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:
- 💍 the realm of social expectations from sociology, a world of norms, social modeling, and ideology
- 🕵️♂️ the realm of pure perception from psychology, a world of behavior
- 🌳 the realm of pure appreciation from philosophy, a world of values
- 📈 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 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?
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.
🕵️♂️ The Realm of Pure Perception
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.
Imagine you also see yourself through this lens. You know your sensations, your heart rate, and so on, but have no opinion whether these are good or bad.
We’ll call this the world of pure perception. You see people like this if you use behavioral analytics on a website. You see yourself like this if you cultivate a quantified self, or practice certain kinds of mindfulness.
Take a moment and think about your current environment, and recent environments you’ve been in, through the lens of pure perception.
🌳 The Realm of Pure Appreciation
Let’s contrast this with the realm of pure appreciation.
Here, everything is poignant with meaning and value. You never just see a tree in front of you: you see it’s beauty, or it’s importance in an ecosystem. You see it as grand, or precious, or extraordinary and wonderful. Or maybe you see it as an obstacle, and you are excited or dismayed by the difficulty of getting around it.
In this world, everything is experienced as having a practical, moral, or aesthetic value. Nothing is just there. Instead, it is beautiful or tragically flawed; strong or in need of protection; etc. You are in an intimate relationship with everything around you. Nothing is cold. Everything is alive with meaning.
When someone smiles, that’s never just a fact. It’s an opening for action. Or it’s a moment that’s beautiful in itself. Everything is inspiring, or challenging, or beautiful, or sad. Even the way the milk mixes into the coffee somehow says something about life — something about your life, not something abstract.
And of course, in the world of pure appreciation, you read yourself this way. You are wholly made up of the things that you’re appreciating, the discoveries you’re making. There are no pure sensations. Everything has value. Indeed, all you are is values. All of your emotions point to something that’s important in the world, important to you. You are never scared or happy for no reason — each emotion is a window into what’s good for you, or what’s frightening.
That’s the world of pure appreciations. Some people see things this way when they take psychedelics, or when they are in moments that feel like they really matter in life — like when they are deciding to live in a more radical way. It is a window into what some philosophers call values, strong evaluative terms, ideals, or virtues. (see What the Hell are Values?, Part 1 )
Take a moment and try to approach your current environment, or a recent environment, as pure appreciation.
📈 The Realm of Pure Strategy
Imagine a very goal-driven person: maybe they want to retire early, start a company, build a brand, or get laid. And every interaction, every social space, is understood in terms of whether it can advance those goals — in terms of its strategic value.
As in 💍 the world of expectations, this person may want to be liked. But this 📈 strategic person only tries to be liked in situations where being liked advances her goals. As in 🌳 the world of appreciations, this person is weighing and interpreting everything. But here, the weighing is not about ultimate value or meaning, but rather everything is an instrumental value — she cares whether things are useful for her goals or whether they interfere with them.
She reads herself in terms of goals, and also in terms of how well she’s proceeding with them. Is she killing it? Are her key metrics going up and to the right?
Here we have the world of pure strategy. This view is closest to how game theorists, mechanism designers, and economists model human beings. People see the world this way when they are playing high-stakes games or in life-and-death situations (or the situation feel like one). This view has some of the calculating aspect of 🕵️♂️ the world of pure perception, but here only certain information, that’s relevant to goals and strategies, is picked up from the environment.
Take a moment and try to approach your current environment, or a recent environment, as pure strategy.
To end this essay, I’ll discuss how these realms interact for everyday people and in everyday life.
Human Beings 🕵️♂️🌳💍📈
All of us live in a mixed reality — we are sensitive to social norms, we seek meaning, we have goals within an environment, and we care about the facts to some degree. But some of us live more in one world than another. Or to put it another way, many of us have a realm we are used to operating in, and another realm which we aspire to live more in.
I used to live in 💍 expectations and aspire to 📈 pure strategy. Now, I aspire to 🌳 appreciation. I know other people who want to free themselves from 💍 expectations and live in 🕵️♂️ pure perception — this is part of the appeal of the Sherlock Holmes character, and the perennial movements around rationalism, new atheism, and the like.
