Fight, Flight, Freeze, Feign, Fail

Posted: January 14, 2018 in Debate, Idle Nonsense
Tags: , ,

The phrase fight or flight is often invoked to describe an instinctual response to threat to survival or wellbeing, especially physical attack. The response is typically accompanied by a rush of adrenaline that overwhelms the rational mind and renders preplanning moot. The phrase is among the most ubiquitous examples of a false binary: a limiting choice between two options. It’s false precisely because other options exist and further complicated by actual responses to threat arguably falling within more than one category. Other examples of false binaries include with/against us, Republican/Democrat, tradition/progress, and religious/secular. Some would include male/female, but that’s a can of worms these days, so I’d prefer to leave it alone. With respect to fight/flight, options might be better characterized as fight/flight/freeze/feign/fail, with acknowledgment that category boundaries are unclear. Let me characterize each in turn.

Fight. Aggressive types may default to fighting in response to provocation. With combat training, otherwise submissive types may become more confident and thus willing to fight. Of course, level of threat and likelihood of success and/or survival figure into when one decides to engage, even with snap judgments. Some situations also admit no other response: gotta fight.

Flight. When available, evading direct confrontation may be preferable to risking bodily harm. High threat level often makes flight a better strategy than fighting, meaning flight is not always a mark of cowardice. Flight is sometimes moot, as well. For instance, humans can’t outrun bears (or wolves, or dogs, pick your predator), so if one retains one’s wits in the face of a bear charge, another response might be better, though reason may have already departed the scene.

Freeze. Freezing in place might be one of two (or more) things: paralysis in the face of threat or psychological denial of what’s happening. Both are something to the effect, “this can’t possibly be happening, so I won’t even respond.” An event so far outside of normal human experience, such as a fast-moving natural disaster (e.g., a tsunami) or the slow-moving disaster of ecocide perpetrated by humans both fail to provoke active response.

Feign. Some animals are known to fake death or bluff a stronger ability to fight than is true. Feigning death, or playing possum, might work in some instances, such as mass shooting where perpetrators are trained on live targets. Facing a charging bear might just intimidate the bear enough to turn its attentions elsewhere. Probably doesn’t work at all with reptiles.

Fail. If the threat is plainly insurmountable, especially with natural disasters and animal attacks, one response may be to simply succumb without resistance. Victims of near-drowning often report being overtaken with bliss in the moment of acceptance. During periods of war and genocide, I suspect that many victims also recognized that, in those immortal words, resistance is futile. Giving up may be a better way to face death than experiencing desperation until one’s dying breath.

Bullying is one example of threat most are forced to confront in childhood, and responses are frequently based on the physical size of the bully vs. the one being bullied. Also, the severity of bullying may not be so dire that only instinctive responses are available; one can deploy a bit of strategy. Similarly, since it’s in the news these days, sexual assault, typically men against women (but not always — Catholic priest pederasts are the obvious counterexample), the response of a surprising number of women is to succumb rather than face what might be even worse outcomes. One can debate whether that is freezing, feigning, or failing. Doesn’t have to be only one.


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