Monthly Archives: May 2014

How to understand people better

I’ve been taking notes on how I empathize, considering I seem to be more successful at it than others. I broke down my thought-patterns, implied beliefs, and techniques, hoping to unveil the mechanism behind the magic. I shared my findings with a few friends and noticed something interesting: They were becoming noticeably better empathizers.

I realized the route to improving one’s ability to understand what people feel and think is not a foreign one. Empathy is a skill; with some guidance and lots of practice, anyone can make drastic improvements.

I want to impart the more fruitful methods/mind-sets and exercises I’ve collected over time.

Working definitions:
Projection: The belief that others feel and think the same as you would under the same circumstances.
Model: Belief or “map” that predicts and explains people’s behavior.

Stop identifying as a non-empathizer

This is the first step towards empathizing better—or developing any skill for that matter. Negative self-fulfilling prophecies are very real and very avoidable. Brains are plastic; there’s no reason to believe an optimal path-to-improvement doesn’t exist for you.

Not understanding people’s behavior is your confusion, not theirs.

When we learn our housemate spent 9 hours cleaning the house, we should blame our flawed map for being confused by his or her behavior. Maybe they’re deathly afraid of cockroaches and found a few that morning, maybe they’re passive aggressively telling you to clean more, or maybe they just procrastinate by cleaning. Our model of the housemate has yet to account for these tendencies.

People tend to explain such confusing behavior with stupidity, creepiness, neurosis or any other traits we associate with the mentally ill. With Occam’s Razor in perspective, these careless judgers are statistically the mentally ill ones. Their model being flawed is much more probable than their housemate going insane.

Similar to the fundamental attribution error, this type of mistake is committed more often with people we dislike. A good challenge is to try understanding confusing behavior from individuals or sub-cultures you dislike. You’ll find yourself disliking them a bit less if you’re doing it right.

Another challenge is to try and find the appeal in popular attractions/entertainment you dislike. For instance, if you dislike music videos, try watching a few until you get the “Aha” moment. Yes, that’s what it should feel like when you get it right.
As you’re able to explain more behaviors, your model of people becomes more robust, making you an overall better empathizer.

Projection works, but not for resolving confusion

People’s intuition for how someone’s feeling is normally accurate—with more ambiguous cases—intuition needs conscious support. Unfortunately, most rely too heavily on the “put yourself in their shoes” mantra. You are not always like most people and can react very differently in the same circumstances. There’s already an inclination to project and putting yourself in their shoes rarely overturns initial judgments. If you’re confused about someone’s behavior, it most likely means projection hasn’t worked so far.

Instead, build accurate models of people and figure out whether your model would’ve predicted such behavior. If not, gather reliable evidence proving what the person actually felt and tweak your model accordingly. Hopefully this is starting to sound a lot like the scientific method.

Understand yourself better

As mentioned above, projection normally works well (which is probably why humans are so inclined to do it). Projection, however, isn’t useful if you can’t predict your own reactions in another’s situation.

Catch yourself next time you experience an emotional reaction and try figuring out what network of beliefs caused it. As a personal anecdote, I tried to uncover the beliefs causing me to procrastinate on my work. I narrowed down the portions of work I had an emotional reaction to and discovered I believed I either didn’t have the skill or knowledge to complete the task. Now, when I try to explain other’s procrastination, I ask what part of the work they are having willpower issues with and determine their self-efficacy for those tasks. I was surprised to learn that others had the same beliefs causing their procrastination. Understanding yourself well can lend more non-trivial competing hypotheses.

Caveat: If you’re very different from most people, then understanding yourself better won’t be as helpful. In this case, I’d suggest finding someone more typical to be your proxy. Get to know them well enough to the point where your proxy model can explain/predict behaviors in other typical people.

