So, it’s not surprising that most organisations don’t recognise the role emotions play in virtually every aspect of daily office life.
Learning about the brain is one way to help leaders understand more about emotions and especially how to manage emotional triggers better. That’s why, more and more, we’re hearing about celebrities adopting emotional control techniques, from Andy Murray learning about the brain in order to manage his nerves to Will Young practicing mindfulness techniques.
In psychology, emotion is often defined as a complex state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence thought and behavior.
Emotions involve physiological arousal, expressive behaviours, and conscious experience.
Knowing about how the brain works can help leaders better understand how emotions impact their performance and how different types of emotional control help or hinder them.
We all use terms that reflect our emotional state every day, even when we don’t really mean to. We might say, ‘I dragged myself to the gym,’ or ‘I made myself get up,’ or ‘I lost my cool.’
Our ability to understand and control emotions is one of the things that separates us from other animals, yet as adults we hardly ever teach people about how this works and how to get better at it. Whatever emotional control we manage to pick up as children is often all we have to keep things wired tight throughout the rest of our lives. Yet what many people are doing, whether they’re celebrities or the people we see commuting to work every day, is picking up that learning again and applying it to the job they do.
Emotional control can be complex, but it’s an important tool that we need to know how to use if we’re to accomplish what we set out to do. Take self-control, for example. It allows us to focus and persist when we’d rather take a break; it’s what allows us to manage our impulses rather than have our impulses manage us.
As social animals we’re primed to relate and engage. But every social interaction has its stresses and different things can push our buttons and perhaps trigger negative behaviour, like when you snap at a junior team member or well up over heartfelt thanks. Emotions are also responsible for our jumping to conclusions or not checking the logic of our decisions. What’s happening in the brain is that the prefrontal cortex is being dominated by the limbic system, a set of structures responsible for our emotions and the formation of memories. This domination can, in extreme circumstances, result in what’s been termed as ‘going limbic’, when the strength of response from the amygdala hijacks our executive brain, resulting in memory blanks or uncontrolled expression.
Memories and emotions are intrinsically linked, and remembering an experience which has a strong emotional element can activate a limbic response. This might be positive (your recent promotion), or negative (the CEO spotting a mistake in your spreadsheet). The amount of attention you pay to your emotions, be they positive or negative, the strength and volume coming at you in a period of time and the balance between positive and negative, will all have an impact on how you do your job and ultimately on your performance. Emotional control or regulation is about understanding your triggers and avoiding them, or dealing with the consequences in an effective way.
Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test, the famous long-term study that began back in the late 1960s, is probably still the best-known example of emotional control research, and demonstrates the close link between self-control at a young age and success later in life.
His Stanford research team used a simple but effective test to measure pre-school children’s ability to delay gratification. Each child was presented with a marshmallow and it was explained to them that if they could resist eating it for 15 minutes while the researcher was out of the room, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Videos of the tests show the perfect agony of restraint. The most successful children had strategies for distracting themselves from succumbing to temptation. Following up with the participants years later, Mischel found that the children who had been able to resist outperformed their peers on several scores including academic results, income and social relationships.
The kind of self-control needed to resist marshmallows seems very different to the kind involved in performing well at work or on educational tests. However, neuroscientists are demonstrating how widely disparate forms of self-control all rely on a common neural mechanism.
Imagine being in a foreign country where they drive on the opposite side of the road. This takes motor self-control to override your normal driving habits. At the other end of the self-control spectrum, imagine trying to understand the beliefs of a colleague who has a completely different solution to a thorny work issue. Trying to take this person’s perspective on the issue also involves great self-control as you try to inhibit your own way of seeing things. Motor self-control and perspective-taking self-control are as different as can be, yet both rely on the same neural mechanism.
Motor self-control refers to any time your body seems compelled to do one thing but you know you need to do another, like the example above of driving on the opposite side of the road. Scientists use a simple test to study motor self-control within the confines of an MRI scanner using what’s called a ‘go-no-go’ task. Typically, participants see a series of letters appear on the computer screen, one at a time. Participants must click a button for each letter unless it is a particular letter, B for example. Usually 80% or more of the trials are so-called ‘go’ trials – they’re supposed to press the button. These ‘go’ letters might occur about once a second, one after another after another, and so a participant gets into a rhythm or habit. Nearly all forms of self-control involve overriding some kind of habit response, a response the brain assumes should follow and thus is expecting to make. And so, every so often, the ‘B’ appears on the screen and when this happens the participant must not press the button – it’s a ‘no-go’. For the participant, this feels like withholding a response, stopping the habit that was all ready to go. The one constant across these studies is that the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC) is more active during ‘no-go’ trials, when self-control is needed, than during ‘go’ trials.3
Other regions of the brain light up, too, including left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, supplementary motor areas and basal ganglia, because brain regions tend not to work in complete isolation. But the RVLPFC is the one brain region that seems to be active regardless of the type of self-control being tested.
Demonstrating that particular brain regions are active during a particular form of self-control is helpful, but it doesn’t tell us whether those brain regions are actually doing anything that’s vital to successful self-control. Examining patients with damage to particular brain structures, however, can give us further insight. That’s why Aron and colleagues carried our similar ‘go-no-go’ tests in a variety of patients with damage in different brain regions. Only those with damage in the RVLPFC demonstrated impaired performance on the task. No other damage in the brain was associated with this.
In a work context, we’re more interested in cognitive control. During cognitive self-control, individuals try to modulate their own thoughts, control what does or does not come to mind or try to influence how one thought or belief might affect other cognitive processes that logically should be kept separate such as when, for example, you’re trying to focus on what a colleague is saying but there’s a distracting noise or an interesting conversation taking place just outside your cubical. Again, there have been various studies conducted to test RVLPFC involvement – though they’re a little different to the ‘go-no-go’ ones.’
