Monday, March 1, 2010

Gottman's "Bid", SCARF Attacks, Bombproofing the Limbic System

(Titian, Portrait of Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino)

NOTE: I realize that these recent posts have been getting quite long and I appreciate those who are kind enough to slog through them!

The Bid: Basic Unit of Emotional Connection

Psychologist John Gottman uses the term "bid" to describe the fundamental unit of emotional communication. "Bid" is an amorphous term: it essentially represents an attempt made by one person to emotionally connect with another, the purpose ultimately being to validate the strength of the relationship. A bid can take many forms, but frequently it is a combination of verbal and non-verbal behaviors that are hoped to get a positive response from someone else. The recipient's recognition of a bid and response to it is crucial to the communication pattern that follows.


My insights into the process of bidding for emotional connection are a result of many years of observing human interaction in a variety of real-life settings. My research colleagues and I have studied the dynamics of friendships, parent-child relationships, adult siblings, and couples in all stages of marriage and child-rearing...

Whether people make bids for emotional connection to a relative, a spouse, a friend, or a coworker, they're usually seeking to satisfy one of three emotional needs common to all people. Everybody wants (1) to be included, (2) to have a sense of control over their lives, or (3) to be well-liked. When such needs are met, people experience a feeling of purpose to their lives.

But what happens when people don't have the ability to bid effectively or to respond to others' bids? Such failure can prevent the development of emotional connections or cause existing connections to deteriorate. This can create problems for people of all ages, across all walks of life.

Responses to Bids are Key

Once an attempt for connection is made, the power rests entirely with the recipient of the bid. Gottman classifies responses as typically falling into one of three categories: turning towards the bid, turning away from the bid, and turning against the bid. Often the response chosen is done with little or no conscious thought, and this is why a pattern of often-subtle negative emotional behaviors can develop and be so dangerous.


(In the Love Lab) We learned that people typically respond to another's bids for connection in one of three ways: They turn toward, turn against, or turn away. By correlating these three types of behavior with the status of their relationships ten years later, we were able to show how each of these types of behavior affect people's connections over the long term. In a nutshell, here's what we learned:

1. Turning toward. To "turn toward" one another means to react in a positive way to another's bids for emotional connection...our analysis shows that, over time, they develop stable, long-lasting relationships...they also seem to have easier access to humor, affection, and interest in one another during conflict, a factor that allows them to stay connected emotionally, solve problems, and avoid the downward spiral of negative feelings that destroy relationships.

2. Turning against. People who turn against one another's bids for connection might be described as belligerent or argumentative...turning against often involves sarcasm or ridicule...among married couples, the pattern leads to divorce later on. Interestingly, the married couples in our study who habitually displayed this behavior did not divorce as quickly as couples whose main habit of interaction was for one partner to turn away. But eventually the majority of them did split up.

3. Turning away. This pattern of relating generally involves ignoring another's bid, or acting preoccupied. Consistently turning clearly bad for relationships. Partners who displayed this pattern of interaction in the lab became hostile and defensive with each other---particularly when they discussed an area of continuing disagreement. This behavior typically results in early divorce among married couples.

Gottman goes on to describe how the same patterns of behavior have similiar effects on parent-child, adult friendship, adult sibling, and coworker relationships. He describes the problems that occur with "unrequited turning", when one member of a relationship attempts to turn towards the other's bids, but the other is too self-absorbed to do the same in return.

Immediate Consequences: As a Rule, Failing Bidders Give Up Quickly


We also learned that once bidders are ignored or rejected, they usually give up trying to connect in the same way again. My colleagues and I were quite surprised by how quickly people seem to lose heart once others turn away or turn against their bids. I think we expected people to be more persistent with one another, demanding a certain level of attention and responsiveness. But this rarely happens. Instead, we see failing bidders who just give up in response to another's indifference or hostility. Among people in stable marriages, spouses re-bid just 20 percent of the time. In marriages that are headed for divorce, people hardly re-bid at all. Instead, they simply fade away from conversations, relinquishing their attempts to connect...frequency of bids makes a analysis of dinnertime conversations showed that happily married couples bid as many as one hundred times in ten minutes...

Fuzzy Bidding

Because strong, direct bids can risk rejection for the bidder, or at least risk pushing the recipient into an awkward situation, the socially intelligent will tend to bid casually at first, and then to escalate if the early bids are successful. Thus, a man who finds a woman attractive and is interested in taking her out to dinner will seldom begin with a bid that directly makes this intention clear: an escalating series of smaller bids will be used to establish mutual interest and comfort-level, with exits left open so that the woman, if disinclined, can withdraw from the situation without overtly rejecting the man.

Even in long-term relationships, bidding can be left intentionally vague because the bidder may seek unsolicited validation and may not want to explicitly state his or her needs to the other person. This leads to the problem of "fuzzy bidding", which Gottman describes:

Why do we dance around issues...? For many reasons, the most common of which is to avoid emotional risk. Openly bidding for connection can make us feel vulnerable. In career and mating situations especially, our hearts and egos are on the line. We can reduce such feelings of vulnerability by making bids ambiguous or fuzzy. Humor and double entendre are common. If the other person responds positively to an ambiguous or humorous bid---smiling coyly or offering another pointed pun, for instance---that's great. But if the intended recipient fails to respond, the bidder loses no pride. ...Such "trial balloons" are common even in long-term love relationships...

It might be best to think of the limbic systems of two individuals as being like individual neurons in a single brain. The neurons are separated by the synaptic gap; for a message to be effective and cross from one neuron to another, it must cross the gap. The bid is analogous to the neutransmitter that crosses the synaptic gap and connects the emotional systems of two people. For a strong, clear signal, then, we want a lot of neutransmitter to be released (at the sender's point) and for there to be many detectors waiting on the receiving side. When this happens between neurons, we speak of "long-term potentiation". Between emotional systems of human beings, we need both clearer and more coherent bids and more sensitive receptors.

