May 212012

Fighting for no reason—how we’re hard-wired to be hostile

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about relational psychology, and one fascinating chapter from  a book on non-verbal communication which mentions that one of the predictors of a satisfying relationship is the ability to successfully read (or “decode”) the emotions of your partner.

Let’s be clear about what this is saying: people who are skilled emotional decoders will have happier and more satisfying relationships.  Conversely, if you’re poor at reading emotions, you can find relationships are that much more troublesome and difficult to maintain.

That makes sense intuitively, but what’s fascinating is looking at the actual mechanics of how humans decode emotions.  Put simply, there are two big ways we consistently get things wrong:

  1. We can interpret the presence of an emotion, when no emotion actually exists.
  2. We can interpret an emotion as the wrong one.

As it happens, humans have very strong biases when it comes to emotional decoding, and those biases contribute greatly to relational distress.  In fact, when it comes to relationships, it’s hard to imagine how things could be worse:

Humans are hard-wired to see emotions when none exist. What’s more, we are hard-wired to view ambiguous emotions as negative.

You see this all the time, even with completely neutral or even positive expressions. A smile or laugh will be interpreted as contempt.  A neutral sentence will be interpreted as a hostile one. A joke or quip will be interpreted as sarcasm. A lack of response will be interpreted as disapproval, shunning, or rejection. I’m not saying those interpretations are always going to be wrong, but when we do misinterpret, it’s almost always in the negative direction.  On the internet, interpretation and decoding increases by magnitudes.


Why do we have such a horribly maladaptive bias when it comes to emotional decoding?

Well, it all has to do with evolution.  It’s often said that the biggest threat to humans are other humans, and so from a survival standpoint it’s absolutely essential that we’re able to detect threatening behavior. Missing a threat signal could result in a javelin to the neck. Seeing a threat where none exists might cause tension and misery, but it’s much less likely you’ll end up dead.

In the world of evolutionary psychology, having a pulse reigns supreme. Being happy might be nice, but it’s in no way essential to your genes reproducing. Consequently, seeing hostility where none is exists is evolutionary advantageous compared to seeing warmth where none exists.

And how do we react to seeing hostility?  We get defensive.  We examine things more critically to look for more threats.  We keep our distance, so we have a better chance of surviving if a threat exists.  Some emotions, like anger, are very likely to be reciprocated—that’s a real problem if there wasn’t actually any anger to begin with.

At this point, things tend to spiral.  All that defensiveness increases our tendencies to view things as hostile, and suddenly there’s an argument that’s literally occurring over nothing.  At this point some tangential issue often gets grafted into the argument, and very real disagreement occurs where none previously existed.

So, what the hell can we do about this?

Well, one of the biggest things is simply being aware that the effect exists in the first place. I hugely appreciate it when a partner tell me that they’ve got a headache, it eliminates sex rejection, or they’ve been stressed at work; it means that when I encounter a reaction I don’t expect, I’m much less likely to view that as a negative response against me,  and that my sexual approach it lousy.

Because we tend to interpret things more negatively than they really are, you can try to counter things by mindfully putting a more positive spin on interactions with your partner.  In fact, that’s almost always a good idea anyway; one the most effective forms of relational maintenance is expression of positive affect—in other words, just being nice to someone.  Smile when they enter the room, look interested in what they have to say, do all those things which show that you care and that they’re important.

If you find yourself interpreting something as negative, then stop and think if that’s really the case. Could you be getting it wrong?  Heck, I’ll even go out on a limb and suggest that you should even ask if you’re not sure. “Hey lovely, I’m having trouble reading emotions today; you’re not angry, are you?

On that note, show your partners this article.  It’d be a tragedy if you asked if they were angry, and they interpreted that negatively. Hopefully, after reading this, they’ll realize that you’re simply trying to correct a cognitive bias.  If you’re really lucky, you can catch yourselves having a dispute when none should exist, and nip it in the bud.

Finally, work on your emotional decoding; I assure you, it’s something which can be trained. Observe people—especially yourself and your partners—and watch when you interpret things correctly or incorrectly.  Just as importantly—if not more so—is to watch when other people get things wrong.  Social situations, outings with friends, train stations: these all provide a rich environment where you can observe others and learn from them.  Watching others has the advantage that since you’re not personally involved, your own biases are less likely to come into play.

Oh, and if someone’s running at you with a javelin?  Trust your instincts; they’re still good at that sort of thing.

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