Put others in YOUR shoes, that’s how they’re empathizing with you

We often find our empathy skills lacking when trying to explain others’ reactions to our own behaviors. We normally consider how we’d perceive our own behaviors coming from another person before acting—making questions like “Why did he think I didn’t want to see him last night?” or “Why was she so offended by my jokes?” hard to figure out off projection alone.
Use the fact that most people project to your advantage. If someone’s trying to empathize with you, they’ll most likely project i.e. put themselves in your shoes.

Imagine a man and woman on a date at a fancy restaurant and just about finished eating their meals. The waiter drops off the bill and the woman glances at the bill. She says enthusiastically, “Wow great food and for a great price too!” The man pays for the bill and moments later his mood shifts, becoming noticeably sadder and quieter. The woman knew he’s more passive than her, but still confused by his behavior.

As it turns out, the man imagined himself describing food as having a “great price” and realized he’d say that about cheap food. The man brought her to the fancy restaurant hoping to impress her, but felt his attempt failed. The woman didn’t think the food was cheap, she thought it was reasonably priced given how good it tasted and the restaurant’s upscale reputation. If she thought the food was cheap, she’d explicitly say so. Since she knows he’s more passive, she could’ve inferred the man believes others are more or less as passive as he is. Thinking back to the incident, she should’ve considered how people would interpret her statement as if she had a reputation for being passive.

One lesson I’ve learned from this technique is that considerate people are more sensitive to inconsiderate behavior. Because they closely monitor their own behaviors, they tend to assume others are about as equally conscientious. When they determine someone’s behavior to be inconsiderate, they are more likely to interpret the behavior as a sign of dislike or apathy rather than obliviousness.

Knowing others are projecting can help you learn more about yourself too. For instance, if you’re confused as to why your friends always ask “Is everything’s ok?” when you feel fine, consider that your friends may be observing certain behaviors they themselves would exhibit when uncomfortable. And maybe you are, in fact, uncomfortable, but aren’t consciously aware of it.

The simplest explanation is usually correct

As you develop your mental model of people, you’ll notice models share a lot in common. For instance, primitive motives like attraction, attention and status can explain the same behaviors exhibited in many people. These “universal” components to your models often yield more likely hypotheses. People are obviously more typical than they are not.

Try to pick out which behaviors are consistently explained by the same mechanism in your models. For instance, it’s helpful to know that most submissive/dominant behavior is done out of status disparities, not some idiosyncratic personality trait. Your knowledge of how people interact with status disparities will offer a powerful starting hypothesis.

As you continue to merge your models together, you’ll be that much closer to a unifying theory of people!

Build models of people, like a scientist

Start developing models of individuals and groups, which predict their behaviors under certain circumstances. Like a scientist, when the model proves to have low predictive value, tweak them until they do. Combining your models is a good approach.
Say you’re having trouble understanding why your brother does everything his new “friend” tells him to do. He’s never acted like that towards anyone before; your model of your brother is missing something. Fortunately, you’ve seen such behavior before, explained by a different model, the one of your co-worker. That model made you realize that, like your co-worker, your brother finds his new friend much higher status and feels lucky receiving his attention. Not only did you strengthen your brother model, you’ve also collected more evidence that such behavior is more likely status-related and less likely person-specific, making all your models more robust.

Experience more

If I tried imagining what a professional soccer player feels like scoring a winning goal, I’d use my memory of the time I scored the winning goal at a pick-up soccer game and multiply my euphoria by some factor. Imagining what emotions someone would feel under circumstances you’ve never experienced isn’t easy. Your best approximation may depend on a similar circumstance you have experienced. Therefore, experiencing more means being a better empathizer.

Empathy checklist

Here’s a short checklist of the different techniques to use whenever you’re confronted with confusing behavior. Run through the list until you feel confident about your conclusion.
Put yourself in their shoes

  • Think of times you’ve been in a similar situation and explain your reaction
  • Can the behavior be explained by a more “universal” model than a person-specific one?
  • How are they empathizing with you, given they are projecting?
  • How are they empathizing with you, given what you know about how they perceive others?
  • What successful model have you used to explain similar behavior for similar people?
  • Is your conclusion affected by your attitude towards the subject?

