Tuesday, June 19, 2012

No Fear

In my previous post, Pain Tolerance Paradox, I referred to two incidents where I was confronted by a knife-wielding aggressor. On both occasions I did not experience the physiological fight-or-flight response that is evolutionarily designed prepare my body to fight or flee. I also did not experience any fear. Why? The answer to this question is contained in appraisal theory.

I'm using a model that I refer to as the 'survival process' which explains our evolved survival process. All the methods developed by the activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter are interventions in this evolved survival process. For instance, the tactics and techniques developed, taught, and trained by these activities are learned behavioural responses that are designed to replace our instinctive behavioural responses to a threat.

In simple terms, a stimulus is appraised. If that appraisal results in a threat appraisal it elicits a subjective feeling and associated physiological reaction and action tendency that may or may not lead to a behavioural response which is intended to affect the initiating stimulus. For instance, a man holding a knife is appraised as a threat to our well-being. This appraisal elicits fear and a physiological response that is designed to prepare our bodies to flee, which is the action tendency of fear. If we do flee, that behaviour is intended to put distance between us and the stimulus, thereby reducing the threat appraisal and the attendant responses.

The appraisal process is made up of three components: primary appraisal, secondary appraisal, and reappraisal. The primary appraisal concerns the personal significance of the event to our well-being. The secondary appraisal concerns the evaluation of our resources and abilities to deal with the perceived stimulus. Reappraisal refers to changing the primary and secondary appraisals based on new information.

The primary appraisal initially categories the stimulus as irrelevant, benign-positive, or stress. Irrelevant means no significance to us; benign-positive refers to enhancing our well-being; and stress is categorised as harm, threat, or challenge. Harm is injury or damage that has happened; threat is the possibility of harm; and challenge focuses on the potential for gain or growth.

Challenge and threat appraisals have a lot in common in that they both call for the mobilisation of coping efforts, i.e. the activation of the survival process. The main difference between threat and challenge is that challenge focuses on the potential for gain or growth and is characterised by pleasurable emotions such as eagerness, excitement, and exhilaration. Threat, on the other hand, focuses on the potential harm and is characterised by negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, and anger.

My survival response was not activated when I was attacked by a knife-wielding attacker on two separate occasions. Was that because my primary appraisal categorised the attackers as irrelevant (we can ignore benign-positive)? Or was it because my primary appraisal categorised the attackers as a threat but my secondary appraisal determined that I had sufficient resources and abilities to cope with the threat leading to a reappraisal of the stimulus as being irrelevant?

One incident involved a 'customer' holding a large hunting knife to my throat when I served him in a shop. A primary appraisal of this event as irrelevant might be because, (a) my wellbeing held no significance for me, or (b) I did not believe the assailant would go through with his threat to cut my throat. Alternatively, I could have appraised the attacker as a threat but determined that I had the resources and abilities provided by my martial arts training to deal with the threat and reappraised the stimulus as irrelevant.

The other incident involved the confrontation of a would-be thief attempting to steal backpacks from a train compartment while travelling in the south of France. After pushing the would-be thief down the corridor, he picked himself up off the carriage floor, drew a knife, and advanced on me. The same appraisal analysis can be applied to this incident to explain why I did not experience the activation of a survival response.

Bruce Siddle, an international authority on use of force and the effects of 'survival stress' on survival and combat performance, suggests that developing confidence in training should be the primary goal of survival instructors. He explains that confidence implies a mental state which is void of fear, anxiety, or self doubt. The lack of confidence implies a mental state that produces anxiety and stress (an ambiguous term that confuses rather than clarifies issues). All his methods proposed in 'survival stress management' training are designed to intervene in the secondary appraisal of the appraisal process. Experiencing different attacks in training allows us to better evaluate their threat potential and therefore are designed to intervene in the primary appraisal of the appraisal process.

Zen Buddhism was adopted by the Japanese Samurai during the Kamakura era (12th-14th centuries). The study and practice of Zen was designed to 'set them free from the fear of death' by changing their perception of death. This belief/faith system was designed to intervene in the primary appraisal stage of the appraisal process so that a life-threatening stimulus was not appraised as a threat to their well-being.

The reciting of Psalm 23 - 'Yea, though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me' - by soldiers in combat is designed to intervene in the secondary appraisal of the appraisal process. It is designed to increase the perception of their resources to deal with a threat to their life by enlisting the support of their Christian god.

The ways and means of managing fear can all be better understood by understanding and studying our appraisal process.


  1. I know it is not germane to the subject at hand, but I am very eager to know what you did, if anything at all, when the "customer" held you at knife point. In my over active imagination it ends with you dispatching said criminal a-la Steven Segal.

    Very good post, BTW. If I ever own a school; or have any responsibility over training others, I will incorporate stress response training (if I am using the terms correctly). Such training, I think, would help bridge the gap between dojo training and real life encounters.


  2. Thanks for comment Brett. No dramatic end to the shop incident. The 'customer' held the knife to my thoat and threatened to cut it, and asked what I was going to do about it. I was annoyed because I was closing up and looking forward to going home to a wine and hot meal, and he was frustrating those intentions. I told him he'd find out what I would do about it if he didn't put that knife away. Which he then did. He continued to browse as I closed up, showing I still did not appraise him as a threat. One comment he made, however, sugggested he had mental problems, which our society do not cater for adequatly.

    By the way, stress training is a fancy term for sparring, etc. that many martial arts use already. It's just it is more systematic in law enforcement and the military, particular with regard to information provision.

    1. Thanks for clarifying the term. In the way I meant it was to add additional stresses to sparring, such as "rent-a-thug" (a large and imposing, but otherwise friendly, guy who would be a stranger to my some-day-students). He would shout obscenities and use his size to create adrenal response in hopes that they may learn to handle its effects. This might also double as a threat-deescalation exercise.

      I dunno, its an idea. Maybe not a good one, yet. But I am trying to come up more ways to more closely simulate the type of violence I am more likely to encounter: the alpha-male variety.



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