Set Points: The Unconscious Triggers Governing Our Behavior

Dawson Church

We think of ourselves as conscious human beings, making rational choices. Yet a century of experimentation in psychology and physiology has shown that most of our behavior is governed by unconscious triggers. While we can explain the reasons why we’ve taken a certain action, the real reasons often lie deep in our bodies and our psyches. Our behaviors are governed by a series of set points of which we’re usually unaware.

Set Points Are Both Behavioral and Biological

Set points are our internal settings for mental and emotional states and also for the hormones and neurotransmitters in our bodies. Neuropsychologist Richard J. Davidson, PhD, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, provides a clear definition of a set point: “a predisposition to feel a certain way and a baseline to which we quickly return” (Davidson, 2003, p. 16).

Your internal set point system is similar to preset radio stations in your car, both in the fact that they are predetermined and in the effect they have on you. In terms of the radio, maybe you love listening to the humor station on your FM radio or your XM radio, so you push a button to make your first default setting the laugh station. Maybe you set your second default setting on the relaxation music station.

These settings are similar to your internal settings for mental and emotional states. Research has demonstrated that we have a wide variety of set points in our brains, bodies, and behaviors. We have set points for happiness and set points for anger (Cummins, Li, Wooden, & Stokes, 2014; Headey, 2008; Ormel, Riese, & Rosmalen, 2012). We also have set points for the neurotransmitters and hormones that form the network of “molecules of emotion” that govern our moods and the way we feel (Astapova et al., 2011; Légrádi, Emerson, Ahima, Flier, & Lechan, 1997).

These set points can be established early in life, even before birth. Stressed mothers have higher levels of cortisol. The fetuses in their wombs adapt to their hormonal environment by developing a high tolerance for cortisol even before birth, and they carry these set points with them into childhood (Coe & Lubach, 2000; Decherf, Seugnet, Fini, Clerget-Froidevaux, & Demeneix, 2010).

Set Points as Default Settings

Our set points, once established, become our default position, especially when we are under pressure. For example, if you have a low set point for anger, meaning you are quick to anger, you default to anger when you are stressed or your emotions are aroused. In this case, anger is your coping mechanism for stress, as a result of your low set point for anger.

Some people, however, do not get angry when they are stressed. These people have a high set point for anger. They may even have changed their set point for anger from low to high deliberately over the years, after observing the negative effects of expressing anger toward their loved ones. Just as you can change the default settings on your car radio, you can change your own default set points.

Any behavior you practice repeatedly results in neurogenesis, the formation of additional neural capacity. That’s why we can learn new skills, such as playing the violin or speaking a new language. The more we practice, the more neural capacity we build and the better we become at that skill.

Neural plasticity applies equally to emotions. If we feel anger, shame, blame, resentment, or greed over and over again, the neural circuits engaged become more efficient the longer we use them. When you frequently feel and vent anger, you build up the neurological circuits that carry the signals of anger (Bushman, 2002).

As our neural networks grow and develop in response to our stress levels, our brains change over time. One study examined pairs of identical twin men, one of whom had been drafted to serve in the Vietnam War and the other of whom had not (McNally, 2006). Even though each twin was genetically identical to his counterpart, their brains revealed striking changes. The memory and learning centers of those who’d been exposed to combat had shrunk relative to those of their brothers.

On the other hand, those neural circuits responsible for transmitting the stress response were more highly developed in the Vietnam twins. The experience of traumatic stress had produced measurable changes in the brain over time. Experiences and emotions aren’t abstractions; they become cells and tissues if they’re practiced repeatedly.

Another study examined 87 healthy participants and graded their ability to regulate their emotions (Petrovic et al., 2015). Some had low set points for anger, irritation, and sadness, and their constant negative emotion affected their social, work, and family life. Others had high set points. Those who reported the lowest set points for negative emotions had smaller amounts of tissue in the orbitofrontal cortex and other brain regions responsible for emotional regulation. Those who had the best emotional regulation also had the most brain tissue in those regions. When you cultivate healthy behaviors, you nudge your neural networks to grow the corresponding parts of the brain.

When we’re habitually angry, not only do we build new neural capacity, our hormonal levels change as well. Hormones such as cortisol, the primary stress hormone, are upregulated by our bodies. Practicing anger, frustration, fear, doubt, resentment, guilt, shame, or any negative emotion grows and strengthens the associated neurological circuits in your brain, while upregulating cortisol.

