To Fight or Flee: Now There is a Question!

I ask this without judgement, each action having its purpose.  I’ve heard it said horses are flighters, always at the ready with their nervous systems exposed.  I’ve seen this.  We used to own horses and when one was spooked all of them fled.  This can be true of human herds too.

Homo sapiens can and do harbour tendencies toward both fight and flight, but could choose one over the other more readily.  Those with a fear of confrontation or a strong desire for a peaceful existence may flee more often than they fight.  Others like nothing more than a good verbal or even physical stoush.  They play contact sports with gusto or are members of debate societies.  They are politicians or barristers.  Police officers or sergeant majors.  Still, we are a collective and there is an imperative for us to get along, despite our natural tendencies.  What is most intriguing to the student of human nature, is what happens to a person, whose first instinct tells her to flee and yet she can’t.

For example, let’s assume a person needs to go to court to argue her case.  If she doesn’t do so, she will be held in contempt.  This is a case where someone is forced to fight, when they would rather flee.  There is a boiling in the belly, I think and there is fear, which numbs the arms and brings on shallow breathing.  The result of a thwarted instinct to flee is not just recognisable, it is transferable.  Almost instantly, the discussion brings on similar, and only a little less subdued, feelings of our own.  If we say tax audit, dentist visit or unfathomable invitation to the human resource department in place of a court appearance, we are probably beset with our own measure of stress, just from hearing of them.


Isengardt, Flickr/2013/CC-BY/via Wylio

We could use the same example of a court case to imagine what would happen in the opposite circumstance.  Our fighter is ready to fight the good battle.  She has her argument ready, but is silenced and the fight is denied her.  We can feel the anger and frustration, the blood pounding in the ears and the sense of futility.  There is a need to appeal to a higher power in response to an unfair speeding fine, an accusation of dishonesty, a financial or romantic betrayal.  Things can’t be left to stand as they are.  The unfairness does not have a place in any world we wish to inhabit.  Friends might attempt to diffuse the anger, asking that we let to go and move on with our lives.  The gurus amongst them will attest to the power of forgiveness and how bitterness sickens a person.  It’s all very true, of course, but I wonder if they would say that if it were them in the same position.  What would they do with their anger, I wonder, if they didn’t yell, punch walls and return to the injustice over and over again?

It is interesting to ponder the part one of the most transformative physical states plays in the modern world and regardless of attempts to tame the fight/flight response, how resilient is its will to save us from all manner of perceived threats.  It’s like a friendly bumbling cousin with a big crush.  No one is going to mess with the object of his affection.  No way, no how.


1 comment

Systems analyst

Interesting. I knew about the flight fight response but did not consider that it might be different for individuals and the impact that may have on our engagement with the world. Consider your court case example, many of our institutions are set up to give people redress if a) the law is on their side and b) the injury is significant enough for the individual to take the time and expense (large and small) required to ‘prosecute’ their case. It is assumed individuals would base their decision to prosecute on the merits of their case. However, if we all have a difference response to the conflict perhaps that raises a entirely different access to justice issue I had not considered before.