It wasn’t all that long ago we were describing ourselves as living in an information economy. Information was currency, access to information was crucial to success, and control of information was the ultimate form of power and influence. The flow of information is still central to the functioning of our global culture but our emotional reactions have become far more important than the accuracy of the information they are based on. To the point that the information, accurate or not, is becoming almost entirely irrelevant.
To be clear, we are an emotionally motivated species. That is not an evil or a defect, it is simply the truth of how we function. All decisions we make are driven primarily and overwhelmingly by our emotions. We do make measured and thought out decisions, we use logic and deduction to problem solve and trouble shoot, but our reason for doing so is always to achieve a particular emotional result. Satisfaction, resolution, increased pleasure, reduced pain, decreased fear, all actions and choices we make are in pursuit of a desired emotional outcome.
As a result our emotional motivations will always matter more to us than our methodical calculations. Anyone experienced in sales will affirm we use our emotions to make a purchase then use our logic and reasoning to explain and justify it. Our emotions have always been the fuel for the machinery of our logic and reasoning and need to be accounted an important role in our decision making processes.
As our culture has shifted ever more consumingly to online platforms and the majority of Western educational models have moved farther and farther away from individual critical thinking our logic and reasoning capacities have gotten over-shouted and shoved aside. The virtual world’s promise of instant gratification and the paradoxical threat of personal invisibility push us to react instantly and as loudly as possible. Measured reasoning takes too long, is too quiet and boring. Better to Tweet in all caps right this instant.
The instant gratification rush of posting something with a tap or clicking the ‘buy it now’ button not only means we want the emotional pay off this instant but we want the next thing to happen immediately afterward, and the next thing immediately after that.
I don’t want to wait until tomorrow or next week or next month, I want it now! I don’t want to waste time mulling over my thoughts and feelings, context is a fake concept designed to oppress us, I need to shout out how I am feeling right this instant!
Social media platforms don’t just provide opportunity for this kind of impulsive reactivity they encourage and reward it, they work better the more impulsive and reactive you are. The more reaction you provoke the more your outcry is interacted with, the more attention and presence it gains you. Whether people love it or hate it the more clicks it gets the more importance it is perceived to have.
The paradoxical irony of our virtually connected world is that the very thing which offers absolutely everyone a voice and a platform makes people feel more invisible than ever. Not only are there so many voices clambering at once making it almost impossible to be heard above the roar but having that voice and platform seems to imply we are supposed to be heard.
My post has gone out into the same virtual world as those who get millions of views so if I don’t get the same response it must be a failing of mine. Only those with millions of hits are worthy of importance.
With reactions now serving as the currency of our cultural exchanges comes the demand to be fully unfettered in our ability to express them. Any efforts or voices calling for moderation or reasoned consideration of our emotional reactions are viewed as attacks on our visceral needs, as attempts to deny us access to crucial cultural currency. Being asked to think before we speak is viewed as an assault on our rights to free expression rather than the call for responsible use of that freedom it actually is.
This did not occur overnight. It didn’t suddenly become the case because someone was trying to govern from the White House via tweet. On the grand scale of history it has moved with unprecedented speed but for those of us living it we have arrived in this new economy bit by bit. Now, however, the features of our reaction economy are fairly easy to spot.
# 1 : Facts Are Irrelevant
It’s not just that facts don’t matter as much as our emotional reactions, the facts are becoming almost entirely irrelevant. That we’re ‘mad as hell about it’ has become more important than whatever ‘it’ actually is.
A random rumour is enough to warrant reactions severe to the point of deliberate threats of violence, threats no longer relegated to the ‘keyboard courage’ anonymity of the comment sections but which people now feel empowered and entitled to bellow out loud and in person.
Our authority bias of seeing something in print or on screen has joined forces with our confirmation bias leading us to latch on to any piece of information which seems to support our existing feelings, treating it as authorization to fly into full rage either in support or defense of those preconceived biases.
# 2 : Intensity Over Accuracy
Why speak simple facts when hyperbole generates far greater reactions, thus conferring greater importance.
Reporting that a community experienced two home invasions last year compared to one the previous year might be factual but ‘Community In Crisis! 100% Increase In Home Invasions!’ is a way of presenting those facts which will earn a much higher number of clicks.
The news media being subsumed by the entertainment profit model has made ratings, or views and shares and comments, more important than the actual content. Every headline is a crisis on the verge and updates only slightly reworded, which simply repeat the previous information with an urgent call to ‘stay tuned’ as vital new information is due to break any second, re-spawn constantly to ensure they are ever present in our newsfeed.
