I’m sure it’s happened to you; God knows it’s happened to me.
You’re in an intense back-and-forth with your partner, friend, or colleague. The conversation started as harmless “just talking.” You interrupt your opponent and set the facts straight. They, obviously frustrated by your interruption, push back with some off-base analogy intended to make your point seem ridiculous. So, naturally, you go into maximum overdrive to convince them that you’re right. Near the end of the whole ordeal, you don’t even remember what you said. The entire argument feels like an out of body experience. Scientifically, your brain has been hijacked (and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise).
What Really Happened?
In situations of high stress or fear, the hormone cortisol floods the brain. Your life-jacket executive functions that help with thought processes like strategy, trust-building, and compassion are not there to save you. They’re deflated, shut down. The amygdala, our “instinctive” brain, takes over.
There’s shame, loss of power, and embarrassment associated with being wrong. We want to avoid feeling these negative emotions at all costs. Your body chooses to protect itself with one of four responses:
- Fight: Keep arguing
- Flight: Revert to, and hide behind, group consensus
- Freeze: Disengage by shutting up
- Appease: Diffuse and make nice with your “adversary” by agreeing
The most common response is fight. During fight, you’re blinded by wanting to win. When you win, your brain floods with happy hormones: adrenaline and dopamine. You feel powerful and invincible, saved from the shame of being wrong or the sorrowful retreat. After experiencing what it feels like to be right, we’re tempted to choose the fight response when arguments arise.
Luckily for arguers, there’s another hormone that can feel just as good as adrenaline: oxytocin. Activated by human connection, oxytocin opens up the networks in our executive brain, or prefrontal cortex, further increasing our ability to trust and open ourselves to sharing. Your goal should be to spur the production of oxytocin in yourself and others while avoiding cortisol and adrenaline spikes.
When you’re high off being right, often, your “adversary” feels pretty bad. Not to mention, although it might feel amazing to be correct, the fight is exhausting in and of itself.