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Did Will Smith Have an Amygdala Hijack?

That is what psychologist Daniel Goleman has described as the fight or flight response.  The amygdala, a tiny almond shaped structure in our brains, sometimes acts almost reflexively.  When a lion is after you, the theory goes, you don’t have time to make a thoughtful, considered decision.  It’s time to go!

Chris Rock was not a lion – and Will Smith wasn’t in physical danger.  But Will Smith obviously felt so threatened that he had to do something about it – right or wrong.  My theory is that Smith felt Rock’s joke to be an affront to his – and his wife’s – dignity.

Donna Hicks, who has written 2 excellent books about the role of dignity in interpersonal conflict, explains that an affront to one’s dignity can have very serious consequences.

“Dignity threats call up a reaction from our ancient emotion center as if our lives were on the line even when they are not.  When activated, our instincts do not know the difference between a physical threat and a psychological threat.  All they know is that we have experienced an assault and need to be ready for action – reactive, self-protective, defensive, maybe even violent action.”

          Donna Hicks, Dignity – it’s Essential Role in Resolving Conflict.

Later, when things calm down, you go back to your normal thinking with your prefrontal cortex.  That’s the part of your brain that helps you organize and plan – and restrain your actions.

Have you ever experienced an amygdala hijack?  I have!  When I was a kid, I used to blow up sometimes – stomp out of the room, and, for effect, slam the door behind me.  I wanted to make sure that whoever was in the room (especially my big brothers) knew for sure that I was ANGRY! Just in case there was any doubt.  (Flight!)

And then there was always that queasy feeling right afterward – what did I just do?  Did I mean it? Was it really that important?  Did I make things worse?  Did I just do something really stupid? It’s almost like someone else took over your brain for those few seconds.  And guess what, that’s what happened.

You could see that Will Smith was still emotionally undone when he stood up to give his Oscar acceptance speech – as if even he couldn’t understand what had transpired.  In that one moment, he did phenomenal damage to the image and reputation that he has spent decades creating.  His best selling autobiography, Will, is, as the sales page says, ‘the story of how one person mastered his own emotions.’  Well, obviously not enough.

The next day, in his apology to Chris Rock, Smith said, “I am embarrassed, and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be.” (Inc. Magazine called this one sentence ‘a masterclass in emotional intelligence.’).

Haven’t we ALL had amygdala hijacks? Especially when we are going through something particularly stressful, when our nervous systems are (for better or worse) on high alert. Maybe we’re not about to get an Oscar. But maybe we feeling backed into a corner by an ex.  Or feeling trapped in some way.  Or feeling like our dignity has been violated.

The question is what can we each do to prevent the amygdala hijack the next time?  I’m sure Will Smith is asking himself that question this week. But it’s a question we all need to ask ourselves, too.  He ended his apology by saying, “I am a work in progress.”  Aren’t we all?


Joy Rosenthal

Joy S. Rosenthal, Esq. is a compassionate mediator, a skilled negotiator and an intelligent litigator with extensive background in the private and public sectors. Joy served as a Staff Attorney at the Legal Aid Society's Juvenile Rights Division for nearly 10 years, where she represented hundreds of children and teenagers… MORE

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