Information being presented in this way inevitably affects not just the way we absorb it but also the way we interact with it and each other. Crisis and scandal require fear and outrage right this instant and anyone who doesn’t share your particular fears and outrages is either to be pitied for their ignorance or viewed as an enemy.
# 3 : Personal Victory
When our emotional experience of a result becomes so important it renders the actual features of the result irrelevant every situation and scenario becomes one of either winning or being defeated.
We don’t want a solution to the problem, we don’t want the situation or conflict resolved, we Want our feelings to be declared the most important and valid. We want to be right. We want to win.
There are no simple solutions to complex problems and no answer will ever make everyone perfectly happy. The more complex and personally vested the problem the more challenging the negotiations to search for a solution which does the most amount of good and least amount of harm.
But if needing to win is our starting point no problem or situation we approach has any chance of genuine sustainable solution or resolution because we have already made our personal victory more important and relegated the situation to merely being a prop for helping us achieve it.
# 4 : Fixation On Punishment
And winning isn’t true winning unless the defeated parties are punished for daring to try and prevent our victory. Or in the unjust event we have been defeated those who obviously cheated then need to be punished for their treachery.
We don’t just want to have our emotions venerated and validated we want to see immediate and gratifying real world consequences as part of it. If someone has done something we don’t like we want to see them pay a clear and satisfying cost for doing so. Simply expressing our displeasure is not enough, that expression needs to take the form of demanding some form of punishment.
Attempting to debate the issue at hand, examining facts critically and exploring context, takes too long and almost never results in satisfyingly fulsome victory. Better to just call them some names and demand for their firing, incarceration, or bodily harm.
When we fixate solely on instant emotional gratification actual solutions become unimportant to the point of irrelevant. Actual growth, change, and progress take time and will always require discomfort. If the only acceptable outcomes are ones which make us feel better this instant we wall ourselves off not only from all paths which lead to genuine sustainable solutions but also from reality itself.
# 5 : We Chose Leaders Based On Their Dramatic Personas Rather Than Their Qualifications
Charisma has always been a factor in being selected as a leader or authority, and it always will be. As stated, we are an emotionally motivated species and our belief in someone as a leader or potential leader is a feeling thing. Factual qualifications alone are not enough to convince us, their ability to convince us is also key.
Qualifications alone do not make a leader but they are a vital indication of how effectively their leadership is likely to be. Charisma gains our interest but qualifications and record of past actions are what engender genuine trust. We are becoming trapped in a space of not simply confusing being entertained with being informed but far more dangerously we are conflating being entertained with being cared about.
It is not a leader’s job to make us feel good. Their job is to provide guidance and to look out for the best interests of those who have chosen them to lead, not merely their own personal interests. Sometimes those interests will directly align, sometimes they won’t. Sometimes leadership means taking actions which cause pain or discomfort in the short term in order to gain long term benefit. Sometimes leadership requires enforcing rules which restrict impulsive fun in the name of greater health and unity.
If we choose our leaders and authority figures purely on the basis of their entertainment factor, if we choose them for how they talk and not what they are actually saying, we leave ourselves completely at the mercy of anyone with the manipulative inclinations and skills to leverage our own feelings against us. Charismatic dictators can be charming, until you become the new target of their whims and desire to subjugate.
# 6 : We Speak The Truth, They Spew Propaganda
In a reactionary environment the blood-feud mentality quickly becomes the dominating approach to all issues. Everything becomes a matter of us versus them wherein anyone who does not fully agree with us or make us feel good is a them. We reduce them to a caricature of an evil villain aimed solely at causing us pain. And once we have branded them as an enemy not only are we free to view them as evil, lesser, and beneath respect or consideration but we also brand anything they say as automatically dismissible, false, and to be viewed as dangerous.
We are the good guys. We only ever try to do what is right. We only ever speak the truth. They are the bad guys. All they ever do is try to corrupt and oppress us. They only ever lie and spew propaganda. The enemy is the threat so any statement, idea, or action must instantly be adamantly opposed regardless of what it is.
The truth is we are all doing what we think is right, given the context of our particular understanding and perspective. No team or group or tribe is ever always right nor are any always wrong. If we trap ourselves in a reactionary mindset not only do we blind ourselves to any ideas or perspectives beyond those we already have, thereby denying us any chance at genuine growth or achieving any genuine solutions, but we wind up blinding ourselves to the actual issues themselves.
