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What happens in the brain when we dislike somebody

Crissy M.

If you’ve ever unfriended someone on Facebook or muted a person on Twitter, then you understand what it’s like to viscerally dislike a person. Although these tools give us an “out of sight, out of mind” way to cleanse our lives of what we don’t want to see, we can never truly avoid the feeling of ‘dislike’ altogether.

Indeed, dislike is a necessary survival mechanism that humans have been using to get by for centuries, way before the jungle of social media took over. Here’s how the mind-body connection involved in disliking someone works. In order to understand what happens in your body when you dislike someone, you can start by trying to understand fear. As Robert Sapolsky writes in “Why Your Brain Hates Other People,” when we see someone who even looks different from us, “there is preferential activation of the amygdala,” which means the brain region associated with fear and aggression flares up. This visceral, emotional reaction can spark a long-term pattern of dislike when it’s validated by action: if you perceive that someone has hurt you, your fear of them becomes rational. Our negative feelings toward someone get stronger as bad experiences with them pile up, and these negative thoughts trigger the fight-or-flight response in our bodies. As AJ Marsden, assistant professor of Psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, puts it, “our fight-or-flight response is our bodies way of dealing with a stressor.”

Stressors that trigger fight-or-flight need not be life or death, though, says Marsden: “Sadly, our body cannot tell the difference between an actual stressor (being chased by someone with a knife) and a perceived stressor (having work with someone you hate).” This is why seeing posts from your high school bully can make you feel the anxiety of being bullied all over again: your fearful associations with disliking the person trigger your own need to protect yourself. Over time, this response puts stress on our bodies, conditioning us to be more skeptical of a person’s actions than we would be if we felt neutral about them. “In the mind, the neural connections become stronger and cause us to dwell more on the negative aspects of that person,” says Marsden. “Even if they were to do something positive, we’d pay more attention to the negative because that’s what we’ve trained our brain to do.” This explains why we have a seemingly endless list of negative facts about people we dislike, even if our rational brain would tell us there has to be something redeeming about them. This heightened arousal of our fearful instincts causes us to dread future interactions with people we dislike. In turn, this conditions us into even further dislike of that person, which just validates our negative feelings. In this way, our distaste for another person becomes like a snake eating its tail: we dislike them because they make us feel bad, and we feel bad because we dislike them.

But since there’s no “Black Mirror”-style real life-muting feature, we have to learn how to overcome dislike in order to get on with our daily lives. As Marsden points out, our dislike has a tendency to negatively impact our own behavior with co-workers and mutual friends: “If we don’t like a person, we may be short with them or interrupt them without realizing it. They notice our rudeness toward them and often respond with rudeness, confirming our negative thoughts about that person.” The key to breaking this vicious cycle, Marsden says, is mindfulness; when you’re aware of how your dislike influences your body (and your behavior), you can start to condition yourself to respond rationally. When it comes to dislike, maybe “out of sight, out of mind, out of control” is a better-amended motto. Since dislike is rooted in a fear of the unknown, perhaps understanding more about where our dislike comes from can help us overcome its influence on our behavior. And when all else fails, there’s always the ‘block’ feature.

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