The Mechanics of Emotion

Note: This is part 1 of a 5 part series. In this first part, I outline a model of emotion: namely, that our emotions give us information about the implied structure of future possibilities. In part 2, I explore some mathematical properties of this model.  In part 3, I analyze economic activity in terms of this model. In part 4, I look at politics through the lens of this model.  In part 5, I tie things together.

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.



I have found a way of thinking about emotion which has been extremely useful to me. The more I have used this model, the better I have been able to manage and deal with unpleasant emotions.  This model has the ability to explain all kinds of phenomena that many people have told me before were “obvious” but could not explain why these phenomena occurred. This explanatory ability is coupled with predictions: the model predicts ways to respond to emotional disturbances constructively, and predicts ways to avoid upsetting other people.

In this post I will walk you through this model. I will give you a simple example of an emotionally charged encounter between two people.  I will show how my model predicts the emotions experienced by the people in this scenario, and does so without any “hand wavy” appeals to “well you just need to understand people.” In later posts, I apply this model to various situations in the world – and show a common link between emotion, economics and government. The quick explanation is this: both the economy and the government are systems which select from among possible futures.  I claim that a large component of our emotional experiences derive from our beliefs about kinds of future are possible.

I do not claim this model explains all emotional phenomena.  In fact, an alternative title I considered was “The Mechanics of Suffering” – because the emotional experiences I describe in this model fit well with the Buddhist concept of attachment. The model does not explain experiences like the joy of watching a child play – although the giddiness in learning you will soon have a child does fit within the model.  Regardless of what “emotion truly is”, I have found this model to be a helpful way of thinking about the sensation of excitement, sadness, frustration, anger, hope, doubt, fear, relief, and joy. When I experience unpleasant emotions, I can use this model to find the source of this unpleasantness – a false belief – and then correct the belief.  Every time I have tried this, by correcting my false beliefs, my emotional state has changed.  This model has helped me improve the quality of my emotional experience, and helped me understand my relations with other people better – by helping me understand their emotional responses. I hope you derive the same benefit from this model.

The “Structure of Possibility”  Model of Emotion:

Your mind uses conceptual models to help you reason about “what is.”   Your senses take information from the outside word and use it to modify the state of your internal model.  Your mind takes this internal model of “‘what is” – based upon your senses – and then “runs the model forward” in a very large number of ways, to come to conclusions about “what might be, what could be, what might not be, and what could not be.” This theory states that A non-trivial portion of your emotional state is a signal describing your mind’s assessment of “the structure of possibility” of your reality model.

In simpler terms, the above story about the farmer who is faced with both fortune and misfortune could be seen as the story of a reality model which changes. The farmer expresses no outward sadness or happiness in response to these changes in his understanding of reality. As new information is presented to the farmer, along with a corresponding emotoinal statement (such bad luck!) the farmer responds, “May be.” This model deals with the mechanics involved when a person does not say “may be”, and instead says “oh wow, yes, this sucks, but with your support i’ll make it through this.”

The SoP model of emotion relies heavily on the idea that your mind does a lot of work ‘under the covers’ – some may use the phrase subconscious. The idea here is that your mind is always running large numbers of simulations of the future, all in parallel, and that your emotional state gives you information about the outcomes of these simulations.

An Example

Let’s walk through an example. I’ll tell a story about two people having a natural, emotionally charged encounter.  I will then show how the SoP model predicts these same emotions.

0. Alice and Bob are working late one night.  They are at the edge of solving a difficult problem.
1. Bob: 
“I’m hungry. Is there anything to eat around here?”
Bob’s emotional state is slightly anxious.
2. Alice: “There is pizza in the break room fridge. You could have some of that if you want.”
Alice’s emotional state is neutral. Bob’s emotional state is now slightly hopeful.
3. Bob: goes to kitchen, in order to eat the pizza. He opens the door, and sees there is no pizza. 
Bob’s emotional state is slightly angry.

4. Bob: I don’t see any pizza. You said there was pizza in here!
Alice’s emotional state is slightly angry.
5. Alice: Well, there was. Maybe someone else ate it. People always eat the things I put in there!
Bob’s emotional state is still slightly angry, but now a little more calm, and concerned.
6. Bob:  “This is actually a public fridge. I guess we should have put a sign on it; you are supposed to label things you don’t want other people to eat. Anything unlabeled is fair game.”
Alice’s state is now less angry, and now includes a sense of being respected and cared for.

