The Neuroscience of How Personal Attacks Shut Down Critical Thinking

Psychologist Nicole Currivan is the organizer of the Pittsburgh Freethinkers. She spoke at the 2012 Pennsylvania State Atheist/Humanist Conference (keep apprised on the details about the upcoming September 2013 conference as they become available here. While at the American Atheists convention a week ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a long chat with the co-creator of this conference, Brian Fields, and he is an impressive activist.)

Currivan’s talk below is about how to get people to listen to you when you’re a member of a stigmatized group. The neuroscience she relates (which I transcribed below) and the numerous tips she gives at the video’s end (some of which I have briefly summarized), in numerous ways support the principles of my civility pledge and my advice for preempting and countering people’s tendencies to feel personally attacked when they are being merely intellectually confronted.

From 11:50-16:27, she explains with neuroscience how putting people on the defensive on a personal level shuts down their their critical thinking skills.

First we need to know a bit about two regions of the brain that are fairly at odds with one another.

The prefontal cortex, which…is in the front of the brain if you’re facing forward. And the limbic system, which… is a huge chunk of many regions in the center of the brain. The pre-fontal cortex is our executive function. It helps us plan and decide what actions best meet our needs and is responsible for social inhibition, personality, and processing new information. It’s the part that says “you could have garlic bread tonight but you also don’t want to sit alone in the corner”.

The limbic system…is responsible for emotions and formation of memory. It reminds you that you love garlic bread and you were really embarrassed, too, the last time you ate it and no one sat next to you. So the important point about these two areas is: activation of one region generally results in deactivation or inhibition of the other, so they have an inverse relationship. This is because in situations of low or moderate stress, the prefontal cortex inhibits the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for emotions that relate to the four 4′s: fight, flight, feeding–and mating…

So it makes us feel things like fear, reward, and anger that normally the prefrontal cortex can respond to with a spot of reason and inhibition. In a normal, low stress situation, you want the garlic bread or the cookie, for example, but you can decide whether or not to eat it because your prefrontal cortex is still engaged. And as your stress level may increase it gets harder to make those choices. Your rational thought capacity is there less and less and less to police your emotions when stress increases.

And this is where things can get ugly. If something extremely stressful happens that lights up the amygdala, it has the power to shut down the prefrontal cortex completely. It has this fight or flight or freeze response…and it’s instantaneous. It’s something that evolved for situations in which there is no time for decision making. You can’t think about whether you want garlic bread, you have to drop it and run when you’re confronted with a tiger. And that’s incidentally why people don’t eat when they are stressed, and a lot of other things that happen to our body as part of the stress response.

So there are times, high stress times, when executive decision making processes go completely down to the count and our emotions take over. By threatening somebody, whether it’s real or perceived, you can completely disable people’s their ability to think straight. And this isn’t all or nothing, it’s on a continuum. A threat can be anything that causes stress from the tiger to just an uncomfortable thought. The level of stress will influence the amount of rational thought vs. emotion that’s available and it’s totally subjective to the perceived experience of stress.

And, adding to that, increased stress and emotion can influence memory. More emotion leads to stronger memories. And those memories last longer, especially if it’s a negative emotion. We all remember where we were the morning of 9/11. Last Tuesday? Not so much. And it makes sense that our brains do this since emotions fear and anger are about events we really want to be prepared for in case they happen again. At this point you’ve probably figured out that if your goal is to get someone to process new information and think critically about stereotypes (like [that] atheists are criminals or they should die) the absolute last thing we want is for them to feel threatened or attacked. The worst part about this is if you combine the process I just described with the sorts of negative emotional responses triggered by stereotypes and other biases, you can see that someone, if they’re all stressed by their perception of you…you’ve lost them, they’re not going to be able to listen. And you’ve additionally probably just given them a fun bad new memory to hang onto.

From 17:03-19:07:

First, as fun as some of you may think it is to attack and argue and ridicule people, just be aware that that will legitimately slam the door to rational understanding–of any point you have. And if you can’t call the discussion you’re having calm and rational, you are in serious danger of indulging your own emotional satisfaction to the point where you’re reinforcing someone’s distrust in all of us. And starting with the premise that someone needs to change or the inherent assumption that “I know more than you” will definitely create a strong stress response and pushback as well. Something we all inherently know but we do it anyway.

