Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Emotional hijacking

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Emotional hijacking:
Why do we lose control, and how can we gain it back?
Parodyfilm.svgGo to a 3 min. audiovisual overview of this chapter.


Figure 1. A drawing of an anger expression from 1770.

Picture this. You are at work with an exceptionally sore throat. Today you are performing a role that requires excessive use of your voice. You call the supervisor, and ask him if anyone else can swap with you. Although you are busy, you can see people in the office who have been having a friendly chat for most of their shift. Ten minutes pass. You start to feel the temperature rise. Your thoughts start to blur, with only black and white thoughts peeking through the mind-fog. "They never do any work, I'm so sick of it". Your teeth are grinding. After twenty minutes, the supervisor comes back and says "Sorry, they don't want to".

What do you do?

Chances are that your answer is not congruent with what you would actually do. And chances are, looking back, you would regret your actions. If so, this is an example of emotional hijacking. Whether they feel negative, or positive, emotional hijacks lack conscious control, and can lead to negative consequences. It is not an issue in the animal kingdom; a world governed by machine-like motivation, with no inferential reasoning ability for emotion to hijack (Penn & Povinelli, 2007). In modern humans, however, emotional hijacking is pervasive and harmful.

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  1. Define and understand the two categories of emotional hijacking
  2. Understand how and why our brains are susceptible to emotional hijacking
  3. Identify the various treatments and theories regarding emotional regulation
  4. Gain control of these emotions through an understanding of this psychological theory

Definition and examples[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Positive hijacks Negative hijacks
Love/Attraction Angry outburst
Obsession The fight or flight response
Drug addiction Self harm behaviours
Table 1. Types of emotional hijacking

History and relation to impulsivity[edit]

The term 'amygdala hijacking' was first used by Daniel Goleman (1995). According to Goleman (1995), an amygdala hijack refers to when the emotional parts of the brain respond to a perceived threat before the rational parts, leading to irrational behavior that one may later regret. These instances are more commonly called emotional hijacking. Although emotional hijacking can fit under the broader term 'impulsivity', it is important to differentiate between the two. Impulsivity is a general personality trait, defined as the tendency to act quickly, in risky ways, without considering consequences (Evenden, 1999). It is important to note that impulsivity is a predisposition (Moeller, Barratt, Dougherty, Schmitz & Swann, 2001). Emotional hijacking refers to the specific processes and situations by which the emotional part of the brain overrides the logical part. Impulsivity is not necessary for emotional hijacking to occur, however, if you are impulsive, your brain is more susceptible to hijacking[factual?].


Types of emotional hijacking have not been adequately defined in the [which?] literature. One definition can be considered, in which positive hijacking is characterised by approach tendencies; and negative hijacking by avoidance ones[factual?]. This definition does not hold up however; an angry outburst is an approach behaviour, yet it is quite obviously a negative hijacking[factual?]. For the purposes of this chapter, positive hijacking will be defined as the hijacking of the rational brain by positive emotion; and vice versa for negative hijacking. One anomaly remains; the case of drug addiction. It will be considered a form of positive hijacking, given that the user's mind is hijacked by positive emotion towards the drug, and the negative effects are merely consequences of use.

Examples of negative and positive hijacking occurring in pop culture[edit]

Figure 2 - Michael Richards at the 1992 Emmy awards

On November 17th, 2006, during a stand-up comedy performance, Michael Richards (Also known as Cosmo Kramer from the popular TV show Seinfeld) responded to a group of hecklers with a racist tirade, repeatedly swearing and referring to them in a derogatory way. Michael later apologized for his actions stating that he regretted them. However, the damage was done, and his career in stand-up comedy was over. This was an example of negative hijacking.

On May 24th, 2005, Tom Cruise appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show visibly excited due to his newfound relationship with actress, Katie Holmes. Spurred on by the audience's applause, Tom began acting erratically, and jumped on her couch. The video quickly became viral and Tom was ridiculed for his strange behavior. This was an example of positive hijacking.

Why do our emotions get hijacked?[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Evolutionary theory[edit]

Sometime in our past, a 'great leap forward' in human cognitive function occurred. This ascendancy to the helm of the animal kingdom was caused by changes in the frontal lobes (Smaers & Soligo, 2013; Coolidge & Wynn, 2001; Semendeferi, Damasio, & Frank, 1997). Although we gained an immeasurable advantage over animals during this evolutionary big bang, we did not entirely evolve away from our animal brain.