The Example, explained by the Structure Of Possibility (SoP) Model

The first emotional state presented is anxiety.  Bob doesn’t know if there is food. If he is certain there is food, he won’t have this anxiety; the more certainty he has, the less likely he is to experience this anxiety.

Emotional state first changes at time 2, when Bob becomes hopeful that there is pizza in the fridge. This hope corresponds to Bob’s estimation the probability of new possible positive outcomes: namely, the outcomes that occur where Bob eats the pizza and no longer feels hungry.  Bob’s estimated likelihood of negative outcomes (such as, “Bob goes home and doesn’t finish the work with Alice”) is reduced, and Bob’s estimated likelihood that he stays and finishes his work – bolstered by increased blood sugar – is increased.

When Bob gets to the kitchen and sees that there is no pizza in the fridge, the inputs to his model change, and now his probabilistic assessment of the odds of him staying at work goes down.  Anger happens here, as Bob’s recognition of a decreased likelihood of a positive outcome is coupled with a causal attribution: Bob believes that Alice has mislead him.  Bob’s belief that Alice has mislead him slightly alters a number of estimates Bob’s reality model had made about the future of his work with Alice; perhaps she is not as trustworthy as Bob had previously estimated her. The SoP model does not claim any of these beliefs, estimates, updates or predictions are conscious.  Bob may not consciously think “She lied!” – this may happen  beneath the layer of his conscious thought. The SoP model says that these estimates are happening beneath our ability to consciously observe them, and that our emotional state at any given time is a way for us to observe the large-scale output of these simulations that our minds run.

Notice that the reaction Bob has is entirely dependent upon Bob’s internal model of reality, of Alice, of the future, of their work together, of people in general  – of anything bob thinks plays a role in the world.  If Bob has been hurt many times by people lying in the past, Bob may overestimate the probability that Alice lied intentionally and thus would experience more anger, because he will  compute more possible outcomes where he gets hurt by Alice. The rapid increase of the probability assigned to these ‘negative outcomes’ in Bob’s reality model is why he feels anger.

Alice’s emotional state changes when she hears Bob become angry at her.  Traditional analysis might say this is because Alice mirrors Bob’s emotional state.   Why this mirroring occurs is often poorly expressed, or left up to ‘mirror’ neurons. The SoP model suggests that the emotional mirroring occurs because Alice interprets Bob’s anger as implying a reduced probability of positive interaction between the two of them.  If Alice had planned to anger Bob,  or if she recognized him as being prone to anger, it is likely that she would not get as angry. The SoP model says that she is less likely to get angry in those situations because she had already accounted for those negative outcomes in her model.

Alice’s anger also reflects her subconscious reality model’s new assigned likelihood of events where she puts food in the fridge and someone else eats it.  Again, this is an increase of estimated likelihood of negative outcomes, and it corresponds to a negative emotional experience.

Upon hearing that Alice didn’t know the “food is fair game unless labeled” rule, Bob’s anger reduces. He’s still upset about not having food, but the possibility bob’s subconscious had assigned to outcomes where Alice lies to him return to their previous state. He still has the reduced sense of possible future outcomes from being hungry, but he may also estimate some new possible situations containing positive interaction between him and Alice.


An interesting thing about this ‘structure of possibility’ model of emotion is that anything can play a role in someone’s emotional state.  Emotion expands the relevant context. The more emotionally charged a discussion gets, the broader the subject of discussion tends to become.  The “structure of possibility model” of emotion predicts this contextual broadening is coupled with intense emotion – because emotional intensity corresponds to the magnitude of divergence of conceptual models.    Political and religious arguments become emotionally intense quickly because the political and religious aspects of a person’s reality model can often have very large-scale structural implications.

If you learn a new piece of information which barely changes your understanding of possible outcomes, you are unlikely to have an intense emotional reaction.  If you believe you have won the lottery because you bought a ticket with tonight’s winning numbers “16, 29, 32, 61, 75” – and then you pull up the ticket in your pocket with numbers “15, 28, 31, 60, 76” – you will experience intense emotions emotions which correspond to the diverging probabilities of the outcomes you predicted having all that money, vs. not having all that money.  The larger the jackpot at stake, the more intense your emotional response.