Second, if you want to reduce stigma, it’s essential to reduce limbic system activation as much as possible whenever you’re talking to somebody. Any kind of threat, real or perceived, in the current moment or even just something they remember, something bad that they remember about the stigma that’s on the person they’re talking with, can shut down their ability to take in new information. And shuts down possibility for change. So fear is really the enemy of trust in this case and it’s mistrust that the studies have found people have for atheists.

Third, if you want to change people’s opinion of you, making the conversation rewarding for them will definitely increase the likelihood that will happen. The less stressed they are, the more their brain will receive and process new information.

Fourth, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface here with applicable brain science, but consider that emotions are highly contagious. And, unfortunately, negative emotions are more contagious than positive ones. So your stress will definitely spread throughout a room. And it also doesn’t work to hide your stress from people because it actually makes their blood pressure go up if you try. So don’t try to change people’s thinking about you if you’re stressed or in a bad mood, just wait until you can be calm and pleasant so it can be rewarding for everybody.

Finally, she gives a lot of really good and helpful constructive advice about skills to work on starting around the 20 minute mark. While all of it is really good, I especially like and can vouch for the advice to let the other person talk. Let them think, let them express themselves. Actively show you understand them. People care about being heard and like people who listen to them. It’s a great way to open them up to be responsive when you finally give them something to think about. It’s also a great way to find out what they care about so you can address their actual concerns.

She also points out that we need to be patient and accept that it will take multiple, interpersonally non-judgmental, conversations. We need to consider just having rational discussions a victory in itself. We also need to practice to reframe our confrontations in our minds so that we see them in constructive and realistic terms that allow us to avoid getting emotional ourselves. We need to know our personal triggers to avoid getting stressed out and losing it. We need to find points of common ground. Tell people your own story. Phrase things in terms of yourself and how you think and feel rather than with accusatory “you” language. Reward people for understanding, for showing they’re listening, for having a good conversation. She recommends making an overall good impression on someone before getting around to mentioning that you’re an atheist. She also recommends doing one of the most controversial things I put into my civility pledge–which is apologizing even when you’ve done nothing wrong as a way of calming people. 

Your Thoughts?

Much more from Camels With Hammers on the importance of civility:

The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge

A Study Provides Evidence That Incivility Closes Minds

Research Suggests Verbal Abuse Hinders Brain Development

“But People Aren’t Logical Robots, We Need To Shock Them, and They’ll Call Us Uncivil Even If We Are Civil”

What Kind of a Rationalist Wants to Verbally Abuse People into Submission Like an Authoritarian?

I am not against “dirty words”. I am against degrading words that have malicious intent and functions built into them.

Do Marginalized People Need To Be Insulting To Be Empowered

Avoiding The Abuser’s Dialectic (Or “My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Indignation”)

My Philosophy on What the Best Freethinking and Free Speech Entail

We Need Both Safe Spaces AND Philosophically Open Ones

Debate is Not Pointless


Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
Alix Jules On Being An African American Humanist
Mutual Kindness As The Key To A Successful Relationship
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • insanityranch

    Excellent presentation!

  • insanityranch

    Excellent presentation! I would add that both insight meditation and metta meditation are very good tools for developing the kind of skills she describes!

  • Kirk

    Excellent presentation but about 15 yrs behind the curve. I learned this as a Psych Tech while working in a State Psychiatric Hospital. I have used this very presentation (with subtle) changes to write implement and facilitate other programs for employees. a man by the name of David Mandt developed a much used program using these very theory’s.
    It boils down to a few simple things, as your stress, anger levels rise your ability to reason declines proportionately. It is not only about the psychological responses we feel when threatened but the physiological responses to stress which is generally about fear. As fear takes over our body’s react by generating adrenalin which in turn increases heart and respiratory rates and as a result of this our ability to remain calm and reasonable is taken over by the fight or flight response.
    Mandt’s program, while originally written to give people working in the psychiatric field a tool to use to safely restrain combative patients, soon evolved as has our culture, into a program that stresses the ability to Manage ones own emotions in an attempt to better manage others in a crises situation.
    Above all remember this, there is a huge difference in control and management, no one likes or will tolerate being controlled without eventually fighting back, however if you can keep your own desire to do just that under management then you might have a very good chance at managing a conversation or event when dealing with others.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks for your comment, Kirk. I’m curious. What strategies for controlling and managing others’ emotions and one’s own should we employ in discussions about controversial issues in order to keep them from crashing and burning in acrimony?