Stable, widespread evolution can take millions of years to occur (Uyeda, Hansen, Arnold, & Pienaar, 2011). Contrast this with the fact that the human race had only started to collect into towns and cities;[grammar?] to establish cultures, and to live together, ford[spelling?] the past 7,000 years (Lampard, 1955). Achieving this required extensive socialisation, and most importantly, the inhibition of primal needs for the good of the society{{g]]. It is easy to see why the phenomenon of emotional hijacking is a profound problem in our societies. As Daniel Goleman quoted, 'The human brain hasn't had a hardware upgrade in 100,000 years' (Goleman, 1995).

Cumulative continuity[edit]

Cumulative continuity is the tendency for traits to become more consistent over the course of a lifetime (Mullings, Marquart, & Diamond, 2001). It is thought that children with a certain trait,[grammar?] will be drawn towards situations that reinforce that trait. Numerous studies have found that children with emotional problems early in life carry these into adulthood (Caspi, Bem, & Elder, 1987; Caspi, & Silva ,1995). Although emotional hijacking happens to everyone, some people may be far more vulnerable than others.

Does emotion build up?[edit]

It is commonly thought that suppressed emotions can buildup and cause emotional outbursts (Farooqi, 2008). According to the cognitive neo-association theory[factual?], negative emotions form a network of memories and thoughts in the mind. Thus, the more negative experiences, thoughts and behaviours a person experiences, the more readily accessible they will be in the future (Bushman, 2002). This directly contradicts the catharsis hypothesis; that venting anger will release it and "cleanse" it from the mind (Gentile, 2013). According to the neo-association model, ignoring anger will actually lead to less anger. However, it is important to note, that if one does not act on anger, yet thinks and ruminates about it, the anger will build up[factual?]. Also, some research has shown that 'bottling up' emotion can lead to outbursts (Roberton, Daffern, & Bucks, 2012)[explain?][Provide more detail].

What about anxiety disorders? Interestingly, the opposite effect is found. Avoiding the anxiety/fear inducing stimulus can lead to an increase in fear, due to the strengthening of the avoidance behaviour and a lack of opportunity to desensitize from it (Krypotos, Effting, Kindt, & Beckers, 2015).

Physiological Mechanisms[edit]

[Provide more detail]


Various genes are thought to contribute to emotional hijacking[factual?]. Monoamine oxidase is a chemical in the brain that breaks down serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline. People with a certain variant of a gene that encodes this chemical, known as MAOA-L, demonstrate an increased amygdala response, and less control over emotional urges (Hunter, 2010). Interestingly, these individuals are only more aggressive when provoked (McDermott, Tingly, Cowden, Frazzetto, & Johnson, 2009). Another gene that encodes MAO-A; MAOA-uVNTR, has been found to play a role in panic attacks and agoraphobia (Reif et al., 2013)[Provide more detail].

Bottom up inhibition of rational thought[edit]

Figure 3 - Location of the amygdala

[Provide more detail]

The amygdala[edit]

The amygdala was the primary emotional hijacking culprit outlined by Goleman (1995). The amygdala receives connections directly from the thalamus;[grammar?] which functions as the sensory switchboard of the brain. Although this route is primitive, it is incredibly fast;[grammar?] ensuring quick instinctive responses in survival situations. A secondary route comes through the sensory cortex. This route is more realistic, yet slower (Phelps & LeDoux, 2005). The amygdala interprets these basic building blocks of sensory experience, and initiates a series of changes in the brain if they are deemed threatening. The amygdala can release hormones and neurotransmitters to 'switch off' or dampen activity in certain brain regions (LeDoux, 2007; Garcia, Voimba, Baudry, and Thompson, 1999).

The reward pathway[edit]

Alt text
Figure 4. Connections between the frontal lobe and the reward centres

The various types of addiction can lead people to act antisocially and take risks without forethought. Addiction is thought to be controlled by the striatum region of the brain, which contains the tegmental area (where dopamine is manufactured), and the nucleus accumbens; a brain region involved in reward and reinforcement (Wise, 2002). Everitt and Robbins (2005) stated that drug addiction was due to the striatum gaining more control over behavior than the frontal lobes.

The insular cortex[edit]

The insular cortex plays a variety of roles; however, its main role is the integration of bodily states into a sense of a whole self, a process known as Interoception (Craig, 2009). The insular cortex plays a large role in emotional hijackings, given that it is responsible for the bodily experience of emotion. The insula has been found to play a major role in drug cravings (Naqvi & Bechara, 2009) and in panic disorder (Gorka, Nelson, Phan, & Shankman, 2014).