Certainly one way to make a bid more clear is to make sure that both the verbal and non-verbal components of the message are congruent. The more honest and open the sender is (and the greater the risk to the sender), the more clear his bid. Those who have studied Aristotelian rhetoric will recognize pathos, the persuasive appeal based on forming an emotional connection with the audience. Strengthening emotional communication by sending more transparent bids does require that the sender be willing to place himself or herself in a position of emotional vulnerability.

On the receiver side, being sensitive to nonverbal clues and to the underlying emotional content of seemingly innocuous messages can help to mitigate the fuzzy-bidding problem. As Gottman noted, the problem with fuzzy bidding is that the sender of the bid certainly recognizes that he or she is trying to connect, but the recipient may not. This can lead to a "Turn Away" negative response even if the recipient would normally be interested in participating. One rule of effective emotional connection must be to at least know that the bid message was successfully received by the other person in the first place, and to not feel rejected and assume that a "Turn Away" response has taken place if there is a more benign explanation.

There is some evidence that the receiver can increase the effectiveness of his or her response by quietly modeling the physical posture and body language of the other person. This does not mean a contrived, literal copy of how the other person is standing, sitting, or moving, but simply a physical rapport that should increase the "relatedness" quality of the communication. Non-verbal "calibration" is also found in the neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) literature, although other aspects of NLP---such as the notion that you can detect lies by watching the direction a subject's eyes orient when asked a question---certainly have received criticism from the academic community.

Thought Experiment: The Emotional Battery

I am going to engage in some speculation now and try to combine a few ideas from Panksepp, Fisher, and Gottman. As a thought experiment, imagine that people have social attachment needs that are analogous to batteries. The batteries need to be charged everyday. Let's pretend that the average person has a "drive to bond" battery that needs to be charged to a level of "100 emo units" every 24 hours. If the battery is not fully charged, the person draws down on psychic reserves. After those reserves are depleted, the person is in a deficit mode, and now begins to operate at a diminished capacity. Days, weeks, or months of running chronic emotional deficits will lead to increasingly intense feelings of sadness, loneliness, and depression.

Now let's say that the average person is neutral in terms of affect and starts each day with 0 emo units. A person of positive affective bias---a naturally upbeat, buoyant type of disposition---starts with 25 units. A person with negative affective balance---a pessimistic, more cynical viewpoint---starts with -25 units. In this very simple first example, everyone needs to get to 100 units to have social attachment batteries fully charged.

Before going further, I will add an additional caveat: once someone goes into a deficit state, he or she is not able to respond positively to another person's bid until he or she is back into positive territory. This represents the feedback loop property of negative emotionality, also known as the emotional contagion effect.

Now let's give each of the "Turn Toward" bid response types that Gottman describes a numerical value:

"Turn Toward" Responses
Passive response: 0 charge points
Low-energy response: 5 charge points
Attentive response: 10 charge points
High-energy response: 20 charge points

Thus, in my highly stylized example, a neutral, average person needs 20 low-energy responses to his bids---but positive, since they are still "Turn Toward" responses---to reach his needed 100 emo units for the day. If he only accumulates 90 points, he may start the next day feeling very mildly rundown. Maybe he needs 110 points that day to make up for it. If after a week or more he is chronically being understimulated in his need for emotional bonding experiences with others, then he may start to run a deficit, and start each day in negative territory.

Of course, this runs the risk of actually making his feeling of isolation get worse and worse, since his inability to provide positive emotional bid responses to others when trapped in a negative state may make him less and less fun to be around. When people avoid him, he feels even more alone and fails to get the recharge that he desperately needs, so he cycles down and down until ultimately he does something dramatic and attention-getting enough that his family and/or friends have to intervene in some way.

On the other hand, our subject might have an extremely good day the first day and receive 500 charge points from his social environment. Perhaps he repeatedly gets unambiguously positive feedback from a very attractive member of the opposite sex that day. Assuming his personality type appreciates so much social connection, he is feeling supercharged, buzzing with energy and excitement, able to operate at very high levels of confidence and optimism.

In real-life, of course, we would have to make the model much more dynamic: a "high-maintenance" personality type with more profound attachment needs might require 200 charge points a day in order to feel emotionally stabilized; someone who is very low-maintenance emotionally, a natural loner type, might need only 25 points a day. Additionally, the values of the different responses might change with the person: one of Fisher's Directors or Negotiations, for example, might consider both neutral and low-energy responses to be worthless---for such "deep" people, perhaps only attentive and high-energy responses would do any good and count towards social replenishment. An Explorer, craving novelty, might more heavily weight high-energy responses from very new relationships than he would the same response from someone he knew well. Any personality type might tend to favor positive responses from attractive members of the opposite sex. Some high-energy responses (presumably sex falls in this category) may count more than others, depending on the individual's needs. Furthermore, chronic overstimulation or overcharging of this mythical limbic battery might also start to intrude on the individual's ability to feel autonomy.

We could go on and on, but the basic thought experiment is somewhat useful in that it attempts to quantify the value of various types of responses to our bids and put them in the context of our need to feel social attachment. I think it is also revealing in that it may help with developing some insights into likely problem scenarios. Take this example: a housewife who has a very high-capacity emotional battery (say, needing 250 charge units to feel satisfied) and who does not see her husband---or anyone else---for most of the day might require so many high-energy-type bid responses from her husband upon his return home that he would find it very difficult to satisfy her, especially if he works in a hyper-social job and comes home drained and wanting silence and meditation. To get in sync, it may be that he would need to do meaningful things to signal his connection to her during the day (perhaps a thoughtful, quick text, a nice call, or meeting up for lunch), while she might need to find alternative activities that involved social interaction and took some of the pressure off of him.

