Oops, I’ve got a knee-jerk reaction againBetween stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
Which one of us hasn’t experienced this? A close friend steps on our toes, pushes our buttons, and automatically and completely uncontrollably we attack her, enraged. In conflicts this reaction usually results in escalation. My knee-jerk reaction irritates a sore spot of my opponent’s and sets off both of her defensive and attack mechanisms. No one cares to or is willing to restrain their reaction- especially since our society doesn’t encourage restraint about these matters- and the result is a lasting feud.
This phenomenon is well known, even when discussing a controversial subject such as politics or the economic situation with friends or family. To an observer from the outside this can be seen as a conversation where the different arguments fall on deaf ears- each side is trying to convince the other of his or her rightness, while being entrenched in his or her own position and blocking themselves from listening. But what is actually happening, under the surface, is that automatic emotional responses are being triggered, and they hinder our ability of be truly interested in positions that negate our own or to reexamine our version of the truth.
Knee-Jerk reactions, for better or for worse, are the result of the eons-long evolutionary journey of the human brain. Upon confronting a threat – whether a real or an imaginary one – the regular collaboration between thoughts and feelings is overrun by the survival instincts of fight, flight or freeze. When the amygdala, the primordial center of survival traits, is called into action, our reasoning mind is incapable of willfully or consciously supervising it1. On the other hand, some researchers claim that even in contexts unrelated to one of threat, 70% of the knowledge of a grown person – including psychological processes and routine behaviors – are composed of automatic and unconscious thoughts. We can stumble upon a trigger that would generate automatic behaviors and thought processes, without even being aware of the existence of the trigger, the response it evoked and the ensuing behavior – and without awareness there is no choice or control2 .
In the Israeli society, one of the issues to frequently elicit an automatic response in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian is the need for security and the fear motivating it. The belief that "the whole world is against us" and that we are forced into protecting ourselves because the other side “only speaks the language of force” is a stubborn one and almost impossible to uproot, even when presented with current affairs evidence that contradicts it, such as the ongoing military coordination between the IDF and the PA security forces, which is sanctioned by Israeli security authorities. Social psychologists explain the effectiveness of fear as a defense mechanism whose purpose is to achieve the highest survival rate. For instance, the human memory creates a “list” of hints that are meant to induce fear. It turns out that this list also includes inconclusive stimuli and that with time as the hints change and mutate so does the list slowly expands. That is, people will feel fear and react automatically even in response to hints that originally do not imply a threat or danger .
Does this mean that all of our fears are imaginary? Of course not. Yet as Yizhar Be’er, the CEO of the organization Keshev and former CEO of Betzelem says: “The question is whether we want to be led by our fears and anxieties, or do we want to control them? ... A healthy society doesn’t ignore, doesn’t deny threats- yet it doesn’t allow itself to be run by them. ” And here we can ask another important question- Is there a way out of the psychological mechanism of automated reactions that leaves us some breathing space? Paul Ekman, a psychologist and one of the leading authorities on the study of emotions, believes there is . He describes the possibility of adding a small gap between the emotional trigger and the reaction it evokes, as in the common advice of “taking a deep breath and counting to ten”. Anyone recalling the last time her knee-jerk reaction went into action, and the escalation and pointless argument that followed, could possibly remind herself the next time she is triggered to simply stop and listen. Simple? Maybe. Why don’t you try it yourselves?
1. See more on that in Ross, Gina. (2008). Beyond the Trauma Vortex, Into the Healing Vortex: a guide for the general public. Hebrew edition.Tivon, Israel: Nord Publications. [in Hebrew].
2. Richard E. Clark. 'Resistance to Change: Unconscious Knowledge and the Challenge of Unlearning'. In Berliner', D. C. and Kupermintz, H. (Eds.) 2009.Fostering Change in Institutions, Environments, and People: A Festschrift in Honor of Gavriel Salomon. Routledge: London, NY. Summary