Reactivity and Ethical Behavior

by Paul J. Hannig, Ph.D.


Have you ever been in that situation where someone does something that provokes you? You can feel the adrenaline rising from someplace deep inside your body. Your thoughts go into an automatic reactivity mode. You are upset and anger is closing in on you. " Macho man and macho woman" hijack your brain and you are planning your revenge and power moves. You are going to teach this so and so a lesson that he or she will never forget. How dare that imbecile do this unspeakable thing to you! So, what to do?


At some point, most people have been provoked to feelings of anger and revenge by someone who just behaves despicably. You are not alone! But let's face the facts. You have to come to grips with your own emotional reactivity and thought processes. What do you do? You could act out and give this sorry fellow one horrific punishing blow with your physical and verbal prowess. We all know that you are a tough cookie and that in your mind, you feel you have every right to put this person in their place.


Well, guess again! This is a test of the early warning mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption system. Your killer instinct is about to be let loose. But, wait just a second. What is this eruption going to do to you? You most certainly could hurt and injure this other person. But, wouldn't you be jeopardizing your own physical, emotional and spiritual well-being!? Wouldn't you be cast into the lake of fire for doing something that is harmful to another person and yourself? So, what is the solution? You could take a long hard look and examine your own reactivity to someone else's ridiculous behavior. What if you could catch your internal reactivity in its early stages and modify and direct it to more worthwhile and higher consequences. Why should you upset yourself over someone else's obnoxious and ineffective strategies for dealing with life and people? AHAHH! You say, "Easier said than done." Let's face it! When that emotional tide starts rising to the surface, it is so tempting to let yourself explode. After all! You're not going to let anyone get away with mistreating you.


Somewhere, someone told you that you must express your righteous anger and not hold it in. Oh! That's all well and good. You proved that you are a tough guy and will not take anything off of anybody. But now, we are faced with several counterbalancing imperatives. You don't like having to be put into this kind of position where you either have to take it or strike back. Reactivity demands that you do something. But, ethics requires that you take a careful examination of what emotions and thoughts are coming up inside of you.


The Ethical Imperative


Do you want to do what is right? I know that having thoughts of revenge and retaliation have a certain effect upon you. Vengeful vendettas find their sources deep in your emotional juices and they shape your mind into vengeful angry thoughts. But, the ethical imperative comes into your thinking from another part of your brain. Your conscience or your ethical imperative tells you that vengeful vendettas will only cause harm to you and your antagonist. We hear the biblical phrase, "Turn the other cheek. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord." They remind us that it is destructive to return sin with another sin. When someone harms you and you return the harm, you only create more harm. We are also told to pray for your enemies and to bless those who curse you.


But what about your rights? You have every right to defend yourself in ways that are ethical and consistent with higher spiritual values. "But, I must do something", you say. Have you tried praying for your enemy, your antagonist? Have you asked God to heal and cleanse you of your murderous thoughts and evil inclinations? After all, you have been injured and you have every right to expect God to heal you and to also heal your antagonist. Praying for healing and redemption is doing something about your unfortunate situation. But, you don't have to do anything harmful to someone else. Perhaps, you can vigorously counter your vendetta thinking with the old behavioral science technique of saying, "Stop," to your thoughts. How about vigorously countering your retaliatory thinking with requests of divine forgiveness for such evil thoughts. How about this for a counter to an unwanted thought: "I will not allow so and so to rob me of my joy and happiness. I will not allow a thief to come in the middle of the night and steal God's gifts of joy and happiness. The thief brings hatred, murder, vengeance, vendettas and disturbances of all sorts. I will work on myself, my feelings and my thoughts, in order to clear myself of these unwanted intrusions. I created these thoughts and feelings. They were inside of me and I can let them go. The other person merely triggered my reactions. But, I created them and I can undo them! I choose to make ethical decisions."


