Posted by: Edward | March 4, 2008

Requisite Variety and Social Adaptability

Any person is a component in a cybernetic system of the social situations and contexts that they generally interact with. What component will have the most influence on the outcome of an interaction depends on what cyberneticists call requisite variety. Requisite variety is the number of options available to the component as a response to an input. The component, and therefore the person, with the most options available is at a distinct advantage in an interaction. This holds in social situations.

Let us take as a hypothetical situation two men competing for the attention and affection of a woman. The first has three basic tactics talking about shared experiences, physical sexuality, and violence. The other is additionally capable of intellectual conversation, mocking, and flirting. The second male can vary his response to the female or the first male more often and with greater subtlety. With his greater number of conversational gambits he can maneuver the other male into situations that he simply doesn’t have a response to or that he’ll make the wrong response to and he can engage the woman’s attention for more of her possible moods. Recently I witnessed an interaction very similar to my simplified description above. The more flexible male shut down his competitor to the point the competitor developed a new option, he drank until he passed out and didn’t have to compete anymore.

Another example of requisite variety at work is in the job interview situation. The interview questions are essentially setting the variety necessary to succeed. If the interviewee does not have enough options in their behaviour to answer all of the questions offered satisfactorily then his application is rejected. Requisite variety in largely expressed here by being able to recognize the questions behind the question and in being able to reframe your experience to be relevant answers.

There are three points in the response process that we can concentrate on increasing our variety in a useful way. We can work on our inputs, our processing, or our output. If we choose to concentrate on our input than what we would do is increase the subtlety of the distinctions we make. We would work on increasing the number of patterns we recognize. If we concentrate on our output then we increase the number of responses we can make. Increase the subtlety of our output and learn new ways of expressing ourselves.Finally, we can work on our processing. This is perhaps the most difficult to do. What you would want to do with the processing is to arrange the connections between the input and the best possible output in relation to it. In this what you are trying to do is look at the input you are getting in terms of what input you want from the other person and output. The processing phase is in this way the most complicated.

The processing step is most related to the idea of feedback loops. You have to have some model of the response you are looking for from the people you are communicating with. You have to make some kind of comparison between the signal you are getting and the one you want. Then you have to have some idea of what action on your part is likely to lead to the other people making their signal more like the one you want. In general we all do this naturally but it is quite possible to improve how well we do this. The number of potential processing steps is equal to the number of inputs you are capable of recognizing multiplied by the number of outputs you can do multiplied by the number of outcomes you want. The internal processes can quickly get unwieldy. Thankfully most of them are operated almost entirely unconsciously.

When engaged in this kind of fine tuning work on your responses the goal is not to make all of these options conscious for you. But to engage in a standard learning cycle. We want to move from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. In general all of your processing and most of your input and output are unconsciously competent at what they are doing and unconsciously incompetent at what you are not doing. One way of going about this is to watch what other people are doing that you are not. Or looking for where the output you are doing is leading away from the response you are looking for. Once you have identified where you are incompetent you have already moved into phase two. Now what you need to do is find out what someone competent in these particular patterns do. Practice this until you are competent. Then keep practicing it until you are doing the more effective pattern without thinking about it.



  1. Thank you for this, it’s very insightful. I will likely find a way to incorporate this into my operating model 🙂

  2. Brilliant post!, brother

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