The point here is not to literally assign units and points like some psychotic Dungeons & Dragons player, but to consider how an attentive, high-energy positive response to a bid may be worth many times its weight in emotional gold, particularly to someone who has a social attachment battery that is chronically undercharged. The further into deficit, existential angst, and pain someone has fallen, the more an enthusiastic manner of recognizing and meeting that poor person's desperate bids might pull the person out of a vicious, self-reinforcing feedback loop and into a state where positive responses of his or her own become possible.

(in this touching scene, the Predator---frustrated to the point of tears---finally expresses displeasure with Arnold's inappropriate glibness and unwillingness to respond positively and authentically to emotional bids)

Now let's modify the model and add Gottman's negative bid reactions: "Turning Away" and "Turning Against". Perhaps we would give these reactions the following charge points:

"Turning Away" Responses: -10 charge points
"Turning Against" Responses: -25 charge points

Look at what could quickly happen in a system in which the only interactions two people had with each other on a given day were a couple of strong "Turning Against" responses to their bids. Before long, both would be in deficit territory, and according to our simplistic model that would mean that neither could give positive responses to the other, even if the other was trying to heal the relationship. This seems to represent the "failure of repair attempts" disaster that Gottman mentions. Things might only decline from here---this would be a kind of negative emotionality trap. It also means that, in a weakly positive community, a naturally negative individual could need to be quarantined by the group because of his or her ability to bring everyone else down quickly. In a negative-emotionality community, everyone would feel brought down by work or living experiences within the group, and the despair would feed itself because of the cumulative effects of affect system deficits.

In fact, in a negative-affect community, a type of game theoretical dilemma may emerge: everyone needs to be able to have positive social interactions and would be better off if these were taken place. For positive interactions to happen, however, bids must be met by positive "Turn Towards" responses. Those responses are not possible because everyone is in a deficit state, so no one ever bids. An unhappy equilibrium may be reached, with each passing day bringing people further and further apart.

Of course things are much more complicated than this: someone could have a series of bad days at work and still compartmentalize the pain away, leaving room for positive bid responses to his wife or kids at home. However, I believe that the "Emotional Battery" Model does capture many salient features of the social landscape and our needs for attachment, and viewing this as a holistic psychic energy system with net positive and net negative contributors is a useful first-pass approach to take.

The SCARF Model

As Gottman, Daniel Goleman, and many others have described, the human limbic system is organized towards "approach---withdraw" decisions that are meant to aid in the survivability of the organism. We are neurologically biased towards physically dangerous threats, as these would have exerted the most selection pressure on our ancestors. It appears that the limbic apparatus, particularly the amygdala complex and the hippocampus, normally gets between one-tenth and one-half second of free "lead time" to process information before the neocortex gets its chance to process it.

Positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who we met in an earlier post, wrote the following in The Happiness Hypothesis:

...although the controlled system (neocortical executive function) does not conform to behaviorist principles, it also has relatively little power to cause behavior. The automatic (limbic and extrapyramidal) system was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain (such as the orbitofrontal cortex) and that trigger survival-related motivations (such as the hypothalamus). The automatic system has its trigger finger on the dopamine release button. The controlled system, in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. It's a rider placed on the elephant's back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps, but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will. I believe the Scottish philosopher David Hume was closer to the truth than was Plato when he said, "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

(Haidt likens the limbic system to an elephant and the neocortex to its rider)

For this reason, I believe that Goleman's "Emotional Intelligence" plays a foundational role in the ability of a human being to make an array of intelligent life choices. Someone gifted with a superb analytical mind can still make amazingly bad decisions about relationships, particularly where mate selection is concerned, and can fail to structure his priorities in a way that has a chance of making him truly happy.

Haidt later describes the problem of the "amygdala hijacking" in some detail:

The withdrawal system can quickly shoot up to full power, overtaking the slower (and generally weaker) approach system...One reason the withdrawal system is so quick and compelling is that it gets first crack at all incoming information. All neural impulses from the eyes and ears first go to the thalamus, a kind of central switching station in the brain; from the thalamus, neural impulses are sent out to special sensory processing areas in the cortex; and from those areas, information is relayed to the frontal cortex, where it is integrated with other higher mental processes and your ongoing stream of consciousness...

...But because neural impulses move only at about thirty meters per second, this fairly long path, including decision time, could easily take a second or two. It's easy to see why a neural shortcut would be advantageous, and the amygdala is that shortcut. The amygdala, sitting just under the thalamus, dips into the river of unprocessed information flowing through the thalamus, and it responds to patterns that were in the past associated with danger. The amygdala has a direct connection to the part of the brainstem that activates the fight-or-flight response, and if the amygdala finds a pattern that was part of a previous fear episode, it orders the body to red alert.

(Note: we have identified three different, distinct fear/amygdala-potentiated "startle-flinch" responses, but they will be part of a future post on emotionally-intelligent tactical and self-defense training).

...Though the amygdala does process some positive information, the brain has no equivalent "green alert" system to notify you instantly of a delicious meal or a likely mate. Such appraisals can take a second or two. Once again, bad is stronger and faster than good. The elephant reacts before the rider even sees the snake on the path...

