Category Archives: the emotional brain

The Science Of I’m Sorry

The Science Of I'm Sorry
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How an apology helps to restore relations.

Many of us have been raised to think that anger is a bad thing. Something that should be avoided at all costs. In this post we discuss how it may be a good friend, to be nurtured and cultivated and when and how it may be avoided when things go south.

First a few words about emotions in general. There was a time when emotions were considered a distraction, things that prevent us from being rational, thinking objectively, making good decisions and executing them. Thanks to the many studies in recent years that all has changed. We now have a fair idea of the role of emotions in decision making, planning, even sticking to those plans and decisions and updating them where necessary.

At the core, all emotions (fear, happiness, disgust, anxiety, surprise et. al) play an important role to help us to survive and thrive. And this implies taking decisions in our self interest. Personal to us as an individual or to a community depending upon how we identify ourselves belonging to a particular group in a given context (Self Identity).

Now coming back to the topic, Anger is one of the most studied emotions by behavioral and neuroscientists. It’s easy to synthesize and measure anger in a lab. There are a few things research tells us about anger.

1. The word Anger covers a vast spectrum of emotions of varying intensities ranging from mild irritation to annoyance, aggression all the way up to hostility and then fury and rage. Unlike some other emotions like disgust, Anger is not a learnt emotion. Not something we learn as we grow, but we are very much born with it. Even a 5 days old baby who is playfully waving its hands and legs, if you try to hold its feet and pin it down even for a few seconds would show all the classic symptoms of anger. It’s face becomes red, heart beat goes up and the other physiological and neurochemical changes that may be measured in a lab.

Milder forms of anger such as aggression are very much useful and provide the much needed strength and motivation to overcome obstacles. Anger is an emotion that starts to impair our sense of risk and pain by releasing natural painkillers and other suppressants into the system. That is why a hurt player or a wounded soldier would sometime get aggressive, perhaps even be considered a daredevil (in hindsight) and do something quite dramatic in the face of all odds, fighting and winning against more powerful opponents.

But when the intensity of anger crosses into the domain of hostility, fury or rage, there is a complete breakdown of our sense of risk, pain, physical and mental awareness. And that is, when bad things start to happen.

2. The underpinnings of anger lies in our sense of fairness. An obligation or desire to set right what has been wronged. Anger cannot arise or sustain without the presence of a retribution component to punish the perpetrator for the undesirable act, which we think was unfair or did not fit our moral code (however convoluted or illogical that might appear to someone else). The tendency is to punish the agent sometime physically; sometimes just cognitively by inducing the emotions of sadness, shame, guilt, even fear. The objective: to prevent a repeat of any future such transgression.

3. Anger is always directed towards an intelligent agent. Someone who we think is capable of thinking and taking independent decisions; individuals, groups of people, governments and like. We may love food or watching movies or fear electric shocks or be disgusted of inanimate things but we cannot be angry towards just things, events or experiences.

Imagine you are in a hurry rushing through a store and suddenly an elbow thrusts you in the abdomen, As you recover, one can sense some anger rising towards this person. Then suddenly you realize, Oh! it’s not a person but just a mannequin to display clothes. We don’t start to exhibit our anger towards the mannequin. Immediately the focus of our anger shifts to the irresponsible worker who pushed the mannequin out there. Now sometimes it may appear as if inanimate objects etc. were being harmed or abused, but the real anger is directed towards the perpetrator with some intelligence (who we think caused the act).

Now this is also interesting and a topic of debate among behavioral scientists. Where and how would anger be directed towards in the case of a mishap in Artificially Intelligent systems: self driving cars, robots etc. Who would be blamed? The inanimate (but now intelligent) car, the creator (programmer/engineer), the owner or the Government which allowed them.

4. The dissipation of anger follows an inverse exponential decay path. The intensity of anger reduces slowly at first and then
much sharply as in the graph  below.

Inverse exponential decay of emotion
Courtesy International Handbook of Anger

Anger and other emotions are like a chemical storm in the brain. Imagine a bucket filled with water and some colored sand-like particles which is then stirred vigorously. Left to its own it would take some time for things to settle down before calm is restored.

Now the question that arises. How does an apology fit into this picture?
We all know that an apology on the part of the offender generally helps to dissipate anger. But how so?

Let’s think from the perpetrators point for a second. What does a sincere apology actually do? Isn’t it just another way of saying that normally I am a good and moral person, but this particular act that bothered you was not so. Therefore a sincere apology, in a way, helps to separate the agent from the act. Once the agent is cleared of the act, anger subsides much quickly.
Roger Petersen and Sarah Zukerman in The International Handbook of Anger describe the process as follows. When offenders apologize, anger, the desire for revenge, and levels of punishment are hypothesized to diminish. The causal processes are fourfold. First, by exhibiting the emotions of sorrow, sadness, regret, shame, or guilt, the offender demonstrates to the victim his/her humanity which enables the victim to overcome stereotypes brought on by anger. Second, the apology produces a separation between the offender and his negative action; the offense is shamed, but the perpetrator is not. In this way, the perpetrator’s inherent self-worth is redeemed and s/he becomes potentially worthy of restored relations and reconciliation with the victim.

The above graph for the decay of anger now becomes something like the one below. Doesn’t disappear altogether immediately. The chemical storm in the brain takes a while to settle down.

Courtesy International Handbook of Anger


To conclude; Anger is a spectrum of emotions, aimed at an intelligent agent, to preserve self identity in case of a transgress and very much essential for survival. The higher intensity emotion destroys our ability to reason. Unless provoked continuously it comes down on its own following an inverse exponential curve. A sincere apology and explanation separates the agent from the act and accelerates the process of restored relations.

