Reactivity, Blame and Life Regulations

The pursuit of a difficult scientific problem demands
a state of feeling similar
to that experienced by a religious person or a lover.

Albert Einstein

Can we pause to understand reactivity in the face of real or imagined threats? Would it be useful to society if we were more capable of relating differently to troubled people? Would this require us to alter some very basic responses in us rather than automatically focus on the other? Can we reexamine threatening events and the wider context in which they occur without increasing reactivity? Will it be useful to see how our social systems have similar properties to those of bacteria, bees and ants?

We react in times of turmoil, as we just witnessed in the shooting by a lone gunman in Arizona, in which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others were wounded, and six were killed. As the information became available, people thousands of miles away from the event felt threatened.

Yes, people react differently but the day of the event all were bombarded with confusion and chaos by the ever-present media. We, like ants and other information exchanging critters, reacted as we tried to understand what had happened. It took a few days but eventually President Obama emerged as an emotional leader, calming the group (country) in his speech in Tucson and pointing towards a more mature way to act.

Tragic public events will continue to happen and how we deal with them may inform us about the nature of emotional reactivity and leadership. Clearly leaders have a responsibility in role modeling for the group. If they can do it well they can make a difference in generating awareness and thoughtfulness in the herd. We turn on the TV and there is Obama talking to us. He tells us that blaming is automatic and skews our perception of events and leads to greater harm in our very social community.

People listen, and some seem to understand that his words require us to alter our part in a very deep process, which you can call “splitting”. Anxious people tend to split the world into two camps: the guilty and the innocent, the victims and perpetrators, those who try and those who fail, those who are sane and those who are insane.

People tend to automatically react and categorize others in all kinds of primitive ways when they feel threatened. Without a knowledgeable leader or a tool like the Mindful Compass, it becomes automatic to blame others and defend self. For an example of the increase in how threatened people felt immediately after the Arizona shootings, consider that just two days after the event there was a 60 % increase in gun sales in Arizona.

Gradually the media focus has shifted from the fear and tragedy, with people longing to know how to defend themselves and blaming others, to how can we understand these events? Now there is a focus on the “mentally ill” person, his very isolated family, the political rhetoric and/or gun control laws as possible conditions that may promote violence.

Thanks to recent polls and of course to what the polling questions are asking us to consider, we can look at the psyche of our society.

“Americans seem to be rejecting the blame game for the Arizona shooting. By far, the largest number thinks this tragedy could not have been prevented,” Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said of the poll, which was released Jan. 14.
The poll found the 40 percent of Americans thought that the Arizona shooting could not have been prevented. Another 23 percent blamed the “mental health system” for the crime. Only a small fraction of respondents blamed either hyperbolic political rhetoric or gun control laws, with 15 percent blaming rhetoric and 9 percent blaming gun control laws.

It seems that our brains are built to respond quickly to threats. To the questions, “Is it a stick or a snake?” we will err on the side of “seeing” the snake notes Joseph LeDoux. Michael Lewis, director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development focuses on how fear is contagious and spreads.
“We learn to become fearful through experience with the fear event, or learning from those people around us like our parents, our siblings, our colleagues,” Lewis says. “Fear has a certain contagious feature to it, so the fear in others can elicit fear in ourselves.”

The brain is rigged with evolutionary-designed shortcuts that trigger us into action. Yes, we are over “programmed” to personalize and respond to threats. This makes it extraordinarily difficult to take the time needed to think clearly about a way towards a more thoughtful future.

After listening to “experts” on talk shows discussing mental illness, I began to think that some times we act mentally ill about the mentally ill. Here are some ideas to ponder.

• Can any seriously mentally ill person presents us with the opportunity to blame them? Is this their job? It is easy for us to see that they are the problem and we are innocent?
• Could it be that when we blame others we lose our own bearings and ability to see our part in any problem? Can blaming others make us blind to the big picture and our part in it. What if we could think about “blaming” as a mild form of mental illness?
• Do we have a part in exacerbating a problem if we withdraw from the “problem person?”
• What if the problem is really about our inability to relate well to another who is expressing the anxiety and fear in the group?
• What if we decided that kicking people out of schools, incarcerating or drugging them, is not a responsible way to deal with or solve the problem?