We are encroaching on a large topic here – how money plays into this – and I’ve written some here about money in this model before, and there is another article about money later in the series.  I will keep this divergence short, only to suggest the following scenario: If the person in the above scenario, having just had the intense emotional reaction, found themselves the sudden beneficiary of a large, random gift – the same size as the jackpot they thought they had won –  they would likely still have an intense emotional response, as their understanding of reality adjusted itself to this new experience. Someone who was extremely rational minded might start to question their model of reality and its ability to make predictions.  The SoP model predicts that considering the possibility that your model is broken is an emotionally difficult thing to do.  If your model is broken, at a basic level, that invites all kinds of possibilities which can be really scary.  Again, all of this falls out naturally from the “Structure of Possibility” model of emotion.

If the problem Alice and Bob are trying to solve will mean the difference between the company becoming bankrupt and them living in cardboard boxes as homeless transients, or them becoming billionaire tech titans, you can imagine that their emotional responses would be more intense than if they were just solving something that interested them.  This matches up perfectly with what the ‘structure of possibility’ model predicts; a billionaire tech titan has a much wider range of possible future experiences than a person living in a cardboard box.

I have used this theory to help me greatly in my personal life. Whenever I experience intense emotions, I search for the possible outcomes that these emotions map to, and then try to address any flaws in my conceptual model that were highlighted by the emotion. For example, I recently felt an intense desire to create a formal language for use on social networks, coupled with a feeling of despair that this system does not currently exist, and disgust with myself for not having created it already, after having it in my head for a long time.  When I interpreted these emotions in light of the SoP model, I reached the following conclusion: I am underestimating the difficulty involved in making that possible outcome a reality.  This underestimate caused me to underestimate my ability to accomplish my goals, and caused me to feel an intense desire to take the ‘small action’ necessary to make my desired outcome real. By thinking carefully about how much work that would be and how hard it would be to make a formal language widely used on social networks a real thing, I repaired my  self-esteem by correcting my assessment of my ability to accomplish my goals. I reduced the sense of urgency to act by positioning the intense amount of work necessary to accomplish that goal in the forefront of my consciousness. I repaired a flaw in my reasoning – an unspoken assumption that I didn’t consciously express, and yet an implicit assumption nonetheless.  I tried thinking about how hard it would be, and my initial feeling was “it’s not that much work!” – and I carefully thought about all the necessary steps. As I did this thinking, I noticed the structure of my emotion changing. My sense of self-worth went up, my sense of urgency went down, and my sense of frustration softened. I felt better, and went back to doing the work I had planned for myself today – finishing this post :-p

I will end this post here because it is long already. In the future, I will give more arguments for this model’s validity, and discuss what the model says or implies about common emotional phenomena. In short, the things that give people great joy – a new child, a new job, a new house – are all things imbued with intense possibility. We prefer health to sickness – and a healthy body can do more things than a sick body. We prefer strength to weakness – and a strong person has more possible outcomes available to them.  What do you think? Please comment or leave feedback, the move on to part 2.

12 thoughts on “The Mechanics of Emotion

  1. You might check Ayn Rand online for emotion and how it works. She was far ahead of the psychologists in this regard. Turns out we are basically emotional critters due to our evolutionary development. First our reptilian brain which assures us safe territory via fight or flight mechanisms, then Our mammalian brains need for close emotional affinity with others while we grow up and mature during our extended childhood. Finally the most recent addition to our brains the cognitive component, the cerebral cortex which serves both of the other parts when relating to our environments to predict what to do next as we wonder around within it. For a reasonable model try the Transactional Analysis model which roughly follows that construction using their Parent- Adult-Child structure for analyzing transactions between members.

    The process boils down to the idea that we learn beliefs from our parental overlords and our culture. the currency of the transactions between us is strokes (recognition) which are used as carrots and sticks to shape our behavior. The beliefs we learn either work or not. When they are not working we feel badly.

    Therapy (correction of the beliefs which do not work) starts with the bad feelings and traces them down to the decisions we made concerning the environmental problems we were facing at the time we made those decisions and allows updating. Pretty interesting stuff really. This updating system is flawed, in that our short term memory is limited to 7-9 chunks so that we are only consciously aware of a small portion of our behavior at any one moment. Therefore we require someone else who is trained in seeing the patterns (un emotionally … a therapist) to help us re-decide those pain points which restrict our happiness. Ck out Claude for more details and more state of the art discussions.

    I hope this was helpful …. ?


  2. As i was reading this article, i can’t help but pause once in a while and try to remember by own personal emotional management experiences, which i use to do by following a path of most calm way. I have used this technique for a long time, and its just assumes that specific possibility of unknown, combined with the knowledge of known, to arrive at the most calm emotion for me. I chose most calm, because i don’t want to be worried and despaired by all the bad thoughts, and at the same by don’t want to be overly optimistic about the future and thus making me careless about my actions to seek the unknown parameters in my assumption.

