How a little bit of brain science could have saved Will Smith (and Chris Rock!)

By now, much of the world has seen it. The Slap.

When comedian Chris Rock told a joke about actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair loss, her husband, Will Smith, laughed at first. But seconds later he was up on the stage, where he delivered a slap that sent Rock reeling.

Frankly, if I had been in Will Smith’s position, I would’ve used jujitsu instead. 

Cognitive Jujitsu, that is.

Although laughter can often be used to defuse an explosive situation, in Smith’s case, it probably made things worse. Upset by the joke and his wife’s reaction, he attempted to tamp down his emotional response.

Big mistake.

The martial art jujitsu rests on the principle that instead of attempting to overpower your opponent, you use his own strength against him.

When it comes to the brain, there are few areas more powerful than your limbic system, the region from which our primitive emotions emanate. When you feel an unwelcome emotion rising up in you and attempt to fight it directly, you are almost certain to lose. This is known as cognitive inhibition, and it almost never works.

I’m guessing that in Smith’s case, his laughing was an example of cognitive inhibition. He was obviously upset; yet he tried to pretend that he wasn’t. Instead of neutralizing his anger, it only made it grow. 

Where cooler heads prevail

Our emotions are powerful, but they’re also kind of stupid. Rather than attempting to inhibit your emotions, Cognitive Jujitsu works by outsmarting them. It diverts energy away from your limbic system and on to a more reasonable and deliberative part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex, where cooler heads prevail. The two most effective strategies of Cognitive Jujitsu are labeling and reappraisal.

Labeling is just what it sounds like. It involves attaching a name to the emotion you feel. In Smith’s case, he could’ve acknowledged that Rock’s remarks made him feel angry, hurt, humiliated, and embarrassed. There’s a surprisingly cathartic aspect to labeling. Instead of letting your emotions reach a boiling point, you let off steam in a way that isn’t disruptive to others around you.

Reappraisal is a classic “turning lemons into lemonade” approach. It involves taking a bad situation and interpreting it in a way that isn’t as toxic. Smith might’ve listened to the joke and concluded that Rock was an even bigger jerk than he’d imagined. Of course, that’s not exactly an optimistic assessment, but even so, it might’ve replaced Smith’s mounting anger with a sense of superior resignation.

Diverting energy to more important matters

Had Will Smith used Cognitive Jujitsu instead of attempting the futile task of overpowering his emotions, we all might be fixated on something else more consequential by now.

Had he acknowledged his anger/dismay instead of trying to suppress it, it might’ve provided the safety valve he needed to prevent him from feeling that he had to go up on the stage. And, of course, once he did that, the toothpaste was out of the tube. His limbic system was fully in control, which led to his dropping the F bomb and an unfortunate situation that may wind up haunting him well into the future.