Overanalyzing shock

I once shocked a friend to the depth of his soul by saying “Maybe you’re right, let’s check.”

Me and him were going to pick up someone from the airport. I was leaving the house and he said “I bet the plane is going to be late”. I replied “Maybe you are right, let’s check the estimated arrival time”. What happened next stunned me.

He was in total shock at my answer, unable to grasp what was happening. Kinda like in a movie when something comes out from the left-field and the hero is actually the villain and for a moment your are lost and disconnected trying to reorient yourself.

I was confused and stunned in response to his reaction, and it took me a year but I think I now have the pieces in place to understand it.

What follows is an analysis of the event, me trying to make sense of that experience.



Communities of discourse

I have in the past lightly circled the issue of communities of discourse. So let us dive in: “[a] discourse community is a group of people who share a set of discourses, understood as basic values and assumptions, and ways of communicating about those goals. Linguist John Swales defined discourse communities as “groups that have goals or purposes, and use communication to achieve these goals.”

Some examples of a discourse community might be those who read and/or contribute to a particular academic journal, or members of an email list for Madonna fans. Each discourse community has its own unwritten rules about what can be said and how it can be said: for instance, the journal will not accept an article with the claim that “Discourse is the coolest concept”; on the other hand, members of the email list may or may not appreciate a Freudian analysis of Madonna’s latest single. Most people move within and between different discourse communities every day.

Since the discourse community itself is intangible, it is easier to imagine discourse communities in terms of the fora in which they operate. The hypothetical journal and email list can each be seen as an example of a forum, or a “concrete, local manifestation of the operation of the discourse community”.


A discourse community:

  1. has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
  2. has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
  3. uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.
  4. utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.
  5. in addition to owning genres, it has acquired some specific lexis.
  6. has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.”


Futher, “[a]ll language is the language of community, be this a community bound by biological ties, or by the practice of a common discipline or technique. The terms used, their meaning, their definition, can only be understood in the context of the habits, ways of thought, methods, external circumstances, and tradition known to the users of those terms. A deviation from usage requires justification …”

That is a community of discourse is a community operating through shared frames of sensemaking.



In the data/frame theory (which I discussed before) it is posited that everything that is made sense of is made sense of from a particular point of view. Thus, the sentence “I bet the plane is going to be late” means different things depending on the frame from which it is being analysed. And if communities operate through different frames, it means different things depending on the community in which it is being uttered.

The event I mentioned happened when I was in my home country. (Not the USA.) There, “I bet that X” is not an expression of an empirical statement, but something else. Something that you do so that if X does indeed come to pass you can go “I told you so” and keep face.
The answer I gave entailed the LessWrong/San Francisco/etc. understanding of the statement: an  empirical prediction to be argued over or better on by epistemic agents, with the shared goal of improving models.



The OODA loop is a model of a decision making cycle developed by USA Colonel John Boyd based on observing jet fighter battles.

OODA stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action. A pilot is constantly going through these loops or cycles in a dogfight: he tries to observe the enemy as best he can, this observation being somewhat fluid, since nothing is standing still and all of this is happening at great speed. With a lightning-quick observation, he then must orient this movement of the enemy, what it means, what are his intentions, how does it fit into the overall battle. This is the critical part of the cycle. Based on this orientation, he makes a decision as to how to respond, and then takes the appropriate action.

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 01.01.30

The OODA models provides an explanation of what happened. He was oriented based on being in a certain community of discourse. This led to a decision and action. This action has a prediction about what will happen (from which deviance is taken as feedback with regards to whether the initial orientation was appropriate). The fact that I answered as from within another community of discourse caused him to reorient aggressively which explains why he was in shock, not speaking or moving.

This caused a reset of his own OODA loop, making him go back to square one, back to observing.

(Coincidentally part of what the OODA loop illuminates is how to use your opponent mental models against them, once they acted on a model predicting a result, give them a different result so that they have to reset the whole loop. Do this multiple times and they will start lagging and mistakes will accumulate, then go in for the kill. This was not what I was attempting to do to my friend.)

Still, what does it mean to reset the loop? To have to go back to observation?



Here is a further model detailing what is going on. I like it because I like how smoothly it integrates into the other ones, like all of them are circling the same things from really different perspectives and traditions.

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 01.01.38

According to this model, surprise is model error, what the model predicted that ended up being wrong. According to the OODA loop, he oriented by using the mental model of us being in one community of discourse, and me being oriented to another one at that time provided him a reply that his model did not account for in the least.

Hence, utter shock.



This episode stayed in my mind for a year: I was stunned at his shock and couldn’t make sense of it. I can now, and it took me only one year and serendipitously learning about 4 models (frames, discourse community, surprise as model error, ooda loop).

And this is super interesting and analysing is fun, but also this is insane, people don’t do this – remembering past episodes from one year before and use concepts they’ve learned meanwhile to put together their understanding of what happened then. (Do they?)

Then, why did I?

I don’t know why, but this is really important. (1)


  1. – This sentence usually comes when I’m focusing. I find something, some handle, some piece and it’s painfully clear it matters, but the history isn’t set yet it is not yet clear why it matters. This happens very frequently and has thus far been right each time. (Which is not reason for me to believe that will be the case in the future [thanks Hume], but it shifts the probability mass or whoever a “Bayesian” would frame it.)




  1. Look into what has been said about discourse and discourse communities
  2. Look at Jaakko Hintikka and Van Benthem on logic of communitie
  3. sensemaking
  4. “ordering of experience”
  5. Talking between and from one community to the other (nvc creates a third language to do this)
  6. See how my linking of frames and discourse matches to weick’s view on organizational sensemaking

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