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Avoiding Emotional Dominance Spirals

6 Post author: Zvi 30 March 2017 12:44AM

Follow Up to: Dominance, care, and social touch

One thing Ben said in his latest post especially resonated with me, and I wanted to offer some expanded thoughts on it:

Sometimes, when I feel let down because someone close to me dropped the ball on something important, they try to make amends by submitting to me. This would be a good appeasement strategy if I mainly felt bad because I wanted them to assign me a higher social rank. But, the thing I want is actually the existence of another agent in the world who is independently looking out for my interests. So when they respond by submitting, trying to look small and incompetent, I perceive them as shirking. My natural response to this kind of shirking is anger - but people who are already trying to appease me by submitting tend to double down on submission if they notice I'm upset at them - which just compounds the problem!

My main strategy for fixing this has been to avoid leaning on this sort of person for anything important. I've been experimenting with instead explicitly telling them I don't want submission and asking them to take more responsibility, and this occasionally works a bit, but it's slow and frustrating and I'm not sure it's worth the effort.

This resonated on multiple levels.

There is the basic problem of someone dropping the ball, and offering submission rather than fixing the problem on some level. As someone who tried to run a company, this is especially maddening. I do not want you to show your submission, I want you to tell me how  you are going to fix what went wrong, and avoid making the same mistake again! I want you to tell me how you have learned from this experience. That makes everyone perform better. I also want to see you take responsibility. These are all highly useful, whereas submission usually is not. However, you have to hammer this, over and over again, for not only some but most people - too many people to never rely on such folks.

Different people have different reactions they want to see when someone lets them down or makes a mistake. I have one set of reactions I use at work, one set I use at home, another I use with other rationalists, and so on, and for people I know well, I customize further. 

The bigger problem, also described here, is the anger feedback loop, which the main thing I want to talk about. Ben gives an example of it:

A: Sorry I let you down, I suck. And other submissive things.

Ben (gets angry): Why are you doing that? I don't want that reaction!

A (seeing Ben is mad): Oh, I made you mad! So sorry I let you down, I suck. And other even more submissive things than before.

Ben (get angrier): Aaaarrgggh!

 ...and so on, usually until A also gets angry at Ben (in my experience), and a real fight ensues that often eclipses by far the original problem. This is Ben's particular form of this, but more common to my experience is this, the most basic case:

A: You screwed up! 

B: You're angry at me! How dare you get angry at me? I'm angry!

A: How dare you get angry at me for being angry? I'm even angrier!

B: How dare you get angry at me for being angry at your being angry? Oh boy am I angry!

When things go down this path, something very minor can turn into a huge fight. Whether or not you signed up for it, you're in a dominance contest. One or both participants has to make a choice to not be angry, or at least to act as if they are not angry. Sometimes this will be after a large number of iterations, which will make this task very difficult, and it plays like a game of chicken: One person credibly commits to being completely incapable of diffusing the situation before it results in destruction of property, so the other now has no choice but to appear to put themselves in the required emotional state, at a time when they feel themselves beyond justified, which usually involves saying things like "I'm not angry" a lot when that claim is not exactly credible. Having to do all this really sucks.

The only real alternative I know about is to physically leave, and wait for things to calm down. 

Then there are the even worse variations, where the original sin that you are fighting over is failure to be in the proper emotional state. In these cases, not only is submission demanded, but voluntary, happy, you-are-right style submission. You can end up with this a lot:

A: I demand X!

B: OK, fine, X.

A: How dare you not be happy about this? 

B: I'm happy about it. 

A: No you're not! You're pretending to be happy about it! How dare you!

B: No, really, I am! I am blameworthy for many things, but for this I am not blameworthy, I have the emotional response you demand oh mighty demander!

A: I don't believe you.

And so on - and it can go on quite a while. With begging and pleading. B was my father. A lot. It is painful even to listen to. It was painful to even write this.

So essentially, and I have been in situations like this including at various jobs, you end up on constant emotional notice. You must, at all times, represent the right response to everything that is happening. So you try hard to do this at all times, and perhaps often this is helpful, because people acting cheerful can make things better. But what happens the moment this facade starts to break down? Too many things push your buttons in a row? This happens at exactly the moment when it has become too expensive to keep this up. Then they detect it.

