TIFT #97: The Origin of Human Irrationality

tift Feb 27, 2024


What makes humans so prone to irrational and maladaptive patterns? Entrenched Maladaptive Patterns (EMPs), are products of the human mind. Other mammals have minds, too, that is, a brain that takes in information, identifies threats and opportunities, and generates responses calculated to improve survival and procreation. But humans experience far more responses that are irrational and dysfunctional. In this post, I discuss some new thoughts as to why this might be so.

First, we narrow the field to how the mind deals with threats

The problem patterns psychotherapy aims to change are essentially all responses to threats, as opposed to opportunities, so let’s just look at the former. When nonhuman mammals face a threat, their responses are straightforward and generally effective. Fight, flight, freeze. Each has its place and they all improve the chances of survival. We can add some more. Young mammals cling, cry out for their mother when lost, and actively seek milk or food. When they are facing insurmountable odds, they freeze and that works as well as anything. So, whatever the problem, there is an answer, tested by evolution to be the best available. End of story.

Humans are different

In humans, automatic responses to threats are frequently irrational and maladaptive. In fact, responding in ways that are not in our best interest is endemic to human life. This is of particular interest to therapists since EMPs are at the center of what psychotherapy aims to change. An obvious answer is that human life, especially our social life, is more complex and therefore more subject to error. Plausible, yes, but that is not the answer. We’ll have to look more closely at how and why humans respond to threats.

How humans are the same as other mammals

First, when it comes to dealing with threats by producing automatic, unconsciously generated responses, our brain structure and functioning are very similar to those of other mammals. Jaak Panksepp shows how our limbic brain structures produce similar emotional responses and learned fear research shows that the neurophysiology of human responses is essentially the same as those of other mammals. Looking at the full range of EMPs, two things stand out. First, entrenched maladaptive patterns represent attempts to solve serious challenges in life, whether in early life or later under traumatic conditions. Second, because they are aimed at coping with serious problems, the mind resists change and retains them indefinitely.

What about the problems being solved makes them so challenging?

First, I tried “insoluble problems.” But that didn’t work because there are instances of EMPs being relatively effective solutions, at least in early life. For example, unconsciously developing a rule that “one must never trust” deals effectively, at least for a while, with the problem of untrustworthy caregivers. Next, I thought, it might be problems of “existential significance” that lead to costly responses. That isn’t always true either. Circumstances can be intensely uncomfortable but not life-threatening. Looking deeper at how EMPs are triggered by limbic emotion gave a better answer.

“Toxic stress” is the trigger for developing EMPs

Many things in life are stressful. That just means they are challenging. What makes some challenges toxic on a different level is that they surpass our ability to cope. That’s a definition of toxic stress: problems that are beyond our capacity to resolve. An example would be having an absolute need to perform a feat that our mind predicts is beyond our strength or ability. We all know that causes intense feelings of stress. When the boss makes demands above what we think we can do successfully, we experience toxic stress.

But why are responses to toxic stress so often maladaptive?

Here is the interesting part. I think the answer is our human access to the dimension of time. What happens with humans when we experience toxic stress is that we say, consciously or not, “never again.” The idea of “never again” presupposes that we are thinking in terms of time future. I don’t think our mammalian friends have that capacity. They apply the most appropriate response and live with the results. But humans are capable of planning, conceiving of how things are now and how they might be at another time. Planning is a function that requires using symbols to represent the present and compare it with the future. It’s what allowed primitive humans to plan the making of an arrowhead, starting with a rough piece of stone. This advanced capacity is what allows us to make a rule. Once caught off guard and humiliated one might make a rule that this will “never happen again.”

What gives toxic stress such power?

Toxic stress is so highly motivating that it leads us to accept solutions that create problems in themselves. The driver is the intensity of negative limbic emotion. This is what I have called the “dread,” a negative emotion so dreaded that it leads to a willingness to do practically anything to avoid experiencing it again. (See TIFTs #42 and #43 on the “dread.”)

