Emotions are human responses to internal and external stimuli. They provide both a signal to react to certain conditions in your environment and a reward or incentive for beneficial behaviors (or punishment for harmful behaviors). Freud put it best in his Pleasure Principle that people seek pleasure and avoid pain, but to broaden that point out it’s about seeking positive emotions that signal growth-oriented activities and avoiding negative emotions that signal harm-oriented events. This system worked well for millions of years at getting organisms to behave in optimal ways, from animals resting when they have an injured limb to humans performing pro-social behaviors that promote love and avoid shame and guilt. But something happened over the years that has caused an issue for many in society that needs discussion: the “hacking” of emotions.
Now, emotion “hacking” isn’t new per se (even though the term “hacking” is); humans have found ways to get each other riled up for millennia. Females have had males fight over them, and males have instigated fights by causing annoyance, showing disrespect, or bullying. Females can talk behind their peers’ back to turn the group on them, and males can learn how to trigger awe, amusement, or affection through out-of-the-ordinary, impressive, and often high-risk behaviors. All of these activities are mean to manipulate the emotional state of themselves and others for personal benefit.
However, things started to get more sophisticated more recently. Humans discovered that fermentation of certain foods exposed to warm air created alcohol, thus forming a substance that altered a person’s mental and emotional state. To be fair, alcohol also has antiseptic qualities, meaning that during times of disease and water impurities, alcohol was both “good and good for you” and wasn’t simply for its mind-hacking properties. As society developed sanitation technologies, however, it has become an adult beverage for the sole purpose of its affect on emotions and behavior.
This is far from the only tool, however. Dogs are known to “hump legs” for sexual stimulation when another dog is not available, and humans have adopted self-gratification through sexual stimulation—made even easier courtesy of the opposable thumb. Many people exercise for the endorphin hit known as “the runner’s high” to improve their emotional state. Others play games, pick fights, or eat fatty, sugary, salty foods. And, of course, there are the ultimate addictive dopamine hits like drugs and gambling that get people so high that they will do nearly anything for their next “hit”.
It somehow doesn’t end there, though. The internet age has taken this to the next level. Not only can you use it to order said pleasurable substances such as food or drugs and have them delivered to your door, but the internet itself is a source of all kinds of emotion-manipulating content from pornography to social media to cat videos. Then, when the smart phone became ubiquitous, it put a dopamine machine in your pocket that you have 24/7 access to. Feel sad? Watch a video of people having sex and masturbate to it. Hungry? You don’t need to go hunt and burn calories; you can just have it handed to you at the click of a button! Lonely? Go on social media and interact with like-minded people or schedule a date on your phone with a dating app. The possibilities are endless!
And that’s why we are in a strange crisis of meaning in the modern world: with all of this access to pleasure, not only is it distracting from more meaningful activities…but it can even stop you from having to get up and do anything to feel good, which defeats the whole purpose of the emotional system to encourage you to growth and thrive as an organism. We now live in a time where people can eat thousands of calories every day, never move, have someone wait on them hand and foot, and feel great because they can trigger their pleasure senses through media instead of living their lives. Those situations are astounding because there are people who think that chickens spending their lives eating and fattening themselves up for weeks until they die is torture, but there are plenty of humans who choose to live that exact life when given the choice.
So there are plenty of ways in which people can use their emotional system in a counterproductive way to how it evolved. The one I wanted to focus on today in this post, however, is one that’s less analyzed but very common: the “eliciting a reaction” approach to emotional hacking. This one is very common but less noticed by people when they participate in it, so unlike the other examples I listed above, this is not discussed as much.
What is the “eliciting a reaction” approach? It is when a person does something solely to elicit a response from someone and make an otherwise boring moment in their day interesting. There are many forms of this, so I’ll list them here:
I’m sure I missed something, but just look at the sheer number of ways that you are emotionally manipulated every day. The one I want to specifically focus on are the ones where emotional reactions are the focus of the media itself—since all of these are meant to trigger an emotional reaction in you.
Why are reaction videos and outrage content so popular? This goes back to social emotions that evolved as humans (and other social animals) evolved their sophisticated interpersonal relationships. Basic human emotions like happiness, sadness, and anger are all about your relationship toward growth. But social emotions such as shame, guilt, and pride are about your relationships with other people. They are meant to encourage pro-social behavior. But part of that social interaction is being able to know what someone else’s emotional state is so that you can respond properly as if you had the emotion yourself. Two evolving mechanisms for this are facial and bodily expressions of emotions as well as mirror neurons. The expression of your emotions allows others to see how you’re feeling so they can react, and then the mirror neurons—in common terms, empathy—trigger in you so that you can both relate to them and feel what you need to feel to respond accordingly.