At a recent workshop, I was interested to see the range of reactions to an unexpected event. A participant tripped on the electrical cable connected to an eight-foot-high light stand. A large video light came crashing down. Some people just looked over and noticed the event curiously. Other people jumped and said, “Oh, my goodness,” while others swore in alarm. Some had a low set point for the startle response, reacting immediately and violently. Others had a low startle response, showing little reaction to a dramatic but non-threatening event. That trivial event revealed the set point of everyone in the room in a single second.

The Evolutionary Utility of Set Points

As our bodies and brains evolved over millions of years, set points were useful. Having an upper and lower set point for temperature, for instance, motivates an organism to move away from an environment that is too hot or too cold, and seek an environment that is the ideal temperature for the processes of life.

Set points for emotion have a similar evolutionary utility. Environmental cues that signal danger trigger the fear response, and help organisms survive. Other cues signal pleasure or opportunity and draw an organism toward the source of the stimulus.

Set points are therefore not necessarily a bad thing. Adaptive set points help us survive and thrive. Our bodies and brains carry out thousands of functions automatically every day without us having to ponder the options and make decisions. Having digestion, respiration, immunity, and other functions on autopilot, below the threshold of conscious choice, not requiring the resources of thought to carry them out, makes our existence efficient. We then have conscious attention available for items that are outside of the spectrum of functions governed by set points.

When set points are dysfunctional, however, they become maladaptive. A low point for getting angry leads a person into a life of needless stress. A low set point for feeling happy allows a person to enjoy even the simplest of daily pleasures to the utmost, and fills their life with satisfaction. A high tolerance for heat and cold means that a person can be comfortable within a wide range of temperatures. While set points are useful in our emotional, mental and physical functioning, if they are maladaptive they will degrade our quality of life.

Hormonal Set Points in Relationships

Set points come into play in all our relationships. We have set points for the hormones that govern bonding such as oxytocin. We also have upper and lower boundaries for the quantities of cortisol we expect to be triggered in a relationship. Some people have high set points, with relationships full of excitement or drama, while others have low set points and seek relationships that are peaceful and quiet.

Trickett, Noll, & Putnam (2011) performed a 23-year longitudinal study of sexually abused girls. They found that they suffered many deficits including: “cognitive deficits, depression, dissociative symptoms, maladaptive sexual development, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal attenuation, asymmetrical stress responses, high rates of obesity, more major illnesses and healthcare utilization, dropping out of high school, persistent posttraumatic stress disorder, self-mutilation … physical and sexual revictimization, premature deliveries, teen motherhood, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence.” They also found that their children were at increased risk of maltreatment and developmental disorders. This is one of several studies that find that set points can be intergenerational.

Though most people explain their relationship choices in rational terms, such as “She was the right person for me” or “It was love at first sight,” most of these choices are governed by unconscious biological set points. If you read online matchmaking sites, you will discover that one of the top criteria that members are looking for in a mate is “chemistry.”

Unwittingly, they’re right. They’re looking for a partner who will be a neurological and hormonal match for their unconscious set points. If they have a high set point for cortisol, they seek partners whose chaotic behavior will provide them with the hormonal fix they are accustomed to.

Hormonal Set Points in Weight

Our weight is governed by a whole series of hormonal set points. When we’re hungry, our bodies release a hormone called ghrelin, which increases appetite. The desire for food, intake, and digestion are managed by a whole series of interrelating hormones and neurotransmitters (Légrádi et al., 1997; Astapova et al., 2011).

What makes you end a meal by pushing a plate of food away from you and saying, “I’m full”? You might think it’s a conscious choice, yet everything about the way you eat is determined by internal set points. What you eat, when you eat, how you eat, how fast you eat, and when you stop eating are all the product of unconscious set points.

When our stomachs are full, our fat cells secrete leptin, another hormone, that signals our brain that it’s time to stop eating. The size of our stomachs creates another set point. When a person regularly overeats, the stomach stretches to accommodate the extra food. Once stretched out, it requires more food to fill, and delays the onset of the hormonal signaling system that signals satiety.

The opposite phenomenon occurs in people who modify their eating habits over time to eat less at each meal. Their stomachs shrink and what their bodies consider a “normal” sized meal reduces. All the signaling machinery of satiety then comes into play after they’ve taken in less food than before their stomach shrank.

In the course of evolution, our bodies developed the ability to store fat in times of plenty. That way, we could draw down those stores and survive times of famine. The amount of fat we’re accustomed to carrying around is also governed by set points (Keesey & Hirvonen, 1997; Speakman et al., 2011). When our percentage of body fat drops below our set point, we’re motivated to eat, even though we might have no immediate need for energy. When we’ve taken on enough body fat to meet our set point, we then stop eating.