We know that the expression of all EMPs is triggered by negative “limbic emotion,” that is, the unconscious emotion arising in the limbic system that sets responses in motion. Anticipation of a collision between what is possible and what we must achieve generates one of the most intense forms of internal distress, one further aggravated by the anticipation that it may happen again.

The problem with never again is that preventing something from ever happening is not only challenging but requires strategies that exact a serious toll on our lives. In the example of being caught off guard, it means constantly being on guard for the rest of life, a very costly solution. This desperate problem-solving is the fundamental cause of human EMPs.

Five strategies for avoidance of limbic emotion

Five possible paths lead to hope of “never again” experiencing the pain of a particular toxic stress. Each of them comes at a heavy cost, either in degradation of present life, distortion of functioning, or indefinite maintenance of tension and inability to end the stress cycle.

  1. Sacrifice. The mind abandons or turns against an area of functioning responsible for the toxic stress. Arrested development or abandonment of some skill is the result. For example, following sexual abuse, an individual might abandon sexuality altogether.
  2. Distortion of reality: A second form of sacrifice is to compromise reality testing. The ability to determine what is real or true is exceedingly valuable. Anna Freud’s defenses as well as the cognitive distortions of CBT are examples of the mind’s changing reality, with the aim of avoiding a dreaded limbic emotion. The cost is the constant possibility of being ambushed by evidence contrary to the soothing fiction.
  3. Waiting for repair: Another common strategy is to avoid dealing with intense anger and sadness by putting one’s hope in some future solution to the toxic stress. People who have been neglected in early life may wait in hope for someone to give them the love they missed out on. Then they won’t have to face the feelings. Or they may wait for a caregiver finally to admit to wrongdoing, thus making forgiveness unnecessary. In both cases, painful emotions are avoided by deferral into the indefinite future. This, unfortunately, keeps the stress cycle going as the individual awaits a hoped-for solution that will never take place.
  4. Bracing: Maintaining a stance of readiness for the toxic situation to reoccur is another deferral strategy. This too prevents closure or termination of the stress cycle. The client stays in a waiting mode with a degree of chronic, often unconscious tension and loss of useful energy.
  5. Hyper-function: A final strategy is to improve functioning in some area so much that it promises to eliminate the intolerable emotion. This is the only strategy that can be of real benefit in life. It can also distort functioning in ways that are unhealthy. Learning to manipulate others would be such a solution.

How therapy offers better answers than “never again”

Understanding why human solutions to toxic stress are, themselves, so costly also explains how psychotherapy can so often propose a better solution. Psychotherapy offers the possibility of rewriting the implicit, unconscious rule that drives the sacrifice, distortion, or vigilance. Instead, we propose facing painful feelings, often more feasible in adulthood than earlier, or pursuing avoided experiences and skill-building in life. What we propose in return for these difficult passages is improved functioning and satisfaction in life. We can also promise, at last, coming to closure, that is, ending the stress cycle. Interestingly, these healthier solutions coincide precisely with the goals prescribed in ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. We suggest acceptance that one must face deferred emotions and commitment to stop holding back and engage with life.

Where does therapy start?

Therapy doesn’t start in earnest until we have acknowledged and discussed the pros and cons of the maladaptive pattern. That may be helpful but the intense and important work is lowering barriers to facing the dread. That means exploring together the specific nature of the intensely negative limbic emotion until it “resonates” as the thing the EMP is trying to eliminate. A good way to think about it is seeking accurate empathy, that is, a deep and lucid understanding of the original circumstance and the life consequences that have followed.

Request for comments

Much of this post is fresh thinking and not yet subjected to peer review. I’d love to hear what readers think and if you have questions about this post.


 Phot credit: Tengyart, Unsplash


New! 1 Month Free Trial Membership in our Therapy Coaching Community

Howtherapyworks' Psychotherapy Coaching Community might be the source of guidance you have been looking for.




For new readers: 

 Free Gift Infographic 

The Common Infrastructure of Psychotherapy

How lucid clinical understanding of change processes will free you from the limitations of "branded" therapies and transform your practice.

Join our mailing list to receive the biweekly TIFTs as well as news and updates. Unsubscribe at any time

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.