Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Emotional Pragmatism for Cyclists and Other Humans

Like sitting ducks? Or like water off their backs?

Emotional Pragmatism1 (EP): to manage the emotional dimensions of any event in order to obtain the best possible outcome for yourself as well as others involved. The value of any emotional response is utterly dependent on the results it produces. For most people, this implies that an emotional response which yields increased well-being, health, overall happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment, and so on2, is more valuable, while emotional responses which undermine those, are not. To manage the emotional dimensions means to take control of them, to assess and monitor them, to manipulate them, to understand and master them, to your own advantage. This is emotional pragmatism. It is fiendishly difficult, and immensely rewarding.

EP Abilities
EP ability (A), emotional self-control. We have the ability to control our own emotional responses to a great extent, and to improve this control through focus, and practice. It is possible to consciously direct our emotional responses to emphasize the ones we find more effective and valuable through the experiences of our daily lives, and to limit or control the ones we find too costly. It's cool.

EP ability (B) , emotional recognition. We have the ability to recognize, identify, and categorize emotional responses in others, through empathy, through understanding, through studying human nature and history. Part of being human is having an instinctive sense of the emotional state, the ebb and flow, the storm and calm, of  the other. It's chemical.

EP ability (C), emotional manipulation. We have the ability to manipulate the emotions of others (and ourselves, by treating self as other) by pushing the easy buttons of the most powerful and most primitive emotions that most people have the most trouble controlling. This can be done directly with trigger words, body language, and non-verbal communication, and indirectly by tweaking the EP ability B, emotional recognition, to your own advantage, recognizing that several emotional responses are cascading chain-reactions that once triggered are extremely hard to moderate and typically run until they exhaust their fuel supply. Emotional manipulation is rarely seen as good, and is often used for evil purposes. Here, I am only advocating using it for good, for employing EP ability C in order to steer emotional chaos, primarily in conflict situations, toward a positive outcome. It's covert.

Discussion Scenario 1: Ask a police officer. When an officer arrives on a scene with two people, one of whom is raving, screaming, pushing, swearing, and threatening the other, while the other is standing calmly, being respectful and compliant to the officer, answering questions openly, providing information, and merely asking for information and assistance in return, who do you think is going to come out on top? Use a level tone and simple, declarative sentences. Chronology, cause and effect, what would a reasonable person do. Report your emotions but do not let them run away with you. If you were in fear for your life then say so. Any person in a similar situation would be. Speak quietly and evenly. Don't worry about stoking your ego or righting the horrible wrong that has been done to you, your only concern is to employ precise and smart EP in order to win. If you win, all those other things you want will also fall into place, while if you lose, well, you lose, and your ego will not get stoked, the horrible wrong done to you will not be righted, and possibly worse.

The Default Human Emotional State (DHES): I take it as given that a certain percentage of my fellow road users at any given time are some combination of ill, lonely, ego-maniacal, hungover, stressed out, drunk or otherwise altered, ignorant, praying and preparing for the rapture / end-of-days, batshit crazy, and/or dead tired, and are running on a hair-trigger just looking for a target for their rage, which I refer to as The Default Human Emotional State (DHES).3 I note in passing that cyclists are humans, so cyclists also by definition are riding around wrapped up in the DHES, also looking for easy targets for their rage, and pissed off motorists typically jump to the top of that list. The core of EP for cyclists is to overcome their own DHES in order to manipulate and dominate the emotional chaos swirling around them, to their own advantage. To win, through mastering and using the EP ABCs.

Drive-by raging: the aim of a drive-by raging is to push your buttons, to pull you off your game, and onto the rage stage, to engage you at a primitive level, to enrage you, to intimidate you, to activate you as a raging, hating, violent beast. Since rage is a rush, this is typically an easy invitation to join in the party. But, don't allow the drive-by rager to pull you off your game and into theirs. If you do, they win, and you lose. Often, the best response to road rage is to disengage, emotionally, and physically. Evade and escape. If you ignore it and ride away, you win. If you disengage and something further occurs, the police report will show: the bicyclist made every effort to disengage and ride away, while the motorist pursued and attacked. My first and primary response was to evade, escape, defuse. Slow down, turn away, stop, ride on. Don't allow your buttons to be pushed by a maniac. Don't take the bait. You are a duck, anger is water rolling off your EP back. If something further occurs, physical contact or worse, EP is your best tool. Exercise emotional self-control, recognition, and manipulation, while the other rages, and you win. Join the rager, and you might as well flip a coin: either might win, either might lose, but most likely, both will lose. From a game theory perspective, I like the EP strategy. Blue wins.

Rule #1 of EP for cyclists involved in a road rage encounter, the Blue Wins Rule: if no physical contact or harm occurred4, you control your emotions, you fall on your sword, you dive on top of that emotional hand grenade, and you ride away. Escape, evade, disengage, slow down, take a right turn, move on, ride happy. Life is too short to attack windmills with your rage sword. Let it go. You will never even make a dent in the DHES by raging back at it. That is a losing strategy.

The nuclear reactor analogy: One built from the latest design, an ESBWR, in a non-earthquake area, far from the sea. I do not want to be the nuclear fuel. I don't want to be the neutron moderator, or the coolant. I don't want to be the containment vessel, the turbine, the generator, the wires, switches, or the transformers. I certainly don't want to be the gigawatts of power. I don't even want to be the technicians in the control room pushing the buttons. In the nuclear reactor of the emotional chaos of our world, I want to be the person upstairs who manages the technicians in the control room, who push the buttons, that control the rods, the pumps, the switches, monitor the lights, and watch the computers. The manager upstairs is the EP-master in the world of emotional chaos.

These are my initial notes on EP for cyclists. It seems like every day, or nearly so, that I see, and read about, cyclists making simple, basic, non-EP mistakes. Rage, rage, rage, all ye DHES-dwellers, get your mean-ass kicks and drag us all down, down, down. Thanks, but no. Much of my blog has been about EP, although I haven't always thought about it this way. I am convinced that to rage or to rage back is to lose, and that EP offers effective approaches for navigating the emotional chaos swirling around us such that we find our way to better, safer, happier riding. That's where I'm going, or trying to go on my ride. More to come, I'm sure.

You have to be one cool-headed duck to waddle across that line

1I have read "Emotional Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman, and found it useful and intriguing. I should go back and read it some more, probably, but this is not intended to be about that, or based on it. I don't think you can really test EI/EQ, while on the other hand, all I want to claim about EP is that it can be used to manage emotional chaos in conflict, and can be improved with experience over time. This is meant to be news you can use on the road. 

2"and so on" includes, possibly, non-incarceration, reasonable insurance rates, non-visits to the ER, improved community, and a more civil atmosphere, to name a few more.

3The DHES may be the best argument in favor of separate facilities for cyclists and why they work so well in some locales, since they provide physical separation, buttressed by legal separation, between the DHES and physically more vulnerable targets which are the most attractive outlets for the DHES, but I don't have the privilege of cycling in those facilities currently. So I use EP.

4Of course, if physical contact or harm did occur, you make sure you are safe, try to get the license plate, dial 911, and if there's still danger, get the hell out of there. 


  1. Well said... and can be applied to all aspects of life.

  2. I've been considering this post for a while and will consider it more...

    1. It's all I could ask, that someone mulls over these thoughts a bit. In truth, I grow tired of all the rage out there, the reality TV, the middle fingers, the he said, she said crap. This seemed like the sensible route for me to take. Everyone has to find their own route, though, and my route may not resonate with others. Perhaps Vannevar, and David Spranger, saw a few useful thoughts here, or something that triggered further thoughts for them. Thanks all for posting.


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