  • Gregory A. Clark

    Enough already with the false claims that firebrand atheism doesn’t work. It does.

    Quite arguably, in fact, firebrand atheism is the primary force pulling the bandwagon, and the soft-spoken, respectful atheists are coming along for the ride–but often receiving the credit. Scope out the *data* in David Silverman’s talk.

    This is nothing new. History shows that every social movement—racial civil rights, women’s rights, gay right has benefited from having “firebrands” in addition to “diplomats.” If you always know your place, you will stay in the same place.

    And here’s another thing: No matter how civil and respectful atheists are, they can’t avoid offending theists. That’s because, when you come right down to it, it’s atheism itself that’s considered offensive. It says so, right there in the Judeo-Christian-Mormon Bible.

    The notion that theists will like you or agree with you if you are “respectful” is a delusion. It’s the battered person syndrome, fooling yourself that it’s your fault, that you’re just not good enough. The fault is theirs, not yours. The reality is, the only way to get any respect from bullies is to stand up to them and fight back.

    One can’t avoid all conflict. To do nothing that offends is to do nothing at all. Social change requires confrontation as well as diplomacy. Lubrication helps; but movement also requires force, and generates friction and heat.

    Acknowledge and welcome the contributions of both “firebrands” and “diplomats”, of both force and lubrication. Work together to move in the same direction. The atheist movement (and in fact *any* movement) benefits from having both. Further, individuals do best when they each work in the style that best suits their temperament.

    So, all you ever-so-tolerant diplomat atheists? Stop being so intolerant of firebrands.

    -David Silverman. “In Defense of Firebrand Atheism” – Apx. 49 Min.
    ~42:30: “Firebrand atheism benefits the movement on the whole, whether they like it or not. Diplomats are the beneficiaries of Firebrands.”

    (~39:30) “If you take one sentence from this presentation, if you take anything from this presentation, please take this:
    “Theists’ liking us is not the objective. Equality is the objective. If theists love us because we acquiesce to inequality, we fail. If they hate us because we demand equality and achieve it, we succeed.”

    “They’re not gonna like us because they are losing the privilege that they’re used to. That’s too goddamn bad.”

    “Never apologize for insulting religion.”

    “Don’t be afraid of softies calling you a dick. They are wrong, and we have data.”
    Clark, G. A. On “Playing Nice”: Billboards, politics, and naked emperors. Opinion. Think! Utah. Utah Coalition of Reason Newsletter, Issue #2, June 2012, Pg. 5-6.
    What do vandalized atheist billboards, political discourse, and naked emperors have in common? And what do any of these have to do with “playing nice”?

    • Daniel Fincke

      It depends on what you mean by “firebrand”, Gregory. If you mean not holding back on the substantive criticisms of religious beliefs, even when they are unpleasant, I’m totally with you. If you mean resorting to abusive language, personal attacks, or other forms of bullying and disrespect for persons (rather than for only ideas or institutions, etc.), then no, I’m not with you.

    • Gregory A. Clark

      Daniel, I understand the important distinction between ideas and people. BUT–and it’s an important “but”:

      1) The recipients of the criticisms themselves are typically unable to make the distinction, because their ideas (faith, etc.) are a key part of who they are. So, an attack on their faith is taken as an insulting attack on them. As the critic, you may be able to claim to yourself the moral high ground because (from your perspective) you did not resort to “personal attacks”. But, in a practical sense, all the same psychological and neurobiological defense mechanisms noted in the article come into play nonetheless.

