Sunday, February 16, 2014

Beyond Fight or Flight

By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved

It is commonly taught that when an organism is threatened it will respond with one of two instinctive reactions: fight or flight. In other words, when an animal or a person is threatened it will instinctively stand its ground and fight or it will run away.

I’ve never bought into this thinking. Fight or flight is hogwash and I realized that when I was 7 years old and I was in a car with my mother when we hit a deer at night. The deer saw us coming and it didn’t run away nor did it attack, but rather it stood there like the quintessential deer in the headlights.

There are actually 3 different responses an animal can give and a human is capable of at least 5. An animal will instinctively fight, run away, or freeze in fear and be killed. A human will either fight, run away, freeze, surrender, or comply.

Fight and flight are pretty easy to understand so let’s look at the others.

When a person gets attacked it is usually by surprise and they simply don’t know what to do. While those trained in self-protection will have a plan for when an attack occurs and will have rehearsed their response numerous times in a controlled environment, the average person will not have a clue of how to respond. First their mind will try to wrap itself around the situation; they will think things like: is this really happening? Am I really being attacked? Maybe this is a joke? Maybe there are cameras around and that Ashton Kutcher guy will jump out? Next their thoughts will progress to accepting the situation is happening but not knowing if they are in real danger; they will think thoughts like: is he really going to hurt me? Things like this don’t happen to me, they happen to people you see on the news. What is he going to do to do me? He can’t kill me because I have to give that presentation to the PTO next week. After that they will try to think of appropriate responses and debate with themselves whether they should resist.

While they do all of this the attacker will have a frozen victim to do with what they see fit. Often an attacker will rob a victim and flee before their victim fully realizes what just happened. A criminal knows that if he attacks correctly his victim will most likely freeze rather than resist and that is what most criminals count on.

Next you have surrender. Let’s say a masked gunman runs into a bank full of people and orders everyone to lie on their stomach. While there might be an initial reaction to freeze, most people will go right into a response of surrender. They realize the threat and their thought process says, “ok, if I just do exactly what he wants he won’t hurt me.” That person immediately abandons all notion of resistance and their life now solely in the hands of the gunman. Whatever the gunman says they will do and if a debate of whether to resist or not was to come up by the other hostages they will normally take the side of the gunman in hopes of not being hurt.

Lastly you have comply; in that very same bank all the customers were ordered to lie down on their stomach when the gunman rushed through the door. While some responded by freezing and most responded by surrendering, one or two people had some training and they responded by complying with the gunman. The difference is that man with training assessed the situation and made the decision that it was too dangerous at that time do confront the gunman so he makes the decision to be compliant and do what he is told. However, while the surrendering individuals basically stare at the floor or shut their eyes and hope for the best, the man who complies does what he is told but also observes the situation and waits for an opening to act.

Another example of compliance is that you’re coming home from work and you get out of your car when suddenly you’re grabbed from behind, pushed against your car, and the muzzle of a gun is shoved in your face. They tell you not to make a sound and then they turn you around and you see two men both pointing guns at you. You assess the situation and you don’t feel there is anything you can do at the moment. They push you to your front door and take you to the living room. While you walk in you carefully watch their shadows to try to determine where they are and listen to what they say. Now you’re standing in the living room and you can hear a man standing behind you but then you also hear someone run down the hall towards your bedroom. You now know they have split up and you glace over and catch a reflection in a window and see that the gunman behind you is looking around the room trying to decide what is valuable enough to steel. You quickly turn around, disarm the gunman, knock him down, and then run out the front door towards a neighbor’s house where you lock the door and call the police. If you had surrendered you wouldn’t have even known they had split up.

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