Many of these kinds of automatic reactions are occurring everywhere in society today. The end result is that the disturbed individual is further isolated from any thoughtful human exchange. The rest of society goes about its business having isolated the problem to a person. I consider the reactivity in the social system surrounding the “crazy” individual is as problematic as the mental illness of the blamed one.

For example, people say, “I do not blame the parents. They are as confused as we are about the shooter.” The husband of Gabrielle Giffords has been asked if he would speak to the confused parents and he has said he is open to doing that. How would he use this opportunity? Would he ask them how hard was it to relate to their son or how difficult it is to ask for help? Who knows what kind of help was available? Were there other family members who were aware of the struggles and capable of lending a hand?

Most of the time the answers are no, no and no. People get isolated. Mental illness can take root and grow in these conditions. You can see emotional cut off over the generations leading to increases in serious problems in some branches of the family. You can also see the endless negative feedback loops directed towards a vulnerable individual, and the incredible difficulty of finding people interested or talented enough to relate well to those who are disturbed and want no help. To help we might just have to see things differently and not through our automatic eyes.

We are all participating in isolating others to the degree we are challenged or find it impossible to relate well to difficult or strange people. Is it possible to alter this reactive process by how we thoughtfully shape our own thinking and deal with our feelings of being threatened?

If we are aware of how automatically we react, that in itself does something about our part in these runaway negative reactions. In fact the wisdom of the crowd might return if we can pause to ask: “What part am I playing in this problem by how I think and act towards others who are not my cup of tea?” Perhaps if we can question the status quo, we will act differently and be useful to the community around those we call mentally ill.

But this change cannot occur until people realize there is a clear distinction between our automatic reactivity to people and events, and can see how important it is to find a way to tone down the anxiety and reactivity in order to develop a broader more mindful approach.

The Mindful Compass is a powerful tool that focuses on the pathways we can take to enhance the possibility of changing ourselves in relationship to others in order to get great things accomplished. The third point on the compass, West, reminds us that we need to continue to acquire knowledge about our relationships to be able to alter the way we relate and communicate to others.

West points us to those areas where great wisdom and knowledge is found. It is hard work to build a knowledge treasure chest, yet without new knowledge we are condemned to live in the past. It is hard work to gain profound knowledge about both our historical and personal past, just as it is challenging to live in the present.

How do we further our understanding of events unfolding around us? Shall we reach for out thinking hat whenever relationships problems appear? In many cases, to deeply understand conflict, distance, killing or the giving up or risking of one life for a greater good, we will have to venture further back into our evolutionary past. It is here where we will be able to understand the roots of reactivity. Here we can find reasons, if not comfort, for how evolutionary forces have shaped our automatic responses to both people and situations. It is this kind of an effort that will allow us to define ourselves as unique and separate from others while still accepting out heritage, which has been hobbled together over evolutionary time.

If we are part of a family and part of a larger community then defining ourselves and staying connected to others, some of whom will be problematic, requires us to (1) feel the threat the other poses, (2) decrease our more automatic acting and thinking and consider how can we responsibly manage our reactions in the relationship, (3) accept that as we strive to be unique, most of the time we are up against the automatic forces in nature that are coded in our brain to both react to and to fit in with and follow the herd.

Is it worth the time and effort to contemplate how our actions, both verbal and non-verbal, are the results of billions of years of evolution? I think this pathway offers greater self-knowledge and awareness, leading to greater ability to be more present in difficult relationships. If you are motivated to understand the forces in social relationships, then let’s go way back in evolutionary history and consider the behavior of very primitive life forms. These life forms demonstrate, in their cellular simplicity, the balancing act between the force to be a unique self and the urge to fit with others in the social group, the togetherness force.

