This is not as well-formed as it could be, but felt worth capturing. I’ve been struggling to describe the limit of attachment in various ways, and the concept of “stakes” seems like such a good topic to explore.
There’s something about the phrase “a high-stakes situation” that paints a vivid picture of a stressful encounter. When stakes are high, we are alert, anxious, and ready to act. When stakes are low, we’re relaxed, chill, and maybe even bored. But what are these “stakes”? Where do they come from?
Trying to orient the concept within the problem understanding framework, I characterized stakes as the degree of our attachment to an intention. I am loading a few things into this burrito of a definition, so let me try to unroll it.
First, stakes are associated with an intention. In a world without intentions, there aren’t stakes. This seems important somehow, given that every intention represents a problem. Stakes are how we measure the significance of us finding a solution to this problem. It doesn’t matter if we find solutions to low-stakes problems. It matters a lot for the high-stakes problems.
Second, my use of the word “attachment” indicates a particular kind of limit of understanding being tested. The higher the stakes, the less likely we are to incorporate disconfirming evidence into our model and adjust it. When stakes are low, our limit of attachment is no longer impacting our process of understanding. For example, a brainstorming session or a generative meeting usually requires a low-stakes setting.
Why is it that we are attached more to some intentions and not others? Let me introduce a kind of intention that I’ve touched on briefly when discussing homeostasis: the intention to exist. The existential intention is something that comes built-in with our wetware. Even before we are capable of forming a coherent thought, we already somehow have the most primitive mental model that includes a “what is” with us in it, and “what should be” with us continuing to be in it. We are born into solving our existential problem.
My guess is that this existential intention is something that undergirds most of our intentions. Put differently, stakes rise when any of the mental models we contain start predicting outcomes with us not existing. Remember the predator wanting to eat me in one of the earlier posts? That’s a high-stakes situation. One of those “what should to be” outcomes had “me” replaced with “meal”.
Existential intentions have a firmly fixed “what should be” that is non-negotiable, which makes them a source of distortions to the rest of our mental models. Bumping into the limit of attachment will tend to do that. Especially in the early stages of our development, this can lead to our mental models getting to seriously weird states. A way to think of psychology might be as the entire discipline dedicated to untangling of the mental models tied in vicious loops of adversarial adaptation within one person’s mind.
Because of these distortions, existential intention often gets in the way of living joyfully. For example, whenever I feel nervous before speaking to a large audience, I am likely experiencing some entanglement with existential intention. Somewhere in the depth of my brain, there’s a mental model in my mind that is making a literal existential-scale prediction: that perhaps I may be mauled to death by the audience or some absurdity of the sort. Usually, the mental model takes several hoops before arriving at “and then I will die!” and may include classics like “everyone will laugh at me” and “this will be the end of my career” and “my family will disown me and kick me out to the street” so on. It may be only a teensy-weensy part of the overall mental model, a part that is easily overwhelmed by other, more mature and confident mental models. But the mere fact of me feeling nervous tells me that it’s there – freaking out and trying to avert my imminent demise.
Because our mental models are developed individually, we all have our own unique configurations of existential intention entanglements. Situations that are high-stakes for some may be totally chill for others. Though socialization brings a degree of sameness, our evaluation of stakes remains deeply personal. For example, when creating a low-stakes environment for a generative conversation, we may mistakenly presume that an environment works for us will for all of the participants. I’ve made this mistake a whole bunch of times. The best approach I know is to manage the stakes dynamically, staying aware of the participant’s engagement and helping them navigate their tangles of existential intentions.