You know the feeling, that intense rush that follows a perceived threat. The flushed face, the perspiration, and the increased heart rate: they are all signs of activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This system’s job is to ready you for a fight or fleeing when danger appears. This incredibly adaptive and automatic system has facilitated our very survival as a species. But here is the rub – this response is non-specific. In other words, it doesn’t always differentiate between physical and psychological threats. And, as it turns out, the brain’s psychological threat detector is very sensitive.
I have long wondered why people (including myself) get so emotional when discussing issues such as politics and religion. The human brain’s threat detector, you see, interprets challenges to our core beliefs as if they are indeed threats to our personal safety. And unfortunately, this response is accompanied by a diminished capacity to use reason and by an intensification of emotion. Rarely are these latter two factors helpful in conflict resolution.
Think about it. Do you recall getting upset when someone has challenged one of your deeply held beliefs? Or perhaps experiencing a similar reaction when someone shows contempt for something you like or enjoy? It’s a general rule in my family – “Never discuss religion or politics at social gatherings.” I think this rule came to be part of my culture because of the general futility of such discussions, but perhaps more so, because of the interpersonal damage done when this rule has been ignored. Little did I know – it’s the brain’s fault!
It doesn’t take much effort to see this phenomena in action. All you have to do is post something of a provocative or controversial matter on facebook and you may see the emotional decay that follows. Or likewise, you could say something equally provocative to an acquaintance with diametrically opposed beliefs. While many people hold their tongues, some get upset and respond with vitriol or personal attacks. At the root of this latter response, is that same brain system that really evolved to ready you for fight or flight. In the belief arena, however, this autonomic arousal tends to be anything but adaptive.
A recent study found that the scope of this non-specific response includes even the brands we identify with. Yep! Even attacks on your brands may be misinterpreted by your brain as an attack on you. Think about the acrimony aroused in conflict between those who have strong feelings about Apple vs. PC, iPhone vs. Android, or the pissing matches that ensue between fans loyal to Chevy or Ford. I’m sure you have seen the stickers in the back windows of pickup trucks of a boy urinating on the emblem of the opposing brand. This loyalty, I think, is best evidenced by the intense loyalty people develop for their hometown sports teams. Some fans have brutalized other fans at NFL football games for cheering for the wrong team. If you throw alcohol into the mix, things can get ugly.
You see, from your brain’s perspective, you are your beliefs and your brands. Perhaps understanding this will help you cope with the feelings that rush forth in the moment – or help you assess the relative futility of walking into such conflicts. You must understand that when you attack someone’s beliefs (or brands), they will likely respond, unbeknownst to them, as if you are attacking them personally. Reason and objectivity become irrelevant in such circumstances. Know this, anticipate this, and weigh your words carefully.