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Four Social Worlds

Joe Edelman
The School for Social Design
10 min readFeb 10, 2020


☝️This is an excerpt from my textbook, Values-Based Social Design.

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.

In my work, I usually do this a different way. I teach an online class and use group exercises and participatory practices. But here, I’ll try an imaginative essay that you can go through solo.

I’ll take four factors which shape social environments, and I’ll paint four imaginary worlds. In each, world, one social factor is dominant:

  1. 💍 the realm of social expectations from sociology, a world of norms, social modeling, and ideology
  2. 🕵️‍♂️ the realm of pure perception from psychology, a world of behavior
  3. 🌳 the realm of pure appreciation from philosophy, a world of values
  4. 📈 the realm of pure strategy from game theory, a world of payoffs

You will get much 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.

💍 The Realm of Social Expectations

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…



Joe Edelman
The School for Social Design

Building economies of meaning, and leading the School for Social Design