Biases of Intuitive and Logical Thinkers

Any intuition-dominant thinker who’s struggled with math problems or logic-dominant thinker who’s struggled with small-talk knows how difficult and hopeless the experience feels like. For a long time I was an intuition thinker, then I developed a logical thinking style and soon it ended up dominating — granting me the luxury of experiencing both kinds of struggles. I eventually learned to apply the thinking style better optimized for the problem I was facing. Looking back, I realized why I kept sticking to one extreme.

I hypothesize that one-sided thinkers develop biases and tendencies that prevent them from improving their weaker mode of thinking. These biases cause a positive feedback loop that further skews thinking styles in the same direction.

The reasons why one style might be overdeveloped and the other underdeveloped vary greatly. Genes have a strong influence, but environment also plays a large part. A teacher may have inspired you to love learning science at a young age, causing you to foster a thinking style better for learning science. Or maybe you grew up very physically attractive and found socializing with your peers a lot more rewarding than studying after school, causing you to foster a thinking style better for navigating social situations. Environment can be changed to help develop certain thinking styles, but it should be supplementary to exposing and understanding the biases you already have. Entering an environment that penalizes your thinking style can be uncomfortable, stressful and frustrating without being prepared. (Such a painful experience is part of why these biases cause a positive feedback loop, by making us avoid environments that require the opposite thinking style.)

Despite genetic predisposition and environmental circumstances, there’s room for improvement and exposing these biases and learning to account for them is a great first step.

Below is a list of a few biases that worsen our ability to solve a certain class of problems and keep us from improving our underdeveloped thinking style.


Intuition-dominant Biases

Overlooking crucial details

Details matter in order to understand technical concepts. Overlooking a word or sentence structure can cause complete misunderstanding — a common blunder for intuition thinkers.

Intuition is really good at making fairly accurate predictions without complete information, enabling us to navigate the world without having a deep understanding of it. As a result, intuition trains us to experience the feeling we understand something without examining every detail. In most situations, paying close attention to detail is unnecessary and sometimes dangerous. When learning a technical concept, every detail matters and the premature feeling of understanding stops us from examining them.

This bias is one that’s more likely to go away once you realize it’s there. You often don’t know what details you’re missing after you’ve missed them, so merely remembering that you tend to miss important details should prompt you to take closer examinations in the future.

Expecting solutions to sound a certain way

The Internship has a great example of this bias (and a few others) in action. The movie is about two middle-aged unemployed salesmen (intuition thinkers) trying to land an internship with Google. Part of Google’s selection process has the two men participate in several technical challenges. One challenge required the men and their team to find a software bug. In a flash of insight, Vince Vaughn’s character, Billy, shouts “Maybe the answer is in the question! Maybe it has something to do with the word bug. A fly!” After enthusiastically making several more word associations, he turns to his team and insists they take him seriously.

Why is it believable to the audience that Billy can be so confident about his answer?

Billy’s intuition made an association between the challenge question and riddle-like questions he’s heard in the past. When Billy used his intuition to find a solution, his confidence in a riddle-like answer grew. Intuition recklessly uses irrelevant associations as reasons for narrowing down the space of possible solutions to technical problems. When associations pop in your mind, it’s a good idea to legitimize those associations with supporting reasons.

Not recognizing precise language

Intuition thinkers are multi-channel learners — all senses, thoughts and emotions are used to construct a complex database of clustered knowledge to predict and understand the world. With robust information-extracting ability, correct grammar/word-usage is, more often than not, unnecessary for meaningful communication.

Communicating technical concepts in a meaningful way requires precise language. Connotation and subtext are stripped away so words and phrases can purely represent meaningful concepts inside a logical framework. Intuition thinkers communicate with imprecise language, gathering meaning from context to compensate. This makes it hard for them to recognize when to turn off their powerful information extractors.

