Why We Snap: From Road Rage to Barroom Brawls

By Carl Engelking | January 13, 2016 2:03 pm

In LIFEMORTS, the “I” stands for the “Insult” trigger, which can easily provoke rage.

R. Douglas Fields, a neurobiologist in his 50s, won’t hesitate to lock a pickpocket into a deadly chokehold in the middle of the street. He’s done it before.

Fields isn’t a badass, crime-fighting martial artist whose cover is his day job in the lab — he’s just like everyone else. But when his wallet was snatched while traveling in Barcelona with his 17-year-old daughter in 2010, you could say he just, well, snapped. He didn’t have time to think. He jumped into action.


R. Douglas Fields

He got his wallet back.

That incident in Spain stuck with Fields, and it inspired his new book, Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain. Fields is a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland and the editor-in-chief of Neuron Glia Biology. He set out to understand the rage circuit and examined the latest research into human aggression.

Most violent behavior, Fields discovered, results from a clash between our evolutionary hardwiring and our modern world. To put it bluntly: Our rage circuit wasn’t designed for daily commutes on crowded highways or the deluge of social media affecting our relationships. Through his research, Fields outlines the nine primary triggers of the human rage circuit and puts them into the handy mnemonic LIFEMORTS: Life-or-death situation, Insult, Family, Environment, Mate, Order in society, Resources, Tribe and Stopped (being restrained or cornered).

Discover spoke with Fields about his investigation, and it turns out that our rage response is a complex double-edged sword that helps us and hurts us. You can listen to the interview below, or continue reading an edited version.

Discover: Snapping, or flipping out, is commonly seen as a negative response to a given situation. But in the book, you present a more agnostic view of this response. It’s both good — it’s essential for our survival — and bad. Can you explain the mechanisms that cause us to snap, and why they are both good and bad for us?

Fields: We call it snapping only when the outcome is inappropriate. But if you look inside the brain and look at the mechanisms that have been activated, it’s the same process that’s vital to responding quickly to any threatening situation. This mechanism isn’t in the cerebral cortex, it’s not conscious, because cortical thinking is too slow in a sudden, dangerous situation.

It involves neurocircuits of threat detection and sudden aggression. We need these circuits; we wouldn’t have them if we didn’t need them. That’s the double-edged sword of snapping.

What are the basic triggers for why we snap, and how did you narrow the myriad triggers that set people off into nine categories?  

F: It seems like anything can set off this response, but I took a different approach. Rather than taking a psychological approach, I took a neuroscience approach. I decided to look at the neural circuits in the brain that produce sudden aggression. What new research is showing is that there are different circuits for different kinds of triggers for sudden aggression. Of course, scientists use different names for these neural circuits, but much of communicating to the public is getting over the jargon.

For the purposes of communicating — but more importantly, for the purposes of understanding and controlling the aggressive snap responses — it was necessary to identify the triggers very quickly. I’ve taken these circuits of sudden aggression in the brain and separated them into nine triggers. I came up with the mnemonic LIFEMORTS because it’s chunked into your memory as life/death.

For example, what scientists would call maternal aggression, in LIFEMORTS that becomes “F” for “Family.” That’s how I did it, and that’s what’s unique. It’s based not on the behavior, but on the new neuroscience tracing out these circuits in the brain.

These are all independent circuits. In the past, people thought rage or fear all came from one part of the brain, and that’s just overly simplistic.


The Mate or Family trigger — violence used to protect family members or mates — appears to have sparked this altercation.

One of the most fascinating revelations from the book was the amount of information our brains process subconsciously. Can you talk a little about the work our brains are doing without our knowledge?

We think of conscious functions in the brain, but we don’t realize how much information processing is going on unconsciously. We can hold only a tiny fraction of the sensory information coming into our brains in our consciousness; most of this is going on unconsciously. We talk about this as trusting your gut.

Your amygdala gets sensory input from every one of your senses through a high-speed pathway reaching the threat-detection mechanism before it even goes to the cortex, where we have conscious awareness. That’s because your unconscious brain is surveying the world for threats. When it calculates that we’re in danger, it communicates that to the cortex with emotions like fear, anger or anxiety.

