Why Did I Do That?!

When we’re in “hot states” like excitement, anger, or stress, our behavior can surprise even ourselves. Here’s what’s happening in the brain in these moments, and how we can aim for a bit more self-compassion.

Illustration by Edmon de Haro

My friend shared the story in hushed tones during a late-night run. Her friend had discovered that her husband was cheating and that he’d taken the other woman to a hotel room in another town. My friend’s friend got into her vehicle, drove three hours to this town, then staked out the hotel. This woman had only a hazy notion of what she would do if she saw her husband and his paramour. Luckily she never saw them. After some cold cramped hours in her car, she began to calm down and drove back home. “What was I thinking?” she’d asked my friend. “What was she thinking?” my friend asked me.

Sometimes our behavior surprises even ourselves. It has happened to me. It has likely also happened to you. Maybe, despite your lawn sign that reads “Love Wins,” you flipped the bird to a driver who cut you off. Perhaps, like another friend of mine widely known for her kindness, you told an antsy child to “sit the [bleep] down” during a sleepless transatlantic flight.

These experiences are jarring. That’s not who I am, we later think to ourselves. So, what happened?

The “Hot-Cold” Empathy Gap

Dr. George Loewenstein, a professor of psychology and economics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pitts- burgh, PA, is curious about that too. In the early ’90s, he noticed something intriguing on his runs, which included a steep hill—so steep that stairs are built into it. On the ascent, his body screamed at him in pain. But within 10 to 20 seconds of cresting and beginning the descent, he could barely remember how horrible it felt. A few days later, Loewenstein would repeat the whole thing. While his initial curiosity focused on physical pain and our inability to recall it, he wondered too about emotions, eventually broadening his theory to include them. He wanted to answer the question: When humans are in a particular emotional state, why, he wondered, are we so bad at imagining ourselves in a different state?

When we’re calm, we can’t conceive of ourselves being angry enough to punch a wall. When we’re well-rested, we can’t imagine being exhausted enough to snap at a child.

Loewenstein called this effect the “hot-cold empathy gap” and theorized that when we are in a “cold” (unemotional) state, we struggle to imagine how we will feel and to predict how we will behave when we are in a “hot” state (for instance, fearful, angry, hungry, or in pain). Part of what creates the gap between hot and cold states is that we struggle to empathize with others whose behavior seems ridiculous or unwarranted—an inter- personal empathy gap. We’re similarly unempathetic to ourselves when we’re in a different emotional state—an intra- personal empathy gap. When we’re calm, we can’t imagine being angry enough to punch a wall. When we’re well-rested, we can’t imagine being exhausted enough to snap at a child.

This gap includes physiological states too, which explains why our plan to eat healthier goes right out the window when, stomach grumbling, we open our cupboard and pop open a bag of Doritos. One of Loewenstein’s studies focused on the disconnect between healthy people taking unhealthy risks, such as smoking. He also considered the gap medical personnel could exhibit toward people experiencing pain, essentially under-estimating their experience.

“We’re never going to be able to imagine how we’re going to feel and act in a different emotional state,” Loewenstein says, whether that different emotional state is our own or someone else’s. “Our brains are not capable of doing that.”What our brains are capable of, he says, is noting patterns of behavior. We might notice, for instance, that when we’re in a hot state of excitement, we become overly generous. When we’re in a cold state, perhaps examining our bank balance, we promise ourselves we won’t offer to pick up the tab for everyone’s meal the next time we get dinner with friends. Then the next time rolls around and, well, outcomes our joie de vivre and our wallet.

Applying Mindfulness to the “Hot-Cold” Empathy Gap

But Loewenstein thinks that the key to managing behaviors we don’t want begins with noticing our patterns. Our overspender might decide to carry only enough cash to cover their own meal. Then, even in a state of excitement or enthusiasm, when the impulse arises to cover the whole tab, they can’t.

Zindel Segal, Distinguished Professor of Psychology in Mood Disorders at the University of Toronto, points out that, when we’re in a hot state, the regions of our brain being activated tend to be lower down and farther back—the brain stem, cerebellum, and limbic system—which generate our fight/ flight/freeze responses. At the same time, there isn’t a lot of activity in the regions of our brain that help us understand our own or another person’s behavior. “You’re very much locked in a state of high arousal,” he explains, “and usually the solutions we search for are the ones that we’ve been habitually drawing upon.” Not surprisingly, Segal, who’s also a founder of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, urges us to consider a mindfulness-based approach. If we apply mindfulness to the hot-cold empathy gap, he says, it allows us to pause and connect with our own or another person’s experience. It grants us the space to label our emotions and create “greater moments of choice on how we learn to act when these emotions are present in our mind and also in our bodies.”

We Are Not Our Emotions

The emotions themselves are not the problem, Zindel reminds us. Emotions convey important information about what we need. The problem is that “hot” emotions get prioritized in our brains, taking parts of the brain offline that can help us identify them and relate to them in a more intentional way.

Dr. Sará King agrees, noting that emotions are automatic. King, a postdoctoral fellow in neurology at Oregon Health Science University, says that emotions are not good or bad, per se, they just…are. She says that people often conflate their emotions with the negative feedback they might get from others about those emotions and conclude that “this is who I am and this is who I’ll always be.” She adds, “That can be really difficult to hold with compassion, because then people start having thoughts like I’m a bad person who does bad things and thinks bad stuff and has bad emotions. Mindfulness practices are really training us to constantly bring our attention back to the body, back to the breath, and remembering that no matter what we’re feeling inside of our bodies, it’s temporary. It’s passing. It’s just a phenomenon of our experience. But it is not who we are.”

The practice of mindfulness is really a practice of building awareness, adds Segal. “That awareness is an opportunity to shine light on things that we didn’t really know about ourselves,” he says, “and make choices about which ones you want to strengthen and which ones you might want to let go of.”

Loewenstein also urges us to make space to bridge this gap. “It seems to me that pausing is not sufficient. It’s what you do with the pause that’s really important.”