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Jan Hills

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Andy Murray is learning to manage his emotions. You can too.


There have been numerous articles telling us that Andy Murray is learning about how the brain works to improve his tennis. Well, Andy lost the chance of being Wimbledon champion but he may still be pointing the way to better performance.

And pointing the way to leaders in business understanding more about their brain and its workings in order to understand their own reactions and hence how they can improve performance.

Murray says he’s interested in learning the signals from his emotions and why the brain works in certain ways and why he may react or say things at certain times. And, crucially for Murray, to understand the signals the body is sending and have the emotional control to send the right signals back. For example, Murray says, “When I won Wimbledon, 40 minutes before I went on the court I didn’t know what was happening to my body, what was going on. I was so nervous.”

He says if that was to happen again he would understand the emotions and why it’s happening and crucially how to deal with it.

In everyday language we use terms which describe our emotional state about events, such as ‘I dragged myself to the gym,’ ‘I made myself get up’ or ‘I lost my cool and shouted at a colleague, even though I promised myself I would be patient.’

Our ability to control emotions is one of the things that separates humans from other animals yet as adults we hardly ever teach people about how this works and how to get better at it. Whatever emotional control you learnt as a child is what you get to keep throughout the rest of your life. Yet what Murray is doing is picking up that learning again and applying it to his performance in the job he does.

Understanding our emotions is an ability that is unique, complex, and responsible for most of what we accomplish. Self-control allows us to focus and to persist when other attractive options emerge and to manage impulses rather than be controlled by them.

As social animals we’re primed to relate and engage, but every social interaction has its stresses and different things can push our “hot buttons” and trigger negative behaviour: a sudden outburst, a harsh comment, a rush of sadness, jumping to conclusions or not checking the logic of our decisions. What’s happening in the brain is that the prefrontal cortex is being dominated by the limbic system, a set of structures responsible for our emotions and the formation of memories.

In extreme cases “going limbic” can result in the amygdala hijacking our thinking brain, resulting in “freezing,” and memory blanks.

Memories and emotions are intrinsically linked, and remembering an experience which has a strong emotional element can activate a limbic response. This might be positive (praise for your product idea), or negative (the CEO spotting a mistake in your spreadsheet).

How you respond, the number, the balance between positive and negative emotions and how much attention you pay to what is happening emotionally will all have an impact on your experience of work and ultimately your performance. Emotional control or regulation is about understanding your triggers and avoiding them, or dealing with the consequences in an effective way.

The power of delayed gratification

Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow Test,” ( Mischel 1972) the famous long-term study, begun back in the late 1960s. It is probably still the best-known example of emotional control research, and demonstrates the close link between self-regulation and later success in life.

The Stanford research used a simple but effective test to measure pre-school children’s ability to delay gratification. The children were presented with a marshmallow and it was explained to them that if they could resist eating it for 15 minutes while the researcher was out of the room, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow when the researcher returned. Videos of the tests show the perfect agony of restraint; the most successful children had strategies for distracting themselves from yearning for the immediate treat.

Following up with the participants years later, Mischel found that the children who had been able to resist outperformed their peers on several scores including academic results, income and social success.

The kind of self-control needed to resist marshmallows seems very different than the kind of self-control involved in performing well at work or on educational tests. However, neuroscientists are demonstrating how disparate forms of self-control all rely on a common neural mechanism.

Indeed, the kinds of self-control that depends on this system vary much more widely than the marshmallow and SAT cases. Imagine being in a foreign country where they drive on the opposite side of the road from your country. This takes motor self-control to override your normal driving habits.

At the other extreme of the self-control spectrum, imagine trying to understand the beliefs of a colleague who has a completely different solution to a thorny work issue. Trying to take this person’s perspective on the issue also involves great self-control as you try to inhibit your own way of seeing things. Motor self-control and perspective-taking self-control are as different as can be and yet both of these rely on the same neural mechanism.

Motor self control

Motor self-control is any time your body seems to ‘want’ to do one thing but you know you need to do another. Like driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Scientists use a simple test to study motor self-control within the confines of an MRI scanner called a go-no-go task.

Typically participants see a series of letters appear on the computer screen one at a time. Participants must click a button for each letter unless it is a particular letter, B for example. Usually 80% or more of the trials are go trials, you press the button. These occur about one every second and so a participant gets into a rhythm of tapping the same button once a second, they get into a habit.

Nearly all forms of self-control involve overriding some kind of habit response (i.e. a response the brain assumes should follow and thus is expecting to make). But every so often the ‘B’ appears and when this happens, the participant must not press the button. For the participant, this feels like withholding a response, stopping the habit that was all ready to go.

The one constant across these studies is that the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC) is more active during no-go trials, when self-control is needed, than during go trials. Other regions have been observed as well including left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), supplementary motor areas and basal ganglia. There are always networks of brain regions involved. But the RVLPFC is the one brain region that seems to be present across all of the different kinds of self-control.

Demonstrating that particular brain regions are active during a particular form of self-control is important but it does not tell us whether those brain regions are actually doing anything necessary to have successful self-control.

Examining patients with brain damage, in particular brain structures, can do this. Aron and colleagues (Aron et al., 2003) carried our similar go-no-go tests in a variety of patients with damage in different brain regions. Only damage in RVLPFC predicted impaired performance on the task. No other damage in the brain was associated with this.

Perspective-taking self-control

Perspective-taking is most intriguing because it is so different than the others forms of self-control and in business is not usually thought about as self-control.