In general, people do not appreciate how much the brain is doing below the level of consciousness. You may not be able to put your finger on what’s wrong; If you suddenly just don’t feel right, you back off. Your brain is taking in enormous amounts of information and calculated there’s something wrong.

why-we-snapHow do our genes dictate the way we’ll respond to danger, or the sight of other people in danger?

F: Genes are a big part of it, as in everything in biology. It’s a mixture of genes, environment and chance. Different people will respond differently to the same situation. The genetic factors are those that affect this network of threat detection in the brain, which, by the way, spans from the frontal lobes all the way to the hypothalamus — it’s not a lizard brain.

We know many of these genes, and they are genes that affect the circuitry and production neurotransmitters like, for example, dopamine. That’s part of the reason why different people will have different reactions to the same threat.

How much of this can we actually control? Can we contain or channel our snaps to either stifle them in difficult situations, or direct that energy in a positive way? Is awareness of the triggers enough, or are we simply hostages to the hormones and firing synapses in our brains?

F: Most of the time, this mechanism works amazingly well. When we start talking about controlling the mechanism, we are talking about trying to prevent the misfires. Yes, I think that you can control it.

In fact, I’ve interviewed elite athletes, Secret Service agents and members of SEAL Team 6, and they control it. They have to. Understanding the mechanism helps to control it, but being able to identify why you are suddenly angry allows you then to disarm this response when it’s inappropriate.

Where does road rage fit into LIFEMORTS?

It turns out that road rage hits on all nine of them — little wonder. It’s a great one because we’re all familiar with rage on the highway, and it’s so bewildering.

These circuits in our brain evolved in our brain for a different world, a different time. In the modern world, many of these defensive triggers get tripped — inappropriately — by conditions that didn’t exist before. Driving is just full of them.

When somebody cuts in front of you, you suddenly find yourself overwhelmed with anger. But why? It really doesn’t make sense. If the purpose of driving is getting somewhere safely, a person in front of you or behind you will only make a few seconds’ difference. If you’re running in a field during a foot race and someone cuts in front of you, it wouldn’t evoke the same kind of anger, and you might even laugh. There’s something peculiar about the act of driving that causes this sudden anger.

One of the LIFEMORTS triggers is “E” for “Environment,” and that is to protect your home and property. Many mammals have this, and certainly humans do. It’s fundamental to our biology. When somebody cuts in front of you, we perceive that space in front of our car as our property. That trips this trigger that is designed to elicit sudden aggression to get into a physical battle with an intruder in your property. Once you can recognize why you are angry, rather than suppress it, suddenly it goes away. Suddenly it’s disarmed. It’s a misfire.


When someone tries to enter your home, it will trip the “E” trigger for “Environment.” Our brains are wired to respond forcefully when someone trespasses on our territory.

Q: How do seemingly normal, sane people suddenly become killers?

A: Every day we read about violence, murder and mayhem not caused by people who are mentally ill. It’s people who suddenly snap in rage, and in many cases — domestic disputes or barroom brawls — the person ends up snapping and murdering a person they are close to, even a loved one.

When I read about snapping in the newspaper, it’s left as a mystery because we don’t understand the backstory. There’s always a reason in these instances, and that information doesn’t get into the news story.

We all have the capability for violence. It’s wired into our brain over the struggle of evolution. We need it for protection. We needed it to kill animals. It doesn’t need to be taught. Unfortunately, it can be triggered inappropriately. One thing that is always behind this is a chronic stress that isn’t understood. Stress puts these triggers for violence on edge.

With 2016 being an election year, I have to ask: Do politicians, to a certain extent, manipulate the LIFEMORTS triggers for their benefit?

F: Two that we are seeing are the “Tribe” trigger and the “Environment” trigger. The “Tribe” trigger is that human beings will separate into groups, us versus them, and they will use violence to maintain those groups. In early times, strangers, or a strange group, was a threat. A lot of what we see going on in talks about refugees and how to handle borders are all examples of the “E” and “T” trigger.