This natural cycle that was so crucial to the survival of our species is unnecessary in today’s resource-rich world. But our bodies don’t know that. With abundant food, we might keep eating and raise our set points to the level of obesity even though there is no realistic possibility of being struck by famine.

Changing Maladaptive Set Points

Understand that set points are neurological and hormonal removes a lot of the emotion from the prospect of change. We can understand that our failure to change in the past is not due to a lack of willpower. Our stubbornly resistant dysfunctional behavior patterns are simply the result of maladaptive set points and that those set points can be changed.

Some of the most effective techniques I’ve found for changing set points are meditation, visualization, affirmation, breathwork, Emotional Freedom Techniques tapping or other forms of Energy Psychology, and time in nature. We can select methods that best suit our lifestyles.

During times of high stress, people tend to revert to their old behaviors. Because the associated neural bundles are so large, the result of decades of practice, they are the most effective signaling systems in the brain. Even if we have made positive progress in a program of personal growth, we often revert to old unwanted behaviors under stress.

If we’ve reset our set points and now have a high set point for negative emotion, we’re less likely to revert when we’re under stress. A high set point will enable us to stay calm instead of being reactive.

When there is a stressful situation, rather than running around in a panic and compounding the problem, we can then be part of the solution. Over time, with each calm rather than hysterical response, our set point for stress rises.

Chronically High Cortisol Kills Brain Cells

Why did our bodies evolve to produce these spikes of hormones such as cortisol when we feel stressed? The purpose of cortisol is to mobilize your body when you need to get out of danger. When your ancestors saw a snake in the grass or a tiger in the woods, they had a sudden surge of adrenaline and cortisol. That helped them survive. It was adaptive since it mobilized them to fight or flee (FF). Once the threat was gone, the FF machinery returned to normal.

While our bodies have no problem metabolizing high cortisol for a short while in response to a threat, they’re not able to do so if we maintain high cortisol for long periods of time. Chronic high cortisol kills brain cells. The area of the brain that degrades is the hippocampus, which is the region responsible for regulating emotion, learning, and memory (Sapolsky, Uno, Rebert, & Finch, 1990).

Over time, continued high cortisol disrupts cell metabolism so that excessive calcium enters brain cells and produces free radicals, which are the most harmful molecules in the body, contributing to a range of degenerative illnesses and rapid aging (McMillan et al., 2004). High cortisol leads to dysfunction in our mitochondria, the “energy factories” of cells (Joergensen et al., 2011). This can show up as tiredness and low levels of vitality.

Continually high cortisol may also contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as high blood pressure, fatigue, obesity, and diabetes. High cortisol over time degrades the body in many ways. In summary, your body is meant to generate cortisol quickly in response to an objective threat and dissipate it quickly when the threat is gone. When you generate cortisol repeatedly over time in response to subjective problems rather than threats to your survival, that has corrosive effects on your brain and body.

After the short burst of cortisol to get us out of danger, the hormone is meant to return to its normal level. So how is it that we produce chronic cortisol over time?

We do it by thinking, especially thoughts that trigger strong emotion. This sends signals through the neural pathways of negativity we have created and strengthened in our brains.

We cause chronic cortisol production by turning our attention to those factors in the environment that are negative and cause us to feel stress. That is how we drive our cortisol to a high level, even when there’s no tiger in the woods or snake in the grass. We ruminate about the bad thing that happened in the past, or imagine the bad thing that might happen in the future. Even if it never happened and will never happen, we can nonetheless focus on it, picture it, contemplate it, talk about it, and catastrophize about it.

The body is not capable of distinguishing between an actual threat and a perceived threat. It has no way of knowing that the imaginary threat we are conjuring up in our minds using negative thinking is not an actual threat to our survival. Purely by thought alone, we can drive our cortisol up high and expose our brains and bodies to all its ill effects.

Brain studies have found that it takes less than a second for a statement or even a single word to trigger an emotional reaction (Davidson, 2003). By the time we recognize that we’re under stress, our brains have already been triggered. We can be overwhelmed by emotional reactions in just a fraction of a second.

When that happens, our access to remembered skills and the ability to think rationally is greatly impaired. We are unable to be objective and consider the problem realistically. Stress can result in a drain of more than 70% of the blood from the frontal lobes, the cognitive centers of the brain. As blood carries oxygen, this means that the brain is not getting its normal supply of oxygen either. We can’t think straight when the blood and oxygen flow to our brains is reduced as a result of being stressed.