But wait---it gets even worse. More from Haidt:

One final point about the amygdala: Not only does it reach down to the brainstem to trigger a response to danger but it reaches up to the frontal cortex to change your thinking. It shifts the entire brain over to a withdrawal orientation. There is a two-way street between emotions and conscious thoughts: Thoughts can cause emotions (as when you reflect on a foolish thing you said), but emotions can also cause thoughts, primarily by raising mental filters that bias subsequent information processing. A flash of fear makes you extra vigilant for additional threats; you look at the world through a filter that interprets ambiguous events as possible dangers. A flash of anger toward someone raises a filter through which you see everything the offending person says or does as a further insult or transgression. Feelings of sadness blind you to all pleasures and opportunities...

This built-in delay/alarm system has very important ramifications: for one, the emotional systems get the first chance to pass judgment on whether or not the incoming information represents something to move towards, or something to move away from. The neocortex has evolved to aid in strategies and abstract thinking that has been energized and prioritized by the limbic system.

"NeuroLeadership" coach David Rock puts it this way:

...the brain has an overaching, organizing principle, which is to classify the world around you into things that will either hurt you or help you to stay alive. "Everything you do in life is based on your brain's determination to minimize danger or maximize reward," (Evian) Gordon explains. "'Minimize danger, maximize reward'" is the organizing principle of the brain."

The limbic system scans data streaming into the brain, telling you what to pay attention to, and in what way...the limbic system is constantly making toward or away decisions. These decisions happen automatically, about half a second before you are consciously aware of them if you become aware of them at all. One study found that the brain does this even with nonsense words, which get classified as either positive or negative based on whether the phonemes, or sound units of the words, are perceived as pleasant or unpleasant.

Rock was exploring tension, drama, and emotional destructiveness in the corporate world when he found that there were five types of social "threat" that were routinely physiologically processed as if they were physical ones. When these emotional buttons were pushed, the victim would be flooded with cortisol and other stress hormones and his or her body would prepare itself for the proverbial fight or flight. The problem, of course, is that these types of social problems are not typically solvable by fight or flight mechanisms, yet this primal reaction is meant to lead to solutions, one way or another, within a short period of time.

(jazz-loving Vincent, portrayed by Tom Cruise, is able to remain relaxed and comfortable in a wide range of potentially-awkward social situations, such as the one depicted here)

Cases of domestic violence may in part be an inappropriate attempt to neutralize this physiological alarm state (remember Panksepp's findings that animals will generally do anything to try to avoid having their neural RAGE circuits stimulated)by applying the physiologically-suggested solution in a wildly inappropriate way. Having the threat buttons repeatedly pushed in a social setting will, especially over an extended period, cause seriously adverse consequences. The terms allostatic load and adrenal fatigue are sometimes used to describe the many negative health effects of unrelenting exposure to physiological stress catalysts.


I noticed a surprising pattern...I saw that there are five domains of social experience that your brain treats the same as survival issues. These domains form a model, which I call the SCARF model, which stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. The model describes the interpersonal primary rewards or threats that are important to the brain. Getting to know these five elements strengthens your (executive functioning). It's a way of developing language for experiences that may be otherwise unconscious, so that you can catch these experiences occurring in real time.

...some of life's most intense emotional reactions involve a confluence of the elements of SCARF. Imagine your status has been attacked, publicly, unfairly, in a way that you don't understand and can't do anything about. People who experience events like this (say, being unfairly treated at work or being attacked by a rival in the media) find that the pain from these events can take years to recover from. A study of social pain in 2008 found that social pain comes back when you think about it again, whereas physical pain doesn't. Giving someone a thump on the arm as punishment may, in theory at least, be a "kinder" punishment than attacking their ideas in public.

On the plus side, if you can find a way to increase several of the elements of SCARF at the same time, either in yourself or in others, you have a powerful tool...Think about what it feels like when you interact with someone who makes you notice what's good about yourself (raising your status), who is clear with his expectations of you (increasing certainty), who lets you make decisions (increasing autonomy), who connects with you on a human level (increasing relatedness), and who treats you fairly.

Most of us already know elements of this very well: for example, it is generally considered a crime against gentlemanhood to maliciously humiliate or insult a man in front of his wife, girlfriend, or children. I am not a hard person by nature, but I would personally sentence someone to very serious bodily injury for this crime if I was legally empowered to do so, and I will attempt to explain why in a future post on my fascination with the works of a Renaissance Italian named Baldassare Castiglione. But Rock's SCARF model goes much further in its insights.

One of the most neurobiologically stupid---but popular---techniques used in some organizations is to believe that money will compensate for an environment characterized by frequent, intense SCARF-type attacks and "leaders" who feel that such attacks lend them a magical Reign of Terror aura of respect and prestige (the senior editor of VOGUE Magazine seems like she was one of these low-EQ people, at least as Meryl Streep portrayed her in a film, and the infamous Sunbeam CEO "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap was another. I suppose that there is a point where supreme arrogance reflects a kind of inertia, a final, almost majestic level of stupidity, that does need to be captured theatrically).

Because a SCARF attack is treated by the nervous system as if it is a physical form of assault, those who are exchanging humiliation, abuse, volatile emotional uncertainty, etc. for a nice paycheck will, in short order, come to loathe their jobs and to feel real hatred for the people who have compromised them and found their "prices." On the other hand, organizational behavior specialists have found that people will be generally loyal to a workplace that features a SCARF-friendly environment, even if the money may be better elsewhere. Ideally, of course, an environment will feature both.