They tell you this is bad. You must be happy about this; you have no right to be upset! And of course, now you're also mad about them telling you what you have no right to be mad about... and the cycle begins. Cause your job just got a lot harder, and if you slip again, it's going to get really ugly.

Even when reasonably big things are at stake and there is actual disagreement, this is where most of the real ugliness seems to come from - one party decides the emotional response of the other party is illegitimate and their reaction to this reinforces the reaction. 

This is something we need to be super vigilant about not doing.

Within reason, and somewhat beyond it, people who want to be upset need to be allowed to be upset. As long as they can do it quietly they need to be allowed to be angry. If the person is being disruptive and actively wrecking things, that is something else, but if someone decides to let the wookie win, and you are the wookie, you need to let them let the wookie win. The argument really is over. If you've got what you want on the substance, that has to be good enough.

They also need to be allowed to be submissive. People instinctively are going into this mode in order to avoid these fights and dominance contests. Yes, it's not the most productive thing they could be doing right now. You can explain to them later in a different conversation that this isn't necessary with you. Eventually they might even believe it. For now, let them have this. If you do not, what is likely to happen is, as Ben observes, they interpret your being upset with them as them not being submissive enough. That is a reasonable guess, and more often then not they will be right. 

Rising above this is, of course, even better. Here's something along those lines that happened to me recently.

For a while I had been busy, and therefore mostly out of rationalist circles. I had been spending a lot of time in other good (if not quite as good) epistemic circles, and I'd learned the habit, when someone calls you out on having screwed up, of acknowledging I had screwed up, apologizing, fixing it to the extent that was still relevant, and assuring that I knew how to not have it happen again. If everyone in the world started doing that, I would take that reaction in a second, and life would be a lot better.

It's not as good as understanding on a deep level exactly why you made the mistake in the first place. So the other person got frustrated, expecting better and holding me to a higher standard, and I was then called out on my reaction to being called outbecause the other person respected me enough to do that: I don't want your apology, I want you to figure out why you did that and I think you can do it. I then caught myself doing the same submission thing a second time, which resulted in me realizing what was wrong in a much more important sense than the original error. As a result, instead of simply putting a band-aid over the local issue, I got a moment that stuck with me. 

We should all strive for such a standard - from both sides.

[Cross-posted at my personal blog]

 

 

 

Comments (18)

Comment author: jimmy 30 March 2017 02:29:25AM *  5 points [-]

There is the basic problem of someone dropping the ball, and offering submission rather than fixing the problem on some level. As someone who tried to run a company, this is especially maddening. I do not want you to show your submission, I want you to tell me how you are going to fix what went wrong,

This isn't submission, this is cowering away from your expectation for them to submit to you. Actually submitting means swallowing your pride and eating whatever criticism is given to you. It hurts. Saying "Sorry I let you down, I suck" is a way of avoiding facing the responsibility you want to place on their shoulders for them to figure out what they did wrong and fix it.

The purpose is to show "hey, I'm not fighting you" so that if you continue to be an aggressor, you will feel bad and look bad to others. It's still "violent communication" in the NVC sense, as it is basically a plea for others to do violence on the behalf of the "victim" if the aggressor doesn't cut it out. It is understandably infuriating when someone will screw up, shirk responsibility, and then play victim to get out of facing the consequences. And so it's very easy to get angry at them for this. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I know this failure mode very well.

The solution is to make submitting to you easier, more enjoyable, and more visibly safe. It used to boggle my mind that anyone could think I would be at all unhappy with them for making mistakes once I could see that they're taking responsibility and fixing them, but in the times where it would become an issue it really wasn't clear to them and they hadn't even considered that it could possibly be otherwise. I felt pretty shitty realizing that people actually expected me (by default) to not be forgiving and understanding in positions of local dominance, and that motivated me to start making it explicitly clear a lot more often. The difference is night and day, and can be pinpointed to the exact moment you reaffirm good feelings and trust that they will take you up on the offer to let them submit and make things better.