This bias explains part of why so many intuition thinkers dread math “word problems”. Introducing words and phrases rich with meaning and connotation sends their intuition running wild. It’s hard for them to find correspondences between words in the problem and variables in the theorems and formulas they’ve learned.

The noise intuition brings makes it hard to think clearly. It’s hard for intuition thinkers to tell whether their automatic associations should be taken seriously. Without a reliable way to discern, wrong interpretations of words go undetected. For example, without any physics background, an intuition thinker may read the statement “Matter can have both wave and particle properties at once” and believe they completely understand it. Unrelated associations of what matter, wave and particle mean, blindly take precedence over technical definitions.

The slightest uncertainty about what a sentence means should raise a red flag. Going back and finding correspondence between each word and how it fits into a technical framework will eliminate any uncertainty.

Believing their level of understanding is deeper than what it is

Intuition works on an unconscious level, making intuition thinkers unaware of how they know what they know. Not surprisingly, their best tool to learn what it means to understand is intuition. The concept “understanding” is a collection of associations from experience. You may have learned that part of understanding something means being able to answer questions on a test with memorized factoids, or knowing what to say to convince people you understand, or just knowing more facts than your friends. These are not good methods for gaining a deep understanding of technical concepts.

When intuition thinkers optimize for understanding, they’re really optimizing for a fuzzy idea of what they think understanding means. This often leaves them believing they understand a concept when all they’ve done is memorize some disconnected facts. Not knowing what it feels like to have deeper understanding, they become conditioned to always expect some amount of surprise. They can feel max understanding with less confidence than logical thinkers when they feel max understanding. This lower confidence disincentivizes intuition thinkers to invest in learning technical concepts, further keeping their logical thinking style underdeveloped.

One way I overcame this tendency was to constantly ask myself “why” questions, like a curious child bothering their parents. The technique helped me uncover what used to be unknown unknowns that made me feel overconfident in my understanding.


Logic-dominant Biases

Ignoring information they cannot immediately fit into a framework

Logical thinkers have and use intuition — problem is they don’t feed it enough. They tend to ignore valuable intuition-building information if it doesn’t immediately fit into a predictive model they deeply understand. While intuition thinkers don’t filter out enough noise, logical thinkers filter too much.

For example, if a logical thinker doesn’t have a good framework for understanding human behavior, they’re more likely to ignore visual input like body language and fashion, or auditory input like tone of voice and intonation. Human behavior is complicated, there’s no framework to date that can make perfectly accurate predictions about it. Intuition can build powerful models despite working with many confounding variables.

Bayesian probability enables logical thinkers to build predictive models from noisy data without having to use intuition. But even then, the first step of making a Bayesian update is data collection.

Combatting this tendency requires you to pay attention to input you normally ignore. Supplement your broader attentional scope with a researched framework as a guide. Say you want to learn how storytelling works. Start by grabbing resources that teach storytelling and learn the basics. Out in the real-world, pay close attention to sights, sounds, and feelings when someone starts telling a story and try identifying sensory input to the storytelling elements you’ve learned about. Once the basics are subconsciously picked up by habit, your conscious attention will be freed up to make new and more subtle observations.

Ignoring their emotions

Emotional input is difficult to factor, especially because you’re emotional at the time. Logical thinkers are notorious for ignoring this kind of messy data, consequently starving their intuition of emotional data. Being able to “go with your gut feelings” is a major function of intuition that logical thinkers tend to miss out on.

Your gut can predict if you’ll get along long-term with a new SO, or what kind of outfit would give you more confidence in your workplace, or if learning tennis in your free time will make you happier, or whether you prefer eating a cheeseburger over tacos for lunch. Logical thinkers don’t have enough data collected about their emotions to know what triggers them. They tend to get bogged down and mislead with objective, yet trivial details they manage to factor out. A weak understanding of their own emotions also leads to a weaker understanding of other’s emotions. You can become a better empathizer by better understanding yourself.

