Triggering the Threat Response
One critical thread of research on the social brain starts with the “threat and reward” response, a neurological mechanism that governs a great deal of human behavior. When you encounter something unexpected — a shadow seen from the corner of your eye or a new colleague moving into the office next door — the limbic system (a relatively primitive part of the brain, common to many animals) is aroused. Neuroscientist Evian Gordon refers to this as the “minimize danger, maximize reward” response; he calls it “the fundamental organizing principle of the brain.” Neurons are activated and hormones are released as you seek to learn whether this new entity represents a chance for reward or a potential danger. If the perception is danger, then the response becomes a pure threat response — also known as the fight or flight response, the avoid response, and, in its extreme form, the amygdala hijack, named for a part of the limbic system that can be aroused rapidly and in an emotionally overwhelming way.
Recently, researchers have documented that the threat response is often triggered in social situations, and it tends to be more intense and longer-lasting than the reward response. Data gathered through measures of brain activity — by using fMRI and electroencephalograph (EEG) machines or by gauging hormonal secretions — suggests that the same neural responses that drive us toward food or away from predators are triggered by our perception of the way we are treated by other people. These findings are reframing the prevailing view of the role that social drivers play in influencing how humans behave. Matthew Lieberman notes that Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” theory may have been wrong in this respect. Maslow proposed that humans tend to satisfy their needs in sequence, starting with physical survival and moving up the ladder toward self-actualization at the top. In this hierarchy, social needs sit in the middle. But many studies now show that the brain equates social needs with survival; for example, being hungry and being ostracized activate similar neural responses.
The threat response is both mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of a person — or of an organization. Because this response uses up oxygen and glucose from the blood, they are diverted from other parts of the brain, including the working memory function, which processes new information and ideas. This impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving; in other words, just when people most need their sophisticated mental capabilities, the brain’s internal resources are taken away from them.
The impact of this neural dynamic is often visible in organizations. For example, when leaders trigger a threat response, employees’ brains become much less efficient. But when leaders make people feel good about themselves, clearly communicate their expectations, give employees latitude to make decisions, support people’s efforts to build good relationships, and treat the whole organization fairly, it prompts a reward response. Others in the organization become more effective, more open to ideas, and more creative. They notice the kind of information that passes them by when fear or resentment makes it difficult to focus their attention. They are less susceptible to burnout because they are able to manage their stress. They feel intrinsically rewarded.
Understanding the threat and reward response can also help leaders who are trying to implement large-scale change. The track record of failed efforts to spark higher-perfomance behavior has led many managers to conclude that human nature is simply intractable: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Yet neuroscience has also discovered that the human brain is highly plastic. Neural connections can be reformed, new behaviors can be learned, and even the most entrenched behaviors can be modified at any age. The brain will make these shifts only when it is engaged in mindful attention. This is the state of thought associated with observing one’s own mental processes (or, in an organization, stepping back to observe the flow of a conversation as it is happening). Mindfulness requires both serenity and concentration; in a threatened state, people are much more likely to be “mindless.” Their attention is diverted by the threat, and they cannot easily move to self-discovery.