If the dominance games and submission don't feel right and desirable for both parties, something is going wrong somewhere. Even when submitting after a fuckup can be emotionally painful, it should feel like a pain you want - not a pain you want to avoid. There are a lot of reasons it doesn't always feel desirable in practice, but that has a lot more to do with the trust and empathy shown than the dominance/submission aspect itself. BDSM is pretty explicitly about these kinds of dynamics being mutually desirable, so if you want to better understand how dominance games and submission can actually be good things, it might help to read accounts of what people get out of that stuff. Even though it's a bit of a corner case, the same principles apply to a lot of "normal" social interactions.

Comment author: Benquo 31 March 2017 12:12:10AM *  1 point [-]

This isn't submission, this is cowering away from your expectation for them to submit to you. Actually submitting means swallowing your pride and eating whatever criticism is given to you. It hurts. Saying "Sorry I let you down, I suck" is a way of avoiding facing the responsibility you want to place on their shoulders for them to figure out what they did wrong and fix it.

The purpose is to show "hey, I'm not fighting you" so that if you continue to be an aggressor, you will feel bad and look bad to others. It's still "violent communication" in the NVC sense, as it is basically a plea for others to do violence on the behalf of the "victim" if the aggressor doesn't cut it out.

That is what submission is: sending a clear "I lose" signal so as to end the interaction by accepting a loss of social status.

Comment author: jimmy 31 March 2017 05:29:00PM *  2 points [-]

I don't want to get too deep into the semantics argument, as the point is a substantive one, but google defines submission as follows: "the action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person". Actually accepting their authority over you and working to cooperate and follow their direction (rather than making distress calls for backup while non-cooperating) is at the heart of what is important here, and is what people generally mean when they speak of "submission". Whatever you want to call it though, "Please don't hurt me!" is a very very different thing than "yes sir, whatever you wish", and the former is not by any means an "I lose" signal.

There is a difference between "I accept defeat" and "I do not want to fight you". Accepting defeat means agreeing on terms of surrender. "I don't want to fight you" is trying to avoid giving them what they want by avoiding the direct confrontation. It does mean that you're conceding that they are stronger here, but it does not necessarily mean losing status, or losing anything, really. Status isn't all about direct strength and the battle isn't always about being stronger than each other. For example, imagine the town asshole yelling at the sweet and friendly ten year old girl that everyone likes. If all you see is some 30 year old man yelling at a 10 year old girl who is girl crying and saying sorry, does the asshole's status go up in your eyes, or does it just go down further because he looks to be picking on this little kid again? You'd probably pick the man to win in any direct one on one confrontation (physical or otherwise), but when the rest of the town shows up, the pitch forks are coming out on the side of the little girl. Status is a social thing, and when you come out ahead in the end because everyone holds you as in the right and worth defending, you're the one with higher status. This is what people mean when they accuse people of "playing victim" - it's still a status play, even if not in the way you're used to seeing.

Comment author: Viliam 30 March 2017 01:06:17PM *  4 points [-]

Seems to me that people who say they don't want submission often actually want an approach even more "submissive" than submission itself -- instead of merely overriding your opinions and desires, they want to overwrite them. A quote from 1984 comes to my mind:

The first thing for you to understand is that in this place there are no martyrdoms. You have read of the religious persecutions of the past. In the Middle Ages there was the Inquisitlon. It was a failure. It set out to eradicate heresy, and ended by perpetuating it. For every heretic it burned at the stake, thousands of others rose up. Why was that? Because the Inquisition killed its enemies in the open, and killed them while they were still unrepentant: in fact, it killed them because they were unrepentant. Men were dying because they would not abandon their true beliefs. Naturally all the glory belonged to the victim and all the shame to the Inquisitor who burned him. Later, in the twentieth century, there were the totalitarians, as they were called. There were the German Nazis and the Russian Communists. The Russians persecuted heresy more cruelly than the Inquisition had done. And they imagined that they had learned from the mistakes of the past; they knew, at any rate, that one must not make martyrs. Before they exposed their victims to public trial, they deliberately set themselves to destroy their dignity. They wore them down by torture and solitude until they were despicable, cringing wretches, confessing whatever was put into their mouths, covering themselves with abuse, accusing and sheltering behind one another, whimpering for mercy. And yet after only a few years the same thing had happened over again. The dead men had become martyrs and their degradation was forgotten. Once again, why was it? In the first place, because the confessions that they had made were obviously extorted and untrue. We do not make mistakes of that kind. All the confessions that are uttered here are true. We make them true. (...)