When that primitive survival response is triggered by thought and emotion, the result is a huge reallocation of biological resources. Blood flows out of the prefrontal cortex into the muscles. Suddenly, all of those wise skills you have in your prefrontal cortex, your thinking brain, are no longer available to you. It’s like a computer, which has masses of data stored on its hard drive. If you unplug the computer, all the stored information is still there, but you can no longer access it; there is no power to make it useable.

When you lose the blood supply to your prefrontal cortex, it’s like a computer that’s unplugged. All the resources that are stored in that part of your brain; the skills learned in therapy; the brilliant solutions you’ve read in books; the methods you’ve practiced in classes; the strategies you’ve learned from experts—all these become unavailable to you when you’re under stress.

Emotional Clearing with Energy Psychology

This is where Energy Psychology comes in. There are more than 100 studies demonstrating its effectiveness. Among the effects is its ability to reduce the symptoms of stress: alleviating anxiety and depression, lowering cortisol levels, and boosting the levels of endorphins, the feel-good neurochemicals.

Energy Psychology has also been shown to regulate EEG patterns. In one live workshop, I taught EcoMeditation to Prem, a 42-year-old man with moderate anxiety. He was a computer programmer who wanted to bring more creativity into his life. Prem played the guitar, but rarely made time for this, his favorite hobby. “I just don’t have time for myself,” he said. One of his core beliefs was, “Life is tough. You have to apply yourself. There’s no time for play.”

When we began the session, Prem’s EEG showed a high degree of beta waves in both the left and right hemispheres of his brain. Beta is the signature wave of stress. His alpha waves were minimal. Alpha is the idea state, one of relaxed alertness. It’s in the middle of the frequency band, and connects the higher frequencies of beta and gamma with the lower frequencies of theta and delta. People in highly creative states, as well as healers, show high amplitudes of theta and delta.

Prem’s EEG readout showed plenty of theta and delta, but his minimal alpha amplitude was like a bottleneck; he didn’t have access to his creative side. His high amplitude of beta is also characteristic of people with chronic anxiety, stress, and burnout (Fehmi & Robbins, 2007).

EcoMeditation uses EFT tapping to clear obstacles to relaxation. It then takes you through a series of simple physical relaxation exercises that send signals of safety to the brain and body. It does not rely on belief or philosophy; instead, it’s based on sending the body physiological cues that produce a deeply relaxed state automatically (

Once Prem settled into the EcoMeditation routine, he had big flares of alpha in both the right and left hemispheres of his brain, though larger on the right. His anxious stressed-out beta waves disappeared. His brain began to produce gamma waves, which it had not been doing before.

Gamma is the highest frequency and is typical of brains making connections between all the different brain regions.Gamma helps synchronize the different parts of the brain to work together.

Though Prem was not a meditator and said that he had taken meditation classes but never succeeded in establishing a routine meditation practice, EcoMeditation quickly settled him into a deep state. His brain waves stabilized in an ideal pattern called the Awakened Mind.

This brain-wave pattern is characterized by large amplitudes of alpha, theta, and delta in both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Anxious beta frequencies are minimal, while gamma expands. Despite Prem’s previous inability to meditate, he was able to attain an Awakened Mind brain-wave pattern using the simple Energy Psychology techniques that are part of EcoMeditation. In the absence of stress, the blood rushed back into his prefrontal cortex and his thinking became clear as he gained access to the biological and intellectual assets in the executive centers of his brain.

At that workshop, we tested the biological responses of participants as well as their psychological states before and after the workshop. Prem’s set point for cortisol, the primary stress hormone, dropped by 19%. When our stress levels drop, biological resources are freed up for cell repair, immunity and other beneficial functions.

This was evident in Prem’s levels of Salivary Immunoglobulin A (SigA), a key immune marker. They rose by 21% between the beginning and the end of the workshop. His resting heart rate dropped from 79 to 64 beats per minute (BPM), while his blood pressure dropped from 118/80 to 108/70. All these were indicators of a positive change in set points.

Similar positive effects were noted for other workshop participants. For the whole group, average cortisol levels declined 29%. SigA levels rose 27%. Resting heart rate dropped from 70 to 66 BPM (Groesbeck et al., 2016).

Once we reversed the stress response with EcoMeditation, Prem began to see the light side of life. The blood began to flow back into his forebrain and his whole hard drive came back online. He felt empowered. He knew he had resources. He knew he had the capacity for play. He regained a sense of control in his life. He had a sense of agency, of self-efficacy, and his whole story changed as a result of a simple and brief Energy Psychology practice.

Such techniques reverse the emotional overwhelm and degraded brain function that occurs when people are stressed. We then regain access to all the abilities and resources in our thinking brain: memory, rational thought, practices that foster resiliency, and the ability to be objective.

