Avoiding Emotional Dominance Spirals

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 to Less Wrong Discussion. Comments are always encouraged at either location.

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2 Responses to Avoiding Emotional Dominance Spirals

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