      2) People are complex. People compartmentalize. People are a mess of contradictions, especially when it comes to religion. People can be good people, despite worshiping the ridiculous, repugnant Judeo-Christian-Mormon God. (Which he is, by any meaningful definition of the terms.)

      3) But, at some point, people who spout bigotry deserve to be called bigots. And religious bigotry is still bigotry. It is not possible to top the “personal attacks” and the hate speech of the Bible itself.

      So, again, enough of this about “waiting till you can be pleasant about it.” As Greta Christina writes, anger isn’t what’s wrong with atheists. It’s what is right with them.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Gregory, please consider the argument I make in this post. When you say that they will take personally attacks on their ideas, that may well be true but then it is our job to teach them that difference rather than actually attack them personally and make the difference irrelevant. That’s part of how we should be educating them, not fulfilling their worst expectations of us.

      And whether or not people deserve to be bigots, it is rarely going to help things as a first resort. Like you said, people are complex and they compartmentalize. There are ways to reach out to them without just writing them off as bigots and shutting them down. None of us are perfect. We all have prejudices. We all have intellectual blind spots. And most people mean well and sincerely think they are right. Making things more acrimonious than they need to be is not ideal.

      Finally, anger at injustice is fine. But righteous, justified anger is no excuse for losing self-control, abusing people, and employing bad persuasion strategies. Emotions are valuable things for recognizing truths about values and motivating actions with respect to our values. But they are not a license to become little tyrants or self-righteous to people.

    • Gregory A. Clark

      Daniel writes: “But they are not a license to become little tyrants or self-righteous to people.”

      Is such name-calling and “personal attack” intentional self-parody, intended to make a point? Or were you actually sincere?

    • Daniel Fincke

      No, it’s not name-calling. First of all, what I said was not aimed at anyone here. I didn’t call you a tyrant or self-righteous, so I didn’t charge you with anything at all or personally attack you at all. But more importantly there is a difference between a substantive moral charge (“you are coming off as self-righteous”) and abusive name calling “you are an asshole”. Moral charges are fine. They’re not merely abusive. We should probably hold off on them until people have shown that they cannot be reasoned with in less personalized ways and have really demonstrated they have a serious character flaw (or at least the signs of one). But calling someone simply an insult name is just being abusive. Criticizing bad behavior with evidence can be a constructive thing, done with basic standards of interpersonal respect and in a civil way that is not denigrating anyone.

      But again, I wasn’t even doing that here. You’re arguing perfectly respectably and civilly. So there is no reason I see to level any personal criticisms of you.

    • Gregory A. Clark

      Daniel says: “It’s not name-calling.

      Oh, please. It matters not whether you’re calling *me* or instead someone else a “little tyrant.” It’s still name-calling and still a “personal attack.”

      Or, as you previously wrote (Daniel Fincke says: February 14, 2013 at 12:35 am): “If you have their signature on the pledge and their words and deeds that you can refer to that shows them they are in contradiction to it, then you can ask them to please apologize for violating the civility pledge. If this is a serious problem, you can call them a hypocrite.”

      Of course, calling someone a “hypocrite” is itself “name-calling” and a “personal attack,” plain and simple.

      The ironies abound.

      But my main points are these:

      1) Overall, considering more than just the short-run immediate defensive reaction, then in-your-face, “firebrand,” hardline atheism actually facilitates progress, in a tactical, empirical sense. History bears this out for other social movements, and for atheism itself. All the whining and groveling not withstanding.

      2) Tactics aside, it is important and appropriate to speak unabashedly and unapologetically about the harm and falsehoods of religion. That’s why I do it, tactics aside. Religion is one great lie. And you can’t preach the virtues of telling the truth by further lying, or by issuing false apologies. You can’t promote pride in being an atheist by hiding your atheism, or by telling others to hide theirs.

      What’s next? Telling blacks that they should pretend to pass for white? Gays that they should pretend to be straight, till people get to know them better?


    • BobbyStruck

      Gregory says:

      Oh, please. It matters not whether you’re calling *me* or instead someone else a “little tyrant.” It’s still name-calling and still a “personal attack.”


