Monday, November 5, 2012

Bonus update: Emotional Habits

I lied when I said the update would be this weekend.  My internet turned off and, not being a net doctor, I was unable to cure it in time.  But here's your bonus update anyhow.

Let's talk briefly about emotions.

Emotions start with perception, because it's hard to have emotional responses to things your brain doesn't process on some level.  Then, you act based on how you feel about things.  Panic or anxiety or terror can jump into your brain from your subconscious without you noticing or even thinking about it.  Phobias work this way; the brain decides to shortcut any rational thought and go straight to emotion to force you into action.

So right now, the chain of events looks like: reality -> perception -> emotion -> action.  You act based on how you feel about things; feelings are based on what you perceive, which you feel based on .

At least, all this is true if you're an animal that's not capable of conscious thought.  If you're sentient and can think clearly, you can modify emotions with a NEW form of perception--your analysis.  The way you think about things can determine how you feel.  So you may receive information from your brain, consciously interpret it a certain way, then register emotions, then act accordingly.

On the other hand, you might choose to insert conscious thought in between actions and emotions in the chain of events.  You perceive, you feel, you think, you act.  You can even think first, THEN feel, then think again, develop a new emotional response, then act.  Thanks to conscious awareness and analysis of reality, you can break free of instinctual emotion-action chains.

Emotions can be great because they stir us to action.  If your mind didn't experience a desire to eat when it was hungry, you wouldn't eat, and then you'd die.  On the other hand, emotions can kick you in the butt, such as feeling desire for something that's bad for you, or feeling anger towards a friend and saying something to hurt them because you're feeling aggressive, then damaging your relationship and later regretting it.

Good news though.  If you accept the idea that thoughts can be habits, and that actions can be habits, then it makes sense that emotions can be habits as well.  You can develop habits to avoid emotions in cases where they don't serve you, or habitually guide yourself to emotions that motivate and inspire you.

As mentioned before, the first step to developing (or breaking) habits is to notice the cue.  What is triggering the emotional habit?  In the case of a phobia, it would be noticing the source of the phobia (for example, seeing a spider).  Then the routine is to feel overwhelming fear, anxiety, and panic.  This might act as a trigger for a habit of running away, creating a double layered habit whose ultimate reward is to get you away from the spider.  The physical action's reward is a cessation of anxiety, and the anxiety's (ultimate) reward is an absence of arachnids.

How about something like anger, or depression?  Assuming you don't have a chemical imbalance that needs treating with medication, it's distinctly possible that habits of thought and emotion are guiding you, and you don't realize it.

For instance, let's say you like playing a certain game, but when you screw up, you become very self-critical and depressed.  Your cue is your error.  Making the mistake causes you to immediately launch into internal monologues like, "I should be better than this," "I'm an idiot," etc.  Because you don't want to be inferior or an idiot, this might have initially spurred you to try to fix the problem.  Your reward would be fixing your errors and becoming better.

So what's the problem?  Well, a few things.  One, negative speech like that can make you sad and upset.  Sadness actually inhibits your ability to think clearly and quickly, which makes it more likely that you will make errors.  And errors are the cue for your self-critical monologue that made you depressed in the first place.  After a long enough period of time, the routine can be so ingrained that making errors will trigger the emotion and skip the conscious thoughts.  You'll never get the reward, but your brain doesn't even notice.

How would you defeat this?  For changing bad habits, the main methods are 1) develop the willpower to resist the habit, 2) avoid the cue, or 3) substitute a routine that gives you a similar reward.  When it comes to something subconscious like becoming sad without noticing, it's very difficult to exercise willpower to overcome it.  And unless you know a way to become perfect and never make errors, then this particular cue can't be avoided.  So, for practical purposes, it's really down to option three.

So the goal is to craft a routine that will destroy the depressive cycle, and the best place to start is at the cue.  If you have a crummy game, that's going to be a major influence on your mood for awhile.  So stop, right then and there, when you reach the cue.  Reconfigure your thoughts, and consciously focus on things that make you feel good and actually HELP you play better.  Only after a period of reflection and collecting your thoughts should you go back into the game.

The power of emotional habits is that, when thoroughly instilled, they do not take any conscious effort at all and they guide our actions.  Channeling emotions well is simply instilling habits that will guide you to action that benefits you.  So whether it's a conscious thought or action to trigger positive emotions that energize you, or it's a mantra or reminder that keeps negative emotions in check, find a way to insert them into your routines.  The only way to do that is to be aware of those emotions, and the best and fastest way to gain that awareness is to understand the cues that trigger them.

Thanks for reading.  Normal update tomorrow as well!


  1. Going through your blog in chronological order! Lots to go through, keep it up!
    On this post specifically, I imagine anger is probably the most common emotional response to a cue in a game. I have a brother who rages when he plays a game (any type: FPS, MOBA, fighting, even card games), but obviously only when things don't go his way. I personally am a quiet, mellow guy when I play games and rarely get upset. Any thoughts on how to help someone else with their own emotional habits?

  2. I guess it depends a bit on *how* he rages and gets mad, and also on his own personality.

    Usually I just try to draw attention to the behavior in some way that isn't accusatory. Then again, when I used to have numerous anger issues of my own, something that would have helped me was somebody taking me aside and talking me through it. Or somebody being firm with me and letting me know they would not continue playing if I was going to keep getting angry. It's awkward and hard when people rage but it's even worse if you just stay quiet and let them keep going.

    There are lots of things to rage at out there. If it's the game itself, ask him why he keeps playing if he knows in advance it's liable to anger him (thinking his shots aren't register in an FPS, a teammate letting him down in a MOBA) or ask him if he just expects that he's going to succeed every time he tries something. The way you reach him will depend heavily on his personality; some people will react with an "oh crap you're right" if you bluntly state it to them, and some people will just think you're being critical and that you don't understand.