Your Brain Behaving Badly


Ever done something not at all like you and not at all good—such as lashing out in anger over a small irritation?  After the dust settles and the damage is done, it can sometimes be hard to recall why you acted so badly.

According to Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, our most impulsive actions aren’t always determined by the moments when they happen.  In his new book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Sapolsky argues that rash decisions result not only from temperament and upbringing, but from what happens to a person’s body in the moments, hours, weeks, months and even years beforehand.

Sapolsky talked with AARP about how biology can influence our behavior, for better and worse:

Q: How does long-term stress affect a person’s behavior?

A: Chronic stress does lousy things to people’s frontal cortices. We make ridiculous, stupid decisions during times of stress that seem brilliant at the time, and then we regret these for decades after. Judgment, impulse control and emotional regulation go out the tubes during times of stress because of the effect on the frontal cortex.  If you’re chronically stressed, it becomes easier for you to learn to be afraid.  You’re also not going to be at your sharpest cognitively.  But probably the most recent finding is that when we’re stressed, we become less empathic, less compassionate, less capable of taking somebody else’s perspective.  It’s really good for people to get stress under control because there will be fewer cases of hypertension or diabetes. But ultimately, the most important reason is because people will be nicer to one another.

Q:  Why do some people feel more stress than others?

A:  We now have a huge body of literature that shows you’re more likely to feel stress if you feel you have no control over what’s going on and if you have no predictive information about when it’s coming, how bad it’s going to be, and how long it’s going to last.  It’s even worse when you lack outlets for frustration and you lack social support.  If you could manipulate any one of those variables—control, predictability, social support, outlets for frustration—far and away the most powerful one is social support.

Q:  So you need a lot of friends?

A:  We spend an awful lot of time mistaking acquaintances for friends, and in times of crisis, we’re often deeply disappointed when the acquaintances turn out to be just acquaintances.  People who do best are those who are more selective about whom they affiliate with.  They’ve gotten rid of the acquaintances and the coworkers who turned out to have zero lasting power.  You don’t need a lot of friends; you just need a few very good ones.


(By Gabrielle deGroot Redford for AARP Magazine)