Why we act/react the way we do.

A cartoon appeared a few years ago based on Aesop's fable of the farmer and the viper (which, during the 20th century, gained popularity as the frog and the scorpion). In the first of the three frames it showed a dog in its garden recognising a much larger, aggressive dog coming down the street and saying to itself " don't bark, don't bark". In the second frame it was barking its head off at the larger dog. In the third frame, after it had been beaten up, the dog in the garden was effectively shrugging its shoulders saying "I couldn't help myself, it's in my nature".

From the moment we're born, we're experiencing the world and interpreting it based on the outcomes of those experiences. These interpretations form automatic responses that we can use as shortcuts in our day to day lives. The shortcuts happen subconsciously and usually work very well for us. An example can be found for drivers. In the UK the highway code tells us the sequence of traffic lights. Most drivers will react to that sequence automatically, with no conscious thought but if you were asked what comes after the 'Red/Orange' combined light, most of us would switch into conscious thought and struggle to answer.

Think of these automatic responses as sub-routines in a computer. They've been built using known outcomes. For example, experience might tell you that when a person wearing an obviously expensive suit and high quality shirt walks into the room trailing an entourage, that they have money and most probably a position where others look up to them be that as a celebrity or a senior position in a prestigious firm. This experience has already built a sub routine that tells you to automatically defer to this person, in other words pushing yourself down the social scale in comparison. The next time you realise you're thinking you or your idea is less than worthy ask yourself to consciously butt in and question why you should accept that. If you have no reasonable answer then tell yourself to wake up and change your reaction; change your outlook on this experience.

The sub-routines come with their own triggers to kick them into gear. Think of your life to date as a series of social groups and hierarchies where you have taken on various roles. Each role will have specific triggers that tell you to for example take command; fall into line; be a disrupter or be creative. Some you'll enjoy and reinforce. Others, you may dislike, even hate. Do you have to continue in the roles you hate?

Social media is an additional supportive and judgemental force on each of us. It gives us the opportunity to get our work in front of a wider range of  people faster than ever before. With this comes the perceived comfort of like minds or the perceived discomfort from critics both of which are made up from people we'd never have met in a physical sense. It's debatable how many people actually read and understand an article before their own sub-routines kick in telling them to like it or hate it. The only difference with social media is the remoteness can make the negatives more brutal than they would have been in a face to face situation. 

Sometimes, if we're tired or just plain lazy, we'll allow a shortcut to happen when instead it should have a conscious intervention. This type of activity plays into the stereotype 'she just takes everything life throws at her'. Why should she? Why not question what you accept; what you perceive. For that matter question what other people perceive. If you act as if you're not worthy of their time they'll unconsciously pick up on that and treat you as if you have nothing credible to offer. If you treat your ideas and yourself with respect and place value on them others (the face to face others) will as well because they're reacting to the non verbal communications you are providing.

We act/react the way we do because we couldn't function without the shortcuts or sub-routines but that doesn't mean we can't make new ones. We start that by being conscious of the sub-routines that happen as we meet people and to question whether we're allowing ourselves or the other person to slip back into a well worn track of perception/pigeon holeing and whether this is a desirable outcome. 

Being aware of yourself, your triggers, emotions and reactions is the first step to understanding others better, not just relying on how you've always labelled them.

This narrative has been extracted from our Emotional Intelligence training course and is influenced by the work of Daniel Kahneman. 


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