Emotion regulation–and the lack thereof–explained using physics

Given my understanding of classical mechanics, I think of causation (from an observer’s perspective) often using this two-object scenario: one object is moving (i.e. has observable velocity), and the other object is at rest. When the two meet–the trajectory of the first making it inevitable that there is a moment in time when they get close enough to touch–some or all of the momentum of the first object is transferred to the second object, and then I conclude: the first object caused the second object to change trajectory.

The one great insight that Albert Einstein brought to physics is that of relativity: the understanding that there is no absolute frame of reference. In other words, there is a valid way of looking at the two objects in the above example, in which the roles are completely reversed. And that is, naturally, the frame of reference in which the first object is “at rest” and the second object is moving towards it. Einstein understood that both perspectives must be and are equally valid objective descriptions, thus undermining our gut intuition of causality (which came first? which object was moving before the collision?).

In our daily lives, we often face the same conundrum when it comes to how we perceive causation in the social (inter-personally mental) domain: we may see ourselves, each in turn, to be more or less mentally stable (at rest)—that is to say, in the absence of an external event, of something interacting with us, our mental state would remain what it is. And we further perceive other minds as transferring mental momentum to us, say, by saying something which makes us angry or laugh.

Unfortunately, that kind of perspective, the strict notion that we are victims of external events, that we have no agency over what happens to us (mentally), creates a huge problem: we lose the ability to control how we feel! We no longer have any means to escape a collision event. We may hope or pray that we will not meet someone who criticizes us—because we know that once that happens, we will feel lousy and down, but if it happens, we no longer have any control over the change of state which will, inevitably it seems, happen to our minds.

There is, however, one very, very important difference between the classical mechanics objects example and the situation where two minds meet: even a single mind, on its own, can change its state. Imagine you are sitting at your desk, your mind is wandering around, thinking about the past or future, and suddenly you think of a wonderful day you spend as a child on vacation with your family. How do you feel? Do you still feel the same way as you did mere seconds ago? What caused you to think of this day?

The first important aspect I want to highlight is that, other than a single object that cannot change its own momentum, a mind can change its state on its own. It is almost as though, if the second object in the example wanted to avoid or alter the course of the collision, it could decide to do so, and take steps in that direction. And that is what, at least when it comes to the affective state of one’s mind, emotion regulation provides:

As a quick detour, I want to explain about James Gross’s first attempt of modeling the different approaches to emotion regulation and their outcomes. His model contains two broad kinds of strategies, situation selection—in terms of the two-object example above, the second object could simply avoid the collision altogether—or some form of action the second object takes to alter the way in which either the collision takes place (situation modification) or its consequences unfold (attentional deployment, cognitive change, or response modulation).

To be clear, each and every of these five strategies requires that the second “mental object” (a person correctly anticipating an impact of a mental event that would typically lead to an altered emotional state) accepts its agency over the outcome: the anticipated change is not inevitable! Once this is accepted, a strategy can be chosen:

  • the incoming object can be avoided in the first place (for instance by deciding to avoid seeing the person, something I think would change my emotional state)
  • the incoming object could move into a slightly different position, thus changing the resulting outcome trajectories of both objects
  • the incoming object could, theoretically at least, alter one of its properties–imagine the object becoming more massive, allowing it to simply absorb the momentum
  • for cognitive change I find it relatively more difficult to find an adequate analogue, but the idea is that, after the collision occurred, the second object would alter some of its inner workings which would, in turn, alter its trajectory change
  • finally, the second object could simply change its trajectory after the collision had occurred

As a practical example, I would just want to point out that in an emotionally heated exchange between two people, it is fairly common for both sides to claim to be provoked into more and more ferocious responses (and between nations, this goes as far as going to an outright state of war). Each party in this repeated exchange could describe the situation as him or herself being forced to react in a certain way, and each party will also fail to consider that one’s own actions are potentially causative for an equally strong (or stronger) re-action from the other side…

Which brings me to the second important aspect: as long as people think of themselves as mental objects at rest they may fail to consider that, all along, they are probably perceived to be moving (as causative agents) by others. The failure to appreciate the impact our mental actions (in particular what we say or do casually) have on other minds very easily leads to situations in which someone else is impacted by us, may show a reaction, and we mistakenly assume we had nothing to do with it.

The most egregious example I can think of off the top of my head is the (seeming) failure of Donald Trump to appreciate, understand, or correctly represent the affective consequences of his actions in others. Whenever asked about one of his past actions–which, understandably for the majority of outside observers, led to some kind of grudge in someone else–Donald Trump exhibits an almost complete lack of understanding for how his actions could be considered responsible.

In other words, Donald Trump is the prime example of someone who considers himself to be perfectly at rest (someone with the best temperament). He only happens to reacts to outside events (as necessary) and fails to grasp a) that he actually has a choice for how to react (going on twitter tirade after twitter tirade) and b) that what he says about others may well cause emotional pain in those people in the first place.