These systems are what these new forms of media are hacking: they create a video of a person with an emotional expression that you can connect to while watching something you love or hate so that you can share the moment. In real life, you might congregate at a bar and hug the stranger next to you who roots for the same team when said team wins. In the virtual world, we have reaction videos. While many people consider this practice unethical because it “steals” views from the original video, many people simply take a popular video and put their face next to it watching it (even if they don’t really react to it too much or have anything to add) just for the view count. As you can see, all of this is for personal gain via the illusion of a social relationship—you feel something in your boring, depressing, or uneventful life, and they get the clicks necessary for the advertising revenue.
This gets very strange because many people do reaction videos that criticize OnlyFans models…possibly not realizing the irony that they are taking advantage of the same human mechanisms—simulating a real relationship with viewers they’ll never meet—just without the sex part. They will claim that they are purely entertainment and not taking advantage of people, but then they’ll actively tell them to “like, share, and subscribe” and say, “What do you guys think?” thus creating a social element that makes them feel that the creator really “gets them”. Note that this is not a judgment but an explanation of the mechanisms being used to foster a popular, revenue-generating channel.
It’s also important to note that you are welcome to consume this content, as it’s popular for a reason. If it makes you feel good and it doesn’t worsen your life in any way, it is your choice to consume it. The only point of this post is to let you know what is going on and point out the one big detractor: having your day ruined continuously when it doesn’t have to be.
I have to speak from personal experience that I both love debating topics but am not cut out for the internet arguments of personal attacks and “dunking”. A single bad interaction in the real or virtual world can set me back a whole day until I sleep and my emotional state resets. If that happens to you, however, you’ll learn quickly to avoid those interactions and will minimize them. The one that someone doesn’t notice comes from the “outrage porn”—maybe on the left politically you watch something like MSNBC or on the right you watch Fox News. Maybe if you are on YouTube you watch the Young Turks (progressive) or Ben Shapiro (conservative). Many of these shows are under the pretense that they are informing you, but in reality they show you something you will not like and then mock, denounce, and/or attack the people who caused, encouraged, or liked that thing. The reason why this flies under the radar is that you’re not watching to get mad per se; you’re watching to be informed and then get a reward of hearing/seeing your reaction and opinion spouted back at you. Yes, occasionally you are informed and occasionally you have your mind changed about something by hearing a different opinion, but without noticing it you are intentionally seeking media that will outrage you.
And that’s the negative side of emotions: we live in a world where they are constantly being manipulated for personal gain. We are all complicit in this because—in a capitalist system—the only way to earn money is to provide value to others, and making someone feel something has a lot of value to them. So people want to feel this way. People want to feel good when they consume alcohol or drugs, when they gamble, or when they have sex. They want to feel good when they go to YouTube, and cat videos might make them feel that way. They know that watching news where they see an event and have a commentator say the opposite of their opinion will upset them, so they watch media where the commentary will be aligned with their views to feel validated. It’s all about feeling better, which in theory would be good.
Unfortunately, addicts stop feeling good pretty quickly as they grow their tolerance. Drug users seek harder drugs to get high, porn consumers seek more exotic porn to keep engaged, and social media algorithms can keep showing you more bad things or more extreme opinions until you have a one-sided view of reality. And so you might be watching your favorite social media personality only to find out that you no longer feel good but feel angry, sad, and hopeless watching them every day. Yes, you might also use them to feel good if the rest of your reality sucks and it’s the only way to feel like you’re not going crazy, but like anything this tool is a double-edged sword that can be beneficial or harmful based on how it’s used.
So if you find yourself either saying things just to get a negative reaction from someone or seeking out media where there are people just trying to get a negative reaction from you, you might want to be careful. This either is or can quickly become emotional manipulation, and so you need to be cognizant of what is going on and make sure that it doesn’t ruin your life. Plenty of friendships have ended, relationships have broken up, and lives have lost due to this practice. Mass shootings, riots, and terrorist organizations can all result from content coming from these sources. If you want to stay healthy, you want to engage in this “eliciting a reaction” behavior carefully. Just like you should be skeptical of gossip and advertising, you should be conscious of reaction videos, outrage porn, and trolling among other means to ruin your emotional state and harm your mental well-being.