(hypersensitive Patrick felt SCARF-threatened when colleague Paul Allen was able to procure reservations at hip, exclusive NYC eatery "Dorsia")

Rock notes how the two prototypical techniques for maximizing the elevation of another person's status---simultaneously lowering your own and raising his---can be very threatening to the limbic system of the person attempting to pull it off. This would be especially true if the recipient of all of this psychic largesse failed to respond in the socially intelligent way: by reciprocating---being modest himself after receiving the compliment, and complimenting or praising the initiator in return. This seems to be a hallmark of polite company---SCARF-increasing circuits and mutual appreciation societies form so that everyone can bask in the reflected glory. When a "status exchange" circuit fails because of a lack of reciprocation, it is a bit like handing someone a baton and hoping she will be emotionally bright enough to hand it back. If she keeps it and just runs off, it feels bad.

When a status exchange is not recognized as a deliberate act of social finesse, and certainly when it is executed in a pathetic or heavy-handed way, there is the risk that the sender will be seen as either genuflecting or revealing serious emotional weakness. There seems to be an art to the practice of simultaneously praising another and putting oneself down. I do know a few people who are very good at doing the "lower my status/raise the other person's status" thing from a position of unmistakably high confidence rather than one that asks for pity. These social artists tend to be immune to most SCARF-type vulnerabilities because they have a wide enough range of talents that a competitive loss in any one area is more than compensated for by advantages in several others.

An individual who quickly comes to mind, albeit at an extreme end, is, among many other impressive things, a former operator in the Special Boat Service (SBS), an elite group within the already-elite Royal Marines. He not only will enthusiastically compliment other people on their achievements, but will downplay his own---to the point of lying and denying things that he has actually done---to elevate their status even more.

To give an example: let's say that a group of people are at a party and one of them talks about a recent trip to the Italian Alps. In the group are three others who have also been to the region, and for our purposes they represent different archetypal status-threat interpersonal styles. Person 1, probably a Director of questionable socialization who sees the world in terms of competitive dominance hierarchies, reacts by not only stating that he has been to the same place, but that his experience there was somehow "better" ("Next time you go, make sure to stay at (insert name of exclusive resort)."). Person 2, probably a Negotiator or Explorer, will also state that he has been to the Italian Alps, but will do so in a non-competive, shared-experienced way, using the common ground as an opportunity to form a rapport, a new "in-group" within the larger group. Person 3 is like my ex-SBS friend: he will ask questions about the Italian Alps trip and will celebrate the original speaker for it, but will not offer up the fact that he has been there, too. In fact, he may well lie and say that he has never been to the Italian Alps, all in order to help the original speaker to feel as elevated as possible.

(the almost-pathologically modest "SBS Darryl" ((left)) and I on a survival course in the Brecon Beacons of Wales. The orange survival bags were slit open to serve as makeshift lean-to shelters---we were above the tree line when freezing rain started coming down)

Limbic Self-Defense: Countermeasures for SCARF Attacks and Toxic People

(former FBI regional SWAT team commander and interrogator---now non-verbal communications expert, trainer, and author---Joe Navarro demonstrates classic territorial dominance display favored by megalomaniacs in the business world)

I believe that, following a Pareto principle, a small group of particularly toxic people is normally responsible for most of the limbic damage that takes place in a particular social network. In my personal experience, the toxic individual tends to reliably combine a few features: (1) she needs to be politically astute enough to recognize that she may occasionally need people on her side, so there are attempts to build temporary alliances or gangs against forces that the toxic perceives as threats; (2) the toxic is always, ultimately, in it for herself, and will seek status by being the anti- version of SBS Darryl---combining self-promotion to raise her own stratus with SCARF attacks designed to lower that of others; (3) the toxic is a true group-junkie who needs a social operating platform and has virtually no ability to be alone for any length of time; (4) the toxic need not be particularly intelligent in an analytical sense, but must have a kind of "dark EQ", wherein the probing skills of emotional intelligence are used to identify weaknesses or insecurities in others. Once the toxic is able to find vulnerabilities, SCARF attacks targeting those areas are made, usually by passive-aggressive means that give the toxic person a plausible deniability in the event that a confrontation occurs.

Because of the issues that Gottman and Rock have so eloquently raised, a single toxic person can, over time, damage the emotional climate of a group to such an extent that a negative equilibrium is achieved and the whole bid system breaks down. This is even more of an emergency if the toxic individual has gained an entrenched management position (which is often the goal of such a person, of course).

I think that, as in the case of responses to bids, most people do not recognize toxic behavior patterns in others until they have reached an advanced stage. I will quickly discuss three different approaches that I have come across for armoring oneself against SCARF attacks (there are also approaches for going on the offensive, such as those outlined in Greene's popular 48 Laws of Power and many similar books, but I'm sticking with defense now). The first method came from a study of the highly nuanced and codified rules of courtesy that were observed in formal dueling societies, while the other two come primarily from Zen, psychology, and sociology. I will use the following terms just for convenience:

1. Law of The Jungle
2. Inner Serenity
3. Prevention is Better than Cure

The "Law of The Jungle" Approach. This approach is really for high-testosterone, alpha-posturing environments in which a toxic male seeks dominance. It is what game theorists would call a "rollback" solution: one starts with the physiological alarm state that is created by SCARF attacks and engages it directly. Rather than attempting to conquer the fight or flight reaction, one proactively embraces it and endeavors to become a more effective platform for what the limbic system wants, on the evolutionary level, to do about the problem (i.e., to destroy or run away from the threat). Thus, to become the master of this approach, a person must develop physically dangerous capabilities and must be known to possess them, and must simultaneously be able to permanently withdraw from a toxic social environment because he has an attractive Plan B waiting in the wings.

