by Joe Edelman
My job is to help people design better social environments and systems, both online and offline. This means distilling academic work from many fields into an intuitive sense—something that works automatically as teams shape their apps, policies, and social ideas—guiding them away from common errors.
I'll try to do that in this essay by connecting ideas from many fields, including behavioral psychology, the sociology of norms, game theory, and the philosophy of values. I'll give you a way to apply and combine them intuitively in your daily life.
I'll take four factors which shape social environments, and I'll paint four imaginary worlds. In each, world, one social factor is dominant:
<aside> 💭 You’ll get more out of this essay if you take a minute after each section to do some thinking. So overall, it will take you 5 minutes to read the essay, and another five minutes of thinking.
Welcome to the realm of social expectations, where what matters in a social environment is what it takes to fit in or belong. Here, when you're with other people, you are always either setting expectations (taking the lead, announcing how things will be, disapproving of people, approving of other people) or you're meeting them (being charming, likable, accepted, etc).
Every environment has rules, and they are mostly unwritten. In the realm of pure expectations, you try to intuit the rules of the room you're in, or the scene you're part of. For instance, when you are at a work party, you are all about performing professionalism, courtesy, sincerity, and whatever else is required. With each new scene, you try to intuit: What would lead them to accept you? What are the standards here?
Once you get that far, maybe you'll try to change the standards. What kinds of expectations do you want to set? How should everyone be different at work parties and how can you create the right kind of pressure?
In other words, you read social situations in terms of norms. There are norms you'd like to create, and norms you hope to comply with. You see yourself in these terms. There is (1) whatever makes you likable or accepted: are you a good worker? a good friend? And there are (2) the examples that you set for others: are you leading people into productivity? Are you a good feminist? A good Vegan? A good conservative? Do you represent the kinds of family values that you hope will spread in your community?
<aside> 💭 This is a world of pure expectations. People see the world this way when reputation is high stakes, such as when they have a service job where they could easily be fired. They may also see the world this way if they have a deep fear of rejection, or have developed a hyper-awareness of social rules.
Take a moment and try to approach your current environment, or a recent environment, as pure expectation.
In this realm, all of the facts are available to you as soon as you enter a room. You know how often the people there are breathing, whether they're sweating, what the temperature is in different parts of their bodies. You can pattern match on this, and make guesses about their emotions, because you know that different emotions change temperature and heart rate and muscle tension in different ways. But there's no meaning attached to any of this. Like Sherlock Holmes, you see all of the facts, and can draw inferences and see patterns.