Emotional Impairment


Posted on July 30, 2010 by Blake Leath

Remember 1982 and that brain-rut-inducing Thomas Dolby song, She Blinded Me with Science? 

Science can be blinding--and blind--but today let's explore how Emotions can be, too.

(Science, of course, can be blind because it presumes itself to be the determinant of what is real.  It is the great judge, jury and executioner.  And yet, on matters such as art or ethics, science has little if anything to say.  Genomes or no genomes, deconstruction is no panacea.)

But what do I mean by "Emotional Impairment" or "Emotional Blindness?"  Simply put, I mean that emotions can swallow us whole and, once enveloped within their darkness it is virtually impossible to see our hands in front of our face.

There's a great book that describes similar phenomena, but let me attack it this way...

Forget for a moment the limbic system and all the hormones (which play absolutely vital roles in emotion) and let's just focus on two psychological elements: (1)Loss Avoidance and (2)Commitment.

As denoted by the image below, when one's "Opposition to Loss" (loss avoidance) and "Commitment" escalate, we have a recipe to brew disaster.



Examples are ubiquitous, from gambling and airplane crashes to suicide and high-risk behaviors.  Wherever we see an individual tied to high-stakes, we are right if we see trouble.

Let's take a current example, one that I'm sure has universal applications: War.

Whether we look at "Civil" Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq...or the thousands of wars that have been waged non-stop since the dawn of humankind, we see leaders in the crosshairs.  Leaders like Lyndon B. Johnson, who felt a tremendous pull between the war in Vietnam and his commitment stateside to create the Great Society.  Here's a great, representative quote from LBJ in 1968.  At the time, America had 500,000 troops in Vietnam and there had been tens of thousands of U.S. casualties:

“I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved.  If I left the woman I really loved – the Great Society – in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home.  All my programs, all my dreams to provide education and medical care.  But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, there would follow in this country an endless national debate – a mean and destructive debate – that would shatter my presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy.”


What happens when we, as leaders, become consumed by Loss Avoidance while simultaneously Escalating our Commitment?  We go blind.

We send more and more troops into un-win-able wars.  We change mission.  We broaden mission through scope-creep.  We change the game.  We change the rules.  We change the scoreboard.  We sell, we push, we spin.  We beg for more.  We ask and take and dicker and steal and we, along with all those around us, go up in flames.

I have a sweet friend whom everyone calls, "Zippo."  Why Zippo? 

Because every time he opens his mouth, he lights himself on fire.

He has no (in the words of my mother) "governor."  No filter between his brain and his tongue.  Or, perhaps too permeable a filter.

We all know Zippos.  "Did he just say that?" we ask ourselves.  And maybe, just maybe, it occurs to them after they've said what they've said..."did I just say that out loud?"

Beware your emotions.  Yes, they serve a prehistoric purpose, without which you will win the Darwin Award.

As human beings, it is true that our emotions often supersede rational thought.  We are reaction machines, our pulse often telling the story before we ourselves are attuned to our anger.

Be vigilant and self-aware, especially when--while reaching for the prize--you scale to the tippy-top of a precarious ladder comprised of self-justifying rungs named "I cannot lose" and "No turning back."  The air up there gets very, very thin...and where so, we stop thinking, stop seeing clearly and become blind to our own emotionality.

Surround yourself with buddies, fail-safes, ejection seats and fire extinguishers.  People who can say, "What are you thinking?  What are you telling yourself?  Why are you acting like this?  Who have you become, Mr. Hyde?"  And mechanisms designed to break the glass and douse the flames while you extricate yourself from your burning building and all that you have wrought.