Wednesday, March 20, 2013

'I asked him what I could do so that we didn't have to fight'

The linked article was published today in The Age concerning a road rage incident experienced by a lawyer. It is a wonderful example by which the survival process concept I've developed by integrating the theories of fight-or-flight, stress and emotion theory can be used to gain greater insights and understanding.

When physically confronted, the lawyer explains that 'the savage instinct of fight/flight battered against the calmer, resolution-seeking side of my mind.' Lets dissect this statement with reference to the survival process concept.

'Instinct of fight/flight' refers to our evolved survival mechanism. A stimulus is unconsciously appraised. Based on that appraisal, a feeling response is elicited which motivates an impulse to act in a particular way. At the same time, an automatic physiological response is experienced which prepares the body for the behaviour that the feeling response motivates. The behaviour is designed to deal with the stimulus. This is our evolved survival mechanism.

The lawyer, even given their training to be exact with the use of their terminology, incorrectly refers to fight/flight. Many people who refer to the fight-or-flight concept do not understand that Walter Cannon, the developer of this concept, associated fight with anger and flight with fear. So, what was the lawyer's instinctive reaction - anger or fear? The different emotions are elicited based on different appraisals and produce different action tendencies which are supported by different physiological responses designed to prepare the body for different behaviours.

The lawyer was correct in referring to it as an instinct. Emotions were developed in our evolutionary past to deal with survival problems in the environment without the time consuming cognitive process. Is the instinct 'savage'?

We are all still 'cave people in suits.' We have changed our environment, but we have not evolved to adapt to that environment. The aggressor was prepared to physically engage the lawyer because of action tendency elicited by his appraisal of the lawyer beeping his car horn at him which in turn elicited the emotion of anger. Emotions were designed by nature to deal with threats to our well-being. Honking a car horn at someone is not a threat to our well-being, but some of us have not evolved to distinguish between the two.

Why did the lawyer describe this evolved instinct, albeit misdescribed, as 'savage.' He is placing a judgement on his instincts. Technically, savage is defined by violence and aggression. Flight is not violence or aggression. Savage is also defined as being uncivilised. 'Civilised' refers to a judgement about a stage of development that is considered to be more advanced. Now this refers to (a) interventions in the appraisal process in order to elicit certain emotions in response to certain stimuli, and/or (b) the ability to manage emotions once they are elicited.

The latter is what the lawyer was referring to when he wrote about the calmer, resolution-seeking side of his mind. There is a disconnect in humans between the impulse to act and the actual behaviour. This disconnect has been described as providing the opportunity of considered other behaviours other than the feeling-motivated impulse to act. Rather than fleeing or fighting the road rager, the lawyer was provided the opportunity to consider alternative behaviours because of this disconnect.

Some people obviously have a limited disconnection between impulse to act and actual behaviour. It is said that the difference between animals and humans is the disconnect between impulse and behaviour. Animals experience the emotion process in terms of a stimulus-response chain. I suppose technically you could say that those people who react in terms of a stimulus-response chain are closer to animals than humans.

'The only sensible outcome was to talk my way out of this. Be calm, swallow my pride, engage him so as to placate him.' Be calm - all of the components of the survival process are interrelated. A stimulus is appraised as a threat which elicits a feeling of fear which motivates an impulse to flee. At the same time, a physiological response is experienced which increases both heart rate and breathing rate to increase the amount of oxygenated blood that is provided to the muscles that will aid in flight. By intervening in the physiological response by voluntarily controlling his breathing, the lawyer was able to manage his feeling of fear and its associated impulse to act, along with the other physiological reactions and even the appraisal of the stimulus.

'Swallow my pride' - now that is an interesting comment. Pride is an emotion, hence, pride is based on an appraisal and elicits a feeling which motivates an impulse to act which a physiological reaction prepares the body to enact. What does 'swallow your pride' actually mean? I'd suggest it means to deal with the emotion of humiliation which is elicited based on the appraisal of the stimulus. The question then to consider is why are you feeling humiliated?

I recently watch the classic movie with Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi. In that movie, it shows line after line of Gandhi followers moving towards the military armed with large clubs who then clubbed the passive protesters. Did they swallow their pride when they were beaten and dragged away blooded and injured. No. In fact, they were probably proud of their non-violent action. Funnily enough, armed with an understanding of pain (which is another chapter in my book), they probably experienced the 'pain' associated with the beating far differently than you or I would under different circumstances.

Listen to what people say. It often says more about them than it does about what they are talking about. 'Swallow my pride' tells me the lawyer feels bad to a certain degree about not standing up to his aggressor/attacker. There is a judgement associated with his appraisal of the situation. Take an objective view of the experience or change the way you appraise the situation, and their is no more swallowing of pride.

'Engage him so as to placate him' - emotions are evolutionarily designed to be short lived. If you can stall someone from enacting their emotionally motivated action for a short period of time, the intensity of the emotion or the emotion itself would have subsided. This then provides the opportunity for cognition to be engaged. Remember, emotion is evolutionarily designed to override cognition; the latter being a later development in human evolutionary history.

The more we understand of the survival process, the less we will judge ourselves and others, and the more we will be able to manage our emotions in emotionally excitable circumstances.

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