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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Outdated Evolutionary Responses

Evolutionary psychologists consistently emphasize a central theme; the human mind evolved and was shaped during a time period that contained environmental pressures that are no longer relevant today, and as a result, our responses to many modern problems are often times wrong. There are numerous ways that this phenomena manifests itself. Many times, the outcomes of our behavior are detrimental. For instance, the lack of any meaningful human action for addressing global warming and environmental degradation in general is one major context where this issue is strongly prevalent. Another context is how people respond to verbal confrontation and handle themselves during arguments. For instance:
arguing stirs up our fight-or-flight response. Once biological arousal takes over we start to feel the effects of nature's mechanism that prepares us for aggressive action. To understand our patterns of arguing, we need to learn about fight-or-flight arousal. Once we recognize the signs that we are in an aroused state, such as pounding heart and increased muscle tone, we may realize how often even trivial arguments are triggering full-blown biological responses. An argument about a TV clicker can seem to our mammalian brain as threatening as a lion leaping towards our throat.
It's clear why such needlessly intense responses to verbal confrontations are problematic; the nature of the problem (a simple verbal confrontation) does not warrant the intensity and seriousness  of the response. We do not need our bodies to go into fight-or-flight mode to deal with situations that  don't even pose a remote threat to our safety. We do not need our stress hormones flaring up. The fight-or-flight response has evolved to deal with emergencies and it's mistakenly being used to deal with relatively trivial everyday matters. Such a response can "protect us from threat, by physically preparing us to fight for our life or run for it. It can come in handy when there’s, say, a bus hurtling towards us and we need to get out of the way. It’s not so handy when the issue is that of Oreos, or more specifically, that someone has taken the last one."

Once our emotions and rational thinking are "hijacked" via the flight-or-flight mechanism, our rational and more restrained side "gets sidelined in favor of the more primitive, automatic, unthinking part. As a result, there’s likely to be yelling, personal sledging and aggression. Nobody listens and nobody is heard."

in situations of high stress, fear or distrust, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down. And the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over. The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself...we default to one of four responses: fight (keep arguing the point), flight (revert to, and hide behind, group consensus), freeze (disengage from the argument by shutting up) or appease (make nice with your adversary by simply agreeing with him)
None of the responses offered by the fight-or-flight mechanism make sense in most professional, interpersonal, and social situations. The severity and inappropriateness of the response often times leads to misunderstanding, unnecessary arguing, lack of cooperation, and hurt feelings. What makes the situation even more problematic is that our brains actually reward us for giving into these irrational responses because "when [we] argue and win, [our] brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes [us] feel good, dominant, even invincible. It’s a the feeling any of us would want to replicate. So the next time we’re in a tense situation, we fight again. We get addicted to being right."

Ultimately, once a discussion turns into an argument or any sort of verbal confrontation, "It's no longer an exercise in logic and reasoning. It's just a fight. And being in a fight brings its own frame of mind, a whole set of attitudes, expectations, and conditioned reactions that go along with arguing. As soon as that happens, no one cares who is right and who is wrong. All that matters is who is friend and who is foe."

Given this information on how we seem to be "wired" to respond to even the slightest hint of verbal aggression, our goal should be to hijack the hijacker and cut off our automatic aggressive response before it has a chance to do damage. Consider the implications in professional settings where we need to work with strangers. If we are interacting with someone whose cooperation we need, what should our response be when we sense aggression from them in the form of a condescending or disrespectful tone? Should we match their tone and be aggressive in return? Given the information previously discussed, this would be a very poor course of action to take. Such a response will give the person in front of us a reason or the opportunity to allow the more "primal" parts of their brain to take over and sabotage their reasoning. Once this happens, we have lost the person and they are very unlikely to play along and comply with our requests. For all practical purposes, both their body and mind are now responding to us as if we are the "enemy" and we are literally putting their physical safety at risk. During such a state of emotional and physiological arousal, the last thing on the person's mind is to cooperate with the "foe" in front of them; an emergency mode has been activated and cooperation has been thrown out the window.

The proper response to the above situation is to do our absolute best to keep our calm and not allow the person to detect even the most minute evidence of aggressive behavior or tone. If we do not give their body and mind the opportunity to go into a "self defense" mode then they are much more likely to cooperate with us and treat us as a potential friend instead of an enemy. Maintaining emotional restraint under emotionally charged circumstances is easier said than done but the rewards greatly outweigh the immediate costs.

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