Grace under pressure
On June 27, 2014, 13-year-old Gavin England saved his grandfather from drowning when their prawning boat took on water and sank off the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island (CTV National News, 2014). Gavin’s grandfather, Vern, was not a strong swimmer, and though both were wearing life jackets, they would not have survived for long in the cold Pacific ocean waters 300 meters from shore.
Gavin recounted the event, explaining how he suffered sharp cuts to his bare feet when climbing the embankment where he had dragged his grandfather. He attributed his ability to overcome the pain of the cuts to adrenalin. Upon finding an old truck with keys in the ignition, and despite the high emotions he was experiencing, he then had the wherewithal to learn to drive on the spot and make it up a three-kilometer hill to get help. Gavin explained that his knowledge of driving a dirt bike served him well: “I knew that clutch in meant drive.” Vern described the young boy as “tenacious” and calm throughout the event. He was giving his grandfather words of encouragement as he pulled him to shore.
Stories such as Gavin’s are rare and unpredictable. We hope we will act with the same clear-headed tenacity in emergency situations, but the heroic response is not assured. Gavin’s ability to abate panic by recognizing and regulating his emotions was central to his actions in this emergency situation.
American pilot Captain “Sully” Sullenberger (see Figure 11.1) was 915 metres up in the air when the sudden loss of power in his airplane put his life, as well as the lives of 150 passengers and crew members, in his hands. Both of the engines on flight 1539 had shut down, and his options for a safe landing were limited.
Sully kept flying the plane and alerted the control tower to the situation: “This is Cactus 1539 . . . hit birds. We lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back toward La Guardia.”
When the tower gave him the compass setting and runway for a possible landing, Sullenberger’s extensive experience allowed him to give a calm response: “I’m not sure if we can make any runway…Anything in New Jersey?”
Captain Sullenberger was not just any pilot in a crisis, but a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot with 40 years of flight experience. He had served both as a flight instructor and the safety chairman for the Airline Pilots Association. Training had quickened his mental processes in assessing the threat, allowing him to maintain what tower operators later called an “eerie calm.” He knew the capabilities of his plane.
When the tower suggested a runway in New Jersey, Sullenberger calmly replied: “We’re unable. We may end up in the Hudson.”
The last communication from Captain Sullenberger to the tower advised of the eventual outcome: “We’re going to be in the Hudson.”
He calmly set the plane down on the water. Passengers reported that the landing was like landing on a rough runway. The crew kept the passengers calm as women, children, and then the rest of the passengers were evacuated onto the rescue boats that had quickly arrived. Captain Sullenberger then calmly walked the aisle of the plane to be sure that everyone was out before joining the 150 other rescued survivors (Levin, 2009; National Transportation Safety Board, 2009).
Some called it “grace under pressure,” and others called it the “miracle on the Hudson.” However, psychologists see it as the ultimate in emotion regulation, which is the ability to control and productively use one’s emotions. Both Gavin and Captain Sullenberger were motivated to save lives and were able to regulate their emotions to achieve that end.
An emotion is a mental and physiological feeling state that directs our attention and guides our behaviour. Whether it is the thrill of a roller-coaster ride that elicits an unexpected scream, the flush of embarrassment that follows a public mistake, or the horror of a potential plane crash that creates an exceptionally brilliant response in a pilot, emotions move our actions. Emotions normally serve an adaptive role; for example, we care for infants because of the love we feel for them, we avoid making a left turn onto a crowded highway because we fear that a speeding truck may hit us, and we are particularly nice to Mandy because we are feeling guilty that we did not go to her party. However, emotions may also be destructive, such as when a frustrating experience leads us to lash out at others who do not deserve it. One of the Core Competencies in British Columbia’s education curriculum is Personal and Social — this includes social-emotional proficiencies that help students to recognize and manage their emotional states. British Columbia has identified that competence in this area is required in order for students to achieve their potential in more traditional areas of learning (Province of British Columbia, 2019).
Motivation is often considered in psychology in terms of drives, which are internal states that are activated when the physiological characteristics of the body are out of balance, and goals, which are desired end states that we strive to attain. Motivation can thus be conceptualized as a series of behavioural responses that lead us to attempt to reduce drives and to attain goals by comparing our current state with a desired end state (Lawrence, Carver, & Scheier, 2002). Like a thermostat on an air conditioner, the body tries to maintain homeostasis, the natural state of the body’s systems, with goals, drives, and arousal in balance. When a drive or goal is aroused — for instance, when we are hungry — the thermostat turns on, and we start to behave in a way that attempts to reduce the drive or meet the goal — in this case, to seek food. As the body works toward the desired end state, the thermostat continues to check whether or not the end state has been reached. Eventually, the need or goal is satisfied (e.g., we eat), and the relevant behaviours are turned off. The body’s thermostat continues to check for homeostasis and is always ready to react to future needs.
In addition to more basic motivations such as hunger, a variety of other personal and social motivations can also be conceptualized in terms of drives or goals. When the goal of studying for an exam is hindered because we take a day off from our schoolwork, we may work harder on our studying on the next day to move us toward our goal; when we are dieting, we may be more likely to have a big binge on a day when the scale says that we have met our prior day’s goals; and when we are lonely, the motivation to be around other people is aroused and we try to socialize. In many, if not most cases, our emotions and motivations operate out of our conscious awareness to guide our behaviour (Freud, 1922; Hassin, Bargh, & Zimerman, 2009; Williams, Bargh, Nocera, & Gray, 2009).
We begin this chapter by examining several popular theories of emotion. We will then turn to theories of motivation and spend a little more time on two important drives in the human experience: the drive to eat and the drive to have sex. What you learn in this chapter should have direct relevance to your own experiences of emotion and should help you to understand why we engage in certain behaviours disproportionately often compared to others.
CTV National News. (2014, July 24). Heroic act [Video broadcast]. Retrieved from http://toronto.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=389519
Freud, S. (1922). The unconscious. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 56(3), 291.
Hassin, R. R., Bargh, J. A., & Zimerman, S. (2009). Automatic and flexible: The case of nonconscious goal pursuit. Social Cognition, 27(1), 20–36.
Lawrence, J. W., Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2002). Velocity toward goal attainment in immediate experience as a determinant of affect. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(4), 788–802.
Levin, A. (2009, June 9). Experience averts tragedy in Hudson landing. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-06-08-hudson_N.htm
National Transportation Safety Board. (2009, June 9). Excerpts of Flight 1549 cockpit communications. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-06-09-hudson-cockpit-transcript_N.htm
Province of British Columbia. (2019). BC’s new curriculum: Core competencies. Retrieved from https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/competencies
Williams, L. E., Bargh, J. A., Nocera, C. C., & Gray, J. R. (2009). The unconscious regulation of emotion: Nonconscious reappraisal goals modulate emotional reactivity. Emotion, 9(6), 847–854.