Friday, October 28, 2011

Does Fight or Flight Need Updating?

Does fight or flight need updating? This is a question that was asked by a group of mental health professionals in 2004. The answer to their question is: most definitely.

The authors of this question were looking at the evolved behavioural responses to a threat. I've looked at this in previous blogs. We've gone from 2Fs to 3Fs, and now up to 6Fs: Freeze, Flight, Fight, Fright, Flag, Faint. This blog looks at the automatic physiological response.

Those activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter who refer to fight-or-flight are referring to stress theory, whether they know it or not. Cannon, the author of the fight-or-flight concept, described the fight-or-flight response which is an automatic physiological response to mobilise our body to fight to defend against a threat or to flee from danger. The stress discipline adopted the fight-or-flight response and called it the stress response.

Seley, the father of stress, defined stress in physiological terms. He defined stress as the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change. He explains that the demand is non-specific in that any demand on a body to change produces the same physiological response. This has also been referred to as the global arousal model.

What colour does a person's face go when they are angry? Red. What colour does a person's face go when they are scared? White. Surely this suggests there is different physiological responses associated with different emotions.

The emotion discipline refers to autonomic specificity (AS). Autonomic refers to the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which regulates unconscious activities of the body. AS refers to different ANS activity with specific emotions.

Levenson (1992) states that 'following decades of controversy and uncertainty, there is now sufficient empirical basis for asserting the existence of a limited set of autonomic differences among emotions.' Support for AS is found in the metaphors we use to refer to emotions. For instance, heat is associated with anger while coolness is associated with fear. Levenson (2003) explains that the differences in the metaphorical language of anger and fear concur with consistent empirical findings of peripheral vascular differences between the two emotions.

In a study that supported AS, Levenson, Ekman and Friesen (LEF; 1990) refer to the functionality of emotions and their associated physiological needs:
If fear is primarily associated with fleeing, it would be functional for blood flow to be diverted away from the periphery and redirected toward the large skeletal muscles. This would be consistent with the decrease in peripheral finger temperature that we found for fear. Similarly, anger, with its close association with fighting, might recruit increased blood flow to the muscles of the hand to support grasping weapons and opponents. This would be consistent with the increase in peripheral finger temperature that we found for anger.
LEF raise an interesting theoretical issue. Is there different ANS activity associated with different behavioural responses/motor programs which are associated with the same emotion. They refer to freeze and flight associated with fear. A more salient example is fainting which is associated with fear. How does the activation of a physiological response which is evolutionarily designed to mobilise our bodies for action result in the complete opposite behaviour - fainting?

The ANS is made up of the sympathetic nervous system (ANS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is geared towards mobilising energy and to dealing with the environment, whereas the PNS can be seen as geared to establishing and conserving energy reserves. The SNS is often described as the fight-or-flight system while the PNS is described as the rest-and-digest system.

Ortony and Turner (1990) suggest situations in which actions such as flight or attack are desirable and possible, appear to produce physiological responses indicative of SNS activation, whereas situations where escape is highly desirable but impossible tend to be dominated by PNS activation. Frijda (1986) explains that stimuli that increase sympathetic activity tend also to increase parasympathetic activity, only less so. Fainting from fright, he explains, is a result of an increase of parasympathetic activity so that it comes to dominates sympathetic activity. He suggests that there seems to be a relationship between parasympathetic dominance and the inability to respond, which corresponds with Ortony and Turner’s observation.

The image reproduced at the top of this blog is Schauer and Thomas's (2010) defence cascade. It shows SNS dominance for the first half of the cascade, which includes fight or flight, and PNS dominance for the second half of the cascade, which includes fainting. All associated with fear.

A more extreme example is being scared to death. Cannon (1942) reviewed numerous reports of voodoo death in primitive cultures. In a typical case, a previously healthy person is cursed by a chief or medicine man and the victim quite literally dies a death from fear within hours or days. Cannon attributed the death to overstimulation of the SNS, however Richter (1957) has shown the PNS is to blame for these deaths.

Siddle is described as being an internationally recognised authority on use of force and the effects of survival stress on combat performance. Those who refer to fight-or-flight or stress in activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter are, in fact, referring to Siddle's work. His ideas have come to take on the authority of commonly conceived wisdom or popular theory. Whether those in the aforementioned activities acknowledge of even know the source of their insights into the physiological response is another matter.

Grossman is described as being one of the world's foremost experts in the field of human aggression adn the psychology of combat. His much lauded On Combat describes the psychology and physiology of 'deadly conflict'. His physiological explanation comes direct from Siddle. Siddle is referencing stress theory. Stress theory refers to one stress response. What is an underlying assumption when using the stress/fight-or-flight response to understand the physiological response to a threat in a violent situation? That the feeling response is fear. What if the feeling response is anger? In fact, Cannon, the author of the fight-or-flight concept associated the flight response with fear and the fight response with anger. AS tells us that there is a different physiological response with both emotions. Rather than the fight-or-flight response, stress response, or survival stress response, maybe it should be referred to as the fear response. In fact, Grossman does specifically associate his physiological discussion with fear.

Siddle states that PNS is 'dominant during nonstress environments where an individual perceives he/she is safe.' Grossman refers to 'parasympathetic backlash' and only discusses PNS activity in relation to its activation after combat has been completed. They both focus on SNS activity, not surprisingly given the source of their insights lay within the stress discipline. Based on Schauer and Thomas's defence cascade, they are only describing one half of the cascade, one half of the evolved stress responses associated with fear, for one emotion, fear.

Our evolved survival mechanism is more complex than this one-half-one-emotion response. Siddle and Grossman, and those referring to their work, would appear to be like one of the blindmen of Indostan who attempt to describe an elephant by touching only one part of it. This is a reflection of the reference only to stress theory.

Lazarus (1993) suggests: 'Use of stress as a source of information about an individual's adaptation to environmental pressures is extremely limited compared with the use of the full array of emotions.' This is most definitely true in relation to our evolved survival responses.

Does fight-or-flight need updating? Definitely! My work, presented in Beyond Fight-or-Flight, integrates stress theory and emotion theory to provide a more complete understanding of our evolved survival responses. This forms the basis for understanding our learned survival responses as well. This work is unique in that no other author has attempted to integrate the theory of these two disciplines for this purpose.


  1. A challenging topic indeed. Nothing is cut and dried in the case of stress response. I hope you will comment on why the same set of stimuli will cause the same person to react differently at different times. One of the most difficult things to do is predict what someone will do under stress. There are certain commonalities in physiological response, but there are no absolutes. I look forward to your continued work on the subject.

  2. Thanks. 'Challenging' does not describe the half of it. I didn't know what I didn't know when I started out on what has now come to be an epic journey.

    Your 'hope' is satisified. The appraisal process in what I call the survival process provides the answer. Unfortunately, it is not studied in those activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter. Even though, stress training, by whatever name, for the military and law enforcement, is principally aimes at this component of the survival process. Siddle only mentions it in passing in terms of 'perception', but he does note that it initiates his dysfunctional survival stress response and that it can be changed through training.

    I've come to hate the word 'stress'. It is such a limited concept.

    I'm coming to the firm conviction that rather than stress training, the military and law enforcement should be undertaking emotion training to better prepare them to perform their duties, even under 'stressful' conditions. And when I say emotions, I do not mean just feelings.

    Stay tuned.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.