"The Jungle" environment in this instance simply means the brain's primitive system for contending with the threats to life and limb that existed in humanity's EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptedness). Thus, dominance of this psychological space means that you are communicating on a channel that is very old and fundamental---other human beings are reduced to binary judgments regarding the likely outcome of success or failure in a physical conflict with them ("I could take him in a fight" vs. "I could NOT take him in a fight"). This sounds like the recipe for the worst kinds of adolescent posturing and inanity, but it is not normally a system of real violence or even explicit verbal threats (which of course would consitute reason for immediate legal and/or administrative sanctions in today's world). Rather, this channel of interpersonal communication works by non-verbal cues, third-party warnings, and mystique cultivation. It is a controversial approach because it is innately adversarial and essentially seeks peace through superior firepower, but it can work to place incentives on courtesy by creating a scenario of vividly imaginable physical consequences for bad social behavior.

We can decompose the Law of The Jungle into two subcategories of activity: escape (flight to safety) and fight (the threat posed by physical humiliation or even destruction of the threat). If the possibility of either of these activities is viewed as credible and immediately available to one party, the social power shifts to the individual who dominates on a primal level. The question that the Law of The Jungle approach poses to a toxic person is essentially this: "What do you think would happen if you and I were placed on a remote island, away from laws and rules, and you behaved this way?"

Negotiation researchers will often use the term "BATNA", or "Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement" to describe the Plan B, the most attractive option if negotiations fail. The BATNA, in turn, informs the "reservation point", the trigger point at which a party walks away from the negotiation. Thus, the side with the highest BATNA has a natural advantage in any negotiation, since that side needs a successful negotiation outcome less than the other side does. The Law of The Jungle approach to contending with toxic individuals is really about having the highest BATNA in the event that peaceful, civilized behavior breaks down.

It seems ludicrous that such a brute-force, post-apocalyptic survivalist mentality could prevail among, say, members of the senior management team of a major investment bank. But it often does: to cite just one example, Richard Fuld, the CEO of the now-imploded Lehman Brothers who apparently got into a fistfight at the Lehman gym, was known for this type of behavior, going back to his days in the Air Force. The behavior was apparently all over the place at Enron. Wall Street uses the term "F--k You Money" as a description of having made enough money to have a credible "escape" capability that is available at any time. Graduates of rugged wilderness survival training programs also comment on how they feel a greater sense of freedom upon return, since they have increased confidence in the ability to make it through situations that would cause others to quickly break down, physically and psychologically. Elite professional MMA fighters, such as the members of the old Chute Boxe team that I described in an earlier post, are frequently so dominant within this channel that they have plenty of space to behave in kind and gentle ways outside of the competitive arena.

I am sure that advocating the Law of The Jungle runs the risk of being misunderstood regardless of how many caveats and disclaimers are placed on it, but for the record I am not suggesting that someone deal with workplace social dramas by "going postal" and coming back with an AUG assault rifle and a shoulder bag filled with spare magazines. I am not even advocating fistfights or verbal threats. The entire point is far more subtle, and has to do with blocking off one channel of possible dominance and social intimidation attempts, as the outcome of a direct confrontation under true "state of nature" conditions will never be in doubt, so that the would-be alpha male/toxic is forced to either avoid confrontation entirely or to pursue cowardly, passive-aggressive tactics. These tactics can then be identified, through the application of social skills, so that they are correctly diagnosed as a sign of weakness by the rest of the social wolfpack, leading to the toxic individual being exposed for what he is.

This approach would ideally give its disciples three things: 1) intimidation value---a natural aura of deterrence that reduces the amount of time and energy expended in the traditional dominance-matching behaviors of high-testosterone groups; 2) therapy---by training to become a legitimate fighter and extreme-events survivor, the student of this approach is said to release toxic emotions and lower allostatic load by having a safe, legal medium for expressing the prohibited traits (aggression, violence, and so on) and a positive emotional arc to deploy them along (i.e.,the training always ends on a positive emotional note, with a feeling of camaraderie enjoyed by the participants---this is very important); 3) confidence---knowing that one can handle a true physical emergency may allow a toxic social situation to be objectified and depersonalized, particularly if we remember the notes about how evenly-matched dogs can get locked into spirals of dominance-matching and escalation.

("...a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun." Yeats could have been talking about the legendary staredown of one of my MMA heroes, Wanderlei Silva, shown here posing for a picture with a fan. Wanderlei's physical skills represent a "universal alpha-male currency" that will command instant respect in any high-testosterone group)

The "Inner Serenity" Approach. This approach takes the view that the best way to deal with SCARF attacks and emotional toxicity in relationships is to manage one's own reactions to them by applying a specially-trained suite of neocortical skills. The central figure in most of the studies of the Inner Serenity position is "metacognition", which is also frequently referred to as "mindfulness".

The terms metacognition and mindfulness are used to describe a detached executive function that operates somewhere "above" working memory in the conscious mind, and which allows the individual to think about his or her own thoughts as if watching them on some inner theater.


The technical term many neuroscientists ascribe to the concept of the (metacognition capability) is mindfulness. Originally an ancient Buddhist concept, mindfulness is used by scientists today to define the experience of paying close attention, to the present, in an open and accepting way...Daniel Siegel, one of the leading researchers and authors in this area, describes mindfulness as simply the opposite of mindlessness. "It's our ability to pause before we react," Siegel explains. "It gives us the space of mind in which we can consider various options and the choose the most appropriate ones.

To neuroscientists, mindfulness has little to do with spirituality, religion, or any particular type of meditation...(it) can be developed in many ways...tends to become a trait the more that you activate it.

Haidt describes the usefulness of the Eastern meditative disciplines, an understanding of the amygdala low-road circuit and threat responses, and the "mindfulness" skills of Western positive psychology and affective neuroscience:

...because Rachel wants to be respected, she lives in constant vigilance for signs of disrespect, and she aches for days after a possible violation. She may enjoy being treated with respect, but disrespect hurts more on average than respect feels good. Charles wants money and lives in a constant state of vigilance for chances to make it: He loses sleep over fines, losses, or transactions that he thinks did not get him the best possible deal. Once again, losses loom larger than gains, so even if Charles grows wealthier, thoughts about money may on average give him more unhappiness than happiness.

