Embodiment, verbalization, and ambiguity in social theory
The following might come as a surprise, given the extent to which I’ve been interested in social strategy the last ~18 months, but. When I interviewed Crispy Chicken a few weeks back, he talked about how all his social learning was quite conscious, that he developed ~verbal theories of how people (individually and generally) work, and these theories then slowly get integrated into an unconscious understanding over time. It made me realize that I’m traditionally the exact opposite—I interact socially purely through intuition and embodied feel, and have stayed pretty radically under-specified when it comes to explicit theories. That is, I traditionally never spent time (and still rarely do) speculating about what kind of person Jackson is, or what Serena’s insecurities are, or what it is that people “want” more broadly. It’s not that my social actions aren’t predicated on models—it’s just that those models aren’t explicitly factored. One way this comes out is that I’ve always identified as team social ambiguity, perception > judgment. I’ve always believed that individual’s motivations and belief states are pretty damn opaque, and you can work around the possibilities, but you’ll be mislead by reducing those possibilities to a single dominant, verbal interpretation.
In practice, this looks like: a friend or romantic partner might float a theory of X individual’s intentions, beliefs, desires, etc. I’ll say “That sounds reasonable, but what about Y and Z interpretations?” or generally refrain because I have this gut feeling that there isn’t enough information to know. What the embodiment allows, I think—which verbal theorization doesn’t—is to easily support a high degree of ambiguity. When schema is functional rather than ontological, it can easily hedge between or accommodate multiple possible realities by “playing” to them all simultaneously. This might make me less able to “exploit” a situation, since I’m hedging my bets or “insuring” myself through the rival interpretations. But it also makes me far less exploitable or prone to errors of judgment. I think it might also give me a strong sense of “bad code smell” around social theories. It’s not that I can necessarily propose a better coherent theory, but I can tell when something’s not quite right.