I have posted many times about taking a parameter space view to avoid binary thinking (and the null or zero sense of being in the middle or on the fence). I’ve found the idea extremely helpful in understanding many aspects of life (hence all those posts).
It seems especially useful in these highly polarized and widely variegated times. (Even those who embrace “non-binary” ideas sometimes do so in a binary way.) But most real situations have many facets — many parameters. The space of human issues is big and cannot be well-characterized by two sides.
The parameter spaces metaphor provides a handle for visualizing such issues.
The notion of parameter spaces replaces a much older metaphor I had that visualized a person as a hard inflexible core of fundamental beliefs and character with lots of long spines of personality and habit sticking out. Think sea urchin.
The idea is that the spines, which represent our outward facing behaviors and characteristics, prevent our cores from getting close to others, even when we want to. (Sometimes cores are incompatible. Some people we just don’t like for whatever reason fair or foul.) Our spines get hung up on the other person’s spines. We can’t get close to someone unless we’re willing to move our spines to allow intermeshing.
The point, obviously, is that a successful long-term relationship requires adjusting and accommodating. Ideally in a mutual way that doesn’t unreasonably compromise either’s sovereignty. Sometimes one person does most of the adjusting and accommodating, which is not usually considered healthy or happy.
It’s a fine metaphor, but over the years I’ve seen relationships utterly fail where the pair had apparently found easy close fits. (In a few cases, I obtained the data personally.) It seemed more than a problem of interlocking spines. I needed a better metaphor.
[Funny thing about sitting down to write this stuff. It gets me thinking more deeply about the thing, and sometimes that sparks revelation. Like: I just realized the new metaphor, duh, is really just spines again. But it’s maybe a bit more easily visualized and may offer insight in situations where a single “spine” acts as a deal-breaker.]
The problem to solve is that, even with the parameter space visual metaphor, human issues often have more than the two or three dimensions we can easily visualize. (My sea urchin metaphor tried to capture the notion of the many dimensions involved in someone’s personality.)
The HBO series Westworld, in season one, to configure the robots, used a multi-parameter display that caught my eye. It looked a lot like Figure 1, except the parameters were labeled with trait names where I’ve just used numbers (1-42). Assume each represents some characteristic of interest.
Obviously, people have more than 42 characteristics — many, many more. The diagrams here are just visualizations to illustrate the idea. And for a given situation we can limit the discussion to those traits most relevant to the issue.
What’s important (and one reason I just used numbers) is the shape formed by an individual’s traits. Each one will be a bit different (like snowflakes), and the shape can offer general clues about that individual. For example, Figure 1 seems to indicate someone with a lot of trait variance, although nothing drops to zero (the center of the diagram). The traits from 21-28 all have large values. If they were related (say, having to do with art appreciation), we might guess this individual was big on the arts.
Consider these two individuals:
The one on the left has average values for all traits. This might indicate a well-rounded personality or someone with just average views, depending on which traits we decide to chart. The person on the right has generally low values except for a handful of exceptions where they rate very high. This might indicate the canonical expert — really good at a few things, but often inept at most others — or a person without strong opinions, except in a few cases that really matter to them.
The point is: the idea is very general and can be applied in all sorts of ways. These diagrams can represent opinions, skills, talents, education, physical stats… any collection of traits desired.
To make the visualization more concrete, let’s label the axes with some specific traits:
I’ve used the five basic personality traits and the five languages of love to illustrate the wide range of possibilities. This person ranks pretty high in most traits… including being neurotic! Which may account for the lower values on the agreeable and quality (time) axes. And they’re not much for giving compliments, but they make up for it with gifts and (acts of) service.
[FWIW, I generated all these charts randomly, except for certain applied biases to get the right kind of chart (as in Figure 2 and below). Figure 1 and Figure 3, however, are entirely random. And within the bias, the axis values themselves are random.]
It’s worth emphasizing that actual humans have more axes than any chart could ever contain, so reducing people to 42 (or whatever) vectors or axes is indeed reductive. The value of these charts lies only in their visual metaphor.
One use for these charts is in visualizing personal relationships by overlaying the traits of two people. (Or more, but things get fuzzy with lots of overlays.)
For example, if we want to examine the many arguments of two opposing views, we can arrange the chart such that the two sets of opinions are on different sides of the chart. Then the shapes individuals form visually indicates where they stand overall (the center of mass of their shape).