For Buddha, attachments are like a game of roulette in which someone else spins the wheel and the game is rigged: The more you play, the more you lose. The only way to win is to step away from the table. And the only way to step away, to make yourself not react to the ups and downs of life, is to meditate and tame the mind. Although you give up the pleasures of winning, you also give up the larger pains of losing.

(Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu legend Rickson Gracie has remained a proponent of yoga and other meditative disciplines)

In essence, Buddha is suggesting that SCARF attacks will ultimately always win against an individual who has not achieved a psychological floating state devoid of attachments, and that attempts to manage SCARF attacks and hold on to attachments will fail because the game has negative mathematical expectancy (i.e., ((average winner * % of total that are winners)) - ((average loser * % of total that are losers)) - ((slippage and transaction costs)) < 0 ).

...Western approaches to problems more typically involve pulling out a tool box and trying to fix what's broken. Depressed people are convinced in their hearts of three related beliefs, known as Beck's "cognitive triad" of depression. These are: "I'm no good," "My world is bleak," and "My future is hopeless." A depressed person's mind is filled with automatic thoughts supporting these dysfunctional beliefs, particularly when things go wrong...

Depressed people are caught in a feedback loop in which distorted thoughts cause negative feelings, which then distort thinking further. (Aaron) Beck's discovery is that you can break the cycle by changing the thoughts. A big part of cognitive theory is training clients to catch their thoughts (through mindfulness training), write them down, name the distortions, and then find alternative and more accurate ways of thinking. Over many weeks, the client's thoughts become more realistic, the feedback loop is broken...cognitive theory works because it teaches the rider how to train the elephant rather than how to defeat it directly in an argument.

Taking a more pre-emptive tack, Rock describes how scores on a measure called the Mindful Awareness Attention Scale (MAAS) have correlated strongly with physical health, positive mental attitude, and relationship quality. Cortisol levels have been found to be lower and immune system functioning higher in individuals who have received mindfulness training (which apparently is quite distinct from pure relaxation training, although relaxation is a usual side benefit of mindfulness training).


...You were born with the capacity to create internal representations of the outside world in your brain, called "maps" (these maps are sometimes called networks or circuits). Maps develop based on what you pay attention to over time...Scientists (Norm Farb and his colleagues) have discovered that people have two distinct ways of interacting with the world, using two different sets of maps.

...One set of maps (involves the) "default network"...includes the medial prefrontal cortex, along with memory regions such as the hippocampus. It's the network involved in planning, day-dreaming, and ruminating. This default network also becomes active when you think about yourself or other people; it holds together a "narrative", a story line with characters interacting with one another over time. ...When the default network is active, you are thinking about your history and the future and the people you know, including yourself, and how this giant tapestry of information weaves together. When you experience the world using this narrative network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations.

Rock and others engaged in mindfulness research are concerned that the narrative/default network can fail to respond in an agile manner to threats, both physical and psychological, in the environment. A SCARF attack from a toxic person may be taken in and interpreted in a negative way, causing the limbic system to feel threatened and to awaken a physiological state of arousal that then has nowhere really to go. In contrast, someone who has engaged in a mindfulness training discipline of some description may be able to see a SCARF attack as merely words devoid of the harmful emotional content that is created, in a sense, by one's own mind.


The Farb study shows that there is a whole other way of experiencing experience. Scientists call this type of experience direct experience. When the direct experience network is active, several different brain regions become more active. This includes the insula, a region that relates to perceiving bodily perceptions...and the anterior cingulate cortex, a region central to detecting errors and switching your attention. When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking about the past or future, other people, or yourself, or considering much at all. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses in real time.

...People who practice types of mindfulness meditation (get better at) noticing the difference between directly experiencing something and the interpretation added by the brain. And doing these types of exercises regularly thickens the circuitry involved in observing internal states.

A more comprehensive review of the neuroscientific evidence in favor of (and less convinced about) mindfulness training will have to wait for another day. Suffice to say that the Inner Serenity approach is compatible with the Law of the Jungle approach, as the therapeutic aspects of aggression-expression in a positive environment, the possibility of regularly accessing direct experience "flow" states during training, the physical conditioning aspects, and the confidence created by possessing such skills may all contribute to the individual being able to better employ a more specialized mindfulness discipline. It also helps to address some of the weaknesses of the fight/flight approach: the limitations of the Law of Jungle in terms of application outside of an alpha male-dominance matching social circle and the tendency of toxic individuals who recognize that they would not do well in a direct clash to pursue more insidious, back-stabbing ones.

The "Prevention is Better than Cure" Approach. The third layer of defense may ultimately be the most important. Rather than looking for tactics or capabilities that may mitigate the ability of a toxic person to hurt, you choose surroundings and relationships that minimize your exposure to such an individual in the first place. Based on my (limited) reading in this area, I would submit that Prevention involves two major factors: 1) avoiding the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing, the so-called "frenemy"; 2) looking at the social world as an ecosystem and seeking out a heterogeneous group of high-EQ friends, as such people are less likely to be competing for the exact same scarce resources that you are, and likely to prize a positive emotional environment.