    I think this model fits really good in my current technique of emotional management. I am really excited about to have read this article and i started to feel happy about having this knowledge, but i also realize that its a very fine balance that one has to keep, in order to truly take advantage of this epiphany.

    And now, having this knowledge of a possible SoP model, will complicate things a bit further in at least some deep intellectual self-conversation. And that possibility of complicated self-understanding makes me a little sad, as i think that may be a person himself is not in his full capacity to truly manage all his emotional reactions.

    Certainly this model and its corresponding technique to manage one’s emotion needs further development and empirical and may be a somewhat mathematical formulation.

    But Overall i feel happy, as i may be able to explore the state of my emotional landscape using a little more concrete and logical framework.

    Thanks for sharing your Beautiful thoughts.



  3. I think of emotion as the confluence of two major driving forces.

    You have a force that makes you feel good when you remember or anticipate a positive change of your state. Even more when you feel an unexpected change of state.

    (Changes to your state are abstract, they’re learned. But they come from being satisfied. Some things like eating food is satisfying. Other things like finishing cleaning a room is satisfying only if you have learned that it is. Cleaning your own space and being able to conceptualize how much better you can use that space is satisfying. Cleaning someone else’s space so they can mess it up again might not be. Whether something is satisfying or not depends on your memories, and whether that expectation reminds you of positive things, or pain.)

    You have a force that causes you stress when you feel or anticipate pain or discomfort.

    You can bear small amounts of stress, and it disappears with time and with positive changes to your state. When stress hits a threshold, you stop being able to bear it and basically start to increase the priorities for whatever makes you reduce stress. These actions aren’t rational, and don’t necessarily solve the problem.

    For instance, you might have felt a lot of social stress in your life. Maybe people teasing you. As a kid you learned that social encounters often led to stress, so social encounters themselves became stressful. You learned that if you yelled at people, they would leave you alone. You had fewer social encounters, and thus you felt relieved of stress. So yelling at people relieved stress.

    So you get angry that there’s no pizza in the fridge. You yell at Alice. This isn’t an effective way to get pizza, but some people will do it just the same. It’s because for whatever reason, the fact that there was no pizza was the item that put Bob over the limit of the stress that he could bear. Instead of acting rationally, his stress avoidance mechanism kicked in, and he yelled at Alice. He might even feel bad while he’s doing it, but he’s not acting with agency.

    That model has some similarities to this one, but it relies a bit too much on a combination of emotional states. Being hungry and angry and concerned. I think that we do hold these states certainly. But the specifics, the “why” of these states are too cerebral. We need to think about it too much. If we’re hungry why would we ever yell at someone. I’m sure we have all become short with someone while we’re hungry, but nobody expects yelling to make them less hungry.

    I say it goes something like this:

    0: Alice and Bob are working late one night. They are at the edge of solving a difficult problem.

    0a: Bob has been working for the evening and anticipates solving a problem. This anticipation gives him motivation.
    0b: Bob has been working a long day, he is getting tired, he has been drinking coffee to keep up. This has given him stress.
    0c: Alice has been working all evening and anticipates solving the problem. This anticipation gives her motivation.

    1: Bob: “I’m hungry. Is there anything to eat around here?”
    1a: Bob feels discomfort from hunger. This gives him stress.

    2: Alice “There is pizza in the break room fridge. You could have some of that if you want.”
    2a: Bob feels anticipation for pizza. This gives him motivation.
    2b: Alice feels anticipation for positive change in Bob’s mood. This gives her motivation.

    3: Bob goes to the kitchen to get the pizza. There’s no pizza
    3a: Bob loses motivation to eat pizza.
    3b: Bob feels a negative change in state because before he was exited to eat the pizza, now he is unable. This causes stress.
    3c: Bob is unsure what he’s going to eat. This causes him to fear being hungry. This causes stress.
    3d: Stress is now past the tolerable limit and he starts to act on ways to avoid the stress.

    4: Bob says to Alice. “I don’t see any pizza, you told me there was pizza in here!”
    4a: Accusatory statement is used to put the other person into a defensive state. This is used because he has learned having a person on the defensive makes them less likely to cause you stress.
    4b: Bob predicts a negative change in Alice’s state. Bob feels stress.
    4c: Alice notices a negative change in Bob’s state. Alice feels stress.

