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How to Make the Most of Being an Emotional Neanderthal (Hint: You are and just don’t know it)

By Dr. Jean Greaves

My daughter came home from school a few years back and announced that as a modern human, I have 4% Neanderthal DNA still in me. We chuckled over a possible resemblance, but the thought stuck with me. Were obvious emotions like fear or anger in ancient people similar to feelings like defensiveness or frustration between people at work? Duke professor Mark Leary has an interesting answer based on his review of research across disciplines, including neuroscience and psychology. People across cultures, young and old, rural and urban, are living with five ancient instincts that trigger strong emotions to motivate specific behaviors. People have strong instincts to:

1) belong to groups
2) be socially accepted
3) influence others
4) protect themselves from people who might harm them
5) form close relationships.

These core instincts are the source of our feelings and motivate us to act. These instincts enabled early humans to survive and adapt to the challenges in their world, and they are just as relevant today. The difference is they must be understood and responded to consciously. Otherwise, you’re just a caveman with an iPhone.

If you’re seeking greater self-awareness, consider the following insights and questions to help you to understand how these ancient triggers influence your behavior:

Instinct #1: We want to belong to groups

People were motivated to belong to groups. One human had a better chance of surviving when joining with another, sharing shelter, food, learning from each other, and divvying up the tasks of living such as hunting, fighting predators, or traveling to a new location. People still want to belong to groups. The drive to belong shows up in children across the school years. Young and old, belonging manifests in families, sports and academic clubs, book groups, hobby groups, professional associations, project teams, even online chat rooms for people with common interests. People are drawn to do and say what it takes to join groups. When we aren't welcomed, we feel hurt or isolated. We begin thinking about what it will take to get in. We feel happy, satisfied, or content when we belong; and we feel sad, frustrated, or anxious when we don't. Finding another group is the only solution. We would rather feel connected than rejected.

What is the role of belonging in your life? Ask yourself the following questions:
1. How would you describe your experiences joining groups? What about leaving them?
2. Which groups are most important to you and why?

Applying to college is a universally uncomfortable request to join a group. Watch Chuck experience the awful feeling of being rejected.
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