When it comes to behavior, do we have a choice or is it automatic? It turns out that our behavior is more automatic than we’d like to admit. Way more. But we are not always at the mercy of automatic behavior. We can do something about it.
New research out of Johns Hopkins University suggests we have about a half a second to stop our automatic behavior. It takes approximately a half a second for signals from a sensory organ (like the eyes) to be sent and processed by the brain and for a subsequent signal to be sent to a muscle. So, yes, there is potential for choice when it comes to behavior, but the window is small. It is a half a second small. With the challenge set before us, there are steps one can take to disrupt automatic responses.
If we think of the brain as made up of multiple systems, there are at least two important systems that influence behavior. There is an emotional system which includes all of our automatic behaviors. For example, the regulation of the body and the natural ability to be social. When someone smiles at you, it’s likely you will automatically smile back. Try it today. Smile at people and see if they smile back. That's the emotional system at work.
Another system is the thinking system. This includes the prefrontal cortex and other structures that influence the expression of a self. For example, having one’s own thoughts, feelings and actions is an expression of self.
Anxiety affects how these two systems operate. When anxiety is high, it can undermine the thinking system in favor of the automatic, emotional system. That’s not always a bad thing, especially if one is in imminent danger. It also works the other way. The thinking system can override reactive, automatic behavior which results in a decrease in anxiety.
Why does this matter? Well, let’s say you are the leader of a committee. You dread having to lead this particular committee. A couple of people are creating problems for the group. You have an automatic way of addressing the behavior. While your automatic response may have initially made a difference, it no longer works. In fact, the problem is getting worse. The meetings are tense, and you can feel the tension in your body before the meeting starts.
One can disrupt one's automatic response by engaging the thinking system. While we may only have a half a second to change course, in the heat of the moment, you really can’t do much of anything. So, to make good use of that half a second, one needs to step back and strategies how one wants to behave.
So, let's take the previous example and start from the beginning. Someone says something in a particular tone and in a particular manner, and you are off to the races. How can one prepare to not react automatically and behave differently? The preparation includes the following:
- Identify the trigger. Is it the words, the tone of voice, the level of intensity or a particular body movement?
- What happens to me internally? What do I feel, think, and want to do?
- What do I do automatically in response to the trigger? Do I say something, do something, walk away or shut down?
- What does a mature response look like? How many alternative options can I come up with? (Hint, there is always more than one option.)
- What will it take to disrupt my automatic response and respond with thinking?
- How do I predict others will respond to my thinking?
- What will my response be to the automatic reactivity of others?
We can also use this approach with the family. Again, we don’t like to admit it but our behavior towards the family is mostly automatic and at times reactive. It is not a bad thing to react automatically to one’s family. When a baby is hurt and starts to cry, mom and dad move towards the baby and pick it up. It’s what we do. The problem comes when an automatic response creates additional problems. For example, when the baby learns to cry to be picked up.
Where do our automatic responses come from? They have their origins in past generations. A specific behavior may have started in your great-grandparent's generation or in a previous generation. The dance of automatic patterns between spouses, parent and child, and siblings have been passed down from generation to generation, a process Dr. Murray Bowen called the multigenerational transmission process. Recent discoveries in epigenetics have confirmed that how one responds to a particular life challenge is passed on to the next generation. These responses become automatic behaviors in subsequent generations. The good news is that it is possible to redirect one's behavior away from these automatic, generational patterns of reacting and shift one's behavior towards differentiation of self.
So, as you prepare to take advantage of that half a second you have between doing what comes automatically and deciding to do something different, consider the following questions:
- What am I trying to accomplish with my life? What are my life goals? What is my purpose and mission in life?
- What is a core belief I can use to guide my thinking?
- What can I do to calm down when I’m anxious? What can I do when I feel all revved up inside? What can I do when everyone else around me is revved up?
- What does a more responsible version of myself look like?
What questions or opportunities for thinking can you add to this list?