Life Regulating Mechanism: Our Primitive Emotional Heritage

Our ability to communicate with others today is built on a primitive scaffolding with its genesis in life in the oceans billions of years ago. It is here where the earliest life forms required communication to adapt to changing conditions. These adaptations set the stage for the group to signal the needed change in functioning of a few in the group as necessary for the survival of the group as a whole.

The first social species, stromatolites, found in Australia, are estimated to have formed some 3.5 billion years ago. Today these bacterial cells still have to sense the outside world as they did billions of years ago, to know if there is enough nitrogen to sustain life. If there’s not enough nitrogen in the environment, the cells comminute this condition. Some of the cells, the more “vulnerable” ones to the changing conditions, then alter their functioning and their new job is to “fix” the problem by producing nitrogen. In so doing they lose the ability to reproduce. These bacterial cells function more for the colony than for “self.” Cells communicate with other cells to understand their job. It would appear that even in this primitive life form some can be related to in a way that asks a few to ‘give up’ their functioning for the good of the group. ( I got many of these ideas after listening to a talk by Laurie Lassiter, Ph.D)

Life itself, expressed in various species, must have a variety of such primitive “rules and regulations”, to sustain life. These mechanisms appeared long before humans (and their brains) evolved on the planet. Life-sustaining mechanisms are selected for because, in the simplest terms, they offer rewards (life) and punishment (death) for the behaviors that sustain or extinguish life.

Antonio Damasio a professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Neurology explains well how the basic devices of life regulation respond to external emotional (or automatic) stimuli, like a lack of nitrogen in the environment, triggering a response.

“The extremely varied devices of life regulation available in brains but inspired by principles and goals that antedated brains and that by and large operate automatically and somewhat blindly, until they begin to know conscious minds in the form of feelings. Emotions are the dutiful executor and servants of the value principle, the most intelligent offspring yet of biological values.”

Emotions, he notes, are “complex large automated programs of actions concocted by evolution, complimented by a cognitive program that includes certain ideas and modes of cognition.”

Bowen also noted that the basic emotional forces, togetherness and individuality, regulates behavior in the human family. This dynamic leads to both automatic ways to manage anxiety plus more thoughtful ways to handle ongoing tensions. The balance between the use of these mechanisms determines how families will function under stress.

Some families and social groups require more togetherness to function and others promote more individuality. Put another way, some families, more than others, require members to become nitrogen fixers (or to give up their individuality) for the sake of the “colony.” You could think of them as anxiety absorbers. No one consciously wants them to do it but there they are doing it, and any of us can easily fall into the evolutionary rigged trap of blaming them and refusing to see the deeper process that involves all of us.

Bowen noted that symptoms often came out of triangle alignments in families and other social systems. That is, our relationships are formed and informed by the alignment of triangles. (See the reference to triangles, either on my web site or in my book, in the section on Bowen Theory.) Triangles are the most stable alignment. A two-person relationship is unstable. A three-person relationship (triangle), manages stress by forming a two against one coalition, thus stabilizing and regulating behavior in the group.

Signals between people occur automatically and often without awareness. They lead to shifts in functioning by various members of the group. Triangles can be observed in many species. In addition there are “interlocking” triangles, extending into the group at large. One coalition can allow the twosome to pick on or isolate any number of others. The basic alignment in a prominent triangle is noted and often leads to predictable side taking and polarizations in groups.

The question arises: how can we become more aware of something if we are perceptually blind to seeing it? Perhaps we have to find ways to alert us to changes in the emotional system. If we begin to think of “blame” as an early warning sign of our blindness and our tendency to see things as black and white, we will be able to figure out how triangles are working.