New article in ‘Behavior By Brain’ series the Mint

The latest article in my series ‘Behavior By Brain’ in the Mint talks about the implication of the adolescent brain and its peculiarities.

The adolescent age is typically considered the most challenging phase for parents. They are also a tumultuous time for the youth. New researches show how the brain development shapes their behavior – from skewed reward perception, to heightened need for social rewards. And importantly, these researches show that its not the case that adolescents have a faulty brain that does not recognize risks – their risk perceptions are on equal footing as adults’.

Read more about why we should re-look at the policies for adolescents here.

Paris attack and the problem of categorization

Blog - Paris Attack

The Paris attacks have been a major shock and we are understandably upset. Most of us have been reminded of some of the earlier acts of terror such as the 26/11 attack in Mumbai or even 09/11 in New York. It also reminded us of the mixed emotions (fear, anger and despair) that we felt during the attacks.

 Since the earlier attacks were also targeted at civilians, we consider this act in the same vein. However, this Atlantic Article – What ISIS really wants suggests that, maybe, this attack is different. The article refers to the origin of the Islamic State from al-Qaeda, the formation of its leader al-Baghdadi, its strong belief of being a key agent of the apocalypse and many other qualities. But the most important point that it tries to make is that ISIS is not like al-Qaeda or any other organization that we tend to categorize as terrorists. The author suggests that we seem to have misunderstood jihadism as monolithic or of a single kind which it is not.

We can probably call this a problem of categorization or essentially mis-categorization.

Continue reading Paris attack and the problem of categorization

Getting emotional about razor cartridges

How do you feel about these two Gillette razor blades? Do you like one over the other? Which one would you use?


Though they may seem very similar except for the very obvious color choice, I feel that there will be a big difference in the way the two are used. The key is the color.

The one on the left, designed for Gillette Fusion razors, was launched earlier. The one on the right, designed for Gillette Fusion Power razors, was an enhancement to the product line. Thoughtfully or not, the designers have hit upon a great idea.
Continue reading Getting emotional about razor cartridges

How Emotional is Behavioral Economics?

Behavioral Economics is garnering more and more attention everyday. As it should be – the brain subscribes heavily to heuristics and mental models in order to process information efficiently. Our preferences are highly malleable and are usually constructed on the fly – which is why any field studying descriptive decision making would be incomplete if it didn’t take into account the effects that the decision context and decision frames have on our choices. Which is all very good for Behavioral Economics.

Daniel Kanhneman, Richard Thaler, Senthil Mullainathan, amongst many others drive this field and are creating a massive shift in thinking across several domains in classical economics – savings, investment, wealth, losses, gains. The definition of Behavioral Economics is wide. “It studies the effects of psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions and the consequences.” However, whilst the definition mentions ‘Emotional’, the reality is that the literature on Behavioral Economics falls painfully short when it comes to Emotions. System 1 & System 2, Prospect Theory, Choice Architecture, Choice Bracketing, Heuristics and Biases – whilst talking about how human beings are ‘economically irrational’ and the role of emotions in decision making, barely scratch the surface of the nuances of the Emotional System. Which is a pity, because Emotions do not merely play a role in Decision-Making, they guide the decision-making process. There are no decisions that are devoid of emotions, even ones that might seem extremely calculated and ‘rational’. We’ve written about the omnipotent role of Emotions before, here


The brain is continuously appraising our larger context, the surrounding environment and stimuli, and basis these appraisals – which could be non-conscious, or completely deliberative, the emotional system responds – determining action tendencies, and ultimately actions. These emotional responses clue us in on the values we attach to things and our motivations. People with damaged emotional circuits are severely hampered in their ability to make even the simplest of decisions. The essence is not in the simplicity of emotions as we colloquially understand but in the complex determinants of emotions. In understanding the role that aspects like Individuals Goals, Relevance to Decision Maker, Self-Image, Sense of Control, Ability to deal with the Outcomes play. The handles that these provide in explaining decision making, understanding behavioral outcomes and influencing preference changes are invaluable.

Lets talk about Investing – To Buy or Not is driven by  two dominant emotions that come into play and drive all decisions. The ‘Fear of Losing’ and the ‘Fear of Losing Out. Fear all the same. With all its positives and ramifications when fear has only cognitive underpinnings. Whilst Behavioral Economics talks about this aversion to loss, the emotions behind it – the aversion/avoidance that are driven as a result of Fear and anxiety are not detailed. Whilst felt Emotions are a huge driver of decisions, Anticipated Emotions are an even stronger influencer – anticipation of gains, losses, happiness, sadness, loss of control are very very powerful and are strong elicitors of Preference Reversals. Again, a lot of the Heuristics and Biases that Behavioral Economics talks about are driven fundamentally by Uncertainty – another powerful emotional mediator. Our decisions might not maximise economic utility, but are most often maximising emotional utility.

For Behavioral Economics to become more powerful and impactful, therefore, there is an immediate need to place emotions at the centre of this conversation so one is able to see the source of heuristics that drive our behavior and then work on one or more dimensions of the emotional determinants to influence decision making and behavioral outcomes. At FinalMile, studying these emotions is central to our process. We use insights/learnings from Cognitive Neuroscience as well as Behavioral Economics, to design our EMGRAM framework which allows us to make sense of the Emotions associated with any problem Context.

– Written with Anurag Vaish