“The Science of Awkwardness”

A Youtube video called “The Science of Awkwardness” is giving millions of people bad advice. It suggests relying on your awkward feelings without stopping to ask whether they are accurate information about the world. This leads to more awkwardness and makes you a prisoner of public opinion. Instead, you can understand the primal brain chemistry that tells you something is wrong before you jump to the conclusion that something is actually wrong. Then you will respond with good sense instead of hypersensitivity.

Awkwardness is a disappointment of expectations. Our brain is generates expectations constantly to navigate the world, and it generates social expectations to navigate the social world. Of course our expectations are wrong some of the time. An expectation is only a connection between neurons built from past experience. Your past experience can never be a perfect predictor of future experience; and other people disappoint your expectations because their past experience is different from yours.

Nature’s survival alarm

The problem is that the brain releases cortisol when expectations are disappointed. Cortisol is nature’s survival alarm. It gets your attention to possible missteps so you can correct them. Cortisol tells a gazelle when a lion is near, but it also tells a lion when to give up on a failed chase so it doesn’t waste energy on a lost cause. Cortisol gets your attention when things don’t fit your expectations so you can fix what is wrong.

But something is not necessarily wrong every time your cortisol is triggered. If you take each social disappointment as a life-threatening emergency, you will end up with a lot of cortisol. Yet that’s just what our brain tends to do. Your intelligent cortex looks for evidence of problems when cortisol sounds the alert because that’s the job it evolved for. You find problems when you look because past disappoints built pathways in your brain. Your are likely to end up with more cortisol. That causes an urgent threatened feeling, whether you think that in words or not, because cortisol evolved to make you notice threats when you’d rather be grazing.

The cortisol connection

You will live in constant fear of doing the wrong thing or be constantly annoyed by others if you honor every cortisol alarm. Yet it’s hard to ignore a cortisol alarm because it evolved to ring louder when you ignore it. However, you can train yourself to pause that survival-threat feeling when you encounter social friction. Your cortisol will get metabolized and eliminated in twenty minutes if you avoid feeding it.

We humans are not going to agree with each other all the time. If you try to eliminate all discomfort you will always be following the herd, or running from the herd, depending on what worked for you in your past. Instead, you can remind yourself that your expectations are only electricity flowing along neural pathways built long ago. These expectations cannot always be right because past experience is not always of good guide to the present. Your expectations will differ from others because your past experience differs from theirs. A mismatch will trigger cortisol, and it will get your attention, but you can stay neutral instead of taking your bad feeling as evidence of a social threat. Your awkwardness alerts are just old circuits in your brain. You will create a new circuit if you repeat a new response.

About the Author: Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which helps people re-wire their brain chemistry naturally. InnerMammalInstitute.org She’s the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals, Beyond Cynical, and I, Mammal. Dr. Breuning is Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay.


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