In the political realm, given the current polarization and strong feelings, we might see charts like these:
Several important things to note here: Firstly, each chart shows two individuals, one color-coded blue, one color-coded yellow. Secondly, no association is intended with color or which side of the chart means what. The geometry is symmetrical here.
One more important point: The axes only reflect the strength of a trait or opinion (or whatever). There are no negative numbers on the axes. Given some trait, there can be from zero to whatever amount of that trait. Negative opinions on things are positive feelings about the opposite of that thing.
[Somewhat like how you can have 12 volts of positive or 12 volts of negative charge. In both cases you have 12 volts.]
The left side of Figure 4 shows two individuals who feel strongly about opposing sides of some issue (or about politics, society, or culture in general). They feel strongly about all the arguments favoring their side but have a low opinion of the opposing arguments. As you can clearly see, there’s little overlap (green) in their views. This is the very image of polarization.
On the right side of Figure 4 are two individuals who feel strongly and are generally aligned in their views (lots of green area). We see some differences in their shapes, but those are swamped by their agreement on which side is “right”. This is the other side of polarization — the full acceptance of your side’s opinions and the utter rejection of the other’s.
This becomes problematic if that acceptance treads on your core values. You may feel compelled to go along with the group — the common phenomenon of groupthink — against what your preferences or better angels might suggest. Too much acceptance leads to mindlessness. Always ask questions.
Sometimes the division seen on the left of Figure 4 reflects opposing views where there genuinely is no “right” side.
For instance, neither Progressive nor Conservative views are objectively right or better. They are just ways of seeing the world. Both are entirely legitimate. In fact, a healthy society needs clear-minded thinking from both points of view (if only we actually had it).
Figure 5 charts two individuals from opposing sides, but these two are more moderate in their views. They feel strongly, but not obsessively, about their own points and see the validity of opposing points.
What’s important is that this creates a large green area of agreement between them. It’s far more likely these two could find points of consensus to move forward on than the two on the left of Figure 4.
In terms of more intimate relationships, sometimes two people are very compatible in everything that matters… except for that one thing (whatever it is) one or both can’t seem to get past. Figure 6 illustrates such a pair. Their traits align quite well, except for axis #8 — whatever it happens to be.
Maybe he has a problem with her past, or she has a problem with his friends (insert appropriate genders as required). And sometimes what seems a deal-breaker to one seems a small matter to the other — something the much larger concordance between them ought to outweigh.
This is the situation I mentioned above where apparently really good relationships blow up because of a single difference of opinion. (I’m not talking about boundary-violating behaviors, or even single actions, that absolutely are, and should be, deal-breakers. I’m talking about personality traits and points of view. Opinions on life.)
It’s rare, at least for me, to find compatible people (because, let’s face it, I’m fucking odd), so it’s a shame when compatibility exists except in a few places where it doesn’t, and those outweigh the larger whole. On the other hand, sometimes things really can hinge on single issues. (The 2016 and 2020 Presidential Elections were divisive that way.)
In terms of friendships or romance, the two people on the left of Figure 4 would have entirely opposite interests, whereas the two on the right share the things they like as well as the things that don’t interest them. The two in Figure 5 clearly have divergent interests but with less distance between their respective “centers of mass.”
I’ve heard that, with intimate relationships, one should make a list of (no more than) ten traits that are deal-breakers. For instance, dishonesty, stealing, violence, and infidelity might be on most people’s list. Others might have items such as cigarette smoking, meat eating, overly Fanish behavior, bad teeth, jobless, etc.
One might fancifully construct a “radar” chart where the first ten axes represent those traits and the other axes represent whatever other traits you care about, good or bad, but none of which is necessarily a deal-breaker.
Then ignore anyone who shows up on your radar in the forbidden section but don’t be too quick to discard those who don’t. View Figure 7 as your compatibility configuration and look for those who match your shape. Which is pretty much what we do anyway, but the point here is not wasting time in the Forbidden Zone.
[The tactic, charted or not, makes sense to me. In a room with infinite doors, you’re far better off being restricted to ten doors you cannot use then restricted to only ten doors you can use. This is why most of the Ten Commandments tell you what not to do.]
Honestly, though, the idea of me offering romantic advice — given my history of all flights crashing and burning — is pretty funny.
That’s enough for this time. I’ll end with this:
I’ve long imagined a TV show called Consensus. It would consist of two panels of people representing two sides and a host/moderator. The goal of each episode would be fully delineating the positions of the two sides and then seeing how much the two panels agree on.
In other words, it would look for the green.
Stay multidimensional, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.