Why Do People Cheat?

“People usually cheat because there is a conflict between their physical and emotional desires,” said an article I read on the Internet, and it went on to talk about the sex drive (which comes from the reptilian brain) and the “emotional monogamous” need, which has only been around for a few thousand years.

The reptilian brain has been around for millions of years, the limbic brain less than that, and the neocortex, still less than that. Those are our three brains, in evolutionary succession. The drives and instincts from the reptilian brain are very strong because they’re related to survival – reproduction being one of them.

But the sex drive isn’t the only instinct coming from the reptilian brain, and monogamy not the only societal restraint put on these drives, and when we fail to mitigate some of these instincts, to think them through before acting upon them, we always end up “cheating” – ourselves, others, and the best deal in the situation.

Emotional intelligence is all about using all of our brains and their capacities. We will always be assaulted, so to speak, by feelings we can’t, or shouldn’t act upon. And “shouldn’t” isn’t always a bad word. Should you kill someone because they anger you? Of course not. What stops you from doing it? The thousands of years of evolutionary brain development, the constraints of the civilized society in which you live, and your ability to use your limbic and neocortex brains.

It is a rare parent, for instance, who will do willful damage to their own child, no matter what damage they cause. This is because the limbic brain controls the emotions of social bonding and parenting, and then we also have the neocortex which allows us to think. The catch is, we have to STOP and THINK. We “understand” when our toddler slams us across the nose with a brick all the things that we understand, while we’re seeing stars before out eyes, and our parental instinct is stronger than our desire to lash back, even when in pain.

Emotions predate thinking, and are stronger. They’re our guides and keep us safe and alive. But they aren’t always appropriate to living in this century. We can no longer “eat what annoys us.” When we get strong emotions, we can be “hijacked,” because they’re designed to shut down thinking. If, back when these instincts developed, we stopped to think, we would be dead.

Consider, for instance, if a wooly mammoth were headed your way. The brain pumps out chemicals saying “fight or flight,” because it doesn’t want us to take the time to think. This triggers “automatic” responses – we turn and run, or turn to fight, with all systems on full alert.

You know this feeling if you’ve avoided a car accident by very fast and automatic actions. Being a cerebral type, the thought even flashed through my mind as I slammed on the brakes the other day to avoid being blind-sided by a driver who must’ve been drunk or stoned, “that cake on the back seat is going to be all over this car.” But slam the brakes and steer for dear-life I did, long before I thought, at least in terms of the seconds it takes to save your life.

People talk about this phenomenon, BTW, saying things like “My life passed before my eyes.” It’s like you think, but it isn’t connected to action, and there’s a very distorted sense of time. If you’ve had it happen, you know what I mean. There are times when “time stands still.”

One strong emotion that “hijacks” us is anger. Say you’re at work, tired and pressured to begin with, and maybe it’s too hot inside with no air circulation, and maybe the colleague you have to team with on a project isn’t your favorite to begin with. If he says to you something that is, or is perceived to be, an insult, you can get “hijacked” and cheat yourself, the other, and the goals of the project. You stop thinking and start yelling back, or walk out, and the project is left far behind in the dust and damage may also be done to the collegial relationship.

Must you react to this strong emotion of anger? Sometimes men say they couldn’t help hitting their wives “because she made me angry.” The counter to that is – think about it – if Mike Tyson made you that angry could you “help’ hitting him? I think you will agree with the statement that even the strongest emotions can be controlled in your self-interest, and stopping to think makes it clearer what your self-interest (and the general good) is.

Another strong emotion like this is fear. If you become intimidated by someone, that is to say scared, you will also get flooded with emotion and not think clearly. You’ll “cheat” again – yourself, the others, and the goals.

You know this feeling if you’ve ever received terrible news. I sat with someone as her doctor told her she had cancer and it was terminal, and the person did not absorb what was being said. Two weeks later she asked me why something was being done, and I had to tell her the news the doctor had. As a self-preservation measure, her brain just shut down.

So how do you keep from cheating? When the emotions are strong, note them, and experience them, but don’t react immediately. Respond instead. This means putting a gap between the stimulus (the angering person or event) and your response (action). You can do this first of all by becoming aware. Self-awareness is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. Without it, there can be no emotional intelligence.

You need to be able to observe yourself and recognize a feeling as it happens. Then handle it appropriately, realizing what’s behind it and finding ways to manage fear, anger, anxieties and sadness. Then channel the emotions in the service of the goal, using emotional self-control, stifling impulses and delaying gratification. Finally, you have to be able to do this about the other person, being sensitive to their feelings and understanding their position, and, when necessary, managing the emotions of others using social competence.

Those impulses will always be lurking around. Cheating is an option, not a necessity. It’s your ability to choose that gives you Personal Power, an EQ competency, and your freedom lies in that space between the stimulus and the response.