Did I not tell you just now that we are different from the persecutors of the past? We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us: so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation. In the old days the heretic walked to the stake still a heretic, proclaiming his heresy, exulting in it. Even the victim of the Russian purges could carry rebellion locked up in his skull as he walked down the passage waiting for the bullet. But we make the brain perfect before we blow it out. (...)

Do not imagine that you will save yourself, Winston, however completely you surrender to us. No one who has once gone astray is ever spared. And even if we chose to let you live out the natural term of your life, still you would never escape from us. What happens to you here is for ever. Understand that in advance. We shall crush you down to the point from which there is no coming back. Things will happen to you from which you could not recover, if you lived a thousand years. Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.

It's funny how when you remove the torture and death from this picture, what remains is considered pretty normal these days... I mean, if you want to keep a well-paying job.

Comment author: gjm 30 March 2017 01:46:24PM 4 points [-]

An excellent observation, but I remark that removing the torture and death does make quite a big difference.

Comment author: WhySpace 01 April 2017 06:20:29PM *  1 point [-]

I'm not so sure. Would your underlying intuition be the same if the torture and death was the result of passive inaction, rather than of deliberate action? I think in that case, the torture and death would make only a small difference in how good or bad we judged the world to be.

For example, consider a corporate culture with so much of this dominance hierarchy that it has a high suicide rate.

Also:

Moloch whose buildings are judgment! ... Lacklove and manless in Moloch! ... Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy!

... Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! to solitude! waving!

— Meditations on Moloch/Howl

Doesn't seem like a difference of kind, and maybe not even of degree. (The suicide rate is a couple percent, and higher in industrialized countries if I recall. What percent of the citizens of Oceania are tortured to death? ~2%?) I think 1984 is mainly shocking because of status quo bias. (But I haven't read it, so I'm probably missing some stronger points against that world.)

Most of the badness seems to be from the general state of both worlds, rather than from the occasional person tortured to death on the side. That's just the tip of the iceberg. It's a small, but obvious, part of much deeper problems. That's why EA doesn't use suicide rate or incarceration rate as their primary metrics to optimize for. They're just symptoms.

Comment author: bogus 30 March 2017 02:03:41PM 1 point [-]

Seems to me that people who say they don't want submission often actually want an approach even more "submissive" than submission itself -- instead of merely overriding your opinions and desires, they want to overwrite them.

The whole point of the OP is that this never works. (Yes, even when it appears to work, it's because the people involved have learned to guess the teacher's password - not because they actually share your views!) Sure, it's great when people eventually come around to your POV, but this is not something you can expect, much less demand from anyone.

Comment author: Viliam 31 March 2017 01:54:28AM 1 point [-]

Sure. What one wants, and what one actually gets, can be two different things.

Comment author: Elo 30 March 2017 01:23:38PM 1 point [-]

that last sentence. Great.

Comment author: Dagon 30 March 2017 05:02:40PM 2 points [-]

I think you're making a huge mistake if you frame the interaction entirely as a social dominance transaction. In some cases it may be, and the object-level disagreement is just a casus belli for the emotional reaction. But in many cases, a mistake was actually made and there's a very real disagreement about why it happened or the severity of result, so no agreement on what will change in order to make similar errors less likely in the future.

That disagreement over priority is not resolved by any acceptance of emotion, only by acceptance of the facts. Some hurts are caused by different priorities or capabilities of the "perpetrator", and regardless of apology, punishment, or submission, will probably reoccur in the future.

Comment author: Zvi 31 March 2017 12:00:22PM 1 point [-]

I agree that this is a failure mode - that's why the title talks about avoiding these scenarios. You want to avoid things getting to this point, but also recognize that if things did get to this point, trying to solve the casus belli here and now is not a viable path forward. The spiral must be diffused first.

After that, yes, you should step back and consider whether the original problem still exists and is worth addressing, and if so do so when everyone is calm and proceed super carefully.

Comment author: Benquo 31 March 2017 12:16:28AM 1 point [-]

That disagreement over priority is not resolved by any acceptance of emotion, only by acceptance of the facts.