When we fall into the togetherness with others we just might be automatically blaming those who we perceive to be not “us”. We see ourselves as aligned with the “good” people. The blamed one has a name but also represents an impersonal process. ]

In our earlier example, the shooter in Arizona, Jared Loughner, is seen by most as the “problem,” the “nitrogen fixer.” The stress and anxiety are absorbed by this fellow, forming a psychotic black hole in his head. Talk to most anyone and they will agree that Jared is the problem. If you can resist the temptation to see the problem as lodged in one individual or group, then you might be able to find strategies or ways to relate and come to a more neutral understanding of the problem.

It is always a challenge to communicate with others when we see a problem differently than they do because we’re not in the “togetherness” but are thinking as more defined individuals. Anyone who does this quickly realizes that this approach may not win them friends or even love.

Bowen use to draw attention to the problem by saying:” Call them psychotic and now they might not be human beings.” And “How do you see the human as part of life?”

Life Regulation Mechanism in Other Social Species: Ants, Bees

Ants are a wonderful species to learn from. They are everywhere. Sometimes they make a pesky appearance at a picnic, sometimes we see them at zoos or in the rain forest and are amazed at their diversity and ability to organize as a colony. E.O Wilson deserves great credit for teaching us the importance of respecting and learning from our fellow voyagers who make life on this planet possible. Wilson represents a view that genes are correlated with behaviors. He is often placed in opposition to those who believe that culture is the predominant driver of behavior.

Some say we should appreciate ants for being ants but what can they teach us about how social relationships impact our functioning? There are, after all, clear differences between ants and humans. Perhaps knowledge about the ant social system can enable us to become a bit more objective. When we observe from a greater distance we may see the primitive emotional process more clearly.

In ant colonies the interactions influence what and where the ants work will be on any particular day. They appear to communicate to each other where the food is as well as broader information about the state of the colony and the conditions in the outside world. Ants have genetic programs but it is not clear how the genes are turned on or off by information exchanged in social relationships.

There is little evidence that genetic sequences cause all behaviors. Genetic influence is one variable in behavior. One way to think about this is that genes have to be turned on or off and the greater the numbers of genes involved in behavior sequences the more the social environment might impact the expression of at least a few of these genes. We have yet to understand or to figure out how to test for the importance of communications in altering behavior or gene expression.

We see that even ants need to exchange information with others in the colony to make sure they are adapting to the changes in the environment and doing their jobs. One day they find out their job is to patrol and the next day they figure out by the numbers of ants they interact with that it time to move out the trash. The signals to influence their behavior are communicated either through direct body contact or through the signals delivered by chemical smells or movements.

Deborah Gordon and others have shown that the way each colony communicates within itself leads to adaptive behavior measured by the life span of one colony in relationship to others colonies. According to D. Gordon’s research, ants shift functional roles through the exchange of information. Each colony has slightly different ways of communicating. This leads to difference in the survival rates for the various colonies. Clearly, ants show us a wide variety of behaviors can occur after communicating new information about the outside world and what needs to be accomplished. Now what about bees?


In the 1940s a German biologist, Karl von Frisch, decoded the waggle that worker bees perform to recruit foragers to food sources. Thomas Seeley in his book, Honeybee Democracy, explores the waggle dance used by scouts to draw attention to the best nesting sites. Seeley saw that there was a great deal of individual freedom to explore and then convince others to act.

You can think about it as bees becoming like our political figures, posturing and dancing to communicate with great energy the information then used by the group to make a decision.

As more scouts join the dance eventually a quorum is reached by the group and the bees vote by flying off to the new site. Seeley thinks this kind of bottom up decision-making process can work in all kinds of social groups. He applies these rules to manage his department of neurobiology at Cornell University.

Seeley believes, based on these observations, that groups make better decisions when leaders do not interfere and instead enable the decision-making process of the group. He wants members to be free to explore and debate options. When all possibilities have been discussed, Seeley uses secret ballets to let the group make the best decision. As a leader, his job is to facilitate rather than make decisions for the others. This is a rule that we humans find hard to follow. It is easier to see what is wrong with others, to blame them and to force them to behave in the “right” way.

