Category Archives: Emotion Management

Regret, Social Standing, and Loss

I’ve read that brain imaging studies show that when we think about other people, parts of our frontal cortex become active. Advocates of the social brain hypothesis say the frontal cortex expanded in our ancestors because natural selection favored social intelligence. I suppose social media continues that trend.

Research also suggests that before we risk something, we need to feel assured that our potential gain is twice the possible loss, as loss feels twice as bad as gain feels good. So we have a greater sensitivity to losses than to equivalent gains when making decisions. In trading situations, we will most likely opt to keep what we have because we place a larger value on things that we already possess.

And we will make many of these decisions in light of social standing.

I’ve heard that when people are asked if they would rather earn $50,000 a year while other people make $25,000, or earn $100,000 a year while other people receive $250,000, the majority of us choose the 50k. We would rather make twice as much as others even if it means earning half as much as we might otherwise. Social standing trumps simple economics.

Does this suggest anything about my regrets, which the dictionary defines as “thinking and feeling with a sense of loss.”

If my losses feel twice as bad as my gains, then perhaps I feel my regrets more keenly than my victories…


I would have triumphed,

Had but to try,


          I was so afraid of failure.

And in this fear, hesitation won,

          Though so briefly.

And now, the results of that barest pause,

They resonate with me yet.

No conquest has silenced the pain of that loss,

No prize has tamed its gnawing.

And the regrets of that long ago moment

Continue their taint  of my victories today…


“It’s Mine!”

Ever wonder why you cling to your “stuff” so tightly? The “endowment effect” states that we all tend to prefer the items we own when compared to similar items that we do not own.  “It’s mine!” is our strongly voiced opinion from the very first days that we can speak.

When researchers studied the brains of volunteers through fMRI they found that three different brain areas were activated during those times when we are prompted to declare ownership.  Initial results indicate that the endowment effect is not promoted by our enhanced attraction to possessions but rather that ownership increases value by enhancing the significance of the possible loss of preferred products.  Losing something that we like is more significant than the actual ownership of the item. 

It is also threatening – and we tend to be motivated more by aversion to loss than attraction to gain.  And as we’ve said in the past, threat is a powerful emotion that gets our attention quickly.  The element of surprise only intensifies the effect.  Try and grab a favorite teddy bear from a three-year-old and watch how quickly “It’s mine!” kicks in.

Aversion to loss lies at the heart of the strength of our attachments to things.  When there is little risk of losing something it’s often surprising how little value we find that we actually attach to it.

Links:  ScienceDaily   The Brain and Surprise  

What is most Fair?

Things feel fair or unfair. Our emotions play a central role in our perceptions of fairness and how we respond to injustice. fMRI imaging studies of individuals making decisions involving fairness indicate that emotions help determine a person’s attitude towards inequity through involvement of the insula.

The question in a University of Illinois and California Institute of Technology study, “Which is better, giving more food to a few hungry people or letting some food go to waste so that everyone gets a share” finds that most people choose the latter. As a social species, we as individuals are fairly intolerant of inequality.

“One could choose to take 15 meals from a single child, for example, or 13 meals from one child and five from another. In the first option the total number of meals lost would be lower. Efficiency would be preserved, but one child would bear the brunt of all the cuts. In the second option more children would share the burden of lost meals but more meals would be lost. The equity was better — but at a cost to efficiency.” We will see that everyone has a fair share even if it means that the overall resources available to us take a greater hit.

Of note, the decisions were made by individuals who were themselves well-fed and not in danger of starving. When things are going well we tend to favor equity for all. In times of scarcity, danger or other threat, self-preservation instincts tend to override this behavior. In other words, it would seem that we would maintain this pattern of sharing because it feels right until the resources actually started running out.

In a world of growing scarcity and competition for resources this becomes increasingly relevant.

Link: ScienceDaily, Coaching Fairness, Fairness and Feeling Good

Coaching Fairness

Fairness is a feeling.  Something feels fair or unfair at a fundamental level.  It’s only later that we tend to think it through.  That is somewhat the gist of yesterday’s post.

In coaching we have to remember that in dealing with issues around fairness we are dealing with emotional rather than purely cognitive responses.  We are dealing with feelings – and in dealing with feelings the first thing we have to do is defuse the emotion.  This is not the same thing as taking it away.  Rather, it is the coach’s task to help an individual manage the emotion.  This can include deep breathing exercises, quiet meditation and in particular, the use of reframing to lead an individual from a purely emotional response to a more considered cognitive response through use of the ladder of inference.

