Updated: Aug 19, 2019
Those photos of John Travolta at the Oscars with Scarlett Johansson and Idina Menzel, and Joe Biden, at the swearing-in ceremony of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, seeming to keep their hands on seemingly unsuspecting women for unusually long times, dominated social media at the time they took place for a week and had many asking, what's the brouhaha about? Why are these things important?
Beyond the uncomfortable looks of the women involved, and the jokes about the incidents, there is something more important going on here.
Any time someone’s space is violated, two things happen: It registers in our long-term memory, where all negative experiences are recorded—this is why we don’t have to relearn every day not to touch a hot stove—and it causes “limbic hijacking." This is an unsettling of neural activity that serves to protect us, and gets us ready for survival behaviors such as freezing in place (as we see in these photos from last week); distancing or running away; and, finally, the fight-or-flight response. In all three cases, limbic hijacking takes us away from our normal thinking and cognitive processing as well as homeostasis, and leaves us rattled.
In both of these incidents, with Travolta and Biden, the women involved (Menzel, Johansson, and Stephanie Carter) were attending to important moments in their lives; the last thing they wanted to do was to be distracted. We could say they were working in furtherance of something—no small matter. Then along comes someone who seems to think he's entitled to violate their intimate space—generally considered the space from one's skin to about 10 inches away—without considering their wants or the context; Is this the right place to do this? This is what we call having a lack of social intelligence—after all, the burden is on these men to determine if their intrusive behavior will be proper and wanted. Clearly, it was not.
So what's the big deal? The effects of limbic hijacking, that emotional unsettling, actually last about 30 minutes or so. They can make us falter or stumble cognitively. They can even affect memory and muscle control. Ever wonder why you can’t think of the cleverest lines until 30 minutes after an argument's over? Or why, when someone scares you, your heart races and it takes a while to settle down? It's because of limbic hijacking.
So next time you see people exercising poor judgment and a lack of social intelligence, it isn’t just quaint or no big deal; it's an invasion of the intimate space that we value and hold dear. Such behavior is not wanted, it is ill timed, ill advised, and most of all, psychologically discomforting. Period. End of story. That’s why it matters.