Why aren’t our reactions always clever?

Published Categorized as distorted thinking, emotions

Something I have been considering more and more recently are the evolutionary influences on how we react in situations and how our thinking contributes to those responses – or not!

For example, if we find ourselves in danger, it makes complete sense that our very basic fear reaction by-passes (via the amygdala) any higher-level thinking in the pre-frontal cortex. If a car rushes towards us, we don’t need to be thinking, ‘well it might stop’, we need to just get out of the way, and quickly. This system overrides all others to optimise our chances of survival. Needless to say: this reaction is not always ‘clever’ as its, ‘better safe than sorry’ trigger means we can still perceive things that are not dangerous as a threat – like the rope we thought was a snake or the dark. Also, once the amygdala is involved, that threat – real or not – becomes firmly imprinted as a danger and we can continue to react to that ‘threat’ in an immediate and strong way. (Thus phobias – not helpful or clever!)

But what of other emotions? Surprise, shock, disgust, anger, shame also seem capable of going straight to a reaction without engaging any higher-level thinking to check out if our reaction is 1) necessary or 2) helpful. As we evolved many emotions to simply drive us forward to get more, or retreat/avoid to get less and we evolved many of them before our higher-level thinking blossomed, it makes sense that the urge towards these reactions can be stronger and more automatic than any motivation to stop and reflect.

Positive emotions belonging to the drive system can be equally problematic also because of their ability to override higher-level thinking. The reward from tasting chocolate is a far more powerful drive than the higher-level thinking that might be saying, ‘mmm you have already had lots of sweet things today.’

And then there’s the impact of our thinking when it does get involved in our reactions. The brain’s negativity bias (tendency to notice the negative more than the positive, evolved for survival) feeds information into our emotional systems that can evoke negative reactions to things that are not necessarily that problematic. Say, for example, our friend hands us a cup of tea when we visit and we drop the mug on the floor. Our mental responses can get carried away with negativity alongside and linked to what we are feeling. We can:

  • personalise what happened e.g. I am just so clumsy. Are you really?
  • generalise e.g. I am always breaking thing.s Are you really? (Absolutes like ‘always’ and ‘never’ are clues that we are doing this.)
  • distort what happened by exaggerating e.g. My friend will like me less because of this and won’t invite me again. Is that really likely?
  • and more… e.g. ‘mind read’, ruminate, dismiss the positives, catastrophise etc.

Add further distortions that the brain is capable of such as confirmation bias (the tendency to only receive information that aligns with what we already believe), or the tendency to believe someone we don’t know over someone we know well – which can be part of the halo effect – or the anchoring bias (tendency for the first piece of information we learn about something to be what influences us most) amongst many other distortions, and it’s a wonder we ever believe our thinking to be anything but really quite fallible. Our automatic thinking certainly does not guarantee helpful, flexible or resourceful responses.

If an emotional system is activated (by what’s happened or by what we thought) then it seems capable of overriding any ‘clever thinking’. What’s more, we might only be aware of what we are thinking and surprisingly not at all aware of any underlying basic but powerful drive. Our need to self-protect from real or perceived threat, our drive to find ‘rewards’ and our need to fit in and belong to the tribe are quite capable of ignoring logical sense! (The last in this list makes me think of the saying, ‘just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean it’s right.’)

This all links to my shortest description of how to become more emotionally intelligent: ‘become curious about the back-story of your reactions’. This, of course, includes being curious about how thinking has contributed to our reaction – or not! This curiosity can increase the creativity and flexibility in how we respond to any situation and divert us from automatic repeat. It can prevent us from this short-cutting, unanalysed repeat that puts survival above everything – those reactions that evolved for a time when survival was a much trickier business.

This is why increasing our emotional intelligence requires us to slow our reactions down and allow time for this curiosity. In order to do this, we need the ‘gold star’ of initiating emotional intelligence: noticing our emotions (and associated thoughts) as they arise, before the reaction kicks in! When we notice our emotions arise, we can get better at pausing before we react. In that pause, we can employ curiosity so our responses can become more considered and less at the whim of those basic, yet powerful, emotions.