For Every Action, There Is an Equal and Opposite Emotional Reaction

Theneurowire
8 min readNov 11, 2022

Imagine that I punch you in the face. No reason. No justification. Just pure violence. Your instinctual reaction might be to retaliate in some way. Maybe it’d be physical: you’d punch me back. Maybe it’d be verbal: you’d call me a bunch of four-letter words. Or maybe your retaliation would be social: you’d call the police or some other authority and have me punished for assaulting you. Regardless of your response, you would feel a rush of negative emotion directed toward me. And rightly so — clearly, I’m an awful person. After all, the idea that I get to cause you pain with no justification, without your deserving pain, generates a sense of injustice between us. A kind of moral gap opens between us: the sense that one of us is inherently righteous, and the other is an inferior piece of shit. 6 Pain causes moral gaps. And it’s not just between people. If a dog bites you, your instinct is to punish it. If you stub your toe on a coffee table, what do you do? You yell at the damn coffee table. If your home is washed away in a flood, you are overcome with grief and become furious at God, the universe, life itself. These are moral gaps. They are a sense that something wrong has just happened and you (or someone else) deserve to be made whole again. Wherever there is pain, there is always an inherent sense of superiority/inferiority. And there’s always pain. When confronted with moral gaps, we develop overwhelming emotions toward equalization, or a return to moral equality. These desires for equalization take the form of a sense of deserving. Because I punched you, you feel I deserve to be punched back or punished in some way. This feeling (of my deserving pain) will cause you to have strong emotions about me (most likely anger). You will also have strong emotions around the feeling that you didn’t deserve to be punched, that you did no wrong, and that you deserve better treatment from me and everyone else around you. These feelings might take the form of sadness, self-pity, or confusion. This whole sense of “deserving” something is a value judgment we make in the face of a moral gap. We decide that something is better than something else; that one person is more righteous or just than another; that one event is less desirable than another. Moral gaps are where our values are born. Now, let’s pretend I apologize to you for punching you. I say, “Hey, reader, that was totally unfair and, wow, I was way out of line. That will never, ever happen again. And as a symbol of my overwhelming regret and guilt — here, I baked you a cake. Oh, and here’s a hundred bucks. Enjoy.” Let’s also pretend that this is somehow satisfying to you. You accept my apology and my cake and the hundred dollars and genuinely feel that everything is fine. We’ve now “equalized.” The moral gap that was between us is gone. I’ve “made up” for it. You might even say we’re even — neither of us is a better or worse person than the other, neither of us deserves better or worse treatment than the other any longer. We’re operating on the same moral plane. Equalizing like this restores hope. It means that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with you or wrong with the world. That you can go about your day with a sense of self-control, a hundred bucks, and a sweet-ass cake. Now let’s imagine another scenario. This time, instead of punching you, let’s say I buy you a house. Yes, reader, I just bought you a fucking house. This will open up another moral gap between us. But instead of an overwhelming feeling of wanting to equalize the pain I’ve caused you, you will instead experience an overwhelming feeling of wanting to equalize the joy I’ve created. You might hug me, say “thank you” a hundred times, give me a gift in return, or promise to babysit my cat from now until eternity. Or, if you’re particularly well mannered (and have some self-control), you may even attempt to refuse my offer to buy you a house because you recognize that it will open up a moral gap that you will never be able to surmount. You may acknowledge this by saying to me, “Thank you, but absolutely not. There’s no way for me ever to repay you.” As with the negative moral gap, with the positive moral gap you will feel indebted to me, that you “owe me” something, that I deserve something good or that you need to “make it up” to me somehow. You will have intense feelings of gratitude and appreciation in my presence. You might even shed a tear of joy. (Aw, reader!) It’s our natural psychological inclination to equalize across moral gaps, to reciprocate actions: positive for positive; negative for negative. The forces that impel us to fill those gaps are our emotions. In this sense, every action demands an equal and opposite emotional reaction. This is Newton’s First Law of Emotion. Newton’s First Law is constantly dictating the flow of our lives because it is the algorithm by which our Feeling Brain interprets the world. 7 If a movie causes more pain than it relieves, you become bored, or perhaps even angry. (Maybe you even attempt to equalize by demanding your money back.) If your mother forgets your birthday, maybe you equalize by ignoring her for the next six months. Or, if you’re more mature, you communicate your disappointment to her. 8 If your favorite sports team loses in a horrible way, you will feel compelled to attend fewer games, or to cheer for them less. If you discover you have a talent for drawing, the admiration and satisfaction you derive from your competence will inspire you to invest time, energy, emotion, and money into the craft. 