That’s mainly because human minds were built to interact not only with our environment, but specifically within our communities. We are a uniquely (& uniquely complex) social species, and that sociality has been one of our great advantages. A single person alone stands little chance against the harshness of this planet, but people in communities, people who cooperate and solve problems together—those people are the humans who have constructed all of this.
And during the countless millennia that shaped those interactive mechanisms & wiring of the modern & uniquely-social human brain, those communities looked nothing like the ones that we have now (many of which are literally virtual--something that doesn’t stop them from being actually emotionally impactful). If we compare the quantity & quality of daily human-to-human interactions within primitive (and even not-long-ago) communities to the hyper-connected planet of today, we can clearly see that there’s a massive chasm between these two worlds.
Why does this matter to our brains? Isn’t the human brain’s primary genius its adaptability, its capacity to apply highly-flexible, creative, self-malleable systems that adjust according to the experiences it consumes? Yes, exactly. Systems that adjust according to the experiences the brain consumes.
We were built to walk into a room or field, interact with something or someone, analyze that interaction, respond, and (hopefully) learn something from it—so the next time we interact in that place or with that thing or person, our brain will be capable of making a better decision or prediction about the most beneficial way to respond to that interaction. And this was useful because until very recently, generally speaking, we actually lived in these places and with these people and around these things.
All of that experience-based learning by our ancestors helped them to navigate & respond to the community upon which they depended for their daily (& often life-long) existence. This meant that the emotional responses these humans experienced during these daily interactions had real current & future value—because the emotions helped them to guide their current & future behavior with individuals & within social settings that were likely to have strong short- and/or long-term actual impact on their lives.
In settings like that—where the interaction is face-to-face & within a deeply-interwoven/interdependent community—the choice, for example, to directly insult someone might be derailed by the fact that you’re likely going to need to interact with or rely upon them very soon in the future (possibly unexpectedly). In terms of our brain’s emotional responses, what’s happening in a choice like this is that the guilt generated by saying something mean to a fellow community-member, and the fear of later reprisal at a time of personal need outweighs the power of the anger that motivates the possible insult (which is intended as a hopefully pain-inflicting reprisal for whatever act by the other person caused the initial anger).
Emotions Have Consequences (& Some Are More Useful Than Others)
At their roots, all of these these emotions are designed to do one very basic thing: help us to avoid a loss (pain) or achieve a gain (pleasure). According to our theory, all human emotions are paired in these kinds of directly polar ways. Every emotion is either a pain-based response that inhibits specific behavior in an attempt to avoid some kind of current/future value loss, or a pleasure-based response that encourages specific behavior in an attempt to achieve some kind of current/future value gain. (Included at the end of this post is a chart detailing our theory’s model of the full range of humans’ 13 primary, polar emotional pairs.)
And it’s important to understand that—because the human mind employs a symbolic, associative & experience-defined value system--all kinds of very different categories of value gains & losses can actually create some very similar responses within our brains. When our minds judge (& guide our behavior according to) the pain caused by losing a valuable personal relationship and the pain caused by losing a valuable financial investment, our mind isn’t using different parts of the brain to respond emotionally to that loss. Once you get down to the neural mechanisms that shape responses within our brain, those mechanisms ultimately don’t care about (or distinguish between) the semantic differences between the loss of money or the loss of personal support. All that matters is that we’ve been trained via experience or study to associate some level of value with both of these things.
To our brains, in the end, a loss is a loss & a gain is a gain—whatever the cause—and thus, the ultimate result of any type of loss or gain is some form (& some contextually-determined level) of emotional pain or pleasure. And this is because, at their roots, all emotions are designed to help determine the properly-calibrated, contextually-defined response to that question: how much does this specific behavior, potential action, current result or other entity’s current/potential behavior or action help me or harm me (or how much is it likely to help or harm me in the future)? And when we possess something like a “sensitive ego” (aka, a more tenuous view of our own value to others) we humans can feel genuinely harmed by interactions that aren’t really of any consequence beyond the insult itself.
This means that even those momentary-&-ultimately-actually-meaningless emotional responses that today’s humans constantly have within all those socially-networked virtual communities trigger neural responses that aren’t all that dissimilar from the emotional responses triggered all those millennia ago in those much more self-contained & physically-intimate communities.
The real difference, of course, is in the amount of actual impact that those people & places had & have on those humans’ real lives. And before everybody goes bonkers trying to explain exactly how useful (& emotionally-supportive) these vastly-interconnected virtual social communities can be—don’t go bonkers. Without a doubt, there are literally millions of humans today whose lives have been enhanced & enriched by their interactions within virtual social communities—in many ways that were not possible prior to access to such technology.
But there are billions of us online, and let’s be honest: the vast majority of us are not using our connectedness for such enhancing & enriching purposes during the vast majority of our time spent engaged with these diffuse networks. It might feel like we’re achieving all kinds of pleasure-filled gains (and anger-inducing losses) from these ever-present interactions, but the actual usefulness of that pleasure or anger in shaping behavior is likely not the same as when that emotion is experienced during a similar interaction within your actual community.
This partly goes back to that imagined primitive choice not to directly insult that anger-inducing community member. Anger can be powerful stuff, and it’s meant to be. However, in those types of face-to-face interactions with fellow community members (the environment in which these brain systems evolved) there are lots of other ever-present emotions that are helping to balance that anger in order to achieve the most contextually-appropriate & ultimately-beneficial response. The guilt of committing an “anti-communal” act, the fear of future reprisal at a time of personal need. The anger here is more useful in effectively shaping behavior not only because it occurs within a more life-impacting environment, but because in this environment that emotion is balanced with other emotions—allowing the anger to contribute something to consequent behavior without totally controlling that behavior (which can have some less-useful results).