Remembering that issues of fairness are emotional rather than cognitive in nature will help both coach and client move more swiftly to a resolution.

The Influence of Others, Empathy and Learning to Do Good

Why do we behave? Janneke Joly, Ph.D., the University of Groningen, suggests that we are prompted by others to do so and that we do it under three distinct influences – other people’s physical presence, the association of a particular person with a normative behavior, or having their memory on our minds.  In other words, my mother standing next to me, the association of her with cleaning my plate of all its food, or the memory of her telling me to clean my plate will all have the effect of influencing me to finish my meal.

Now, if the norm happens to be that altruism or doing good is a proper thing to do, then each of the three influences above will tend to direct me to do good.  But why I do good could be motivated by a variety of things.  Recent research by psychologist Lidewij Niezink, also of the University of Groningen, suggests that we help friends due to our empathy with them whereas we tend to help relatives because we expect help back in return.  This has a certain logic.  As the old cliche goes, you can’t choose your relatives.  We may or may not have a lot in common with siblings or parents whereas we will tend to have more in common with the friends that we choose – hence an easier time empathizing with them.

Finally, we are hardly off the hook if we state that we just don’t have a lot of empathy for people, period.  Maybe so.  But researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison state that kindness and compassion can be learned.  Functional MRI studies indicate that “brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation.”  Activity increased in the insula, a portion of the brain where bodily representations of emotion tend to be processed, and the temporal parietal juncture, which processes empathy.  The net result was that individuals who practiced “compassion meditation,” the art of generating kind and compassionate thoughts towards others, thought and acted more compassionately.

So in summary, thoughts of my mother telling me to be kind to my crazy Aunt Meg will influence me to do so, even though I don’t want to.  I may expect that Aunt Meg will be nice to me in return, even though she and I have little in common.  Nevertheless, under my mother’s influence I decide to do so and after a few minutes of quiet thoughts of good will towards her I surprisingly find it easier to do so.  Anybody relate?

Where is a History of Feeling?

An interesting book review highlights the relationship between experience and brain chemistry among its other items.  On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail suggests that one common theme through history is our desire as human beings to alter our moods and feelings.  And what I find interesting is that the emphasis is on mood and feelings rather than a more cerebral cognition.

This binary disconnect between cognitive thinking and emotion can sometimes be summed up like this, I suspect.  I think, therefore I am.  I feel, there fore I am ALIVE.  Emotion trumps cognitive thinking over and over again in terms of strength in our overall sense of awareness.  We exist to feel in profound ways and the great religions of the world have gone into sometimes exquisite detail on the “heart” and its management.

There have been many intellectual histories written that trace the development of ideas.  Ideas grow, change, and evolve as mental models frame and reframe around core concepts.  Emotions, moods and feelings remain much more constant over time.  Anger, love, hatred, and so forth remain from generation to generation, culture to culture.  What changes is how we allow ourselves to express them.  As Star says:

“Our very synapses are shaped by experience and education from before birth to the time of death. The brain of a monk does not resemble the brain of a soldier or a taxicab driver. An impulse to swoon in distress or erupt in anger may be innate, but Victorian women were quicker to faint at the sight of blood and Southern men are faster to react to slights than women or men in many other places. These predispositions can be passed on from generation to generation without any alteration in anyone’s genes, and yet they are readily seen as aspects of our nature. In a way, they are. “Culture is wired in the brain,” Smail writes, and “cultural practices can have profound neurophysiological consequences.”

It would be interesting, I think, to see a written emotional history comparable in scope to the great intellectual histories.  They may exist (and if anyone knows of a good recommendation please post).  Smail’s book would to a subset of that category as he focuses upon the more narrow subject of our pursuit of mood altering technologies.  But he brings up important questions relative to our continuing efforts to come to grips with both our thinking and feeling selves.

Link: I Feel Good

Is Anger Related to Brain Structure?

A very small and experimental study among adolescents in Australia suggests that the size of the amygdala plays a part in the expression of anger – at least among teenagers (which suggests that a tired teenager is even worse.)  The authors of the study, a joint research project conducted by the University of Melbourne, Australia and the Oregon Research Institute in the United States, state that  their findings suggest that mood behaviour and the ability to control it during family interactions is related to brain structure.  In essence, they found a positive relationship between the duration of aggression and the size of the left and right amygdala, though it was only significant on the left-hand side.