      Of course, calling someone a “hypocrite” is itself “name-calling” and a “personal attack,” plain and simple.


      Don’t you see that these are pointed moral criticisms leveled against distinct kinds of conduct? When you call someone a hypocrite, you’re accusing them of failing to conform to the moral standards they espouse. When you call someone an asshole, what does that actually mean? What kinds of behaviors and actions can be reliably associated with or logically linked to being an “asshole?” It’s a word that serves no greater purpose and elucidates nothing. It’s an insult and serves no function beyond being an insult. The words “hypocrite” and “tyrant” have an actual function that “asshole” lacks.

    • Gregory A. Clark

      What I can see, of course, is that calling someone an “asshole” is accusing them of persistently acting like an asshole. Calling someone a “dick” is accusing them of persistently acting like a dick. Calling someone a “jerk” is accusing them of acting like a jerk. And calling someone a “hypocrite” and a “self-righteous, little tyrant” is accusing them of persistently acting like a hypocrite and a self-righteous little tyrant.

      Thought experiment: Walk up to someone, and to their face, say, in all seriousness: “You are a hypocrite and self-righteous little tyrant.”

      Would a reasonable independent observer “call the discussion you’re having calm and rational”?

      Would the comment put the recipient “on the defensive on a personal level”?

      Answers are left as an exercise for the reader.

  • Kirk

    Sorry it took me so long to respond, I try to stay off the Computer when my Wife is home on her days off.
    I have to admit that I did not watch this presentation all the way thru so I may be covering things here that she covered in her presentation.
    There is so much more here to consider other than just the body’s natural reaction to stress/fear. Consider for example “body language”, either that presented by another person or by yourself in response to something someone else has said or done. Many of us have seen examples of people sitting in a confrontational or defensive pose. Legs crossed/arms crossed. This body language represents a physical wall between you and the person your talking to and it works both ways. If you are at ease with the subject you are speaking about or in a room full of like minded minded people then it’s rare that you would take on this posture, however if your in a confrontational situation your natural response is to build that wall in an effort to protect yourself from a perceived threat. This of course works both ways and is so automatic it is rarely noticed by the person assuming the pose, but it is certainly perceived by the other, Keep in mind that this is not only a defensive pose but one of authority as well. Either way, it give s the impression that you are a “know it all, my way or the highway”, kind of person or that you are not comfortable talking about the subject and are on the defensive. Again, this works both ways so it’s important to not only be on guard, that you are not projecting this image but as well as recognizing it in the person or persons that you are talking to. Either way, the first thing you want to do is change this perception by changing your body language. you want to appear “at ease”, lean back against a wall or a counter, uncross your arms, be aware of your facial expression, the tone, pitch and volume of your voice, eye contact…you get the drift. By managing these physiological responses to our own fear or desire to make ourselves heard we are able to open up a dialogue without the fear of being attacked verbally, physically or judgmentally and dialogue is our target objective here.
    Let me take a moment and back the train up a few feet. Before I began my career in the mental health field I worked in law enforcement for a number of years. The different methods taught for dealing with crises situations for each of these jobs is like living in parallel universes. A Cop is taught to walk into a room, command attention and draw a line in the sand. As a mental health worker this is the last thing you want to do. The goal in the later of the two is to deescalate a situation before it gets to a point where physical intervention is necessary. Many Psychologists will tell you that most bad habits are “learned” responses to particular circumstances or situations and for every learned response you wish to modify it will take you approximately 6 months to “unlearn” them or modify them. Take one at a time and work on it and soon you will realize that others begin to fall into place with much less effort.
    I’ll check the box here to receive follow-up notifications and will be happy to continue this conversation if you desire.

  • B-Lar

    This is really interesting. Thanks Dan!

  • Taylor

    Really? Greta Christina and David Silverman are the pinnacles of intellect????? Those are the ones you quote? I always think it is funny when I am around “firebrand” atheists friends and the topic comes us about why surveys show even the majority of nontheists run away from the term “atheist”. “It must be the media and the Christians who are slandering us” is a common refrain. Yeah, right…..keep on being deluded!