How Emotion Hijacks our Reason

20120818_mo-running-from-bearWe’ve all heard of the fight or flight response, and we get it. We see a grizzly in the woods and our instinct is to run screaming. Makes total sense (though it will get you killed, so don’t do it).

What most of us don’t realize is that we also have this same response to intense emotional situations. Feelings of shame and betrayal hijack our limbic system the same way that spying a King Cobra would.

According to Psychologist Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly:

“When shame descends, we almost always are hijacked by the limbic system. In other           words, the prefrontal cortex, where we do all our thinking and analyzing and                             strategizing, gives way to the primitive fight-or-flight part of our brain.”

heart-mindThat instinct you have to run and hide after you’ve said or done something incredibly stupid? Yep, that’s the fight or flight response too. In his book Icognito, neuroscientist David Eagleman describes the brain as a “team of rivals.” In other words, in these emotional interactions, it is quite literally a battle between the heart (or our emotional selves) and our minds. That disparity between what we know in our heads and what we feel is a real battle, and whichever wins is going to call the shots in terms of our behavior.

Eagleman puts it this way:

away“There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain, each competing to control the single output channel of your behavior…the rational system is the one that cares about analysis of things in the outside world, while the emotional system monitors the internal state and worries whether things are good or bad.”

Our response to these emotional confrontations isn’t that much different from the one with the grizzly. In classical psychology terms, Karen Horney’s theory that we move toward, move against, or we move away explains it best.

According to Dr. Linda Hartling’s research while at the Stone Center at Wellesley, in these types of situations, we tend to move away by withdrawing, hiding, and keeping secrets. We move toward by attempting to appease and to please. We move against by attempting to gain power over others through aggression, both verbal and physical.

The reality is, we likely do all of these in different situations with different people at different times. The important thing is to recognize it for what it is, our limbic system hijacking our reasoning.

We need to learn to spot it, take an emotional step back, and give our reason a chance to come back on line.




15 thoughts on “How Emotion Hijacks our Reason

  1. This very well ties into the chapter of emotion. It is a tricky thing when you’re trying to decide what to chose because first you have your brain analyzing everything, but when you also have your heart that keeps spilling all these emotions and you’re torn without knowing what to do. I find myself in this situation quite often and it’s definitely a hard one to get through. You can’t always go with your feelings because you don’t want to keep getting hurt, so sometimes you have to go with the right thing that your brain is telling you to do. Overall, just by looking at emotion itself, it is all over the place and may be hard to understand.We want our needs to be met and want to be satisfied, but it’s hard when you don’t know which choice to make. But the most important thing of all is you should think about the situation for a good amount of time before making a rational decision because you don’t want to make a permanent choice based on how you were feeling because emotions always change and you especially shouldn’t be making any important life changing decisions while your angry or even upset.

  2. cc; professor Graham Gen Psyc C04
    Emotions hijacks our reasoning because, when individuals go through certain feelings the amygdala is stimulated in the brain and that may bring different conclusions depending on the person. From the cognitive component of emotion, it is clear that, the way we reason when in certain emotions depends on how well or poor we handle stress, also the type of personality we have thus either type A or type B.

  3. We have talked about our flight and fight responses in Gen. psychology before, we actually talked about it for half of a lecture, I believe. I had no idea that all of these things such as the need for wanting to run and hide after doing something incredibly silly and/or stupid was also apart of our fight or flight response. I had always thought it was only when we were in danger or a highly intense situation and we needed to make a rational, but quick decision. This was a very well written and informative article to read, thank you. Whenever you wrote what Dr. Linda Hartling said in her research:

    “According to Dr. Linda Hartling’s research while at the Stone Center at Wellesley, in these types of situations, we tend to move away by withdrawing, hiding, and keeping secrets. We move toward by attempting to appease and to please. We move against by attempting to gain power over others through aggression, both verbal and physical.”

    I can actually understand better as to when my responses are actually really activated, If thats the right word to even use.

    -Niyanta Marfatia Gen. Psych 2301 C04

  4. I really enjoyed reading this. I never really thought of my flight or fight response as part of the instinct I have to run and hide after I have said or done something incredibly stupid. I have only ever thought of it as “don’t touch the pot cause its hot” kind of way. After reading this I now understand and get the emotionally “flight or fight” response, I get that feeling a lot, I constantly think of what others will say. Especially after I have done something wrong at work. I get this overwhelming feeling as though I need to run and hide and hope the situation will go away. I have a hard time facing family and friends and especially my boyfriend after I have embarrassed myself in front of them. Now that I am aware I am going to try take to take an emotional step back, and give my reason a chance to come back on line.