When we release stress through Energy Psychology techniques, there is often a shift into humor. When I tested Prem afterward by having him repeat his opening statement that “Life is tough … There’s no time for play,” he burst into laughter. “That sounds like my dad speaking,” he observed, and he scowled and wagged his finger as he mimicked a stern father rebuking his playful child.

Prem practiced EcoMeditation throughout the workshop and, by the end of the weekend, could quickly induce that relaxed state. He began planning to take time to play guitar and honor his creative side. Prem was well on his way to establishing a new behavioral set point for a balance between work and play in his life, as well as new biological set points for the hormones and neurotransmitters that promote health.

The Happiness Set Point

Just as we have set points for negative emotions and the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, we have a set point for happiness. In a series of studies at the University of Wisconsin, Davidson (2003) showed that people have a happiness set point. External events may shift their level of happiness temporarily, but after a while people return to their default setting. External circumstances can move them to be either less or more happy, but they tend to return to their happiness set point over time.

In a classic study performed at Northwestern University, researchers wanted to assess happiness levels (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978). Looking for a group of people who might be extremely happy, they analyzed the happiness levels of people who’d recently won the Illinois lottery. Prizes ranged, in today’s dollars, from $120,000 to $2.5 million.

They were asked to rate the amount of pleasure they got from every activities like eating breakfast, laughing at a joke, talking with a friend, or getting a compliment. On the scale used, the happiness level of lottery winners was 3.33 out of 5.

The researchers then looked for a group of people who might be very unhappy. They selected paraplegics, people who’d become paralyzed from the waist down. They found that people in this group gained more pleasure from common activities than the lottery winners, with an average score of 3.48, above the midpoint of the scale.

The study’s authors concluded that: “Eventually, the thrill of winning the lottery will itself wear off. If all things are judged by the extent to which they depart from a baseline of past experience, gradually even the most positive events will cease to have an impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged. Thus, as lottery winners become accustomed to the additional pleasures made possible by their new wealth, these pleasures should be experienced as less intense and should no longer contribute very much to their general level of happiness.”

There is a great deal of research supporting the idea that people have a set point for happiness. While events such as winning the lottery or a car accident that leaves us paralyzed temporarily shift us from baseline, in time we return (Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, & Diener, 2003).

It’s Possible to Change Your Set Point

The brains of people who have a high level of happiness are actually different from the brains of people with a low level of happiness. Those with a high level can be subjected to the same external stressors as less happy people, but they are able to maintain that positive state even in the midst of negative environmental influences or negative thoughts within their own neural network. Whether those negative experiences are happening in their own minds or in the outside world, they are able to maintain that high level of happiness as their default set point.

You can also change your set point using environmental stimuli. If the default buttons on your car radio are set to a news station, you change them. I remember the day I decided to turn off the National Public Radio station to which I’d listened in my car for over 20 years. I worried about being out of touch. How would I function if I no longer listened to the news?

It didn’t take long to get used to the peace that followed. Inspirational music became my new resource. After a while, whenever I heard the news, I quickly changed stations. I had learned to create the audio environment that nurtured my well-being and change my inner set point to feeling good. Whenever I experienced an external event that was not in alignment with my peaceful mental state, I changed that event.

You can change those defaults to relaxation, inspiration, or humor. With happy stations as your car radio default settings, you assist an internal setup of a positive state and counteract your brain’s negativity bias. On the other hand, listening to news, with all its negativity, supports and reinforces your brain’s negativity bias. That’s not to say you shouldn’t know what’s going on in the world, simply that you need to be aware of the input you are giving your brain and how you can deliberately reset the set points for your mental and emotional states.

While research shows that people have set points for happiness, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to change them. A 15-year longitudinal study of over 24,000 individuals and the way they responded to marital setbacks such as divorce or the death of a spouse supported the finding that people have set points for happiness to which they return (Lucas et al., 2003). However, the averages masked wide individual differences. A fortunate minority of people shifted either far above or far below baseline. We can shift our habitual set points for happiness.

When we break out of the limitations of our set points on a regular basis, we become familiar with the new territory we’re exploring. We begin to establish new set points that are much more functional and supportive of our life goals and higher potentials.

These new experiences are grounded in more than our psychological states. We change neurologically, as neural plasticity produces the growth of new signaling circuits that support and reinforce the enhanced potential. We establish new biological set points with lower levels of stress hormones and higher concentrations of the neurochemistry of happiness. These new set points become an internal biochemical compass as well as a group of functional behaviors that support our well-being.


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