Understanding Default Reactions: Why They’re Normal and How to Navigate Them

No matter how hard we try, our mind will operate on autopilot in a reflexive reaction. These instantaneous responses are influenced by a complex combination of biology, experience, culture, and cognition. But what exactly are these default reactions and why do we have them? 

Let’s start with a definition of default reactions. They are the automatic responses our brains generate in response to various stimuli. They're like pre-programmed scripts that kick in without conscious thought. Whether effective or not, they can urge us to check our phones when we hear that notification, smile when seeing someone we care about, or reacting to someone who we believe has wronged us. Whatever it is, it’s a part of our biology and is a part of our daily existence. 

One thing I get asked by clients is are these reactions normal? And why can’t I change them easily? First, yes, they are normal. Our brains are wired to be efficient. These reactions allow us to navigate situations quickly in order to conserve other resources for more challenging tasks. They are also a part of survival. Our brains started developing at conception and once we come into the world our brains will respond to stimuli. We learn quickly as children if we can trust our caregivers, how to interact with others, and what gets us the response we want. Those are learned behaviors that get repeated and reinforced into our brains. For example, the fight-or-flight response triggers physiological changes to help us respond rapidly to perceived threats.  

There are also cultural and social influences that shape our reactions. Whatever our environment looks like we get social cues from that environment. From body language to verbal communication, we adapt to fit into the social context we are a part of. As that progresses throughout our growth, we learn that certain things will get a positive response and other behaviors will get a negative response. If we are unable to meet those social norms we find a new group to be a part of that fits into our reality. 

We also like things to be predictable as it makes things easier for us to manage. Cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, influence our perception and decision making processes. This leads us to make predictable decisions that create patterns of default reactions.

While default reactions are a natural part of being human, they're not always accurate or appropriate for every situation. Often they cause more harm in our relationships especially when we are trying to make changes and keep getting stuck in those old patterns. But there is hope! There are many strategies to help you get unstuck in those old patterns. First and foremost is to have self awareness. Understanding your own thought patterns and emotional responses can help you make more conscious choices about how to respond. The next is probably one of the hardest points of change is to stop and reflect in the midst of a triggering situation. This is where we learn to respond instead of reacting and making sure that your response is in line with who you want to me. Questioning your own assumptions is a part of that as well. You have to be able to reflect on your own beliefs and determine if they are based on accurate information or something else. You also need to be flexible during this process and be willing to be open to alternative interpretations and responses. 

By understanding where our default reactions come from and learn to navigate them well, we can cultivate greater emotional intelligence, improve our decision-making abilities, and foster more meaningful connections with others. It’s important to remember our default reactions are a normal aspect of human behavior and it’s important to be mindful of how those interactions impact our relationships. But once we are able to master those reactions we can create more meaningful relationships.