The Hatfield and McCoy way of looking at things is seductive because it falsely reduces things to seem quite simple absolving us of any accountability due to the irredeemable evil of the enemy.
Nothing is ever that simple and we know that. It is clear we know it because we instantly rail against anyone else’s attempt to reduce us to a caricature deserving of scorn. We demand acknowledgment of our own uniqueness, individuality, and complexity while in the same breath trying to reduce others we are trying to brand as enemies.
Those who seek to leverage our reactions to perpetuate their own power are quick and enthusiastic to claim they understand us, without actually demonstrating that they do, while rattling off lists of reasons why the enemy they would like us to brand is so utterly and dangerously evil. If all we ever do is react we fall for it pretty much every time.
# 7 : We Don’t Discuss, We Rant
When our reactions are fully running the show we don’t discuss issues or consider ideas. We don’t invite questions or have any interest in exploring perspectives other than our own. We don’t converse about things. We declare our positions daring anyone to reveal themselves as an enemy by opposing us.
The clear indicator of reactionary thinking is the virtual disinterest in people who actually agree with us. We’re happy to hear it or see it and they are certainly welcome to join us but what we really want is to hunt out those evil them types who are lurking around every corner. We only want allies so they can help us vanquish our enemies.
We’re just trying to mind our own business and feel happy but there are enemies everywhere.
That might be the intention we are convincing ourselves of, helpfully supported and encouraged by those wanting to leverage our reactions to their own benefit, but reactionary thinking renders just about every part of that statement false. We spend all our time fixated on what other people are saying, vehemently defending a hypothetical happiness we aren’t actually feeling, and we lock ourselves into a state of constant defensive paranoia because we have made the definition of a ‘good guy’ very specific and the definition of an ‘enemy’ staggeringly broad. The good guy is us and anyone who very closely matches us, the bad guy is anyone who doesn’t.
When difference is branded the enemy and therefore an automatic threat we never interact with it. Our only response to it is to try and shout it down, crush it, expel it. Conversation on any subject is reduced to a five second litmus test to determine if someone is an us or them and once the enemy brand has been affixed the pre-emptively defensive barrage begins.
Identifying problems and challenging potential harm are vitally important things but if our attempts to do so do not include potential solutions then we are aiming our efforts at subduing a perceived opponent not genuinely solving a problem. Outshouting is only a victory as long as we can keep shouting or until someone else comes along who can shout louder.
Our emotional reactions are key components of how we process and interact with the world around us. They are hard wired into us at a primal survival level. We should feel them, we need to feel them. But the true power and insight they give us is gained through understanding why we are feeling them, figuring out what about a certain situation is making us feel a certain way so we are able to focus our efforts in the most effective way possible. Our reactions are meant to guide our choices not make them for us.
True strength, security, peace, and contentment comes from understanding as much about a situation as possible. From understanding as much as we can about the possible factors contributing to it, the potential impacts and outcomes, how we connect to all of it and it to us. Our emotional reactions help illustrate those connections. They indicate when something we value is impacted. They alert us to when we need to pay attention and can help us figure out exactly what it is we need to pay attention to.
The warning system and the response are not meant to be one and the same thing. If the moment a smoke detector sounded the entire room was instantly doused with fire extinguisher possible fires would definitely be prevented, but it could also mean a great deal of drama and clean up over some stray crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
We are faced with a world which is developing technologically at an exponential rate, experiencing immense shifts in perspectives and ideologies as more and more of our interactions are happening virtually, and which is diversifying more and more on countless societal and cultural levels.
The answer is not to try and force all the complexity to be simple. It is a natural and understandably appealing notion but it is a false one. There are over seven billion of us on this planet and counting, complexity is here to stay. The key to navigating the complexity is to acknowledge it, not villainize it. To allow ourselves to feel and react to the world around us, to listen to the alerts and warnings our emotional reactions offer us, but to then use them as guidance not imperative commands.
As infants we are forgive for crying whenever we are hungry or uncomfortable and sleeping, or not, whenever we feel like it. But before long, as our cognitive abilities mature enough to function with language and to learn behavior we are expected to embrace a core truth about the world around us. The world is not obligated to shape itself around us, it is our job to figure out how to function within it.
Some parts we will like others we will not. There will certainly be times when we need to stand up and challenge aspects of our world which have the potential to harm us and we most certainly have the capacity to bring about change. But to do that, to create genuine lasting change, we have to interact with the world. Not shout at it demanding obedience from it.