Jun. 17th, 2013

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(Long time, no post, etc. Maybe one of these days I'll go into detail about what I've been up for the last semester or so. Also, the key insight that led to this post is due to my friend N)

A friend of mine, B, used to suffer from terrible road rage. His girlfriend, L, felt so uncomfortable driving with him when he was like this that she put considerable time and effort into working out what was going on, since B is not typically an angry guy. Eventually, she realised that what was going on was that B wasn't seeing the other cars as vehicles containing living people with plans and emotions of their own, but as potential obstacles that sometimes moved in unpredictable ways to block his path.

One of my favorite bloggers had a very well-received post about a certain type of guy who approaches women like they're vending machines for sex, where he just needs to perform the right moves and say the right things, and lo and behold he'll get laid. When this doesn't happen he gets angry and bitter and talks about how he's such a Nice Guy but girls still aren't interested in him.

On hearing B's road rage story, it occurred to me that I have a similar failure mode when I'm socially anxious, where I treat the people around me as mysterious black boxes that require that I perform esoteric nonsensical social rituals in order to appease and become accepted by them, where any deviation from the rituals will be punished with immediate scorn and/or rejection*. Unsurprisingly, this way of thinking does not particularly aid me in my efforts to be liked and accepted.

In a post about abusive partners, one of the comments highlighted the way that the abused blame themselves, searching for the thing they did to deserve the punishment. When they think they've found it, they tell themselves that if they just stop doing that particular thing, their partner will stop abusing them. Inevitably the abuse happens again, because the thing they did that first time was at best a convenient excuse, at worst completely uncorrelated with the abusive behavior.

In all of these stories, a person with otherwise completely functional theory of mind is put in a stressful situation, and in response they have lost their ability to think about what the other people in the interaction believe and desire. I'm not sure that calling it a failure in theory of mind is quite correct though, since the classical failure mode for theory of mind is to assume that everyone shares the same information/desires/beliefs that you do, as opposed to the situations here where the failure seems to involve denying/forgetting that the other people in the interaction have meaningful internal states at all. I could call it objectification, except that the connotations of the term have drifted so far away from the strict meaning that it's now completely useless for trying to describe anything else.

Does anyone know if there's a better name for this phenomenon? Or if there's any literature on it? So far I'm drawing a blank, but it seems like an area that ought to have been studied. If people lose their ability to model others when they're under stress, it seems like this would have huge implications for a lot of subfields.

* Yes, I know that's an exaggeration of what would actually happen, but you're welcome to try convincing my brain of this when I'm feeling socially anxious


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