In one study, participants were instructed to try not to think of a white bear. This turns out to be very challenging (as you have probably just noticed!), and sure enough, while participants were doing this, the RVLPFC was active.
In another, people were given a series of photographs, and learned to associate one specific picture with another specific picture, grouping them into mental pairs. Later, they were shown a picture and asked not to think of the one associated with it, and their success at this was linked with RVLPFC activity.
In a third study, Goel and Dolan asked participants to inhibit a certain belief in order to provide the logical answer to a question. The participants were shown syllogism, a kind of logical argument that applies deductive reasoning to arrive at a conclusion based on two or more propositions that are asserted or assumed to be true. They had to decide if the conclusion logically stemmed from the premise. For example, only expensive things are addictive, cigarettes are not expensive. Therefore cigarettes are not addictive. The first premise is false but the conclusion logically is accurate. When participants were able to suppress the belief that the conclusion was false and get the right logical answer the RVLPFC was active.
This type of study are particularly interesting when we think about the workplace because they help us understand what’s going on in the brain when we want to manage bias or overcome psychological associations like ‘only people from certain universities perform well’ or ‘you need to have worked in the home region to get promoted above a certain level’.
Luckily, adults are quite good at passing Mischel’s Marshmallow Test. However, they fail an analogous tests quite frequently. In studies surrounding a phenomenon called temporal discounting, individuals choose whether they would prefer to receive £10 right now or £15 in a month. We know from previous studies that people prefer immediate rewards and discount the value of rewards in the future. That is, people prefer the smaller reward now to the larger reward later even when this is not logical. A study examining this found increased activity in the RVLPFC when individuals chose to wait for the larger rewards, presumably inhibiting the impulse to take the immediate reward.8
Perspective-taking is perhaps most intriguing element of self-control because it’s so different to the other forms, and in business in particular it’s not usually even thought of as self-control. But just think about when someone has a competing perspective and you’re trying to understand it. There’s limited data on this, but from the research that has been done it seems that a patient with damage to the RVLPFC has limited ability for perspective-taking when their own views need to be inhibited to achieve it.
For example, if a patient with this kind of injury had no stake in a game and was entirely indifferent to the result, he could understand the feelings of two competing sports fans when one team scored – the delight of one fan and the dismay of the other. Once he started watching a game where he himself supported one of the teams, though, this ability broke down; he was unable to suppress his own emotions and to understand other people’s emotions. The patient mistakenly believed that others would feel the same way he did, whether they supported the same team or not. So he could take a perspective when he was ambivalent, but when it came to overcoming his own emotions his RVLPFC was not available.
A separate fMRI study backs up this result. Participants were asked to look at images of needles or cotton swabs being applied to another person’s hand. A natural response, of course, would be to show empathy for the pain inflicted by the needle, so on most trials participants’ own perspective was aligned with what they saw – needles hurt and cotton swabs do not.
In some instances, however, participants were told that the hand was anaesthetised and no pain was felt, and in these cases the participants needed to inhibit their own immediate response (to feel empathetic pain) to be able to empathise properly – the hand felt nothing, and therefore why should they? In these latter trials, the study found increased activity in the RVLPFC.
Because of the RVLPFC is active in all studies to date in forms of self-control, Matt Lieberman has referred to the region as the brain’s braking system.
Lieberman goes on to suggest that when we activate one area of self-control we simultaneously activate others. Turning on this system might put the brakes on any habitual responses, whether relating to movement or thinking, not just a specific one we are trying to control. This is intriguing as it’s not how self-control feels to us when we practise it. It feels like we inhibit one response at a time.
In his study using ‘go-no-go’ tests, Lieberman found that when participants inhibited motor activity whilst looking at pictures that would elicit an emotional response such as horrible accidents or emotional scenes, their amygdala activity was similarly – and proportionally – inhibited. Thus, even though participants felt like they were only inhibiting a motor response, they unintentionally inhibited their emotional response as well. This makes perfect sense if RVLPFC is seen as a common mechanism in the brain’s braking system. Turning on the braking system for any reason is likely to have wide-ranging effects.
This braking system can also be turned on unintentionally. Parents and teachers often tell children, “Use your words.” It’s supposed to calm the child down when they are overly emotionally aroused. The idea is to get them to think about they’re experiencing and put it into words. It is, incidentally, very good advice.
One of Lieberman’s studies involved showing emotionally charged pictures to participants, for example people laughing, frowning or crying. Sometimes they were asked to choose a word that described the emotion of the person in the picture (this is called ‘affect labelling’ in the jargon), sometimes they were asked just to think of a gender-appropriate name, and other times they were asked simply to look at the picture. Lieberman found that the RVLPFC was more active during affect labelling than during gender labelling.
Counterintuitively, Lieberman and his colleagues found that putting feelings into words diminished participants’ emotional responses to the pictures even though this involved attending to the emotional aspects of the pictures – a finding backed up in other studies. This led the researchers to conclude that affect labelling is a form of unintentional emotion regulation.
So can adults all learn to regulate emotions better through ‘using our words’? Well, there’s only a little data but the results so far suggest this is so.
A study by Evian Gordon at the University of Sydney has shown that people who have the greatest social control, especially those with good emotional resilience, are also more productive at work. Also, Lieberman’s team studied whether mindfulness meditative practices can increase the benefits of putting feelings into words. (Mindfulness involves deliberate, non-judgmental awareness of one’s own experiences and emotions; it bears a strong resemblance to affect labelling because it requires the brain to inhibit immediate thoughts and shifts in attention.) They found that those who report being more mindful showed greater RVLPFC activity and less amygdala activity while affect labelling compared to those who reported being less mindful.