On Predators, Prey, and Social Strategy

(Epistemic Status:  A dichotomy with a tree – it rounds reality off to some degree and there will be exceptions, but as a general pattern, can be useful held loosely)

There are two types of people.  Predator and prey.

Ok.  That’s a load of garbage, but let’s hold that frame a little.  The predator type is the person who sets and holds a social context.  The prey type is the kind of person who relates to a context.  The prey type fundamentally wants to be safe; the predator type fundamentally wants to be powerful.  The typing ends up somewhat of a spectrum – there are predators who will play prey to other predators – there are prey who will predate opportunistically because it’s safe.  Humans often have some weighting of both sides of the equation, and whichever strategy is rewarded more frequently in a given social ecosystem will usually decide someone’s bias (combined with childhood experiences).  How this plays out socially depends on what exactly safe or powerful means to a given person.

I’ll start with the prey type – the strategy is acceptance of context.  You are signaling that you will cooperate with the conversational flow unless it threatens you; if you are threatened, you signal you intend to escape the context rather than fight it.  This is not the same as playing low status – you can play low and set a context; you can play high and receive a context.  The point is you are fundamentally assuming that there are threats, and you must be careful of them – a good social interaction is one in which you feel safer than you started – you’ve gained a new ally, or you’ve ascertained that someone can be traded with.  If it goes really well, you’ve found someone who can integrate with your herd.  Accepting context is also a compatibility test – if your memes work well with their memes, then things are great.  It’s unsafe to step too far outside your reference class from the prey perspective – discernment is one of your key protections.  As such, harmony, listening, and paying attention are important tools.  Prey hold groups together, because a tight knit group with sufficiently difficult to fake handshakes can protect against most attempts to break apart the culture.  Overall, sounds like a pretty prosocial strategy – if you play the game right, you’re extremely safe and content and have a good crew of friends and no one tries to hurt you.  But there is a problem…

If no one is setting the context, how do you build around a cohesive memeplex to create a herd?  You have your societal defaults, but anyone can fake those and your herd is weak.  If someone is setting context?  Then you probably have a predator in the pack – and if they are claiming to be prey, then they are likely building a hunting ground.  This of course isn’t always true – humans have both in them, so someone who’s really good at the social can in fact build a context that respects everyone’s needs to satisfy a drive for safety…but power corrupts, and setting context is power.  A group built entirely from prey norms is going to be very pretty, idyllic, and harmonic – and going to be torn apart the minute anyone figures out their memes because no one can talk about the problems because that would be a violation of the memeplex.

On the individual level, the prey experience is fundamentally that of fear until they find an oasis.  Hypervigilence, discernment, deference – subjugating your needs for other things to your need to be safe.  I imagine it’s painful and exhausting – but on the flip side, when you are safe, you flourish.  The energy consumption is so low you can just…communally build things.  You can be a part of a society without worrying about your needs – it’s low intensity and low stress.  Being prey is not bad, it’s just paying an upfront cognitive tax for access to a herd.

On the other hand, you have the predator type.  I’m more familiar with this social strategy – the point is to own the context.  When you own the context, you own the thoughts of everyone within that context – with sufficient strength of generated memes, certain thoughts just cannot occur, which frees up your action space considerably to do whatever it takes to become more powerful.  You have a group of people and you can extract resources – your choice as a herd predator is whether to be parasitic or symbiotic – zero sum or positive sum.  Alternatively, you can be a scavenger – a lone wolf with either very violent extraction strategies, or very gentle ones – again, zero sum or positive sum.

Let’s start with the herd predator – you’ve made yourself the contextual center of a group of people.  Your frames are intoxicating and people just want you to win.  In some cases, you even feel safe to them because you emulated the memeplex that well – in other cases, people are aware you’re doing a thing, but it’s still valuable to them.  A positive sum herd predator is interested in the thriving of the group.  It’s a longer term strategy because if the group is a repeatable source of food (power), then you can achieve so much more than you could alone.  The symbiotic agreement is not only the elevation of the prey in the pack, but also protection from other predators – part of the reason all prey groups do not excessively thrive is because their defense is the impenetrability of their memeplex and being below the notice of people who want a quick snack.  By not being noticed, they will not be attacked (usually).  A herd of prey centered around a positive sum predator will spark – they will all have abundance, and that will make them a source of power to other predators.  This is the kind of person that walks into a community, is noticed immediately, and sets to work trying to make the world a better place, for a definition of better set by the predator’s values – they cause whirlwinds wherever they go, and it feels like the entire community is uplifted.  They usually choose their community for a reason – there’s a clear alignment, even if some things change a little.