Top down inhibition of emotion[edit]

Alt text
Figure 5. Location of the frontal lobe

Top down inhibition is the ability of higher cortical areas in the frontal lobe to inhibit the impulsive, emotionally charged signals sent by the lower 'reptilian brain'. Top down inhibition is imperative to long-term goal-directed activity and proper socialization.

The anterior cingulate cortex[edit]

Etkin, Egner, Peraza, Kandel, and Hirsh (2006) investigated the effect of the anterior cingulate cortex on amygdala activity. They used a stroop test which presented either happy or fearful faces with the words 'happy' or 'fear' over the top. Subjects had to determine whether the pictures and words were congruent or incongruent. They found that activation of the rostral anterior cingulate cortex during the conflict-inducing stroop test was associated with decreased activation in the amygdala, suggesting that this activation resolved the conflict created by the amygdala.

The orbitofrontal cortex[edit]

The Orbito Frontal Cortex (OFC) is largely responsible for the learned value of environmental stimuli. Crews and Boettiger (2009) summarised a number of research studies which found that addiction was related to low orbitofrontal activity.

Case study
Phineas Gage
Figure 6 - Recreation of Phineas Gages skull

Phineas Gage was a railway construction worker in the 1850s. One day, while pushing explosives into a small hole to clear rock, Phineas became distracted and inadvertently ignited the powder, sending a 3.2 cm thick, 1.1 metre long iron rod through his left frontal lobe. The enormous changes in personality that occurred in Phineas as a result of this have been widely documented. His doctor, John Harlow had this too say:

"He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires. ... A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, though untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart business man, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation" "

—(Harlow, 1993, p 277)

Harlows[grammar?] description of Phineas shows how necessary the frontal lobe is to emotional control. Without it, the subcortical structures have nothing to hijack. They are all that is left to control behaviour.

How can we regain control over our emotions?[edit]

So we know how and why emotional hijacking is caused. What can be done about it?

Emotional intelligence theory[edit]

Emotional intelligence theory follows the same motivation as positive psychology; to increase strengths instead of decreasing psychopathology. It was first outlined by Mayer and Salovey (1990) Emotional intelligence was defined as:

"The ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions

—(Mayer & Salovey, 1990, p 189)

Mayer and Salovey brought together scattered research and conceptualised it into 3 categories of emotional intelligence. The first is the ability to appraise and express emotion, both verbally and non verbally (interested in testing how good you are at this ability? Take this test!). The second is how well an individual can regulate this emotion, in themselves in others. The final category is how well one can use emotions to solve problems. Emotions can help solve problems through encouraging flexible planning, creative thinking, and a redirection of attention. So what has this got to do with emotional hijacking?

Emotional intelligence, which can be thought of as the opposing process to emotional hijacking, has a genetic heritability of .41 (Vernon, Petrides, Bratko, & Schermer, 2008). It is up to the individual, and the society to influence the other 59%, and many programs have been designed to do this. Emotional intelligence programs are an effective way to reduce emotional hijackings on a large scale.

The efficacy of emotional intelligence interventions[edit]

There are numerous researchers and foundations implementing emotional intelligence interventions, with moderate levels of success. They are useful and have been proven to benefit their participants. Slaski and Cartwright (2003) implemented an emotional intelligence treatment in a sample of general managers, and found it decreased their distress by 10.5%. Brackett & Katulaks (2006) interventions in a number of US schools improved a [vague] number of [what?] outcomes, most notably a decrease in problem behaviour by students.

Gross' process model of emotional regulation[edit]

Figure 7. The process model of Emotion-Regulation.

The process model of emotional regulation attempts to describe how different emotion regulating strategies can occur at different points in the emotion generation process. According to the modal model of emotion, the situation leads to attention, which leads to a cognitive appraisal, which then leads to a response (Gross & Thompson, 2007). In Gross's process model, there are 5 different strategies that can be used to manage emotion different stages of the modal model. They can be divided into two main categories (Gross, 2002):

  • Antecendent focused: Preventing the emotion from occurring
  • Response focused: Dealing with the emotion after it has occurred.

The following descriptions are derived from Gross's (2002) article.

Situation selection[edit]

Situation selection is actively choosing situations to avoid a certain emotion. For example, choosing to staying at home instead of going out to avoid a panic attack.

Situation modification[edit]

Situation modification is the act of changing the event as it is occurring. An example of situation modification is removing all triggers from your surroundings to prevent a relapse into addiction.

Attentional deployment[edit]

Attentional deployment is the act of distracting oneself from the event by thinking of something else. An example of attentional deployment is counting to ten while in the midst of an anger outburst. Attentional deployment studies generally follow the following protocol:

  • In active tasks, subjects are instructed to distract themselves from the emotion by thinking of something unrelated
  • In passive tasks, subjects are given a distracting activity and given no instructions or indication that it was to distract from the emotion.

