The Neuroscience of Winning or Losing
The Neuroscience of Winning or Losing
An Article by David Klaasen
The global pandemic is wreaking havoc with people’s status. Some people feel they are gaining status because their team or their role has suddenly become very important, while others can be experiencing a drop in status because their team has been furloughed, disbanded or perhaps made redundant.
Recent studies show that if situations like the one above aren’t carefully managed, a cocktail of neurochemicals like adrenalin and norepinephrine are released by the brain and the limbic system is activated. The limbic system is a region of the brain that triggers emotions and memories that may be many years – if not decades – old. Once aroused it thinks very pessimistically and makes accidental connections. This creates a strong ‘fight or flight’ response because it is looking for problems and remembering painful emotions.
In his fascinating book “Your Brain at Work” David Rock explains that the balance of how we feel amongst others is actually dictated by our perception of Status. Your brain maintains and continuously updates complex maps of the “Pecking Order” of the people around you. The studies he mentions in the book show that you create a representation of your own and someone else’s status in the brain whenever you communicate and this influences how you react with others. Changes in status (your perception of the pecking order) bring about changes in how millions of neurons are connected. This is powerful stuff because it’s one of the primary rewards or threats in human beings.
Rock mentions that “If you have ever been in a relationship where one partner starts earning more money than the other you will have perceived these wide-scale changes in brain circuitry taking place and which can bring some interesting challenges”.
Uppers and downers
When we have a sense of increased status we feel wonderful because the brain releases a dose of dopamine and serotonin, the hormones that make us happier. Cortisol levels, a marker of stress, go down and Testosterone levels go up, helping you to feel strong and confident and even improving your sex drive. According to the latest research this positive combination of happy neurochemicals provides us with an increase in the number of new connections made per hour in the brain. This means better awareness of others and better access to the subtle neural connections that can make us more intelligent and helps us live longer.
A drop in status feels very dangerous. A perception of being ‘less than’ others activates the same region of the brain as physical pain. One study showed five different physical pain regions of the brain lighting up when an individual felt a drop in status. Social pain can be as painful as physical pain because the two seem identical to your brain. If you feel a ‘status threat’ your brain reacts like it is about to be hit with a stick. Just think about the drop in your stomach when a colleague, customer or partner says to you “Can I give you some feedback?” If you innocently ask a new colleague or business partner for some information about how a project is going it can elicit a deep threat response from them: Don’t you trust them? Are you checking up on them? Their threat response could make them say something that will damage the relationship. So don’t underestimate the impact of asking someone you manage how their day is going, it may carry more emotional weight than you think.
A useful strategy to use when you give someone who is very defensive some potentially threatening feedback, is to lower your own status by talking down your own performance. For example sharing a time in the past when you had a problem, issue or experience that you had to learn from.
Another useful strategy to manage status is to help someone feel that their status has gone up by giving them positive feedback. Telling others what they have done well gives them a sense of increasing status and includes all the benefits that come from a nice dose of dopamine and serotonin.
It is interesting to note that in his book Rock says “The trouble is, unless you have strong personal awareness, giving other people positive feedback may feel like a threat, because of a sense of a relative change in status.” He goes on to say that this may explain why, despite employees universally asking for more positive feedback, employers prefer the safer “deficit model” of management, of pointing out people’s faults, problems and performance gaps. How comfortable are you praising your peers and your team? It takes a healthy inner perception of one’s own status to do it with authenticity and confidence.
Winners and losers and . . .
It’s all relative. Status is a concept that is in the eye of the beholder so you can affect the way you perceive your own status. There is now ample evidence that when we see others who are less well off or more disadvantaged we feel “better than” them, and we feel a corresponding increase in status. Rock says “You can elevate your status by finding a way to feel smarter, funnier, healthier, richer, more righteous, more organised, fitter and stronger or by beating other people at just about anything at all. The key is to find a ‘niche’ where you feel you are ‘above’ others.”
But while this sense of competition may help you focus, it means that there are always winners and losers. If you are constantly comparing yourself to others you are also bound to notice those people that you perceive as ‘better than you’ for whatever reason, leading to a status threat and the pain that comes with it.
The alternative is to become more mindful and self-aware. By being mindful you are able to quiet your mind and play at becoming better than your ‘former self’. This takes courage and the ability to reflect on your thinking about your thinking. It’s about acknowledging how you feel about yourself and then doing something positive today that will help you feel better about yourself tomorrow. This helps you to feel ever increasing-status without threatening others.
Become more mindful
Mindfulness is a term that is becoming more popular at the cutting edge of leadership literature. Originally used as a term in Buddhism, it means the opposite of mindlessness. You are paying attention to and being fully aware of what you are experiencing in the moment, with an open and accepting mind. It helps to cut through all the baggage and observe what is really happening, rather than what you are making it mean.
I was fortunate to have a Godmother who suggested I learn to meditate when I was still a teenager. I’ve been doing it in various forms ever since. Until recently it was not appropriate to discuss it because of the ‘hippy’ connotations. However, now there is ample scientific evidence of its profound benefits and increasing numbers of my clients are asking me about it.
A great place to start is with a Body Awareness Meditation where you take a few minutes to observe your breathing and then systematically relax your toes, feet, legs and body all the way to your head. Doing this on a regular basis will enable you to become even more aware of what you are experiencing and what is really going on around you. With raised awareness you can respond more effectively rather than just reacting to a surge of neurochemicals and emotional triggers.
I have recently had two versions of this basic relaxation meditation professionally recorded with an ambient soundscape and it is available to you for a limited period. If you are interested in improving your well-being, and accessing the power of raising your awareness with mindfulness just go to the link below and follow the instructions.
If you would like to know more about mindful leadership and how to improve communication, or learn about our robust yet practical approach to avoiding common problems and driving performance please on the link below to arrange a no-obligation call to discuss your needs. https://calendly.com/t4p-david/free-consultation
Remember, when it comes to status . . . Stay Curious!
With best regards