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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Stec

Giving ulcers to avoid ulcers

Fire the Messenger Is it true that CEO’s take out their stress on the consultants, who take it out on the flight attendants, who take it out on you and me? Psychologists refer to displacement as a common defense mechanism, in which "a person redirects a negative emotion from its original source to a less threatening recipient.” As the former rec league soccer player at the bottom of the totem pole, I have been the emotional punching bag a few times myself. There is fascinating support for displacement in nature, indicating there is likely a biological basis for this behavior. If you shock a rat, normally its glucocorticoid (stress hormone) levels and blood pressure rise. If you let the rat run on a running wheel, eat, or angstily gnaw on some wood to cope, these physiological changes are less severe. But the best therapy is to just let the rat bite another innocent rat. Take that! The story is similar with baboons. I’ve been reading about this in Robert Sapolsky’s 2017 book, Behave:

“Among baboons, […] nearly half of aggression is [displaced aggression]—a high-ranking male loses a fight and chases a subadult male, who promptly bites a female, who then lunges at an infant. My research shows that within the same dominance rank, the more a baboon tends to displace aggression after losing a fight, the lower his glucocorticoid levels.” (1)

Here’s where the situation gets a bit bleak. In humans, rates of domestic violence increase during economic downturns, when stress levels are certainly much higher across households. Instances of spousal/partner violence by men increase 10% after the local NFL team unexpectedly loses. This increase jumps to 20% when it’s a playoff upset to a close rival. Many people cope with their frustrations by biting, like those rats, those perceived to be less dangerous, and Sapolsky is likely correct when he quips, “giving an ulcer helps avoid getting one.”

There Isn't Any Other Flight? Setting serious domestic disputes aside, as those deserve special consideration way beyond my qualifications, I do want to dig into how displacement shows up in more routine situations. At work, in the supermarket, at the airport, and so forth, I think displacement accounts for much more of observed aggression and snippiness than is commonly believed. The dead-eyed, exhausted airline service agent may be a bit curt, but not when you consider the raw count of insufferable numbskulls she’s already had to deal with that day. While coordinating with or working for someone under immense stress, most of the emotional flack you take from them is likely sourced from someplace else. This is why the author Robert Greene has suggested don’t take things too personally. As he stated in a 2018 interview,

“People are infinitely complicated, complex. They have a wealth of emotions. They’re going through things that you’re not even beginning to see. And if you can begin to pierce their masks, and get inside their psychology, and understand where they’re coming from, suddenly the whole game changes, and what you say and how you act with them will change as well, and you will find your relationships are much smoother.”

Understanding where they’re coming from is tough, because it requires empathy. Which is apparently something we have less of these days, with social media making us impossibly narcissistic and close-minded and all that (I am a fun person at parties). Even so, Chris Voss, the famed hostage negotiator, has suggested that tactical empathy can be an effective tool for negotiating in highly stressful and emotional situations. I think “negotiating” here generalizes to “dealing with others in a sociable, productive manner.” Here’s an example he has given (also from the airport):

“I’m sorry, I know this isn’t your job to give directions,’ you can say to the overworked and under-appreciated TSA agent, ‘but where is the Delta lounge?’” (2)

Tactical empathy is about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, understanding their situation and acting accordingly to preserve a working relationship. From what I’ve seen, spewing “do you know who I am?” while flashing a membership status card only makes people snicker derisively and pull out their phones to start recording the inevitable emotional escalation. Sometimes it's impossible to work with someone completely off the rails. But for most common stressful situations, I think it's helpful to be aware of displaced emotions so that you don't take any snippiness too personally. And how about when you're stressed yourself?



1) Behave, Robert Sapolsky


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