The Heavenly Realm


When you set aside specific time every day, for spiritual, emotional and mental work on yourself, you open the possibility for ascending into the higher spiritual realms. By adopting such self-replenishing, disciplined practices, you enter into this spiritual stratosphere. And when you return from these higher planes of consciousness, you are much better able to deal with the sins and misfortunes of the secular world. The universe and the heavens are filled with infinite knowledge, wisdom and healing. When you tap into and draw from this higher realm, you are better equipped to eradicate your own evil inclinations and retaliatory thinking. The spiritual cosmos can provide you with ethical solutions to every problem; especially those where you make yourself and others miserable.


Proactivity Versus Acting Out


Proactivity is a concept that accepts the notion that in every situation you have a choice as to how you will respond. Proactivity does not support suppression or repression of feelings. It accepts the idea that you can make an effective and ethical response to provocative situations and people. Reactivity has its roots deep in the limbic system and the amygdala. Its energies are based on flight/flight/freeze emergency responses. Higher cortical responses require measured thinking combined with ethical choices and inhibition of potentially harmful reactions. If reactive emotions begin to emerge in the context of conflict, a well disciplined and practiced sub cortical apparatus can slow down the action and create a more responsible and productive response. This response includes inhibition of potentially dangerous upwelling limbic reactions and replacing them with more self-productive thoughts and actions. This cortical measuring of your deeper emotional reactions is evolution's way of improving our ability to adapt, survive and create. It separates us from a beastial nature and allows us to understand our old mammalian ways of handling crisis. Without this higher cortical ability, we could slip into destructive acts of retaliation, revenge, murder and vendetta thinking.


Our ancient mammalian ancestors automatically reacted to each emotional impulse, no matter how constructive or destructive. Since a higher cortical center did not exist, they could not process and organize incoming data as well as we modern humans. They would feel something and act on it, regardless of the outcome. We still possess a considerable amount of these ancient reactions. They may have well served our primate ancestors. But, in a modern society, reactivity and acting out proves to be detrimental to personal and common good. In the last 3000 years, we have been trying to condition the cortex to adopt more ethical standards of behavior and emotional responsiveness. But, we still have a long way to go before the brain becomes sophisticated enough to inhibit destructive, reactive impulses and replace them with ethical and moral, proactive responses. Fortunately, if a proactive brain practices ethical responses over a considerable length of time, there is a possibility that such a messianic mutation could reach a critical mass in the human population. Such a utopian outcome would pass beyond the realm of dreams and wishful thinking and become reality. Perhaps, we are on the cutting edge of such an evolutionary step forward and each step backwards may just indicate a natural form of regression.


The Little Things


Petty annoyances occur everyday. Practicing ethical responsiveness does not require that it be only conducted in the face of a monumental non-ethical trigger. In the course of human interaction, petty annoyances are inevitable. These situations require ethical responses just like major transgressions. It is helpful to be able to refine your capability for making ethical choices in the smaller circumstances. Not everything has to be responded to as if it were a major crime. Disagreements occur in every relationship and in every human interaction. If possible, take time to get together with the other person and talk things out. Apply the principal of Effective Problem Solving Solutions based on Mutually Satisfying Agreements and you will have fulfilled the higher species capability of cooperation. Exercising your human capability for cooperation can help strengthen your bond with family and friends, neighbors and business connections. Developing your human potential for cooperation may actually increase your life span and even make you younger in real age.


One antidote to unethical reactivity is the idea that social cooperation based on reciprocal altruism, actually activates certain brain areas associated with the processing of rewards. If you have ever practiced a proactive ethical response to a potentially reactive trigger, you would have noticed how good you felt. You will have also noticed how bad you felt when you gave vent to your reactive emotions and impulses. When you make an ethical response to the unethical actions of another person, you activate a neural network that positively reinforces reciprocal altruism. Your ethical responses can motivate the most diehard provocateur to resist the temptation to act selfishly toward you. Remember the old adage: Evil begets evil and good begets good!