A positive sum predator that can hold the group’s context and tear apart attempts from other predators to hurt the group will thrive beyond reason.  A positive sum predator who has their context corrupted will be the ruin of everything around them.  Intent is only one piece of being a symbiotic herd predator – if you seek power and use predatory strategies, that power has to be used in the service of your herd.  You cannot just extract, or your herd will be short lived…

Conveniently, for the zero sum predator, this pattern is quite common in incompetent positive sum predators, and is great to hide behind.  The zero sum predator’s goal is to extract as many resources out of the herd by using their context as a leash, and to run away when it goes sour.  It’s so easy to restrict the thoughts of people around you when they accept your context that you can hold up the illusion of things being for their own good until something happens beyond the pale…but ideally by then the herd will be so bleeding and weak that you can stroll out at your leisure, ineffectively having your heels nipped by reprimands you don’t give a single damn about.  The zero sum predator is only interested in power and proof of that power to themselves – building something greater is just a way for prey to use a predator, and the zero sum predator sees through this (or so they think).  This is the kind of person that walks into a community, sparkles a lot, and looks like they’re doing things all the time – but it’s unclear exactly what they’re aiming for.  They often don’t care what community they are walking into – everything is interchangeable in the short term.  The goal is to leave enough discord so that their activities can’t be coordinated against, while not being so obviously a source of danger that they get taken down by the entire group’s memeplex.  If they can look like a positive sum predator while still sowing seeds of disharmony, then they will usually win and leave things a mess with only them (and maybe a few people they decided were interesting) enriched.

A zero sum predator is usually noticed by the most experienced/oldest prey, and by positive sum predators.  A zero sum predator is often going to optimize for weaker communities, or communities guarded by weaker predators – if they can corrupt the context and grab the (now twisted and likely low self esteem) positive sum predator for their next act, then they will iterate until their positive sum “friend” seems to be growing a spine again…and then eat them too.

However, the above process can go both ways – a very good, experienced positive sum predator will usually start collecting more predators into the herd and training them.  This is risky, and can backfire if the positive sum predator misjudges, but when played well, your community gains scalability.  At this point I’m reinventing game theory so I won’t go any meta levels higher – the essential concept is that sparkly people will often be very wary of each other, because the social strategy at play is fundamentally predatory, which throws doubt on intent from the outset.

The lone wolf varieties of predator are often the scariest, but also the least scalable.  Both varieties of herd predator are constrained by social reality – there is give and take.  The lone wolf does not care about this.  They are interested in a solitary world.  The zero sum lone wolf has the most clear social pattern – they don’t exist in anyone’s context, ever.  If they are somewhere, it is because they wants something, and they will get it by brute social (and sometimes physical) force.  They’ve collected all the data they need to strike, and they are intending to do it.  Without any obligations, they are not constrained by norms – whatever they derive a satisfaction in their power from, they are surgical about getting.  If it is money, they will do what it takes to make that number go up, regardless of what people think of them. If it is the ability to act freely, they will ignore obligations.  The concern is purely solipsistic, when a lone wolf predator is zero sum.  Usually, these die early – they either miscalculate a herd’s strength and get taken down or make a misstep that allows greater society to clean them up, or generally just lose to an authority.  If they don’t, however, they are often the most dangerous people alive because there is only one string on them, and if they can take it from you, it’s not possible to bribe them with it.

However…the other strain of lone wolf predator, the positive sum lone wolf, often has a purpose.  Something greater than them, that they do not trust a community to achieve.  They use predatory social strategies as a means to an end.  What they are building is often an ideal – a paradigm shift.  They are not interested in extracting resources quickly – they want to extract as many resources as possible to their end and will often come off as fae-like in the process.  They reward individual acts in the service of that ideal.  They punish individual acts that get in their way.  This is fundamentally the “agent of God” type – where God is whatever purpose they feel called to.  The interest isn’t setting a context on a group, it is winning, long term.  To do anything overtly self destructive would be losing – the key difference is that cooperation is an option purely because it will increase the probability of the thing they want.  If you judge this type correctly, you can gain a lot of ancillary power through them, if you don’t mind their goal.  It is very difficult to gain safety from them unless you are aligned completely with what they want – and even then, they will not prioritize you, they will prioritize your probability of getting them their thing.

