Every time I cross the street in front of my apartment building, I engage in a reluctant game of Frogger. For the majority of drivers speeding along, the point-and-walk pedestrian crossing is an afterthought. Despite the big, illuminated X and flashing yellow lights, cars either blow past me mid-crossing—causing me to shake my fist in anger—or I hear screeching breaks and a string of profanities. Once, after being called a dumbass for not pointing before walking, I became so irritated that I responded with an impolite finger. Months later, I still think about that infuriating incident every time I cross the street.
I’m not the only one who dwells. “Negative experiences tend to be more salient, and for this reason can have greater impact than positive experiences on our emotional health,” explains Karen Rook, a psychology and social behaviour professor at the University of California, Irvine, and an early researcher in the field of negative social interaction (NSI). They’re also, according to Gordon Flett, a psychology professor at York University and Canada research chair in personality and health, “one of the most impactful forms of stress on people.” Even worse than the residual wrath, however, are the health consequences that can come with it: frequent NSIs have been linked with depression and could also possibly exacerbate a pre-existing heart condition. So not only do these types of encounters cloud our headspace, they can also harm our health if they’re happening all the time.
Although we tend to describe our reaction to an NSI with emotional lingo—our feelings are hurt, we’re furious—our body responds in kind. Terry Borsook, a post-doctoral researcher in health psychology at the University of Toronto, says that NSI triggers the same physical symptoms we experience when our body goes into fight-or-flight mode—shutting down non-essential services (such as appetite and immune response) in order to mobilize energy and numb pain. Sounds helpful (especially if I am ever clipped by a car at the crosswalk), but frequent activation causes the types of health problems mentioned earlier.
While Borsook’s research focuses primarily on the impact of psychological factors on how we regulate things such as NSI, the mental and physical consequences for the perpetrators are similar. “People who instigate NSI haven’t satisfied their own healthy need for connection,” Flett speculates. “They’re engaging in a maladaptive approach in that they feel they’ll get some control over the other person. But in the end it only alienates them.”
So, why do we engage in NSI in the first place? It is possible that a take-no-prisoners approach to life is actually built into our DNA. Brian Lakey, a psychology professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, points to one hypothesis: our historic need for aggression to ensure survival. It’s not all blood and glory, though: “Humans have an impressive capacity for aggression and critical analysis; in some ways, I would say those are two things that as a species we do really well. But we’ve learned to regulate these tendencies as a culture, so they are therefore modifiable.”
Narrowing down the psychosocial profile of a negative person brings up all the usual terminology you’d expect to hear—narcissism, insecurity, low self-esteem, general jerkiness—but Lakey says it also hinges on the notion that self-control is a depletable resource.
The concept, coined “ego depletion,” was first proposed by social psychologist Roy Baumeister in 1998. He maintains that once an act of choice or self-control has been made, resources have been expended, thus making us more prone to emotional volatility and less able to exert self-regulation when engaging in other acts. Just as muscles grow tired from overexertion, so do acts of self-control cause short-term impairment. In one study, Baumeister presented participants with both chocolate-chip cookies and radishes, allowing them to taste only one or the other. (Being forced to forgo cookies for a radish would be enough to make me angry.) When presented with a subsequent task—in the form of an unsolvable puzzle—that required self-control, the participants who ate the radishes while being told to avoid the cookies gave up quicker than those who indulged in the sweets. The resulting ego depletion of the radish-eating participants is, in essence, a state of diminished resources following a task that requires an elevated level of self-control.
“If you have a difficult day at work that requires you to stay in control the whole time, that uses up your resources,” Lakey says. “And if you come home and your partner says something that’s moderately provocative that you could normally navigate, that may result in you snapping back.” By this rationale, you could speculate that the driver who called me a dumbass had just used up all her self-control not freaking out on someone else.
All hope is not lost, however. Baumeister has found that just as athletes have energy reserves, so do we have stores of self-control when we can anticipate further challenges ahead. A working mother, for example, knows that even after a trying day at the office, she has to maintain some self-control for dealing with her kids at home.
Of course, if that same mother skipped lunch, she may have a more difficult time of it. Baumeister says there’s a link between ego depletion, loss of self-control and low glucose levels in the brain, which explains extreme dieters’ propensity for negative interaction. (Hello, Naomi Campbell.)
“Glucose is the chemical in the bloodstream that carries energy to the brain, muscles and other organs and systems,” Baumeister explained in an interview with the American Psychological Association, continuing on to note that decreased levels of it make acts of self-control difficult. Something as simple as adding some sugar (not sweetener) to your latte or eating an apple could get you back to a normal, rational level of control for a short time.
Although random, out-of-nowhere NSIs can catch us off guard, negative interactions with a friend or family member are even harder to shake. “Stranger interactions are going to be perplexing and upsetting to a certain degree,” Flett says. “But when it’s someone close to you, it evokes a stronger emotional reaction and that’s going to have a profound impact.”
On the bright side, there’s also more opportunity to talk it out after the fact. “If you need to be assertive in order to stand up for yourself in a positive, proactive way,” says Flett, “then it’s important to communicate [your reasons for doing so] with the person afterwards. People need to learn positive forms of communication.” Humans, for the most part, are not delicate creatures that crumble in the face of social adversity. Negative and positive interaction is “a part of the fabric of daily life,” Lakey says, “and most people are able to regulate that pretty well.”
That said, there are coping tactics that can help us brush things off more easily. William Irvine, a philosophy professor at Wright State University in Ohio and author of A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt—And Why They Shouldn’t, advises employing a tactic he calls “insult pacifism,” which basically entails not responding at all. “[The insulter] will find herself frustrated by this response,” he writes. “She had intended to hurt, discomfit, or at least to have fun at [the pacifist’s] expense. Her plan has obviously failed miserably.” It’s a classic “take the high road” kind of approach.
If, however, moral superiority isn’t your knee-jerk reaction (clearly, it isn’t mine), Baumeister advises using humour to temporarily defuse the situation, which can counteract the effects of ego depletion. He also advises formulating “if-then” scenarios before entering a situation where more self-control may be required—If she says this, then I’ll do this—but of course this approach only works if you’re actively anticipating an NSI.
Fostering social connectedness through healthy relationships is the first step in protecting yourself from the fallout of an NSI, Borsook says. “They can help by reducing the likelihood that any one sour interaction will be perceived as threatening. Good relationships can buffer you because you’ll tend to be less vulnerable to the effects of any single interaction, even a negative one.” Lakey agrees, noting that the social interactions we have with others are how we regulate our emotions—going home to a happy relationship, for instance, can ease the pain of a crappy day.
As for how to cope if you’re the one most often initiating NSI? The answer is similar to that for any addictive behaviour: You have to want to change. “It’s like breaking a bad habit,” says Andrea Dinardo, psychologist and co-author of Essentials of Understanding Psychology. Once again, having a strong support network can go a long way: “You need to check in with someone and you have to be open to them telling you how to change.”
It’s doubtful that any of us can avoid NSIs entirely, but we can try to approach them more mindfully when they do happen. The next time I cross the road and incite someone’s rage, for instance, I’m going to try to laugh it off. But in the hopes of avoiding that scenario altogether, I always point before crossing now. And I use a much more polite finger to do it.