Why Do People Overreact and Why It Is Natural?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Overreacting can be a harmful action, but nature and evolution are involved in why people overreact. Regardless of how trivial the event is, one must show power. However, it might cause more harm than good.

An image of irritated person breaking keyboard
Sometimes people show reactions to small problems that are way out of proportion. (Image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock)

Overreacting to even small things is a familiar experience. We all have seen people who shout with all their might at a waitress over a tiny mistake: ‘you are too stupid to work as a waitress, and if I were the owner of this restaurant, I would definitely fire you immediately’. What is all the drama about? The customer did not want pickles on his hamburger. It may look like a stupid behavior that ruins one’s reputation and social image, but our psychological system has a reason for that: protection. Protection seems to come with keeping the image and the relationships that we have built, but the underlying psychology of overreacting is different.

Learn more about solving psychological mysteries.

What Is Overreacting?

In the example above, the customer could have reacted much softer, tell the waitress in a normal tone that he did not want pickles, and wait for the new hamburger. But he chose to shatter his social image, hurt the other persons’ feelings, and create a scene. The result, however, was the same new hamburger.

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

Furious man stand dispute with guilty waitress bringing wrong order
We tend to overreact to trivial events. (Image: fizkes/Shutterstock)

Simply put, overreaction is a reaction that is too harsh for the action that preceded it. People usually react strongly to events that pose little or no tangible threat to them.

Looking at the pickles objectively, it was not at all a problem to provoke a reaction that fits a very serious life threat, but it did. The person who overreacts makes a fool out of themselves. They ruin social and personal relationships, they break personal possessions, they hurt other people’s feelings, and they are later even ashamed of what they did. All these negative outcomes are what we normally try to avoid, but we still lose control over not being able to get into the traffic line we want, and we overreact.

Learn more about why self-control is so hard.

Why Do People Overreact?

People try to protect themselves against dangers and threats, in order to survive as long as possible. How can any of these socially prohibited behaviors grant protection? They prevent more severe threats. All the events that lead to overreacting are small signs of disrespect, unfairness, condemnation, or similar negative behaviors. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that overreacting is the humans’ and even other mammals’ natural way of showing power to prevent serious threats that might come from the same source.

Angry man driving a vehicle without seat belt
People overreact to the smallest signs of unfairness, disrespect, or condemnation. (Image: Hayk_Shalunts/Shutterstock)

In the animal world, a good example of overreacting is territorial aggression. Many strangers get killed by their own kind, simply because they go into the wrong territory. They do not steal food or threaten the offspring, but they are immediately killed. The intruder is capable of doing all these harms, even before showing any sign. Animals react quickly by killing the intruder to keep their territory safe. Technically, they can wait for signs of danger and then act, but what if the stranger is too quick to control and does the damage before it is killed? Probably, animals that kill intruders immediately have a higher chance of survival.

When a human faces a mere threat, they naturally prefer to nip possible problems in the bud. By shouting at a waitress, one shows that they never stand any similar act, thus sending the message: don’t ever try to take advantage of me. In human societies, where the law is not strong enough, overreacting is more common.

Learn more about why prejudice and conflict are so common.

Psychology of Overreacting

Evolution built overreacting into animals and humans through psychological ‘updates’. Usually, people who overreact are entirely out of control and cause a lot of psychological and even physical damage. But the same evolution taught us to consider social norms to remain a member of society and survive. The contradiction comes from the fact that when someone begins to overreact, their mind is only focused on one thing: the act of disrespect.

For example, in street gangs, every member has to show that they are tough and do not allow any act of taking advantage. Otherwise, they might become a popular target for being taken advantage of. Researchers suggest that herders also react more robustly to trivial events because they are usually on their own and should protect their herd against potential thieves. As mentioned before, the law cannot do much for these people, and they prefer showing power.

So, people lose control and overreact because their nature tells them to. Whether it leads to our social survival or not is a whole different topic discussed in a separate article. But it is less related to people’s personalities, despite what it looks like.

Common Questions about Why People Overreact

Q: What does it mean when someone overreacts?

When a person reacts strongly to events that pose little or no tangible threat to them, they are overreacting. There are many reasons why people overreact, but disrespect is a major one.

Q: How do you know you are overreacting?

If you face a minimal issue that does not look dangerous at all, i.e., you are facing a situation where people overreact, and you lose control and act as if they threatened your life, you are overreacting.

Q: Is it okay to overreact?

It is natural and normal to overreact. Even animals overreact in their territories. But socially, regardless of why people overreact, it does a lot of harm to the person who does it and might even endanger their social life.

Q: Why do I overreact to stress?

Stress can be a sign of danger, and can thus provoke overreactions. Stress can be a consequence of a threat and threats are known to cause people to overreact.

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