9 If your country elects a bozo whom you can’t stand, you will feel a disconnect with your nation and government and even other citizens. You will also feel as though you are owed something in return for putting up with terrible policies. Equalization is present in every experience because the drive to equalize is emotion itself. Sadness is a feeling of powerlessness to make up for a perceived loss. Anger is the desire to equalize through force and aggression. Happiness is feeling liberated from pain, while guilt is the feeling that you deserve some pain that never arrived. 10 This desire for equalization underlies our sense of justice. It’s been codified throughout the ages into rules and laws, such as the Babylonian king Hammurabi’s classic “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” or the biblical Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you would have done unto you.” In evolutionary biology, it’s known as “reciprocal altruism,” 11 and in game theory, it’s called a “tit for tat” strategy. 12 Newton’s First Law generates our sense of morality. It underlies our perceptions of fairness. It is the bedrock of every human culture. And . . . It is the operating system of the Feeling Brain. While our Thinking Brain creates factual knowledge around observation and logic, the Feeling Brain creates our values around our experiences of pain. Experiences that cause us pain create a moral gap within our minds, and our Feeling Brain deems those experiences inferior and undesirable. Experiences that relieve pain create a moral gap in the opposite direction, and our Feeling Brain deems those experiences superior and desirable. One way to think about it is that the Thinking Brain makes lateral connections between events (sameness, contrasts, cause/effect, etc.), while the Feeling Brain makes hierarchical connections (better/worse, more desirable/less desirable, morally superior/morally inferior). 13 Our Thinking Brain thinks horizontally (how are these things related?), while our Feeling Brain thinks vertically (which of these things is better/worse?). Our Thinking Brain decides how things are, and our Feeling Brain decides how things ought to be. When we have experiences, our Feeling Brain creates a sort of value hierarchy for them. 14 It’s as though we have a massive bookshelf in our subconscious where the best and most important experiences in life (with family, friends, burritos) are on the top shelf and the least desirable experiences (death, taxes, indigestion) are on the bottom. Our Feeling Brain then makes its decisions by simply pursuing experiences on the highest shelf possible. Both brains have access to the value hierarchy. While the Feeling Brain determines what shelf something is on, the Thinking Brain is able to point out how certain experiences are connected and to suggest how the value hierarchy should be reorganized. This is essentially what “growth” is: reprioritizing one’s value hierarchy in an optimal way. 15 For example, I once had a friend who was probably the hardest partier I’d ever known. She would stay out all night and then go straight to work from the party in the morning, with zero hours of sleep. She thought it lame to wake up early or stay home on a Friday night. Her value hierarchy went something like this: Really awesome DJs Really good drugs Work Sleep One could predict her behavior solely from this hierarchy. She’d rather work than sleep. She’d rather party and get fucked up than work. And everything was about the music. Then she did one of those volunteer abroad things, where young people spend a couple of months working with orphans in a Third World country and — well, that changed everything. The experience was so emotionally powerful that it completely rearranged her value hierarchy. Her hierarchy now looked something like this: Saving children from unnecessary suffering Work Sleep Parties And suddenly, as if by magic, the parties stopped being fun. Why? Because they interfered with her new top value: helping suffering kids. She switched careers and was all about work now. She stayed in most nights. She didn’t drink or do drugs. She slept well — after all, she needed tons of energy to save the world. Her party friends looked at her and pitied her; they judged her by their values, which were her old values. Poor party girl has to go to bed and get up for work every morning. Poor party girl can’t stay out doing MDMA every weekend. But here’s the funny thing about value hierarchies: when they change, you don’t actually lose anything. It’s not that my friend decided to start giving up the parties for her career, it’s that the parties stopped being fun. That’s because “fun” is the product of our value hierarchies. When we stop valuing something, it ceases to be fun or interesting to us. Therefore, there is no sense of loss, no sense of missing out when we stop doing it. On the contrary, we look back and wonder how we ever spent so much time caring about such a silly, trivial thing, why we wasted so much energy on issues and causes that didn’t matter. These pangs of regret or embarrassment are good; they signify growth. They are the product of our achieving our hopes.

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