But at least one common form of perspective-taking in business does involve self-control and that is when someone has a competing perspective and you are trying to understand it. There is limited data on this but what there is found that a patient who had damage to the RVLPFC also had limited ability for perspective taking when his own views needed to be inhibited in order to appreciate someone else’s perspective.

For example, he could understand the feelings of two competing sports fans when one team scored; the delight of one fan and the sorrow of the other, if he had no stake in the game. Once the teams involved one he supported he was unable to take the same perspective; he was unable to suppress his own emotions and understand others.

He mistakenly believed others would feel the same as him, whether they supported the team or not. He could take a perspective if it didn’t involve his own emotions. His RVLPFC was not available to override his own beliefs in this abstract from of self – control, but one which is crucial in business.

A fMRI study backs up this results. Participants looked at images of needles or cotton swabs being applied to another person’s hand. Our natural response is to show empathy for the pain endured by the needle. In some trials participants were told the hand was anesthetized and no pain was felt. So on most trials, participants own perspective was aligned with what they saw– needles hurt and cotton swabs do not. On other trials, the participants needed to inhibit their own immediate response to be able to empathize with those receiving the painless needle. The study found increased RVLPFC activity in these trials.

When participants needed to inhibit their own habitual responses to appreciate another’s perspective, they used the same brain region involved in all the other forms of self-control that we have discussed.

Because of the RVLPFC involvement in virtually every form of self-control no matter how different, Matt Lieberman has referred to the region as the brain’s braking system.

Using your words

This braking system can also be turned on unintentionally. Parents and teachers tell children to ‘use your words’ to calm the child down when they are overly emotionally-aroused. This is in fact very good advice.

Lieberman conducted a study (Lieberman et al., 2007) in which he showed emotional pictures to participants. Sometimes they were asked to choose a word that described the emotion of the person in the picture, this is called ‘affect labelling’ in the jargon. Sometimes they chose a gender-appropriate name and sometimes they just looked at the picture. What he found is that the RVLPFC was more active during affect labelling compared to gender labelling.

Counterintuitively what they found is that putting feelings into words diminished participants’ emotional responses to the emotional pictures even though this involves attending to the emotional aspects of the pictures.

Most people would not believe this to be the result of labelling and studies (Lieberman, Inagaki, Tabibnia, & Crockett,) have found this to be the case. This has lead Lieberman and co to conclude that affect labelling is a form of unintentional emotion regulation.

Such results sound a bit magical but neuroscience allows us to the see the brain’s trick behind the magic by viewing the neural connections.

Learning to use your words

Can we learn to regulate our emotions better through ‘using our words’?

The evidence suggests that this is what children learn at an early age. As they use words and reduce the number of emotional outbursts, they gain the benefits of showing control. For adults there is only a little data but the results are promising.

A study by scientist Evian Gordon has shown that people who have the greatest social control, especially those with good emotional resilience, are also more productive at work.

And Lieberman and co have studied whether mindfulness meditative practice can increase the benefits of putting feelings into words. Mindfulness involves a non-judgmental awareness of experiences which has a strong resemblances to affect labelling.

They found (Creswell, Way, Eisenberger, & Lieberman, 2007), that those who report being more mindful showed greater RVLPFC activity and less amygdala activity while affect labelling compared to those reporting being lower in mindfulness.

And other studies which provide mindfulness training also show that there is a link between the practice of mindfulness and emotional control and RVLPFC. The RVLPFC is more active after mindfulness training than before.

A model for self control

Stanford psychologist James Gross has developed a model for emotional control, assessing the pros and cons of the different techniques.

Avoidance takes several forms, from not getting into emotional situations by avoiding the person who annoys you, distracting yourself by reading a book, or focusing on something else, such as work. The successful “marshmallow children” employed variations of these techniques.

Suppression embodied in the attitude of British stiff upper lip can be injurious to your health, raising your blood pressure and heart rate. It also uses up more brain energy and fails to deal with the cause of the emotion. In fact there is some evidence that it increases the intensity.

Reappraisal involves looking at the situation in a different light and interpreting events in a more positive way. It can be a successful strategy, dealing with the root cause of the emotion and reducing amygdala activity.

Mindfulness is a meditation technique that has been shown to reduce the reaction to emotional triggers and also has several health and concentration benefits. Taking the time to become more mindful through a meditation practice can have long-term positive results.

Gross makes the point that all of these techniques require practice, and like a muscle the more we practice the more the ability develops. This occurs whether it is a supportive technique, bringing with it multiple benefits like mindfulness, or a negative technique, such as suppression which can have unintended consequences.

Maybe Murray is still mastering these techniques.


The Guardian Andy Murray wins Wimbledon with emphatic victory over Novak Djokovic

Walter Mischel, Ebbe Ebbesen and Antonette Raskoff Zeiss (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 21(2).

Aron, A. R., Fletcher, P. C., Bullmore, E. T., Sahakian, B. J., & Robbins, T. W. (2003). Stopsignal inhibition disrupted by damage to right inferior frontal gyrus in humans. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 115-116.

Kevin Ochsner and James Gross (2005). The cognitive control of emotion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9(5).

Creswell, D., Way, B., Eisenberger, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2007). Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69, 560-565.

Ochsner, K. N. & Gross, J. J. (2008). Cognitive emotion regulation: Insights from social cognitive and affective neuroscience. Currents Directions in Psychological Science, 17(1), 153-158

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Jan Hills


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