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How to identify when your brain is taking a harmful shortcut

By recognizing these common shortcuts your brain tries to make, you can tap into your emotional intelligence and make better decisions.

How to identify when your brain is taking a harmful shortcut
[Source illustration: Ravi Natarajan/iStock]

Gut reactions can be good in some situations, but they’re actually the result of your brain taking a shortcut. When you rely on intuition, you’re using your limbic system—the part of the brain responsible for emotions—and unfortunately it doesn’t have a good track record for making the best decisions, says Kerry Goyette, author of The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence and CEO and founder of Aperio Consulting Group, a corporate consulting firm.

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“The number one role of the brain is survival,” she says. “We like to think we’re analytical and doing wonderful cognitive processing, but the brain is built to keep us alive, not to look at spreadsheets. The brain is always looking for perceived threats and makes decisions based on them.”

Unfortunately, the brain’s defaults are based on old information. “As a species we don’t have as many physical threats as we once did, but we do have social threats,” says Goyette. “Since the brain has a lot of inputs to process every day, it will default to its limbic system when given the chance, using the fight-or-flight response to conserve resources.”

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that solves problems or creates strategy. It takes a lot of energy to do its job. It’s here, though, where you can tap into emotional intelligence (EQ) to analyze perceived threats and override the brain’s instinct.

“We have to get out of the emotional-threat way of thinking and recognize that it’s an emotion,” says Goyette. “To make better choices, the most emotionally intelligent people understand that being on the lookout for threats is a natural and essential part of how the brain perceives the world.”

Moving from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex can cause discomfort because our brain has to move past autopilot and into reasoning. While the fight-or-flight reaction can show up in subtle ways, there are some clues that your brain is moving into autopilot. Here are two common shortcuts your brain tries to make, and how you can tap into your EQ to slow down and make better decisions.

1. Blame shifting

When you’re faced with conflict in the workplace and your immediate response is to point the finger at someone else, you’re working in your limbic system. In fact, blame shifting is the most common emotional reaction in the workplace, says Goyette.

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“‘It’s not my fault’ is almost always the subtext of someone in fight-or-flight mode,” she says.

Blaming others is a way to minimize someone else’s power over you and feed the limbic brain’s fear. When you find yourself shifting blame, unpack the emotions and get some distance from them, Goyette suggests. Then use your prefrontal cortex to analyze the problem and decide the best response.

“The simple act of analyzing your reaction will start the shift,” says Goyette.

2. Negative assumptions

In a situation where you have incomplete information, your brain’s natural tendency is to jump to a conclusion—usually one that’s the worst-case scenario. That’s because our autopilot reaction is to look for situations that threaten our sense of emotional stability and make plans to survive them.

Unfortunately, the stress associated with perceived threats hurts our productivity and ability to do work that requires the prefrontal cortex, such as problem solving or thinking analytically.

When you notice that you’re making assumptions, the better response is to stop avoiding conflict and seek confirmation that the threat is real, says Goyette.

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Setting the stage to use EQ

Moving from the limbic brain to the EQ of the prefrontal cortex requires self-recognition and awareness.

“It’s okay to get angry or frustrated,” she says. “Validate the emotion, but then get to the part of the brain to reason through it. The more you can analyze yourself, the more you can look at the environment and start to switch to get to your best response. Sometimes you can’t do anything about it, but you do have the freedom to choose how you respond.”

Social recognition is also important, says Goyette. Analyze how your actions impact others and gather the social support you need.

“You have a better sense of being able to handle situations when you feel you’re not alone,” she says. “Feeling isolated is one of the worst things you can do to the brain.”

Finally, design a structure that makes it easier to move out of autopilot. Change the way you work, inviting feedback instead of avoiding it, suggests Goyette.

“As a society, our IQ is going up while our EQ is going down,” she says. “Too often people view [EQ] as a ‘nice to have,’ but as AI and tech is changing our world, we need emotional intelligence more than ever to be aware and to tune into the new environment.”

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