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What is a Knee-Jerk Reaction?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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A knee-jerk reaction is an emotional rather than an analytical response to something. The term is named after the response usually caused by the medical reflex test in which the leg jerks forward when the tendon below the knee is struck with a rubber mallet. This is medically known as a patellar reflex and was documented in Sir Michael Foster's 1877 Text Book of Physiology. As early as the tenth century, the term knee-jerk reaction was used figuratively to refer to an unthinking reaction.

Today, many people see this expression used in political debates. One candidate may accuse the other of responding to a certain issue in a poorly thought out response rather than in a way that provides an adequate solution to a problem. Such an accusation then makes the opponent look less capable intellectually unless he or she can then describe how the problem was handled analytically and carefully.

Thinking through problems before reacting impulsively is the opposite of a knee-jerk reaction. Anger management is one example in which people are guided in using critical thinking skills rather than reacting based on their emotions. Critical thinking is the discipline of taking time to examine the situation critically before taking action. A critical thinker uses observation and objectivity to come up with a response to something while a person prone to knee-jerk reactions tends to react emotionally and subjectively to a situation or problem.

In social situations, an impulsive reaction is usually not appropriate as it may cause a negative situation to escalate. For example, if a customer reacts to bad service in a restaurant or store emotionally rather than rationally, yelling or insults are likely to occur. If the customer calms down first and then takes a few minutes to think about the problem and possible solution, the result is likely to be more pleasant for everyone in the room.

Since there are always consequences to any action, a well thought-out response is likely to have more positive consequences than a knee-jerk one. Many people have realized this when they just blurt out something to someone rather than think before speaking. An impulsive reaction doesn't have to be influenced by anger; it could be prompted by any emotion.

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Discussion Comments
By lightning88 — On Dec 31, 2010

Does anybody have any good tips for controlling a knee-jerk reaction? I feel like whenever I'm in a bad mood, or when someone comes out with a topic that I'm really passionate about, I just can't help from reacting.

I've tried a lot of different strategies, from meditating to counting to ten or whatever, but nothing seems to work. Is it possible that I'm just an impulsive person, or is there some other way that I could stop myself from having such a bad knee jerk reflex when it comes to certain areas?

I would really appreciate any advice you guys could give -- thanks.

By closerfan12 — On Dec 29, 2010

Do you know what I always find really funny? When two people get into a cycle of knee jerk reflexes in an argument.

I don't know if you guys have ever seen anything like this, but I used to have two roommates who would just play off each other continually. It was great when they were getting along, because they were so funny when they joked around, and both of them were really witty.

But when they got into an argument, it was crazy! One would say something, and the other would respond with a knee jerk reaction, which would cause the first one to come back with another knee jerk reaction, and so on into this huge cycle.

It was almost like they only heard one out of every three words the other was saying, and latched onto that one word as the end-all and be-all of the other's argument. So I guess it was still funny, but in a different way...as long as you could avoid getting sucked into the argument yourself!

By TunaLine — On Dec 28, 2010

Nice. I totally agree; it's always better to try and hold back that knee jerk reflex, because if you're like me, you end up coming out with something that you really, really regret saying later.

And we've all been around that person who just gets set off by every little thing and comes out with knee jerk reflexes to everything -- it's like they live their life by reflex! It's funny, but also annoying, because most of the time people like that think that they're being "off-the-cuff" when they're really just off the wall.

It is really hard to hold off though when you're in the moment...it's one of the things I feel like I have to work on all the time!

What about you all?

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