Positive means that the distraction is meant to induce positive effect, and neutral means that it is not meant to induce an emotion.[say what?]

[missing something?]

Cognitive change[edit]

Cognitive change is the act of reappraising a situation in a more positive light. An example of cognitive change is an[grammar?] wife attributing her abusive spouses[grammar?] behaviour to external factors; her rational thinking hijacked by her love.

Response modulation[edit]

Response modulation is suppressing emotion after it has already been generated by ignoring it and not expressing it. An example of response modulation is taking benzodiazepine drugs to avoid severe social phobia at a party.

Which emotional regulation strategy is the most effective?[edit]

Webb, Miles, and Sheeran (2012) found the following effect sizes for each type of {{what]] technique, through a comprehensive meta analysis of the emotion regulation literature.

Table 2. Effect sizes for 'Attentional Deployment
Passively taking part in a positive distracting task

d = 0.18

Passively taking part in a neutral distracting task

d = 0.23

Actively taking part in a positive distracting task

d = 0.47

Actively taking part in a neutral distracting task

d = 0.38

Table 3. Effect sizes for cognitive change
Reappraising the cognitive stimulus

d = 0.45

Taking on anothers perspective

d = 0.36

Reappraising the emotional outcome

d = 0.23

Table 4. Effect sizes for response modulation
Supressing[spelling?] the expression of emotion

d = 0.32

Supressing experience of emotion

d = -0.04

Supressing thoughts of the event

d = -0.12

Interpreting these findings

An effect size is a measure of how much of an impact a treatment has on the target. The higher the number, the greater the effect. It is important to interpret effect sizes according to their context. All of these effect sizes found fall within the range of small to moderate according to Cohens[grammar?] criteria (Cohen, 1988). This means they have a small to moderate effect on emotion. Specifically, what these findings imply is that the most effective strategies for managing emotion is: (a) Active distraction via a positive task; (b) reappraisal of the situation; (c) taking on anothers's perspective; and (d) suppressing the expression of emotion.

Other methods of treating emotional hijacking[edit]

[Provide more detail]


Mindfulness is the practice of observing emotions and thoughts non-judgmentally. Harned, Banawan, & Lynch (2006) suggest that it might be a form of exposure therapy; that simply observing emotions without escaping, avoiding, or approaching them will lead to extinction of detrimental reactions. Mindfulness practice forms a habit of observing non judgmentally, which then competes with the natural tendency to distort and react to reality. Desbordes and colleagues (2012) found that mindfulness training significantly attenuated the amygdala response to positive and negative images. See this website for free mindfulness exercises.

Labelling emotions[edit]

Research by Lieberman and colleagues (2007) found that labeling emotions significantly dampened the amygdala response to fearful and angry faces. There was no effect when the control group was asked to label the faces gender.

Tools clipart.png

How to implement these treatments[edit]

So how can we use this information to prevent emotional hijackings? According to Gollwitzer (1993), unless we create an intention to implement a certain behaviour, we are not likely to act. Preparing these 'implementation intentions' is imperative if we are to remember what to do in the midst of an emotional hijacking. So how can we prepare them? Try this exercise!

  1. Sit down and be mindful for a couple of minutes
  2. Imagine a situation where your emotions could become hijacked
  3. Say to yourself the following things
    1. 'I will actively attempt avoid things that trigger my emotional hijackings, as far as it is reasonable'
    2. 'Whenever I sense a situation where emotional hijacking could occur, i will pay close attention to my emotions'
    3. 'If I detect any strong emotion rising, I will label it'
    4. 'If action is not urgent, I will reappraise the situation so that I see it in a more positive way'
    5. 'If action is urgent, I will suppress any expression of emotion, and find an excuse to delay a response until I have had time to think about the situation
    6. 'After reappraisal, I will attempt to distract myself from it by being mindful or engaging in a positive task'

Do this exercise as many times as necessary. It is also important to practice mindfulness. Being present helps to identify negative situations and to deal with negative emotions after they surface.


Throughout human history, emotional hijacking has been a prevalent, and adaptive phenomenon. However, in modern times, experiencing emotional hijacking can be a humiliating and frustrating experience. The fact that brain structures and genes largely determine susceptibility to emotional hijacking should not be a signal to concede defeat and give up control. It is well within our ability to determine how we react to our emotional reactions. Our brain is plastic. Just as practising aggression and anger makes them more likely to occur in the future; if we practice healthily regulating our emotions, we will become more effective at doing so in the future. We can use mindfulness to keep a close watchful eye on our feelings, and we can regain control of our emotions, by learning how to appraise, express and utilise them in appropriate ways.