I know activists who aspire to always be 💍 setting new expectations for society. They see creating new norms as the definition of social change. I know other activists who have a 📈 strategy to change the world which involves something besides norms (say, energy prices, or policy). These activists might aspire to use everything for that 📈 goal, like I used to.
I know people who have a desperate drive to be liked or to prove themselves. If they see this as a short-term challenge, they’ll live in 💍 expectation. If it’s long-term, it’s probably 📈 strategy. Either way, they might aspire to live a different way.
This is why different areas of social science and philosophy appeal to different people. Some areas explain your home realm. Others help to justify your aspiration. Those that do neither will seem pointless or just wrong.
Questions to answer in your head
- Who do you know that lives most in the realm of pure perception? Who aspires to live there?
- Who is in the realm of pure expectation? Do you know someone who aspires to it?
- Who is in the realm of pure strategy?
- Who is in the realm of pure appreciation?
- Which realm would you rather live in?
- Living in which realm gives you the most accurate picture of how things really are?
- Living in which realm is most admirable?
Most of us move between realms, depending on the situation. In some situations, one realm becomes urgent, and crowds out any ability to see the others or act in them.
For instance, if you have an 📈 extreme goal — like you’re trying to get to the hospital with your wife who’s about to give birth, or you’re trying to get a promotion that you really need to afford your house — you may be less able to attend to issues of 🌳 values or meaning, less observant of 💍 norms, and so on.
Similarly, in some environments the 💍 expectations crowd everything out — either because people are being very ideological (trying to lead, trying to enforce certain norms), or being very compliant (trying to be good workers, trying to be good husbands and wives, etc) and there will be harsh consequences for deviating from these expectations.
Crowding out isn’t always bad. It’s fine that playing chess is mostly about strategy and pushes aside other concerns. But badly designed social systems and spaces often crowd out appreciation unintentionally. In these cases, things get drained of meaning, morality, and aesthetics for no good reason. As I discuss elsewhere (Can Software Be Good for Us?, What the Hell are Values?, Part 1 ), this can be disastrous.
It’s worthwhile thinking through examples where this occurs:
- 💍/📈 When do expectations crowd out strategy?
- 📈/💍 When does strategy crowd out expectations?
- 📈/🌳 When does strategy crowd out appreciation?
An even better exercise is to rapidly look at one social situation through each lens. This can let you see how, in the environment, one kind of consideration influences another. When you first try this, it feels like a lot of work — you may need to write down your observations through each lens. But with a little practice it can become automatic.
(The most difficult lenses for most people are 💍 norms and 🌳 values, so we spend extra time on them in our class.)
I believe that apps, policies, and social ideas will continue to have shitty and unforeseen social consequences until the people who build them internalize all four lenses, and can anticipate crowding out effects.
One difficulty is that different fields specialize in these different social understandings. Behavioral psych works a lot with pure perception, philosophy with values, game theory with strategy, and sociology with norms. And none of these fields give people the intuitive sense that they need to design social environments.
It’s hard to answer questions like these when you are new to these lenses, but I will ask them anyways. Hopefully you can see they are worth thinking about:
- Which realm is most relevant to design a social network that’s popular?
- Which realm is most relevant to design a social network that creates meaningful relationships?
- Which realm is most relevant to design a school?
You’ve now begun to explore the topics we cover in our class, HS101 Deluxe. In the class we go much deeper. We practice a lot. We become experts at reading the worlds of 💍 norms and 🌳 values, and at seeing when crowding out happens.
- If you can get a small group together, try playing Guess Their Motive.
- If you want to try going further by yourself now, try moving on and reading What the Hell are Values?, Part 1.
- For examples of crowding out in social software, read Can Software Be Good for Us?
- If you’re more curious about how this kind of thinking shapes design practices
- Read How to Design Social Systems Without Causing Depression and War.
- And if you’re not already taking our class, go sign up!
*The frame of this essay was inspired by the Buddhist realms of rebirth and associated meditation practices. Thanks to Nathan Vanderpool, Ben Gabbai, Aviv Ovadya, and Sean Aubin for feedback on earlier drafts.