Saturday, January 7, 2012

Fight or Flight - Did Walter Cannon Get It Wrong? - Revisited

I received the following comment in response to my original post questioning whether the founder of the fight-or-flight concept got it wrong:
It seems to me that John Coles has taken his research and conclusions along similar directions, and has defined what I had been thinking in better terms than I did. His work will make it much easier to get this across to serious students of martial arts.
Firstly, I thank you for those kind words and encouragement. Secondly, the aim of my work is to not only make it easier to get concepts across to serious students of any activity associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter, but also to clarify or correct the commonly held misconceptions.

Fight and flight are evolved behaviours to a threat and are often associated with fear. In Sharpening the Warrior's Edge, Siddle explains that 'fear initiates the sympathetic nervous system, which begins a catastrophic spiral in motor and cognitive functions' (1997: 9). This feeling and physiological response 'occurs resulting in a desperate irrational response: fight, flight, or freezing in place' (1997: 61).

When updating or expanding on Cannon's original fight or flight options, the common constant or the underlying assumption is the association with fear. To progress this discussion I'll refer to the defence cascade of Marx et el who identify: freeze (stop, look and listen), flight, fight, if fight is successful flight, if fight is unsuccessful tonic immobility (TI) - in that order. Some add faint after TI as an evolved response (see previous posts).

It has been found that different emotions have different physiological reactions. For instance, the blood is redirected to the muscles associated with the primary action tendency of fear - flight. The blood is redirected to the muscles associated with the action tendency of anger - fight. Blood is directed to the arms and hands when anger is experienced as they are used in fighting whereas they are not so used in fleeing. The physiological reaction supports the function of the emotion.

If fight is a behavioural response associated with the emotion of fear, it has to be an inferior version to that associated with anger, simply because of the physiological response which prepares the body for the principle action tendency of the eliciting emotion. Would an inferior version of fight be selected for when we need it the most? That is, would evolution provide us with an inferior version of fight when we are threatened and flight has been obstructed.

Cannon associated flight with fear and fight with anger. A fact that is little appreciated, if known, by those activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter who refer to fight-or-flight, or stress. But Cannon also suggested that the same physiological response is experienced with both fear and anger; a proposition that has since been disproven.

Is fight associated with fear?

Blanchard and Blanchard distinguish between two types of attack behaviours: defensive attack and offensive attack. Defensive attack is associated with high levels of fear, directly motivated by danger of harm or death to the individual, and is directed at the source of the danger. Offensive attack is associated with anger, directly or indirectly motivated by resource control, and particularly elicited by challenge to such control. Violence and aggression is often classified in the literature into two broad categories: affective and instrumental. Affective involves emotions and instrumental does not. The emotion most often associated with affective aggression and violence is anger, although, Meloy refers to fear and/or anger. This is suggesting that fight behaviour might be associated with fear.

I've been discussing this issue with forensic psychologist, Jane Ireland, from the University of Central Lancashire in the UK (gratitude for her generous support). In her book concerning bullying in prisons, she refers to the fight-or-flight concept and acknowledges Cannon's original association of flight with fear and fight with anger. However, she suggests that in a prison setting that fight is also motivated by fear.

The answer to my question is not readily apparent, which is appreciated by Ireland: 'I think the problem is the lack of an integrated theory' - too true.

While researching and thinking about this issue, I witnessed a normally pleasant 7 1/2yo girl attack an adult surrogate uncle (SU) with a wooden sword used as an acting prop. A serious attack to the head, thankfully fended off, in a moment of rage. The provocation for the attack was the SU's expression that a recently arrived 6yo girl in our flats was more intelligent than the other young girl who, until then, had been the sole child in the flats. She is doted on by her mother, and by the other residents within the flats. So, jealousy reared its ugly head and was expressed in an uncharacteristic violent display.

When I thought about this experience (as is my analytical want), fight is not the action tendency of jealousy. Fight is the action tendency of anger. How did we get fight with jealousy; which is much the same question as how do we get fight with fear.

Without going through the myriad of theories associated with jealousy, I'll refer to Nesse and Ellsworth's goal pursuit explanation of emotions. They suggest emotions change depending on the progress towards the particular goal of the emotion. Based on this approach, you could suggest the 4F model above: freeze = anxiety, flight = fear, fight = anger, TI = terror. This emotional (which includes feelings, physiological reactions, action tendencies, and behaviours) flexibility might be supported in that it has been shown that freeze, flight, and fight are associated with sympathetic nervous system domination, while TI and fainting is associated with parasympathetic nervous system domination.

Is anger a part of jealousy? Some suggest that anger is a complex emotion involving anger, love, and fear. So, depending on the circumstances, one or the other emotion may become dominant. This would fit in with the goal pursuit explanation. But Plutchik suggests anger and fear are polar opposites and cannot be experienced together.

Is anger a way of coping with jealousy? That is to say, the output of the jealousy emotion process is anger, which then becomes its own emotion process.

Gilligan (not from Gilligan's Island) is a psychologist who works in prisons and prison hospitals. He explains:
These observations, and many others like them, convinced me that the basic psychological motive, or cause, of violent behaviour is the wish to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation – a feeling that is painful and can be intolerable and overwhelming – and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride.
He quotes Scheff and Retzinger: 'a particular sequence of emotions underlies all destructive aggression: shame is first evoked, which leads to rage and then violence.' Shame -> anger -> violence; fear -> anger -> violence.

The direct association of the emotion of anger with fight when threatened and with flight frustrated also fits in with the frustration-aggression hypothesis. It also makes sense when considering the optimal evolved fight response when we need it most.

I'm still researching this issue. I'm also still considering the implications of this issue. If the fear -> anger -> fight is the explanation for our evolved response when threatened, then all those activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter who refer to the fight-or-flight concept and only refer to fear are, at the very least, demonstrating a simplistic understanding of our evolved response to a threat.

If fear is associated with fight, then why turn fear into anger as many women self defence (WSD) courses teach (see previous blogs)? Instead of teaching methods for their students to get angry, why not teach them methods to become more fearful by appraising the situation as having no flight option. After all, they are already experiencing fear, all you're doing is ratcheting it up a notch. But if the evolved response to deal with a threat is to turn fear into anger, then the WSD courses are simply working with nature rather than against it. Using nature's strategy.

It's interesting to consider the same issue from a legal or even moral perspective. Self defence is often described in terms of fear-based violence, assault or manslaughter in terms of anger-based violence, and murder based on instrumental (no emotion) violence. If self defence, instinctive or trained, involves turning fear into anger, where does that leave self defence? A rhetorical, or philosophical, question.

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