You could start from scratch and build your own framework, but self-assessment biases will impede productivity. Learning an existing framework is a more realistic solution. You can find resources with some light googling. One way is making sure you’re always consciously aware of the circumstances you’re in when experiencing an emotion.

Making rules too strict

Logical thinkers build frameworks in order to understand things. When adding a new rule to a framework, there’s motivation to make the rule strict. The stricter the rule, the more predictive power, the better the framework. When the domain you’re trying to understand has multivariable chaotic phenomena, strict rules are likely to break. The result is something like the current state of macroeconomics: a bunch of logical thinkers preoccupied by elegant models and theories that can only exist when useless in practice.

Following rules that are too strict can have bad consequences. Imagine John the salesperson is learning how to make better first impressions and has built a rough framework so far. John has a rule that smiling always helps make people feel welcomed the first time they meet him. One day he makes a business trip to Russia to meet with a prospective client. The moment he meet his russian client, he flashes a big smile and continues to smile despite negative reactions. After a few hours of talking, his client reveals she felt he wasn’t trustworthy at first and almost called off the meeting. Turns out that in Russia smiling to strangers is a sign of insincerity. John’s strict rule didn’t account for cultural differences, blindsiding him from updating on his clients reaction, putting him in a risky situation.

The desire to hold onto strict rules can make logical thinkers susceptible to confirmation bias too. If John made an exception to his smiling rule, he’d feel less confident about his knowledge of making first impressions, subsequently making him feel bad. He may also have to amend some other rule that relates to the smiling rule, which would further hurt his framework and his feelings.

When feeling the urge to add on a new rule, take note of circumstances in which the evidence for the rule was found in. Add exceptions that limit the rule’s predictive power to similar circumstances. Another option is to entertain multiple conflicting rules simultaneously, shifting weight from one to the other after gathering more evidence.

Laci Green is Clueless About Men

In response to this Laci Green video.

Laci claims men and the media overly sexualize women, causing them to have lower self-esteem and psychological disorders. She then makes the assumption that women and society don’t judge men as harshly and that the “cultural narrative looks at men as *whole* people”. Actually, women are equally as shallow as men, it’s just harder to see why:

Another reason men are more easily and rapaciously slapped with the “shallow” label is because their sexual preferences are more visually discernible; female prettiness and sexiness, which is what men desire above all, are readily observable. Such is not the case (at least not to the same degree) of women’s sexual preferences; female preferences are focused more on men’s status, dominance and charm, and thus less easily distinguishable at a glance. The non-visual, time-delayed nature of much of women’s animal desires allows them to plausibly evade the smear of shallowness.

Men struggle with society’s expectations of them just as much as women do, but they’re less likely to publicize it. Men are socialized not to complain about not living up to the standards of what society deems is an attractive “Man”. It may seem like men aren’t being “objectified”, but they are being superficially scrutinized, and it’s more damaging because they’re conditioned not to voice their insecurities or seek help. This post points to a study that shows to what extent men hide unmanly information about themselves:

Only 16% of men with documented case histories of child sexual abuse disclosed that abuse on a survey intended to capture child sexual abuse. Sixteen percent of men compared to sixty-four percent of women. That amounts to a disclosure rate of child sexual abuse four times higher in women than in men.

Here’s a good video about how society perssures boys to live up to masculine ideals and how it forces them to hide their issues and put on a “mask”. Masculine ideals aren’t all social constructs, they have a natural basis. But society isn’t doing a good job of helping those who suffer from coming short of being a Man.

Laci can argue that women suffer from society’s expectations and provide suggestions on how we can improve the situation. But she needs to stop talking about men not experiencing the same struggle.