Overall, I know a lot more about predator typology than prey typology.  I strive to be a positive sum herd predator – but of course I would say that.  You can usually see what’s going on in your community if you sit back and pay attention – look around at parties, look at what people are trying to do, look at what people are succeeding at and where it leads.  Lone wolves are harder to detect because you only see them when they strike – but if you can see the strike pattern and determine the goal, and determine the methodology, you can utilize this…or stay far, far away from it.  If you are more prey typed, consider what would make you feel safest and pursue it like a predator.  The predator strategy is an ongoing energy drain that never stops – the prey strategy is more efficient pathed through predator heuristics until safety is achieved.  In the end though, you will use whatever social strategy rewards you – try not to pick one that works most of the time but kills you when it fails.

Discussion questions – The prey type is far less explored – if you were to impose more of a tree on prey, what would it entail?  Do you consider yourself more predatory or more prey-like in social strategy?  What does it feel like to notice the difference between positive sum and zero sum predators?  Have you ever had an experience with a lone wolf?

 

Bonus note – I will note that at the time of publishing, an unfortunate event happened within the community I call home that tangentially relates to these ideas – effectively, a zero sum predator was finally noticed and is being dealt with.  However – this was not the inspiration for this post – I am not making specific commentary on that case by posting this; I have been thinking a lot about this interplay over the past few weeks.  Take it as you will, but consider my intent made clear by this note.

 

2 thoughts on “On Predators, Prey, and Social Strategy

  1. Have you ever seen a moose in person, preferably an adult bull moose? If not, google a picture of one with a person or car around for scale, then think about exactly how hungry you would have to be to try and take a bite out of that. Moose don’t really operate in herds- you’ll see a small family sometimes, but almost never more than four specimens within eye or ear-shot of each other. Moose are prey animals, but they really only become prey when already injured by mischance or sickening from some illness, and from what I’ve read even a badly injured moose is hunted with caution because their kicks will cripple or kill anything they can reach. If you are big and powerful enough, predators will leave you well alone without you needing to be social. “Moose” *is* the most important context.

    Predators can also be social. The archetypal predator in North America is probably the wolf, and one of their central traits is the pack. Operating in groups brings redundancy and comfort, as well as letting you learn from others. You mention lone wolf predators, so I think it’s worth noting that most wolves don’t operate alone. If you only see one wolf, that probably means there’s more you haven’t seen yet.

    In some situations, a predator genuinely isn’t hunting you. Consider the remora fish and the shark or the wolf and the raven for example. By spotting other prey for the predator you can do pretty well eating the leftovers, and by eating the things that irritate the predator you create a safe harbor for yourself.

    Where would you put dogs in this analogy? Herding dogs work to keep sheep or cows near the home, and to sound the warning or even engage predators to keep those at bay. There’s an overseer keeping things in line, but even still I’ve found cows sleep easier with a couple of dogs in the field. That said, you have to keep dogs well back from horses who get skittish at that profile and may even kick out.

    There’s an adage I heard growing up- “Who triumphs, the horse or the apple tree? Is it the flower who wins, or the honey bee?” I suppose we might call it positive sum predation, but I feel that model does not truly fit the dynamic. For all the hustle of fight and flight, the apple tree will outlive them all.

    Except for ivy and termites.

    In conclusion, CONSTANT VIGILANCE.

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  2. This made me think about how cooperative can you be about building the context. Is it possible to spread the responsibility among the population enough that the prey/predator dichotomy is lessened? It sounds possible, but also seems unlikely just from people’s personalities. In most communities there’s only a few people willing to take on responsibility for things and it’s generally people that pattern match to the predator type. But perhaps something with more shared responsibilities can be a more resilient structure overall.

    I’ve seen people avoiding that kind of responsibility because there’s some implicit assumption of the community being difficult to manage and people being unpleasant towards those “in power” when they fail to manage the community. Additionally, unless they just like having power or care about the community a lot they will often not get a direct benefit. This kind of pattern seems to lead to the wrong predatory types getting in power or good people getting burned out or having to engage in martyrdom. Treat decent administrators and leaders well and stay empathic or you might end up unwittingly contributing to replacing them with worse people. A good way of framing it is to think who else would want to lead and compare. Comparing against an non-existing ideal is such a trap.

    Also I consider myself more prey type. During school and high school I was prey type acting on sort of lone wolf heuristics. I could integrate with almost any group but wasn’t a core member of any. I want to end up in a situation where I sometimes set the context for my private inner group because I rarely see a benefit in setting it in larger communities. Trying to add subtypes to prey is a bit difficult. There’s definitely gradients in terms of how strongly they react to aggression, how suspicious or accepting they are of predators. I often find that the make-up of a community is strongly dictated by what the much larger prey population’s behavior coalesces/ossifies into and it has great inertia and creates feedback loops with predators. The first attractor they fall into has the greatest impact. I suppose it’s important to note that the predators are as much subject to this system as prey and are only locally more agentic.

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