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Published:February 26th, 2007 11:27 EST

Reactivity and the Reptilian Brain

By Gilmore Crosby, MSW (Mentor/Columnist)

One of the dilemma's of being human, with consequences at work and in our personal lives, is that the fabulous instinctual behaviors that protect us from physical dangers-- the fight, flight, freeze reactions rooted in the “reptilian” portion of the brain-- work against us in social relationships.  Whatever your beliefs about the beginnings of human existence, you probably agree that humans have reactions to danger that don’t require conscious thought.  If we detect danger in the environment-- a snake, a violent person, a vehicle bearing down on us -- we act without thought (and hopefully take the right action). 

Unfortunately, the same split-second reactions are frequently present in social relations, and are not nearly as useful as they are when handling physical danger.

For example, when an authority figure enters the room, the portion of your brain that scans the environment may send the danger signal to the reptilian brain, even if you get along relatively well with that person.  For many people, it is hard to relate to their bosses without slipping into fight (which usually takes the form of “logically” disagreeing with whatever the boss or company says), flight (which is usually “escaping” into avoidance behavior-- not saying what you really think or not expressing how you really feel), or freeze behaviors (when a normally intelligent and engaging person goes “brain dead”).  Once activated into fight or flight mode, it’s easy to misunderstand.  If I think I’m being attacked (and I use the term “think” lightly here... as in my cognitive brain has scanned the environment and made a split second assessment, and my subsequent thoughts and feelings reflect that assessment), then it is likely, regardless of the other person’s intentions, that I will view their words and actions in an unfavorable light, and as further proof of whatever beliefs I have formed about them.

Our reactions are rooted in a mix of biology and experience.  As an infant and during our subsequent development as a child, we form our beliefs and habitual reactions to authority figures, and carry them into our adult lives.  Different stimuli evokes different reactions in each of us, although it’s easy (and comforting) to assume that others think and feel the way we do.  Such wishful thinking is also rooted in instinctive behavior.  Humans like to be the same... to belong.  Humans also like to be different.  No wonder humans can be so confusing! And so confused. 

Unfortunately, being “different” is often a reactive flight behavior (only a meaningful source of identify if one has something to rebel against), as is being the same (as in “group think,” “us versus them,” and other superficial types of bonding).

Humans have been trying to understand and master emotional reactivity for thousands of years, in western culture dating back to the Greeks.  In his most recent book, Destructive Emotions, Daniel Goleman (and numerous... colleagues... from the fields of cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and the like) explore the decades old investigation of emotions by Tibetan Buddhists.  What do the Buddhists consider a “destructive emotion?”  An emotional state that distorts “our perception of reality.”  “Excessive attachment“ (as in the honeymoon period) or “aversion” create “a gap between the way things appear and the way things are.”  In other words, the defining quality is not whether one feels good or bad, happy or mad, but rather whether one’s emotional state is obscuring one’s clarity about reality.  From this perspective, love (and other “positive” emotions) can distort reality as much as hate can.  The latter encourages seeing nothing but our differences, the former obscures our differences (until they can no longer be obscured).  The same is true of more subtle emotions.  One’s loyalty to a person or a group (a leader or a production department, for example), while an admirable quality, makes it harder to see them, or anyone who seems to threaten them, clearly (as they really are).

The ability to see clearly is further complicated in organizational systems.  Hierarchy, while enduring over time as a proven structure for getting things done, breeds fight, flight, and freeze responses.  Emotion obscures seeing others (and one’s self) accurately, and as a result, the reptilian brain has at least as much influence in most organizations as the frontal lobe.

The challenge is to bring one’s cognitive powers into play to manage one’s reactivity.  There are many ways to attempt this, including Buddhist meditation (Goleman’s book applies science to assessing the impact of Buddhist techniques, including brain scans of meditating monks).  Although practicing globally, my consultancy, Crosby & Associates, has built its approach upon western practices.  Wallen’s Interpersonal Gap model is a good example (download it free from our website, www.crosbyod.com).  Wallen's model suggests that how we interpret other people’s behavior has a huge influence on how we react to them.  Instead of blaming or attempting to change the other, the focus shifts to understanding and questioning one’s own interpretations, and through that process cognition gradually plays a more positive role in social relations.  Wallen also outlines various behaviors, such as paraphrasing, which increases the likelihood of understanding the message others meant to convey (versus the mangled version we received if we were in a reactive state).

There are many other theories that can aid in the process of minimizing, and recovering from, reactivity.  The Awareness Wheel, by Miller, Wackman, Nunnaly, and Saline, slices awareness into sensory data, emotions, thoughts, wants, and actions.  Lack of awareness of any of these, and of how they impact one another, is a blind spot, and increases reactivity.  Again, if I don’t realize that I interpreted (my thoughts) your words (my sensory data) as an attack (fear!), and responded (action) based on flawed information, I may blame you for the conflict that is ensuing, and my subsequent want (that you realize I’m right) may be further fuel for the flames.

There are other models, such as VOMP (Robert Crosby, Crosby & Associates’ Human Factors e-newsletter, Issue 1.1) and PINCH (John Sherwood and John Scherer) that can help us use our frontal lobes to understand and better manage reactive moments.  Family Systems theory (Bowen, Friedman, Satir, and others) helps us understand how we’re linked together in reactivity, and the importance of differentiating between the emotional state of self and others.

The primary dilemma in learning about one’s reactivity is how to obtain feedback and coaching when one is in the midst of reactive moments.  All the theory in the world isn’t enough if it isn’t available to you in your moment of need.  Hence the need for “experiential learning”-- learning while you interact, with immediate feedback from facilitators and peers.  That is the essence of Crosby & Associates’ Leadership Development methods, built upon the core learning methodology of the Skill Group, which in turn is rooted in group learning methodologies dating back to the 1940s.  One learns by engaging with others, and getting help and feedback when reactivity occurs.  An alternate path is to create your own feedback environment, learning about yourself by reading what you can on the subject, and asking for feedback from others.  Whatever your path, may your frontal lobe be your guide!