It would be helpful if people would explain themselves when they did something that seemed reasonable to them at the time, or were working under constraints that were not obvious to the disappointed person - or simply took disappointing someone as an opportunity to talk about adjusting future expectations.

"Submission" is an explanation for why people often don't bother to do this, and try to simply accept a lowered status. This behavior only makes sense if it is sometimes adaptive. And the simplest explanation for why it is adaptive, is that in their experience it's often been what the disappointed/angry person wants.

Comment author: Dagon 31 March 2017 03:44:21AM 2 points [-]

"Submission" is an explanation for why people often don't bother to do this, and try to simply accept a lowered status. This behavior only makes sense if it is sometimes adaptive. And the simplest explanation for why it is adaptive, is that in their experience it's often been what the disappointed/angry person wants.

Well, yeah. The vast majority of such fights would be far more painful if the perpetrator said "yup, I found something better to do; this is not as important to me as it is to you" than the social fiction of apologizing and claiming weakness.

Comment author: Elo 30 March 2017 12:45:29PM 2 points [-]

I feel let down because someone close to me dropped the ball on something important

my solution to this was to reduce my expectations. "let down" being able to be alternatively be described as, "I expected an <awesome> action which didn't amount". I considered it a disconnect between expectations and reality and an opportunity to fix my map. There is no wishful magical thinking that things will happen just by wanting really hard at reality. There is only the reality of the things that happen and our ability to plan around them. There is also no angry, and no guilt. Only maps. (this is a very stoic philosophy)

Comment author: Benquo 31 March 2017 12:19:12AM *  0 points [-]

This solution seems like it throws away any opportunity to improve things. If I disappoint someone, I want to know! Sometimes it's cheap to change my future behavior. If not, I can at least explain why I behaved like I did, which often involves correcting their impression that I didn't care about their preferences.

Sometimes if the territory is worse than your map, you should try to fix the territory.

Comment author: Elo 31 March 2017 01:57:16AM 0 points [-]

opportunity to improve things.

What kind of work is this statement doing. It assumes that things are broken automatically and can be improved. Things are not already broken, the ground state just "IS", but they can be improved from the current state by deliberate actions if you so choose.

If I disappoint someone, I want to know!

Definitely. In reverse this time - someone has an expectation, "they expect an <awesome> action which didn't amount". It's a disconnect between their expectations and reality.

(and I repeat-)

There is no wishful magical thinking that things will happen just by wanting really hard at reality. There is only the reality of the things that happen and our ability to plan around them. There is also no angry (in the territory), and no guilt. Only in the maps.

The world literally does not go dark, there are no literal clouds hanging over one's shoulders if they are mad. Reality does not get angry. Only the maps in your head do.

If, instead of disappointment you view the world in terms of desired states and preferred states, you can bring about the same change if behaviour change and actions with no disappointment. "I would prefer it if <awesome action> happened.". There is no need to be disappointed. (repeating myself but) disappointment is a reflection on the person who is disappointed and their inability to see reality for what it is, not the person who (might have) caused the disappointment.

Am I making sense? I feel like I might be not making sense.

Comment author: Zvi 31 March 2017 12:12:22PM 4 points [-]

I do think you are making sense - but assuming I am correctly understanding you, I also mostly disagree. This feels like pernicious Deep Wisdom to me.

Disappointment means you notice a disconnect between your observations and your expectations for those observations. Observing that disconnect is useful. It is good data, and useful (negative) reinforcement of related actions. Yes, it is partly data about yourself and your expectations, and you should update those too, which is also useful to help you update your map, but in addition it is information about this particular result and source of feedback.

It also is good information for other people's maps, and we all agree that when we disappoint someone else, we want them to tell us. Or at least we want that now, while we are in far mode!

Getting angry, as opposed to disappointed, is more likely to be counterproductive, especially once it has already been observed, although telling someone 'there is no need to be angry' or even simply 'do not be angry' has a long history of not having the requested effect.

Comment author: Lumifer 31 March 2017 03:00:35PM *  0 points [-]

Disappointment means you notice a disconnect between your observations and your expectations for those observations.

Not quite. Disappointment is a specific emotional reaction usually associated with the mismatch between your expectations (often unreasonably high aka "hope") and outcomes.