Why hard-to-get is attractive

For intuition on woman’s attraction heuristic, read the following thought experiment:

Imagine you’re about to choose one of three job interviews to attend. You know nothing about the job prior to the interview. You could be applying as a cashier at McDonald’s or a CEO of Intel—you have no idea. The only information you’re given is the following:

Job Interview 1 – You answer all the questions easily and feel confident you’ll get the job.

Job Interview 2 – You barely manage to answer the questions and you feel your chances of getting hired are insignificant.

Job Interview 3 You manage to answer most, but not all of the questions and feel there is about a 50% chance of being hired. Remember, you know nothing about the salary, benefits or prestige of the job you’re interviewing for.

Given what you know, which job interview would you choose and why?

Most people would easily discard the second option. After all, there is no point of wasting your opportunity to interview for attainable jobs for one you have no shot at. The difficulty of the interview is evidence you’re probably under-qualified anyways.

Now you’re left with the first and third option. This decision is a little less obvious. Most would discard the first option, but not for the same reason they discarded the second. The problem with the first interview is that it’s too easy. There are certain inferences you can make about a job whose interview process is easy for you to pass: you’re probably overqualified and can get a higher-paying and more prestigious job elsewhere.

This raises the question: For a job you believe you’re perfectly qualified for and can’t do better or worse elsewhere, how would you expect the job interview to go?

You would expect it to be challenging, but still perceived attainable. In other words, the interview has to be the hardest possible interview that doesn’t make you feel hopeless. And this is why you choose the third interview—it fits the bill.

We know we’re maximizing our payoff when we experience these kinds of challenges; in this case, it was about maximizing the amount of money and prestige from our job. We are evolutionarily designed to seek out these sorts of challenges because they indicate that we’re maximizing our potential gains. Activates that are too hard use up too much energy and time for a little payoff. Conversely, activities that are too easy are a waste because time can be spent on yielding a higher payoffs elsewhere. Think about the times you’ve most enjoyed a sport or game. I can guarantee that in almost every case you experienced a perfect blend of ease and difficulty.

Women are like job-seekers going from interview to interview without knowing the salary or prestige of the jobs. Instead of seeking jobs, they’re seeking men; and instead of trying to maximize salary, they’re trying to maximize status in men. Women are turned on by men who bring forth a “challenging interview process.”

A man’s attractiveness (his status) is not as apparent as a woman’s: her physical appearance. While women have to “discover” a man’s value, men can plainly see a woman’s value. So men know how challenging a woman will be based on her physical appearance, woman don’t. Instead, they use the challenge itself to determine attractiveness. The same reasons that make a sexy woman challenging, make a challenging man sexy – because they’re probably the best you can do.

Don’t be easy to get. Don’t be impossible to get. Be hard to get.

Status

Your social status, or just “status”, is your perceived power to get what you want. It’s the shared belief that others have about your power, and that you have about your own power.

Since powerful people can get what they want, you have everything to gain as their ally and everything to lose as their enemy. A powerful person could, on a whim, provide you with a world of opportunity and pleasure or cause you endless pain or suffering. And your genetic future is at the mercy of powerful people. A powerful person could kill you or protect you from premature death, provide you with genetically fit children or force you into celibacy.

On the other hand, powerless people can’t affect your wellbeing or your genetic future much. The power you perceive people to have, i.e. status, determines how you react to them. Your emotions, thoughts and behaviors in reaction to status were designed to maximize your genetic fitness.

Your actual power doesn’t cause people to react differently toward you; only your perceived power does – i.e. your status. If you can manipulate people’s perception of your power – by definition, manipulate your status – then you control how people feel and behave toward you.

Honing your status-manipulation skill requires paying close attention to your status signals – the perceivable clues that others use to determine your status. You need to become a detective, noticing subtle status signals that can change other people’s perception of your power.

Your passive status signals are the ones people can observe without interacting with you: clothes, ethnicity, body language, possessions, interactions with others, physical attractiveness, strength, location, hairstyle, age, etc. You want to manipulate your passive status signals to communicate the status you want, but it’s not easy. Some passive status signals are hard to get, like a nice car. Some are culture-specific, like clothes. And some can’t be changed at all, like height. It’s usually more feasible to manipulate your interactive status signals, the ones people observe when they interact with you.

