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Each week on Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke, explore different aspects of human behavior and the brain.

'I'm as Mad as Hell, and I'm Not Going to Take This Anymore!"

Do ever get that burning feeling in your stomach that a situation just isn't fair and you must react? That feeling is an important part of our motivational system, and something we as humans evolved to protect.

In this edition of Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke discuss how defiance may be best viewed, and responded to, as a reassertion of autonomy in situations where people feel a loss of control and self-identity. 

Defiance is an impassioned refusal to conform to some form of expectation, typically a social one. This point is well illustrated by John Bender in The Breakfast Club, who, among other feats, earns himself eight more detentions by arguing with the principal during detention.

Many great historical moments also provide beautiful examples — take Rosa Parks sitting in a banned bus seat or Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door. It’s hard to get more straightforward than that.

These acts of rebellion — large or small — may be considered disruptive, shocking, reprehensible, inappropriate, or even heroic. The commonality across contexts is that they are essentially guaranteed to evoke an equally intense response. But intense doesn’t necessarily mean counterproductive. In fact, sometimes it’s necessary.

Defiance can possess a great degree of social utility. It allows us to protect our rights and what we value most. But to use it in a purposeful manner, we must first see the problem and then decide how to achieve its solution.

For example, as detention progresses, we learn Mr. Bender comes from a violent home where self-assertion only provokes more violence. He also lives in a society that largely turns a blind eye to his experiences or calls him a degenerate for them. His behavior, as do most acts of defiance, screams, “things must change now!”

When the school authorities meet his act of defiance with a discipline that focuses on changing his behavior, instead of looking at what is motivating him to act out, they miss the opportunity to address the larger system of disenfranchisement that is at the root of his defiant behavior.

So next time you witness defiant behavior, in your 15-year-old or on the news, asking yourself, “What is the motivation here?” might be productive. Changing behavior is one thing, but changing minds and systems is quite another.

Rebecca McInroy is an award-winning show creator, host, and executive producer for KUT, KUTX, and KUT.ORG.
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