So what does this mean?  Does it excuse angry outbursts followed by rationales, such as, “I can’t help how I’m wired?”  Hardly.  But it might offer an additional physiological reason for the variability in individuals and their “anger quotients.”  And if that’s the case, then it becomes one more bit of understanding about the brain and how it functions that can help coaches craft better strategies and tools for anger management.

Links:  Teen Anger and Brain Size; An Abstract of the Original Study ; Children and other Impulse Behaviors

New Anger Management Resource

 Newly added to our resources links is the AJ Novick Group, co-founders of the Century Anger Management model of intervention and providers of anger management classes, executive coaching, professional certification and a wide range of home study anger management classes and online anger management classes.  Check them out at the links below or in our resources section.

Links:  AJ Novick Group, Anger Class Online, Century Anger Management


Culture Influences Brain Function

Been out for the holidays among other things but of interest on my return is a news release indicating that cultural bias can influence physiological brain function.  ScienceDaily, in this post, states that people from different cultures use their brains differently to solve the same visual perception tasks.  Using the binary cultural differentiation broadly characteristic of Eastern and Western cultures (emphasis upon the individual as opposed to emphasis upon the group), the study found that –

. . . the two groups showed different patterns of brain activation when performing these tasks. Americans, when making relative judgments that are typically harder for them, activated brain regions involved in attention-demanding mental tasks. They showed much less activation of these regions when making the more culturally familiar absolute judgments. East Asians showed the opposite tendency, engaging the brain’s attention system more for absolute judgments than for relative judgments.

Making judgments outside of one’s cultural comfort zone involves more brain processing activity.  As one of the study authors suggests –

“Everyone uses the same attention machinery for more difficult cognitive tasks, but they are trained to use it in different ways, and it’s the culture that does the training,” Gabrieli says. “It’s fascinating that the way in which the brain responds to these simple drawings reflects, in a predictable way, how the individual thinks about independent or interdependent social relationships.”

Of related interest is the impact of culture on the brain’s mirror neuron system, the system that operates both when we do something as well as when we merely observe someone doing something.  It is this observation aspect that is significant as neuroscientists presently think that this “mirroring” is the neural mechanism by which people are able to empathize with others.

A recent study indicates that mirror neuron activation increases when one is observing someone from one’s own cultural background as opposed to someone from a different cultural background, even when both are making the same culturally understood gestures.  “All in all, our research suggests that with mirror neurons our brain mirrors people, not simply actions,” this study’s author states.

And that has interesting implications for empathy, group dynamics, communication, and other issues.

This idea that culture not only trains and influences how we behave, but actually impacts the physiological ways in which we use our brains is an interesting springboard for further exploring how we relate to one another, and more importantly, how we can develop better communication and coaching tools for the building of community.

Stress as Pain Relief

Stress can alleviate pain – perhaps the only good thing about it most would suppose. This “stress-induced analgesia” shields the body from pain after a serious injury and acts as a protective mechanism. Long known to operate through a mechanism in which the body releases its own naturally occurring cannabinoids, recent research indicates the action of the stress hormone noradrenaline as an additional mechanism.

Processes that mediate the emotional and stress-related aspects of pain originate in the amygdala and are controlled by neurons that originate in the brainstem and are regulated by noradrenaline. Noradrenaline appears to modulate pain inputs in the amygdala by limiting neuro transmissions (the mechanism by which one neuron triggers a nerve impulse in another) from the brainstem.

This protective response is akin to other amygdala and brainstem-mediated survival responses – sleep deprivation and increase in emotional response, handling surprise, and the focus of attention on emotion among many. It is useful.

To reiterate a point – understanding of our brain’s physiological processes allows us to manage behaviours without reducing their protective effectiveness. For example, anger has survival benefits. Yet anger also flairs at inappropriate times and in inappropriate ways. A mistaken run up the ladder of inference produces a threat response where none is warranted. It is times like these when the brain’s physiological responses are appropriate but the situation that prompted them is not. And it is this cognitive management without the loss of emotional richness and survival protection that is one ongoing aspect of coaching TED.

Link: How Stress Alleviates Pain