Test your knowledge


Impulsivity and emotional hijacking are identical concepts



Emotional hijacking occurs when the subcortical brain structures overpower the frontal lobes



Which of the following are examples of emotional hijacking?

Drug use
Celebrating enegetically[spelling?] after winning a competition
Crying after the death of a loved one
Having a panic attack
Becoming obsessed with a relationship partner
Going home and sleeping after a rough day
Feeling scared when attempting a dangerous challenge
Abusing the cashier at a fast food outlet because your chicken is late


Which part of Phineus Gages[grammar?] brain was damaged (Note: The answer is three words long)
Area =


I am furious. What should I do to control this emotion? True, or false?

Scream and hit a punching bag.
Distract myself with something completely unrelated.
Scream profanities at the person who caused this emotion.
Refrain from acting on the emotion, but ruminate about it later.

See also[edit]


Brackett, M. A., & Katulak, N. A. (2006). Emotional intelligence in the classroom: Skill-based training for teachers and students. In J. Ciarrochi & J. D. Mayer (Eds.), Improving emotional intelligence: A practitioner’s guide (pp. 1-27). New York: Psychology Press/Taylor & Francis.

Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(6): 724 - 731. doi:

Caspi, A., Bem, D. J., & Elder, G. H. (1987). Moving against the world: Life-course patterns of explosive children. Developmental Psychology, 23(2): 308-313. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.23.2.308

Caspi, A., & Silva, P. A. (1995). Temperamental qualities at age three predict personality traits in young adulthood: Longitudinal evidence from a birth cohort. Child Development, 66(2): 486-498. doi:10.2307/1131592

Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Edition. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Coolidge, F. L., & Wynn, T. (2001). Executive functions of the frontal lobes and the evolutionary ascendancy of homo sapiens. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 11(2), 255-260. Retrieved from

Craig, A. D. (2009). How do you feel - now? The anterior insula and human awareness. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(1), 59-70. doi:10.1038/nrn2555

Crews, F. T., & Boettiger, C. A. (2009). Impulsivity, frontal lobes and risk for addiction. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 93(3): 237 - 247. doi: 10.1016/j.pbb.2009.04.018

Desbordes, G., Negi, L. T., Pace, T. W. W., Wallace, B. A., Raison, C. L., & Schwartz, E. L. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6(292): 1 - 15. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00292

Etkin, A., Egner, T., Peraza, D. M., Kandel, E. R., & Hirsh, J. (2006). Resolving emotional conflict: A role for the rostral anterior cingulate cortex in modulating activity in the amygdala. Neuron, 52(6): 871-872. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2006.07.029

Evenden, J. (1999). Impulsivity: a discussion of clinical and experimental findings. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 13(2), 180-192. doi: 10.1177/026988119901300211

Everitt, B. J., & Robbins, T. W. (2005). Neural systems of reinforcement for drug addiction: from actions to habits to compulsion. Nature Neuroscience, 8(11), 1481-1489. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2008.09.027

Farooqi, S. (2008, November 30th). Emotional hijacking: The trigger to an unhealthy mind. Retrieved from

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Gentile, D. A. (2013). Catharsis and media violence: A conceptual analysis. Societies, 3, 491-510. doi:10.3390/soc3040491

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Gross, J. J., & Thompson, R. A. (2007). Emotion regulation: Conceptual foundations. In J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp. 3-24). New York: Guilford Press.

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Gorka, S. M., Nelson, B. D., Phan, K. L., & Shankman, S. A. (2014). Insula response to unpredictable and predictable aversiveness in individuals with panic disorder and comorbid depression. Biology of Mood and Anxiety Disorders, 4(9): doi:10.1186/2045-5380-4-9

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Harned, M. S., Banawan, S. F., & Lynch, T. R. (2006). Dialectical behavior therapy: Am emotion-focused treatment for borderline personality disorder. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 36, 67-75. doi:10.1007/s10879-006-9009-x

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Krypotos, A. M., Effting, M., Kindt, M., & Beckers, T. (2015). Avoidance learning: a review of theoretical models and recent developments. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 9(189). doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00189

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McDermott, R., Tingley, D., Cowden, J., Frazzetto, G., & Johnson, D. D. P. (2009). Monoamine oxidase a gene (MAOA) predicts behavioral aggression following provocation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(7): 2118 - 2123. Retrieved from

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External links[edit]