The Shape of Discord

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.]


Figure 1. A personality urchin.

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:

Figure 2. Someone with average values for all traits (left) and someone with generally low values except for a few high-value exceptions (right).

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:

Figure 3. A concrete example of parameter space.

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:

Figure 4. Each chart shows two individuals (for a total of four). The two on the left strongly disagree while the two on the right strongly agree.

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.


Figure 5. Political moderation.

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.


Figure 6. An almost perfect match.

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.”


Figure 7. Watch your six!

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.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

10 responses to “The Shape of Discord

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    I love this! Great work. … But (big but) if it were just a matter of “mapping” it out – we wouldn’t be where we are. Unfortunately – people lie while professing “honesty is the best policy.” That is human nature. So do other animals. It’s called the “display hypothesis”. It functions so as to avoid actual combat. Now it’s “evolved” to “virtue signaling”. Which is horrible – a lie, too (often).
    I don’t know what the answer is. Like you said and illustrate here – it’s all very complex. Like I said, we have an “upgrade problem”.
    You could start a dating ap! 😉 cheers,

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thanks! You bring up two big problems with trying to actually implement these charts: Firstly, humans are just too complex for any practical application; the idea should be taken only as a metaphor. Secondly, there is the matter of honesty. In the abstract, we say each person has a true shape (one that usually reveals itself over time) even if we can never actually chart it (or get them to admit it).

      The parameter space metaphor generally is intended to promote the multi-dimensional view, the understanding of many facets of an issue and the nuances of each facet. These charts are good as a visualization of that as well as visualizing compatibility and polarization. But, yeah, they don’t have much practical value.

      Ideally, they might inspire people to take a more nuanced and balanced approach, but probably not.

      Speaking of human nature, how did we get to a point where “virtue signaling” and being “woke” or “a social justice warrior” have been weaponized into derisive insults? All three of those are good things to be. Why is fighting for social justice, or being awake to social issues, a bad thing? When did we begin to disdain virtue? Of the three major branches of moral philosophy, I much prefer virtue ethics over deontology or consequentialism. Good virtues are things we should all pursue! Certainly, there can be “too much of a good thing” but attacking people for having good values is weird to me!

      I met my ex-wife on an early internet dating site. 😯 Nuf sed. 🤐 (Her best friend ended up marrying the guy who designed the site.)

      • Mark Edward Jabbour

        Sorry for not responding promptly (I wandered away). To answer your questions: It’s not that the values of said “woke” folk are “bad”, it’s that they are not being honest. In fact they exhibit the very traits they posit to “hate”. (It’s known as projection in psych-speak.) eg. They PRACTICE racism by designating all white men as being white supremacist by the nature of being white men. And so on. ~ (see below)
        AS to ethics (system of morals = right or wrong bx/thought). The system IS a set of rules (= deontology) by which a person is expected to be obedient to. Consequentialism is more like a natural set of rules/laws wherein one’s bx (= behavior) results in a consequent reaction from the environment, either positive or negative. The environment can be either interpersonal, or not. As in one’s interaction with fire.
        If it’s interpersonal is where things become complex. Personality coming into play. Fire’s bx is predictable because its properties are known.
        Timothy Leary (Yes THAT dude.) had a very astute take on personality before he got into LSD, 1957. He called it an “Interpersonal circle”. Similar to your figures, but it was a wheel. Wheels within wheels, as it were. His idea was that certain bxs “pull”, or provoke, particular responses from the other. In the case of realistic, and justified rebellion, that provokes punishment, which then provokes bitterness, complaining, and more rebellious action. And so it goes.
        This is where we find ourselves. It can be applied to groups as well as individuals.
        Anyway, I loved this. I’m going to repost on my site (with your permission). Because it’s triggered my forthcoming post on Why We Lie.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Sure, you’re welcome to repost any time, or any thing, you like!

        Right, “the system” — our body of law and practice — is deontological of necessity because we can’t trust humans with virtue ethics or consequentialism (aka utilitarianism). So, we need laws everyone is expected to blindly follow. But deontology suffers from the push-pull of not enough versus too many laws. In both cases, a system of laws usually requires a judiciary of some kind to mediate situations laws fail to address or address unfairly. That judiciary often depend on consequentialism/utilitarianism to resolve the issue. Or act according to their sense of virtue.

