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Virtual Emotions Seem Pretty Real

In a very unusual case of online behavior, a woman was jailed for “killing” her virtual husband.  Well, actually she killed the avatar of the virtual husband.  You can read the grisly details of the killing of the avatar here.  My focus today is not so much on the killing itself as by what we can learn from this particular emotional episode.

The first thing we can learn is that all humans run on emotions and sometimes those emotions run amok.  I have been speaking to project managers and other leaders around the country for the last year (see Smart People, Dumb Mistakes) and I have heard many stories about how otherwise smart people are prone to making dumb mistakes when it comes to emotions.  In fact, when I share the stories I have about some of the emotional meltdowns I have seen at work, most people describe very similar situations that they have seen at their companies.

We are fortunate that many of us have figured out how to do damage control so that our emotions don’t get the best of us and lead us to do something we would regret.  We strive to be aware of and in control of our emotions.

The second lesson to be learned from this is that our minds cannot tell the difference between real and imagined emotions.  In the case of the women whose online character was divorced, her mind behaved as if this actually happened to her in real life.  Her primitive brain system, made up of the amygala and the limbic system, thought that it was under attack.  So she responded by going after the perceived attacker – in this case the avatar representing her “online” husband.  She gained access to the account and deleted the avatar.

Our brains literally are not aware of the difference between reality and perceived reality.  This works against us when we perceive problems that aren’t really problems.  I wrote about some of these problems of stinking thinking in my book under the technical term of cognitive disorder.

One type of cognitive disorder is filling in the blanks.  Sometimes our minds will fill in the blanks with a incorrect answer that can lead to an emotional reaction.  As an example, earlier this year I sent a draft of a manuscript for an online course to a publisher.  He had told me he would respond in a week.  After a week went by without hearing from him, I contacted him by email and phone and did not get a response.  I began to ‘fill in the blanks’ with all sorts of reasons why he hadn’t called back including that I was a terrible author, that my course was horrible, etc.  When he finally called back and told me that he had a death in the family, I was relieved.  But that was only after 2 weeks of worry due over all those reasons that my brain had come up with.

There are situations where this perceived reality in our brain actually helps us.  I have been on a number of personal growth retreats where I have done role-playing.  I have learned that the role-playing works because my brain doesn’t know the difference between the actual participants in a role-play and the ones we are simulating.  So I can role play an interaction with a difficult co-worker, a confrontation with an abusive boss, or even replay in a healthy way a situation from my family of origin when I was a child.  This kind of roleplay is essential to personal growth.

Next week, I am going to be conducting my own last workshop of the year, An Introduction to Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.  We will do some role-playing there including providing tough feedback, listening with empathy, and having difficult conversations.  Our brains won’t know the difference between the role-play and the real thing.  Come on out and check it out for yourself.