When people interact with you, the juiciest status signals come from your reactivity. Reactivity is the psychological mechanism that evaluates each stimulus for its potential to impact your genetic future, and then decides how much attention to pay it.

When you were first learning to drive, you were probably anxious and hyper-vigilant, i.e. reactive. As you improved, driving became automatic, freeing up your attention to daydream or listen to music. You don’t feel like driving is risky to your genetic fitness anymore, so when you drive, you’re not reactive. Only an unusually interesting stimulus can get your attention: a swerving car, a tailgater, a broken traffic light, an attractive driver in another car, etc.

It’s natural to be reactive when you interact with high status people. Being reactive to something means you’ve psychologically classified it as having a high potential impact on your genetic future, so you visibly care about it. The higher the status, the more you react. The lower the status, the less you react – or maybe you don’t react at all.

Normally, status determines reactivity. But if you’re one of the few people who understands the link from status to reactivity, you can actually run it backwards: By contriving to act with the right amount of reactivity, you can manipulate your status.

Here are reactive behaviors that communicate your higher or lower status in an interaction.

Higher Status

  • Fixed eye contact
  • Extending limbs, taking up a lot of space
  • Exposing vulnerable body parts: throat, abdomen and groin
  • Succinct and monotone speech
  • Disclosing little information
  • Comfortable and relaxed body language
  • Emotionally and physically composed
  • Indifferent attitude
  • Long pauses in speech
  • Ignoring questions or requests
  • Interrupting
  • Breaking rapport
  • Still body positions
  • Slow movements

Lower Status

  • Obeying demands
  • Passive (aggressive) language
  • Defensive in disagreements
  • Contorting body to take up little space
  • Speaking verbosely or mostly silent
  • Darting eyes
  • Disclosing a lot of information
  • Overly loud or quiet voice
  • Apologizing
  • Indirect questioning
  • Losing composure, or tries to
  • Avoiding confrontational subjects
  • Trying to impress
  • Showing emotion
  • Asking for forgiveness
  • Accommodating
  • Repeating movements like wringing hands or bouncing legs
  • Stuttering
  • Frequent short pauses when speaking
  • Fidgeting
  • Engaged in conversation
  • Showing symptoms of anxiety

When you feel unreactive in an interaction, your brain is saying, “this person isn’t interesting or important; use the least amount of energy needed”. Your behaviors then have the characteristic signs of high status: they’re low-effort, comfortable, lazy.

Conversely, when you feel reactive in an interaction, your brain is saying, “this person is interesting and important; give them your undivided attention”. Your behaviors will have the characteristic signs of low status: anxiety, discomfort, excitement, eagerness, anger, curiosity.

People are natural status detectives. Subconsciously, they process your status signals to evaluate your status. Consciously, they can feel an intuition about your status, but they’re usually not aware that any evaluation process ever took place. When you interact with someone whose conscious mind is absorbed in the content of your conversation, their subconscious mind will be keenly monitoring you for signs of reactivity and other status signals.

In the ancestral environment, it wouldn’t pay to contrive your level of reactivity to manipulate your status level. If you raised your status level above your actual power to get what you want, you’d motivate someone else to raise their own status by overpowering you in a fight.

The consequences of status manipulation in modern society are infinitely milder than they were in ancient times. If you get caught padding your resume or pretending to own a Porsche, you won’t get beaten to death. But human psychology is a relic from ancient times. When someone’s ancient brain evaluates your status, it doesn’t account for the modern possibility that your unreactive behavior may be contrived. That’s a bug in the human software which our modern environment has exposed, and which evolution hasn’t patched yet. If you learn to exploit the brain’s software bugs, you can plant in anyone’s mind an intuitive sense that you’re a powerful person.