You can define “us and them” in many terms, and we have to be careful in how we are manipulated into defining “them.” In any election, we should be aware when politicians are pushing on these triggers. The hopeful side is that these triggers will also unite us. When we saw that picture of the refugee whose family had been killed and washed up on the beach, everything changed. When we saw that man in the picture, we saw ourselves. We saw that he was part of our tribe. He may be a Syrian, but he was a father, a family man. He was us.


Image credits (excluding book cover and R. Douglas Fields): Everett Collection/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    If you leave your enemy intact, you have an intact enemy. If you leave your enemy’s belief system intact, you have second generation enemy. War does not decide who is right. War decides who is left. Support evolution – shoot back.

    • JAFischer

      That’s what you took from this: kill whoever pisses you off and justify it by saying you killed an enemy?

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        “…an armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life…. We do not have enough things to kill off the weak and the stupid these days.” Beyond This Horizon (1948) (Chapter 15, p. 147), Robert Anson Heinlein.

        If you get in my face with will, I will get in your f ace – and win. Think of it as evolution in action.

        • JAFischer

          An armed society is one in which people don’t say what needs to be said because they don’t want to be called out by thin-skinned jerks. The winner of a duel isn’t right: the winner is alive.

        • j2saret

          Remember the rest of the novel. Those with quick reflexes were arrogant. Those with slower ones servile. You took the snapshot of immaturity as a commandment.

        • LazyFair

          Uncle Al, please speak of brain chemicals and if rage is caused by them or not.

    • Ilovepurplehazmats

      You oversimplified this so much that is sounds like I like this rock, I’ll call it Roger, to me.
      Having enemies means either you are too stupid to know how to deal with different ideas and ideology or they are too stupid to understand you, in which case you are still the one failing.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        Deadly blasts, shootout in Indonesia capital; police think ISIS to blame
        By Greg Botelho, Kathy Quiano and Ed Payne, CNN
        Updated 9:32 AM ET, Thu January 14, 2016

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        My first response was censored for being effective – with citation. You will know a man by his fears. Deadly blasts, shootout in Indonesia capital; police think ISIS to blame By Greg Botelho, Kathy Quiano and Ed Payne, CNN
        Updated 9:32 AM ET, Thu January 14, 2016

    • Alan

      Hi, Uncle Art. I. was turing the internet when I found your wisdom.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        LIFEMORTS? Untangle the anagram “Persephone Throckmorton.” Four words.

    • j2saret

      Shoot first but accurately unless you meant back shoot. Ah nature red in tooth and claw. Quick twitch young men to rule us all.

  • Doug Huffman

    Recalls Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow

  • Jeremy Bowman

    I’d say that all cases of anger are triggered by what is perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be an “injustice”.

  • Fred Flinstone


  • James_of_Aspen_Hills

    We have watched a popular crime series called “The First 48”. It seems like African American youth are much more prone to violence than anyone else. African American youth also have a high prison rate for violent crimes. Is this due to “Nature” or is it due to “Nurture?

  • James_of_Aspen_Hills

    “A licensed gun is like a parachute. If you need one, and don’t have one, you’ll probably never need one again.”

  • Shaker47

    Life goes on, with very few answers to bad behavior, as it has from the beginning. Violence is part of our existence and always will be. If we ever get the means to live beyond our earth violence will travel with us. We have met the enemy and it is us. We can never run from ourselves.

  • LazyFair

    Interesting article. I was hoping brain chemicals would be tied into the article, as in the neurotransmitters which can cause aggression and/or violence depending on whether an individual had too much or not enough of those brain chemical. Specifically, i am curious to know what goes on with these chemicals when a person snaps violently.

    • Pamela Thorson Nikodem

      Read the book, it really explains things more clearly and it is exceptional as far as brain science. I read much on the topic and teach domestic violence education, so I can say as I share this in my groups, it makes a difference when the individuals’ ‘get it’


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar