation was fantastic!” “Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it, but I couldn’t have done it without my team.”)

  • Person A sharing a personal interest or hobby and expecting person B to take an interested stance (“I’ve been getting into photography lately.” “That’s cool! What kind of photos do you enjoy taking?”)

7. Why is all of this interesting?

Someone might (somewhat uncharitably) say that this whole post is just a complicated way of saying that “people might have mismatched expectations of each other”. And in a way, it is. Why am I spending so many words on this?

I think the important thing to notice is that if you can frame this kind of thing as being about mismatched expectations, you’re already halfway to the point of solving the problem. But what commonly happens is that these kinds of things do not feel like “expectations”, they feel like reality.

Imagine that you are a large language model. You are given the sentence and you continue it. You don’t have any sense of what it is that you are doing, you just recognize the pattern and you complete it. To the extent you can be said to “think” at all, you just think that this is the correct pattern.

Now imagine that you are a human, whose cognition does a lot of pattern recognition and is filled with entities that act like LLMs. You have seen lots of people act in a particular way in a particular situation, and you yourself have been both rewarded for doing so, and occasionally punished for not doing so.

When you next the hear that question, the LLM-like entity in your mind doesn’t really know that it has been trained by a combination of pattern recognition and reinforcement learning to perceive this as the correct pattern and to output it. To the extent that it can be said to think at all, it just thinks that “this is the pattern to output here”, and part of its prediction about what’s going to happen next is output into the global workspace of your consciousness.

Suppose now that its model of the situation is wrong, somehow.

In the theory of predictive processing, precision refers to the amount of uncertainty that a prediction has—if you are in a dark room where you can’t see very well, the signal from your eyes has low precision, and you are more likely to fall back on your priors of what you expect to see (the thing in front of you kind of looks like a person, but you know you’re in your own home with nobody else around, so it’s probably just your lamp). Whereas if you could see very well and you saw what looked like a person standing in your room, the signal from your eyes would be assigned high precision. This would overrule your prior belief that you are home alone and you would then be quite surprised (and probably startled).

If there is a particular pattern that has always seemed correct to you, and you think you understand the social situation well, then the predictions of the LLM-like entity in your mind might be treated as having high precision. When a pattern fails to complete the way it was predicted to, the brain might simply ignore that failure as noise and fall back to its prior of “this is the correct pattern”. As a result, the LLM-like entity may keep trying to complete the same pattern over and over, despite it failing to work—even as the system as a whole notices that something is off, possibly reacting with increasing frustration. Since its own prediction and behavior is treated as being correct, the reasonable inference is that there’s something wrong with the environment that’s causing the frustration—typically, that the other person is doing something wrong.

But if your brain also happens to contain the pattern of “this is the feeling of I and someone else having mismatched patterns”… then another LLM-like entity observing the contents of your workspace might notice that. It can then bring up the hypothesis that maybe there’s actually nothing wrong with either of you, you just have incompatible patterns.

In my experience, there is a particular feeling (or felt sense) associated with both my experience of my own stance, and my experience of the stance that someone else is in. If I notice any of the following:

  • That there’s a social situation where I have the expectation that if I do X, then I will get something or another person will react in a particular way, and that expectation keeps getting frustrated

  • That I find I myself repeatedly taking some social action even after seeing that it didn’t work before

  • That I feel disappointed or angry at someone because I feel like they didn’t “do their part” or reciprocate to something that I offered, even though I intellectually think that they were under no obligation to do so

Then that’s a cue for noticing that I might have an implicit pattern about how I expect particular stances to interact with each other. (In other words, my mind autocompletes any of the above cues to the pattern of “I’m now acting based off an implicit pattern that may not be shared”.)

This post is an attempt to help in building up a meta-pattern (or if you already have one like that, making it clearer and offering more examples) of “this is a situation where my social patterns might be mismatched with someone else’s”, that then lets you consider other possible actions when you notice it. It’s very useful, in my experience, to have “mismatched patterns” as a pattern that one’s mind can recognize. And if I only said “there are situations where you have mismatched expectations”, that wouldn’t be very helpful in helping to actually notice when you were in a situation like that.

I have used the analogy of a stance because to me it feels like there’s an almost kinesthetic component involved in my felt sense of the states that I describe as “stances”. If there’s something similar in your experience, describing it in these terms might draw your attention to it and help you notice it. Of course, it’s also possible that your mind works differently, and you need to find something else that works for you. That’s why I have also described some other possible cues, such as the sense of increasing frustration that I imagined the client to be having when the interviewer wasn’t responding to this question.

  1. ^

    Like being straight or bisexual when the friend is of the opposite sex.

  2. ^

    The works that I’m mostly heavily drawing on are Peak, Sources of Power, and The Art of Learning, though it has been a little while since I read any of them, so my wording may be quite far from their literal wording.

  3. ^

    In these examples, I’m using the terms “sense” and “feeling” in a way that may be slightly nonstandard, in that I assume that they can also be unconscious. For example, I will sometimes have the experience of realizing that I’ve been feeling hungry or otherwise physically uncomfortable for a while, but hadn’t been consciously aware of it before. And the kinds of feelings and senses that I’m talking about here are often mostly unconscious or just barely on the edge of conscious awareness unless something either goes wrong—you might not notice it when you’re feeling in balance, but you will probably notice when you feel out of balance—or the person has a practice like meditation or Focusing that’s explicitly about bringing those feelings into awareness. The literature that I’m drawing on is more agnostic about this, and often uses more generic terms like “mental representation” to describe what exactly it is that a person develops.

  4. ^

    Thanks to GPT-4 for several of these, including some which I felt were better than my original examples.