        Consequentialism is just what it sounds like: moral behavior is behavior with the best consequences. Utilitarianism is just another way of saying the same thing (but maybe on a bigger scope). In Virtue Ethics people are expected to have good moral sense — good values — and act accordingly. Virtue Ethics arises from studying consequences and rules and growing from experience. Virtue Ethics = moral wisdom. Some view achieving this as the primary goal of life.

        Leary was quite astute. It’s a pity, he took serious research off the table until fairly recently. There have been some interesting, and perhaps promising, results. Do you know about Michael Pollen’s book, How to Change Your Mind? (I mentioned it last year in the Things I Think Are True post.)

        I was just complaining about the dishonesty that pervades culture. It’s everywhere, left and right, so there’s always a pot/kettle aspect. The insults here implicitly attack the values, not the dishonesty. And thing is, I don’t know people are being dishonest about it so much as ill-informed or stupid. (Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice what is more likely explained by incompetence.) I guess I differentiate between dishonesty (intentional and knowing) versus mistaken (ignorant or poorly thought out). I tend to see those “woke” folks as (badly) mistaken.

        (FWIW, I also differentiate between being racist and racism. An inescapable truth is that everyone is racist to some degree or other. What matters there is how we comport ourselves in public interacting with others. Racism is systematic bais against an ethnic group. It’s a bias felt by nearly all members of some race at nearly all levels of society. Bigotry is singling out a single group. Blaming nearly all white men isn’t racist because it excludes white women and isn’t based on race so much as past behavior. There is also that there is a certain amount of truth to the accusations.)

      • Mark Edward Jabbour

        Thanks for the elaboration! I’m (was) working on my post. Now, other things. Later …

  • Anonymole

    I read a recent Medium article about blending software engineer skills. The radar chart was used to build a team where the largest coverage was assembled from individual coders. You can see how team building, for whatever type of task would benefit from using radar diagrams.

    I wonder, regarding the comparison between two individuals, how useful “knowing” the other person’s personality profile actually is.

    “So what you’re empathic and egalitarian? When it comes to paying taxes we want to pay as little as possible.”
    “We all use the roads and electrical grid and legal system. We need to pay our fair share to support them, despite you being a diehard libertarian.”
    “We pay plenty, already.”
    “If everyone paid so little, we wouldn’t have these services in the first place.”
    “Bullshit yourself.”

    Maybe it comes down the after-the-fact analysis. Oh, that’s why we never got along.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, it’s more a tool for visualizing and understanding known situations than one for predicting unknown future interactions. The emphasis is on promoting multi-variable analysis and trying to defeat tug-of-war polarization. (Yeah, I know, good luck with that.)

      The idea of using it to build teams seems workable. Identify the desired traits, find a way to accurately score them, and try to build the biggest overlapping shape you can. Hmmm. Might be useful for visualizing polls if the overlapping shapes represented different demographics. The overlap again showing consensus.

      One could use a radar chart to indicate the genetic profile of a DNA test. One axis for each possible contributing ethnicity.

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    A brief comment on “the deal breaker” traits. One reason (primary) it doesn’t work IRL is the axiom “Love is blind”. If there is attraction/infatuation a person will discount/ignore those “negative” traits because … for any number of reasons. The primary one being unconscious – that of nature’s way of assuring the creature replicates itself. ~
    It’s often the case that friends and family can see “the problem”; but the “love struck” rationalizes it away. “It’s not so bad”; “I can fix that.” “They’ll change once …” and also the “Pygmalion effect” wherein the subject changes due to, well, it’s really “magical thinking” – the stuff of myths.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, yeah, sure, when people don’t lead intentional lives, they’re blown by winds that seem beyond their control. The point of the 10 Deal Breakers list is prescribing an intention that may allow a measure of control. It’s possible to steer our ‘ships. In both favorable and unfavorable directions.

      We’re touching on two topics that have interested me a long time: The notion of a Pavlovian versus intentional life, and our addiction to idealized notions of romantic love (the “perfect person” and “love is blind” and other myths). I think it’s possible to rise above behavioralism, and I think intimate relationships require effort and will.

      You are absolutely right that people do behave the ways you list, no question about it. We’ve probably made the same missteps ourselves (I know I have). But as creatures with intellect and free will, we can choose to rise above our primitive drives. We can be more intentional in our approach. The heart can push, but the head has to steer.

      Alternately, one could view the list as a huge warning sign. Sure, go ahead and risk it if you really want to, but just know that in cooler times you thought to yourself, “Self, this is a bad idea…” And do accordingly. Hell, there are times I’ve measured once, twice, even thrice, and gone ahead and cut anyway, because what’s life without a little risk?

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