Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fight-or-Flight: Different 'Fights'

Fight-or-flight is a concept developed by Walter Cannon to refer to our evolved responses to a threat. The fight-or-flight response refers to our physiological reaction which prepares our body for fight or flight.

When fight-or-flight is referred to within those activities engaged in preparing a person to survive a violent encounter, the action tendencies of fight or flight are associated with fear. For instance, Siddle refers to anxiety or fear initiating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which begins a catastrophic spiral in motor and cognitive functions.

When fight-or-flight is recognised as being simplistic and limited, and is subsequently expanded, the expanded range of behavioural responses are all associated with fear. Freeze, flight, fight, fright (tonic immobility), flag, faint are all associated with fear. But does all fighting behaviour involve fear?

Blanchard and Blanchard refer to defensive and offensive attack and aggression. Defensive attack/aggression involves fear and offensive attack/aggression involves anger.

The aggression literature has a long tradition of categorising aggression into two broad areas. One of the more common typologies is hostile vs instrumental aggression. Hostile aggression denotes the specific intention of harming another person and is triggered by cues that lead to anger, fear, or frustration (McEllistrem 2004). Most homicides and assaults appear to be predominantly expressions of hostile aggression involving anger. Instrumental aggression is not accompanied by strong emotion and the aggressive act serves another goal. A planned assassination and an assault solely for purpose of theft are examples of instrumental aggression. A wide variety of terms have been used in the literature to describe what is essentially the same distinction, for instance reactive, retaliatory, impulsive, angry, affective, emotional, subjective, hot-blooded vs proactive, premeditated, non-angry, predatory, planned, cold-blooded. The former type of aggression is characterised by intense central nervous system autonomic arousal and a subjective experience of conscious emotion, hence why it has been called emotional aggression, while the latter is characterised by the absence of both.

Howard integrates the Blanchards' offensive-defensive typology with the traditional impulsive-instrumental typology to describe four types of aggression: offensive/controlled, offensive/impulsive, defensive/controlled, defensive/impulsive, each with its own specific goals, affects and emotions. Offensive aggression and violence are associated with positive emotions, while defensive aggression and violence are associated with negative emotions.

So now we have fight behaviours associated with fear, anger, no emotion, and positive emotions - not just fear. 'So what?' you may ask. Fight is fight, right?

Emotion means more than feeling. Emotion is a broader construct that involves an appraisal process which generates a subjective feeling and physiological response, a related action tendency which can lead to a behavioural response. Each emotion has its own unique signature in terms of these responses. For instance, your body reacts differently when you are fearfully than when you are sexually aroused. Fear and its attendant flight action tendency is accompanied by a physiological response which redirects blood away from the hands and face to fuel the muscles for flight. Anger and its attendant fight action tendency is accompanied by a physiological response which directs blood to the hands and face to fuel the body for fight.

Negative emotions, such as fear and anger, narrow a person’s momentary 'thought-action repertoire' by calling to mind and body an urge to act in a particular way (e.g. flee in fear, attack in anger). Fredrickson argues that positive emotions have a complimentary effect: they broaden people's momentary thought-action repertoires, widening the array of the thoughts and actions that come to mine.

Its long been established that the harm inflicted with hostile aggression is greater than with instrumental aggression. Blanchard and Blanchard refer to different attack patterns being associated with their defensive and offensive attack/aggression. Different fight behaviours are associated with different types of aggression, which in turn are associated with different emotions.

What is Siddle proposing in order to better prepare a person for combat? He proposes methods to reduce the catastrophic effects that the activation of SNS can have on cognitive and motor function. He is essentially proposing methods to change aggressive behaviour from fear-motivated to no-emotion-motivated aggression behaviour; from emotional aggression to instrumental aggression. How do you do that? By understanding the different types of aggression, that is to say, by understanding the different emotional states associated with the different types of aggression.

The threat-induced, fear-motivated defence cascade includes fight when flight is not available. Despite what is often promoted by many, we are not defenceless without some form of training. If we were, we would not have survived as a species. William James said 'ancestral evolution has made us all potential warriors.' Yes, but what is our warrior behaviour motivated by?

A women's self defence instructor suggested a strategy to her students: When fearful, think of the worse thing your attacker could do to you and your children; turning fear into anger. While flight is the action tendency of fear, and fight is the action tendency of anger, the defence cascade for fear includes fight behaviours when flight is not possible. The fight pattern is different for fear fight and anger fight because the motivation is different. Unbeknown to the aforementioned instructor, turning fear into anger also avoids the possibility of fright (tonic immobility), flag, and faint behaviours as they are all associated with fear and not anger.

Is there scope to develop positive emotion motivated aggression in trainees? Absolutely. When a violent encounter is seen as a challenge rather than a threat it elicits positive emotions along with sympathetic activity and a broadened thought-action repertoire.

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote:
If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.
What form of aggression is your opponent engaged in? If it is fear motivated, executing methods that are designed to elicit fear in the opponent may only inflame the aggressive behaviour. On the other hand, fear is a weapon that can be used to counter anger-motivated or no-emotion-motivated instrumental aggression.

Each form of aggression has its own goals. Withdrawal may resolve an aggressive encounter when the opponent is engaged in fear-motivated aggression as you no longer pose a threat. However, withdrawal may not resolve an anger motivated aggressive encounter as the opponent's goal is to inflict harm. Likewise with positive emotion motivated anger as the opponent is enjoying inflicting harm, and the aggression is being reinforced by your suffering. Harm is inflicted in instrumental aggression as a means to an end. Knowing the 'end' may provide a strategy to reduce the harm being inflicted.

Those who are engaged in activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter are engaged in teaching aggressive behaviours primarily when an opponent is engaging in aggressive behaviour. It behoves those so engaged to understand fight behaviour beyond the threat-induced, fear-motivated fight behaviour of the traditional fight-of-flight model.

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