Why We Yell And When It Works Best


(By Guest Contributor Michael McArdle)

We’ve all yelled at various times at our kid’s sporting events. Whether it’s shouting out instructions, barking at the referees or screaming words of encouragement. Yelling can be a powerful tool that produces a desired result….if used correctly. If not, yelling can actually stand in the way of getting the outcome you want. How do you know when yelling is useful and when it is not?

Yelling works in an environment where the noise level is already high (think of a loud stadium or arena). In order to be heard above a din, yelling is often required.

If the goal is to produce action in lieu of thought, yelling works. We call this “reactive conditioning.” The goal is for the person to comply or act immediately, without pausing to think.

When someone is yelled at, the body produces a spike in cortisol, an important hormone in the body, secreted by the adrenal glands. One of the negative side effects of this surge is impaired cognitive performance. In effect, the structured thinking skills of the brain begin shutting down as cortisol floods the body. On the plus side, our hearing and vision ability increases and our memory sharpens during this same period. This is the onset of “fight or flight.”

In the military, new cadets are run through training in “boot camp.” This training is replete with continuous episodes of yelling commands and directives. The idea is to remove thought and produce action that becomes automatic, or instinctive. On the battle field, a thinking soldier is a dead soldier. With spiked levels of cortisol, the brain is capable of remembering details and specific movements that eventually lead to a level of performance called “automaticity” – movement that requires almost no thought.

In a similar manner, when law enforcement engages suspected criminals, they shout in order to gain immediate compliance without allowing a suspect to organize their thoughts. It is purely an intimidation effort designed to create the chaos needed to gain the upper hand in a potentially violent or dangerous situation.

Imagine a parent watching their child crawl across the floor and then stopping at an uncovered electrical outlet. If the child attempts to insert something into the socket, how would a parent respond? Certainly not by explaining the potential dangers of electricity. They would yell! In the face of imminent danger, shouting often produces instant reactions. Yelling works in this situation.

Yelling in improper situations won’t yield the same success. If the goal is to “teach” someone, thereby moving them towards new thoughts and behaviors, we can ensure failure by yelling. This is known as “anger” yelling. It is borne out of frustration. What makes “anger” yelling so dangerous is that both parties (the yeller and the yelled at) have a physiological build up (and sustaining) of cortisol in the system gearing them towards confrontation.

The illogic of expecting someone to think critically in new ways, to activate the structured thinking skills that allow for improved reasoning, while creating the very environment that shuts down that portion of the brain is mind-numbing in and of itself.

Knowing this, why would parents and coaches ever shout at kids during a game? We yell because we demand control in environments that do not allow for complete control. We lose control of our emotions due to the fact we feel we have lost external control of others. The problem here is that our sense of control is a complete illusion to begin with. Nowhere is this in evidence more than in youth sports where parents plead, cajole, praise, demand, and unfortunately, sometimes embarrass their child with their out of control behavior.

What most parents don’t realize though is children do not comply because of the yelling, they do so to make the yelling go away. “I will do it if it means you will shut up and go away!” We can try to control others. We can make them afraid, we can negotiate, we can even offer bribes, but at the end of the day our control is simply others deciding to acquiesce (for good or bad reasons, depending on how we’ve tried to gain their compliance).

Ultimately, the goal of communication is to produce changes in thinking and behavior. Yelling accomplishes the latter but not the former. Ultimate change in behavior that is long-lasting, must be preceded by a change in thought. Keep in mind the next time you feel frustrated and decide you can influence performance by yelling, you have become the impediment to change – not the cause of it.

(Michael McArdle is a Learning Research Specialist and the former Executive Director of the non-profit Learning Patterns Corporation. He writes, lectures, and conducts workshops on a variety of subjects dealing with the development of the human mind.)

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