There is compelling evidence that decisions are more effective when the group can signal their vote rather than have the decision made by the leader. The force to be an individual is alive and well in the bees, as the individuals vote, and the votes are counted, and then the groups decides.

Humans have the ability to access this kind of democratic response too but seem to have problems maintaining a respect for individuals once a fear response has been triggered.

Family Emotional Process, Communication and Being a Self in Difficult Times

Bowen described how we are born into functional slots, or niches, like sibling position which result in variations in how individuals function in a system. In observing families Bowen observed that each family member brings different skills and challenges into the family. Emotional programming impacts how people are aligned with one another. Each individual’s position in the family alignment impacts the functioning of the family system.

One example at the societal level was the aforementioned example of the public shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. The shooter had extreme negative emotionality, which was not addressed and was acted out in a psychotic way. The results impacted the larger society, spreading fearful responses. When the leader communicated a different direction, civility was restored to enough people to keep primitive emotions in check. Personal responsibility becames more of the focus, more significantly after Obama spoke to the nation one week after the Arizona shootings.

Obama said that the first order of business is to stop blaming others and think about how to manage ourselves. This leader reminded us to be conscious of our decision making about what we choose to do. His focus on “consciousness about personal decision-making” can and probably did diminish at least somewhat the automatic way many people participated in blaming or more primitive emotional reactions. Once the automatic reactivity or the emotional programming has been pointed out, people appear to be more aware and freer to make decisions to maximize more mature functioning.

Once we decide what we are going to do to manage our anxiety and reactivity we can still encounter resistance to our decision. A decision not to follow the pathways of fear is a change, and change is often resisted. Depending on our ability to predict and prepare for these reactions, we will either stay on course or give in to the social pressure and resume positions where we fit in with others and give up self.

There is no doubt that in times of high stress it is harder to think wisely and differently from the herd. It appears that knowledge of the primitive nature of our emotional programming can allow for more thoughtful and less reactive actions when and if we feel threatened.

By acquiring more factual knowledge and understanding the primitive emotional forces in nature, we can cool down our own reactivity. If we can hold onto our wiser more profound ways of relating to others who are having problems, if we can maintain our higher ideas, hopes, and dreams despite threats, then this decrease in behavioral reactivity can lead to improved levels of functioning in social groups.

There are many unanswered questions. How many people do we need to see the wisdom of relating differently to the vulnerable ones to see a significant change in society? Significant change might be measured by lower rates of re-hospitalization for those with serious emotional problems. There may be a tipping point as the numbers of people who are less polarized increases. This might alter the way a social system operates. Is the tendency to blame others and to cut off from them one of the early warning signs of a coming regression?

We can use metaphors to see how other life forms, like the Cyanobacteria, act on one another to find the “nitrogen fixers,” for the good of the colony. We can see that in an ant colony, when the ants are communicating well, the colony is more adept at managing changing conditions. We can see that bees use the group vote, “democracy,” to discover which scouts are pointing towards a better a direction. Is it a stretch to then to consider that “crazy” behavior in human communities is primitive emotional programming rising up to “fix” problems that live in all of us.

If we consider the above to be a reasonable description of emotional process then one hypothesis would be that if some percentage of people follow more mature pathways, then the social systems can reenergize and reorganize. We need to know more about the conditions necessary to mange primitive emotionality. But for now we can observe that when a few individuals, leaders or scouts, point towards behaviors fostering more mature behavior the group might bump along but eventually adapt well to the stressful event.

The challenge is for courageous and well defined individuals to discover good enough ways to relate to those who want to cut off from the others, those who demand a quick fix, and of course those who become carriers of social disorder. No one yet knows how many people are needed in a community to relate well to those who display signs of emotional instability. Possibly only a small percentage of such people are required to produce a tipping point, making it possible to sustain a community of divergent individuals, including those who are our most vulnerable. And the challenge for all of us is to become a more separate individual in the group while managing reactivity in all its glorious and seductive forms.

Many thanks to my editor, Judy Ball.