Psychology of Overreacting and the Social Influence

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

The psychology of overreacting explains that people overreact to protect themselves against threats. It might look like a personality trait, but social influence plays a much stronger role in how much people overreact.

Selfish young man rejected by society because of his annoying behavior.
When people overreact, they are often rejected by their peers. (Image: GoodStudio/Shutterstock)

Overreacting is a common behavior in human and even animal societies, and like everything else, also a product of evolution. So, there is an underlying psychology of overreacting that can explain why it happens. In simple words, we overreact to protect ourselves from threats and dangers. Many mammals learned, through evolution, to overreact and not tolerate even the smallest ‘potential’ threats, in order to protect themselves from real danger.

Psychology of Overreacting Explained

Our bodies evolved to detect and fight social threats, as well as physical ones because being a member of society became vital for surviving. Hence, we feel regret, our hearts break, and our feelings hurt to keep us from repeating a socially dangerous act. When we overreact, we break all the social rules that evolution has set for us over the years.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that this reaction may be built into human nature, i.e., overreacting is also a product of evolution. Perhaps, animals that immediately killed the intruder instead of waiting to see if it is a real threat had a higher chance of survival. What about humans?

Angry guy with controller pad play console.
Psychology suggests we overreact to protect ourselves, but usually, we hurt ourselves instead. (Image: Voyagerix/Shutterstock)

People overreact to anything that might lead to, for example, being exploited. The psychology of overreacting explains shouting at a person who blocks your way in the traffic. This reaction is to take a stand and show that you are not the type of person that can be taken advantage of. If you build a social image as the person who does not care about being treated unfairly, you introduce yourself as a target for exploitation and similar acts. So we overreact to nip the problem in the bud. When we overreact, we do not care if we successfully prevent the problem or we create new problems.

Learn more about Why People Are So Full of Themselves

Overreacting Creates Real Problems, but People Still Do It

When people overreact, they go blind to everything but the single cause of overreaction. Imagine someone that wants to join the traffic of another street. The car that he wants to overtake does not let him pass and makes him wait some seconds longer. The driver of the first car that was rejected entry gets mad, starts shouting, and chases the other car intending to stop it and attack the car with a baseball bat.

Now imagine that he does that: he made a fool out of himself, disappointed his wife sitting next to him, hurt someone else emotionally and financially, got into some legal problems, and is now most probably embarrassed. Not blending into the traffic was not even a real problem, but now he has caused some serious problems, even legally. The point is, he might not be a tense person in general, and these behaviors might even shock him after he gains back his senses.

Closeup of a wife breaking up relationship, leaving the wedding ring on the hand of her husband
People who overreact often lose control and later regret all they have done. (Image: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock)

People can think of only one thing at a time, and usually, they jump quickly from one thought to another. But when people focus on only one thing—the traffic, in our example—they literally lose the ability to switch between thoughts and think about other things. When this happens, all norms, values, and social rules that generally help people control their behavior cannot influence them anymore. Hence, we overreact even if it takes many things away from us.

Learn more about Why Self-Control Is So Hard

Why Do Some People Overreact More than Others?

Assuming this is a natural way to behave, we can still see that some people do it more often. Is it because of their personality? This is the easiest reason to assume, but it can only be one reason, not the only one. Of course, some people tend to overreact more than others under the same conditions. But alone, it does not determine the tendency of overreacting.

Another reason for overreacting more is the environment. If there is nothing to protect one from being mistreated, they have to defend their rights alone. The next factor is how society views overreacting.

Culture of Honor

In the absence of effective laws, people tend to overreact more. Under such conditions, people try hard to defend their reputations and react strongly to insults and other signs of disrespect. This is referred to as a ‘culture of honor’. In the psychology of overreacting, these circumstances force people to overreact more than those in a society with stronger laws. In addition, it is important how overreacting is viewed.

Learn more about If Subliminal Messages Affect Behavior

Social View toward Overreacting

In the old American society, people who overreacted were viewed as weak ones who have no control. When society frowns upon an act, the members try to avoid it in order to remain socially acceptable. But modern American society sees people who overreact as those who can stand up for their own rights and ‘defend their territory’. Consequently, overreaction has increased in the modern U.S. In the words of one writer, America has become ‘angrified’.

Maybe more than any underlying factor, the social acceptance and the view toward overreacting can control it.

Common Questions about Psychology of Overreacting

Q: What causes overreaction?

As far as the psychology of overreacting is concerned, overreaction is a natural behavior to stop potential threats before they even emerge.

Q: Why do I overreact to small things?

Every small thing can be a sign of a potentially big problem. The psychology of overreacting explains that people try to protect themselves against any potential threat; thus, they overreact to trivial events.

Q: Where did the culture of honor come from?

Culture of honor forms in the lack of a strong observing system and law, when people have to fight for their own protection. It can be explained by the psychology of overreacting and how you need to create the image of a person who cannot be taken advantage of.

Q: How can you tell if someone is overreacting?

If a minimal incident causes a reaction much too big for it, the person is overreacting. In the psychology of overreacting, the reason is protecting oneself against potential upcoming threats and dangers.

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