    5: Alice says “Well, there was. Maybe someone else ate it. People always eat the things I put in there.”
    5a: Alice is not under too much stress. She’s able to compose herself. She still feels motivated by the work they are doing.
    5b: Alice predicts that she can cheer Bob up. This motivates her.
    5c: Alice tries to calm Bob by assuring him that she didn’t intentionally mislead him.

    6: Bob says “This is actually a public fridge. I guess we should have put a sign on it; you’re supposed to label the things you don’t want other people to eat. Anything unlabeled is fair game.”
    6a: Bob anticipated that Alice would be upset because he accused her. Alice was pleasant in response. This pleasant surprise motivated and relieved stress from Bob.
    6b: A few moments have passed and Bob has become less stressed.
    6c: Bob thinks rationally now. He considers the positive outcome in labeling the food. Labeling food will mean never losing it. This gives bob motivation.

    Note: If Alice were to say that she did in fact label the Pizza, Bob would feel more stress. Alice decides to keep her mouth shut if she did to keep that a white lie from Bob.


  4. This was interesting to read, thanks. I have a couple of ideas to bring up, just so you can improve on this as I think there are some things that you need to cover.

    Doesn’t having a child lessen your future possibilities? If you don’t have a child, you can still have a child. But if you have a child, you cannot go back to NOT having a child (unless murder… )

    Same for buying a house. Doesn’t buying the house make it so you cannot spend money on something else? So future possibilities are lowered. Plus, a house forces you to live in the same place; again lowering possibilities.


    1. Thanks! This is good feedback. I plan to write more about these examples because they’re solid.

      As for having a child, people say this is an emotionally transformative event. I couldn’t say, as I haven’t had one – but my experience with seeing my siblings have children is that their sense of reality shifts and their focus is entirely on someone other than themselves. If you consider the possible outcomes for your child, it’s a huge amount of possibility.

      On that note, it’s not just the _amount_ of possibility that contributes to the emotional effect of it – it’s the _structure_. When you exchange money for a house, you are giving up an amount of ‘liquid possibility’ – the money – which can be used to manifest any number of things. When you give someone money, you are giving them the ability to manifest whatever they want with that money. It’s like a little token of possibility.

      When you exchange that money for the house, what you are obtaining is a large amount of implied structure in terms of outcomes for your future. It’s true that you can’t spend that money on other things, but it’s also true that you have much more certainty about where you’ll be able to stay in the future, and you have much more freedom in terms of being able to reconfigure your living environment. The good feeling you get when you suddenly come into a bunch of money – maybe from a bonus or winning the lottery – is a rush. I don’t think anyone would consider buying a house a rush – they say it’s a deeper, more lasting feeling of satisfaction, if not a little stressful.

      The first emotion – an intense rush, euphoria – corresponds with a ‘blank slate’ of ‘a lot more things are possible.’ The second feeling – deeper, more fuller, richer – corresponds with the implied structure of “now you have a place to go home to, a place to build memories, a place to fix when the goddamn garbage disposal breaks.” It has a strong amount of implied structure.

      The structure of possibliity for cash is just raw – it’s anything you want – a pile of jetskis, three hundred xboxes, or maybe the down payment for a deep fryer for your new designer hot-dog business. It’s more fluid, but less structured.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Buying a house lowers the number of possibilities but also lowers the variance of the valence of these possibilities.

        Integrating risk aversion to the model, you could say that buying a house raises the subjective valence of possibilities.


  5. Nice article . . There are certain psycho linguistics approaches which employs similar concepts to statically determine emotional states .

    Perhaps the difference I am seeing here in your approach from my assumptions is the ability to create an emotional graph and determine the changes to the ‘aspects’ of it . So, it looks like from your example, we can get insights in a dynamic way as against a static declaration of an emotional context. Imagine a customer interacting with a customer support agent on a chat. initially a customer may be angry to report a complaint and as he gets help online, the emotional state may change to say Happy if he gets his case solved. we may apply a rule that a state change from sad to happy may apply a GREEN or Yellow RAG status to the chat support ticket automatically!

    Anyways sounds interesting..



  6. This is transporting. It is godistiacal. People have become victims of various negative situations because of inability to manage their emotions. Emotions speak loudly about everything we do. We are more of emotion beings than spiritual beings. Our emotion is the connecting rod between the spirit and the body. The ability to be calm, cool and collected before ups and downs, pain and gain, success and failure is what determined how emotionally balanced one is. Thanks!


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