The "frenemy" is a toxic individual who is able to camouflage his or her competitiveness and ambition by being socially astute. The defining feature of this person is opportunism---given an opportunity to gain status by lowering those of the former associates, the frenemy will do so without a moment's hesitation. Because this quality is concealed, the frenemy is able to procure valuable information by piggybacking on the natural bid/response and emotional disclosure aspects of normal friendships. This is also how the frenemy can do so much damage---typically the information is deployed in the form of malicious gossip against the former "friend" if and when the frenemy determines that this is expedient.

Thankfully, most men do not have to worry too much about frenemies. However, I believe that this is a very real threat to many women, at least women who work in highly competitive industries and/or who must navigate equally competitive social circles. Identifying the frenemy usually is not difficult, as the individual is typically characterized by a love of self-promotion, a social pattern that reveals rapidly-shifting alliances and relationships (that usually end with the individuals involved never speaking to one another again), examples of unforgiving and extremely judgmental behavior in regards to the perceived flaws of others, and a delight in gossip. I don't believe there is a better way to handle the frenemy problem than to treat the person involved as a potential worst-enemy throughout the relationship, and to limit all access to personal information.

If a social network is viewed as an ecosystem, then competitive forces can be reduced if members of the network occupy different niche areas in the system. Competition, as previously noted, creates a number of problems for legitimate, satisfying relationships. In a high-testosterone environment, competition sensitizes an unstable network and we know that inordinately massive retaliations can be expected once the inevitable transgression occurs. Thus, one possibility for reducing the latent potential for adverse emotional pain and SCARF-related attacks in a social system is to pursue a highly heterogeneous circle of friends and associates. Diversity hopefully creates slack, or a buffer between accidental insults or mild, forgivable personal attacks and large-scale, systemic consequences.

A study of the Japanese phenomenon of seppuku, or ritualized suicide, found that Japanese who are deeply shamed in one sector of their lives are frequently not able to compartmentalize the failure. In other words, a Japanese who suffers shame as a father cannot easily take solace in the fact that he is still a good employee, manager, husband, or friend---the failure in one region has spillover effects and engulfs the others, creating a sense of total loss and hopelessness. In such a scenario, suicide becomes attractive if it is recognized as a way to restore honor.

A less dramatic peril of basing too much of one's social life on the attitudes of a single, monolithic group of people---say, one's co-workers---is that a humiliating social situation within the group can similarly feel as if the world has ended. In the excellent risk-engineering book Normal Accidents, author Charles Perrow illustrates how "tightly-coupled" systems have failures in one segment that, through a type of domino effect, propagate through the entire system and cause catastrophe. Having a diverse group of friends, perhaps separated by interests, geography, demographics, and other qualities, may create a more loosely-coupled social network and less chance of a single event creating utter bedlam.


Tender ears may find some of the language in this closing classic a bit salty, but Pacino really delivers the goods.


  1. Great post--in a likely vain attempt to suggest a source you have not read...Barbara L. Fredrickson is also doing very interesting work with meditation and social resilience:

    Again, though, fascinating combination of sources.

  2. Thanks, Jay! Re: Frederickson...that one is new to me. I know that you have been involved in many/all of the disciplines described---would enjoy hearing about your experiences.

  3. Re: the whole "inner peace" angle: one could take it one step further and look at it from the perspective of a Sue Blackmore/Doug Hofstadter/atheist Buddhism and posit that there *is no permanent/consistent self*. Hofstadter's view is possibly the most radical in its implications for interpersonal relationships; he argues that if people spend enough time together, their "personality loops" basically exchange code and become intertwined, forming something new that also changes over time.

  4. Re: Hofstadter. That's a cool way of conceptualizing these things---sort of a new, joint-entity forms with its own personality.

    Re: Blackmore. I remember reading one of her pieces on memes, and how she felt that Buddhist practices would allow her to occasionally have these moments of clarity when she was able to experience meme-free direct experience. The discussion got pretty deep and I am probably losing many of the subtleties, but it was food for thought for a non-meditator like myself.

  5. On the toxic/destructive personality side: why do you think certain businesses seem to attract these people more than others? It appears to me that the passive-aggressive toxic types seem to clump together like algae.

  6. I agree with you...not sure of the cause. My guess would be that a critical mass of toxics gains management status, and is willing to tolerate high turnover rates. The toxics may be able to attract recruits with financial compensation, but the continuous SCARF-attacks and toxic work environment will get rid of most of the high-EQ types over time, leaving those who can either: A) somehow endure unending psychological games, or B) who will put up with it in order to climb the ladder themselves, then will take it all out on the next generation of plebes.

    I remember how quickly MBA students were willing to abandon some well-paying-but-high-toxicity industries when the boom seemed to bring with it the possibility of working in a Zen loft with a small, meritocratic tribe of high-EQ, adventure-travel-loving smarties, wearing comfortable outdoor-tech clothes in subtle earth tones, and working on imaginative, cool entrepreneurial projects between mochas and rounds of Hacky Sack. I guess Google tries to keep the dream alive...

  7. It would be interesting to try to produce some kind of process chart that shows how the business financials are affected as the toxic algae clump grows.

    I forgot to include this link in the previous comment:

    Basically the author splits the office into three categories: sociopaths, clueless, and losers. The sociopaths are the executive-level business drivers (Fisherian "Directors", I'd say) who can either be functional or toxic, but are still sociopathic. The clueless are the loyal middle managers (probably mostly Builders) who tie it together but don't realize they are interchangeable objects of manipulation. The losers are the workers who understand the game and are able to remain detached and find fulfillment outside the workplace (Explorers and Negotiators???).

    It's an extremely funny and profoundly depressing taxonomy of the workplace.

  8. Beyond the social and temporal paradigms, are we designed to transmit and receive, psychically, vibes from remote sources?

    Are we part of a cosmic transmission system which includes our subconcious which we dismiss to the real of the reverie of dreams?

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