    Thank you for Writing and Sharing.
    Sharon Coronado
    Gen. Psych C05

  5. Dulcie Church Gen Psych C05
    I found this post very interesting. I had never really thought of the fight or flight as the response to run after a bad decision. I loved the line “a battle between the heart (or our emotional selves) and our minds.” I think that we often don’t associate fight or flight with these emotional situations when it plays a major role. Previously I always thought of fight or flight when we are in a dangerous situation and the chemical response to that situation but this post has brought a new light to this meaning of fight or flight. Thank you for helping me realize that fight or flight isn’t limited to the situations where we are in danger but relates to our everyday lives.

  6. I wish that I could take back so many careless things that I have said in the past. I’ve never really put much thought into how emotion hijacks our reason. However, after reading this blog, I understand so much more and can hopefully learn to differentiate between what I know in my head and what I feel. Learning how to help control what we say because of our small adrenaline rush that we experience, can impact a situation greatly. Alyssa Valdez Gen. Psych 2301 C04

  7. Haylee Guerra
    Gen. Psych CO5
    This is so true. I’ve struggled with this fight or flight response for forever. I have people all around me tell me that once something gets hard or I get emotional or upset, I run away. I sometimes don’t feel like I have the brain power or support to get through anything on my own so I just try and get away from what is causing the problem. Looking at emotion, this can show us that we may have internal issues that we might not even know about and I think that this really helped me realize that it’s a normal thing to feel like this and it’s the way the brain works.

  8. I believe in h fight or flight response highly, and this shines so much more light on it, our emotions cause us to overreact and do things we normally wouldnt and we feel like we just want to run away and basically just dissapear and take back everything we had done, i thought it was intresting that the fight or flight response isnt just used when were scared or something! LOved this!!
    Heaven Harris Psyc2301.C03

  9. Megan Sambrano
    Gen. Psychology C03
    The famous fight or flight response. I haven’t related it much to my emotional situations until now and I never realized how it truly does hijack our reasoning. Yes, I am familiar with the instinct to run and hide after doing or saying that dumb thing, and usually doing just that. I’m also a pro at obsessing over that specific situation that honestly isn’t as big of a deal as I make it out to be. In your blog you mentioned Karen Horney’s theory that we move toward, move against, or we move away. When my husband deployed to Afghanistan and during this deployment, after thinking about how I am handling it on a daily basis, I feel like I try and move away from anything that reminds me of it and hide the emotions that come along with it from others. Although, it seems like its being handled well some things I snap back to and after that situation regret getting upset so quick.

  10. Professor Graham,
    This is Bailey Prince General Psyc. 2301.C03
    I feel as if this piece does tie into our emotions and what we learned about them. I can think of many cases where we put ourselves in spots where our mind is telling us one thing but our heart tells us another. As an example say, our Cognitive thinking tells us we shouldn’t be attracted to a certain person because of the behavior they have however our heart is telling us well maybe it is okay and we look past that. Another example would be say your at a big party with all your friends and someone comes in trying to take hostages, do you stand up and try to protect the ones you love or do you go down quietly? I think that is where Fight or Flight comes into play. It really depends on what type of person you are and if you would do that type of thing.

  11. I have trouble with controlling my emotions for example if I’m in a heated argument and I think I am responding correctly or righteously to the situations. Later when I cool down I’m able to take a step back and I look at it and I understand that I acted irrationally. In those situations, I defiantly let my “heart” take the call. This mostly happens in a stressful situation not necessary scary ones and we talked about it in class that our brain and thought process being affected under these stressful conditions. We also talked about fight or flight in class and how we can learn to control it. It’s interesting that no matter how complex our brains are we still go back to our primitive culture and decide if we want to face our fears or run from them just like Psychologist Brene Brown wrote in her book. Also, we all handle situations differently just like we handle stress differently. I agree with you that we should learn to spot it and that we should build a strong internal locus of control, where we determine how we react and suppress our “hearts” at times and take a step back rather a step to towards our instincts.

  12. I definitely think that emotions can hijack our reasoning, especially negative emotions. As you discussed in your article, with the bear situation. Even though we know that we shouldn’t run, in that moment, out of fear, we probably would. I think that when people are hurt, angry, or overcome by other negative emotions their filter goes off and they can say and do the most hurtful things. This ties back to class because we have discussed the fight or flight response at length and this is giving an example of it being applied in real life.

  13. This is an interesting read regarding how closely tied our physical systems with our psychological. Everything psychological is biological and this is very true in how were have our emotions. Our hormones such as epinephrine will cause us to react to whether or not will fight or flight. The process this body does to prepare itself is rather astonishing. Blood will begin to go to the core, our digestive and urinary system will be on hold as these are not priorities at the moment, and our sympathetic system is on a more heighten level ready for our body to take on the challenge. What can get in the way sometimes can be the emotional part. We can elevate our sympathetic system even more if our emotions are based on strong emotions such as fear or anger. Multi tasking has always been difficult and getting frustrating at the situation will not help me in the situation. I need to step back, count my breaths and restart myself so that I can refocus my situation.

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