It was a gray fall day in Duluth, and icy wind whipped off of Lake Superior, funneling down the road my fiancée and I trundled along. Ahead on the sidewalk, a large dark figure appeared, angrily stalking towards us. Thoughts of escape evaporated as the absence of side streets or other exits became apparent. I recall the looming local’s intensifying scowl and the smell of alcohol on his breath just before he rammed into my shoulder, knocking me back several steps. For a split-second, instinctual questions hung in the air – should we fight or flee?
Then, I did something unexpected. Stepping forward expansively, I smiled and boomed “How’s it going? — it’s been a long time!” The would-be assailant rocked back on one foot, his face registering confusion (or even the hint of a grin?). He paused – long enough for me to spot an open pharmacy two doors down on the left. Edging past, I grabbed my partner and hustled towards the lighted store. “Wish there was time to talk, but we’ve got to go!” Once inside, we heaved a sigh of relief.
Only upon reflection could I consciously piece together what had happened. Before taking the mantle of countercultural psychedelic guru, Tim Leary actually did research. Based on hours of recordings of group therapy, he came up with the notion of an interpersonal circle defined by independent dimensions of affiliation and dominance. His successors showed that people prefer interactions that are dimensionally complementary: whereas affiliation similarly begets affiliation, dominance complementarily begets submission. By corollary, people are confused by anticomplementary responses. In my case, responding in an outgoing way to a hostile opening was anticomplementary (i.e., a dominant affiliative response to dominant nonaffiliation). My assailant lacked an obvious script for dealing with this anticomplementarity, and I benefited from his momentary confusion. On that freezing day in Duluth, anticomplementarity literally saved my hide.
Brian Knutson is presently an associate professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Stanford University. His laboratory seeks to elucidate the neural basis of emotion (affective neuroscience), and explore implications for decision making (neuroeconomics) as well as psychopathology (neurophenomics).