Amongst today’s vast interconnectedness, that anger has no peers. Not only is there little likelihood that you’re going to encounter that person again unexpectedly or rely on them for anything in the near future, but any target of your anger can be easily & entirely removed from any of your future interactions (by “blocking” or “unfriending”).
And the online “communities” that most of us inhabit simply don’t seem to inhibit “anti-communal” behavior in the way that actual community settings do. For example, from experience it seems fairly clear that people are much, much more likely to engage in openly hostile behavior in an online setting than they are in a communal setting like a school parking lot or a public sidewalk—especially when those common areas are part of a smaller-scale community. So when that choice comes to inhibit or encourage an anger response, the vast interconnectedness helps to remove common social barriers that help to mitigate the uninhibited expression of emotions like anger.
Emotions Have Stamina (& Crosshairs)
There’s another potent aspect of anger (& fellow emotions that are aimed at “other entities”)—because of its need for confirmed reprisal of a loss, it tends to hang around waiting for that confirmation. When you spit in someone’s face, you want to see the look on their face afterwards. That’s the payoff.
Thus, when you send off that angry missive in response to the inane, offensive comment, you want to hear that dismay or submission in some subsequent reply. And if you don’t get that satisfaction, that anger tends to linger a little, awaiting its confirmation of a successful reprisal. (This successful reprisal essentially balances our neural books measuring these kinds of specific gain/loss matters, a mechanism whose survival value is providing a motivation & methodology for maintaining a sustainable quantity of resources--go get something to replace what you just lost, preferably the thing that was actually taken.)
In addition, you know how you stub your toe on a chair, and the pain motivates you to kick the chair while you yell at it? And then, once you realize that’s stupid & the chair can’t actually be at fault for your pain, you look around to see who might be to blame for not pushing-in the chair, giving you a new target for your soon-to-be-vocalized anger? Sound familiar? Pain and the anger that it spurs like to have a target (anger actually needs one), and if you haven’t bothered to apply some more-thorough cognitive analysis to the pain-producing, anger-inducing interaction, your brain is likely to aim that anger at any target that’s conveniently within range. Logic need not apply.
And this desire for a target—the requirement that some other entity be involved in the completion of an emotional judgement and the behavior it motivates—this desire is a part of many emotions in addition to anger (again, detailed in the chart at the end). This means that all kinds of emotions generated via online interaction can linger in your mind once you re-enter that actual world and begin wandering amongst it again—subtly, but persistently, seeking a target & interaction that will satisfy your emotional need.
You’ve felt it. That pang of whatever hanging on your shoulders as you wander through the day—the result of something said, unsaid, wished-to-be-said, going-to-be-said-later, something that keeps bubbling into your thoughts. The result of that online interaction has lingered, unsatisfied, begging to be given the chance to be made whole, regardless of the fact that this interaction has almost no real value at all in your actual life.
Returning to that primitively-conjured choice not to insult the offending community member—yes, there’s likely to be some lingering anger from this interaction too. But that anger has a real purpose. It’s going to help shape future behavior in actual future encounters with that person or within similar situations (i.e., an instinctive a wariness in those circumstances that helps to protect against future losses). In addition, even though that anger is likely to linger (because the person didn’t shout the pain-inflicting insult) that brain is likely to continue applying the same cognitive strategies to remind themselves that it was the right choice: “I really wish I’d said something. But…I have to remember, I’ll be glad that I didn’t.”
And there’s a strong benefit in being able to apply those self-controlling cognitive strategies born from communally-based motivators—they make you better at controlling your anger the next time something similar happens, which can make an individual more effective at fully analyzing the ultimate gain/loss value of acting upon their anger. Again, although we’re using anger as our main example here, similar processes apply to every emotion, and all emotions create more useful results when effectively balanced with other situationally-applicable emotions (a balance that’s typically & powerfully undermined by the vast interconnectedness).
Emotions Are Crucial (& We Must Use Them More Wisely)
In the end, as we’ve described, one of the primary things that our brains aren’t usually learning from these myriad, ongoing online interactions is how to effectively balance our specific emotional responses according to those communally-based motivators. Ever wonder why suddenly everybody seems so OFFENDED by everything? Why “making-a-mountain-out-of-a-mole-hill” seems to be the driving force behind every current “media cycle”? Why we all seem to view each other as “us” or “them” these days? Might that not reflect a shift in behavior predicated on a deepening inability or unwillingness to balance our emotional responses in ways that help us to interact more effectively & cooperatively as a community? Isn’t the sudden inability to govern ourselves cooperatively at the highest levels (one word: Congress) simply a reflection of how that cooperative capacity has diminished even at the lowest levels of our communities?
Emotions are some of our brain’s most vital tools. They provide the equations that our minds’ use to assign value to every action, interaction and result that occurs or is predicted to occur. They powerfully shape our behavior and choices both in the moment and in the future. But they weren’t built to effectively learn from, balance and respond to dozens & dozens of ultimately meaningless encounters day after day after day. Those encounters represent an enormous pile of useless, context-less, misleading and overwhelming experiential data. And despite the survival-disadvantageous nature of this data, because our brain employs systems that adjust according to the experiences it consumes, that enormous pile of bad data can still have an equally enormous impact on how it shapes our overall behavior.
The human brain wasn’t built for this world. And as the planet melts beneath our feet—a clearly-foreseen catastrophe that remains woefully unaddressed because of our inability to effectively communicate & cooperate—we have to wonder if this might finally be the time to start considering what we’re doing to ourselves.