Fight or Flight?

There’s an odd little discussion going on over at EconLog over what one’s likely response to attack might be that began, peculiarly, with a post on foreign policy:

My prediction: If someone suddenly tried to kill David, he wouldn’t “defend” himself. He would run away. So would I. So would almost everyone.

My suspicion, based on decades of training and teaching, is that neither of them would do eiither. They would neither fight nor flee: they would freeze, deer in the headlights. I don’t know for sure but I think this response is the result of the conflict between the two instincts.

I also think that the response to deadly threats varies based on physiology, training, and experience. Some are natural fighters; others are natural fleers.

For the many years during which I taught self-defense I advised flight and taught fight, knowing that the former was far more likely to succeed. I think that a little training can give the student enough presence of mind to avoid that moment of indecision and use it more profitably by running away. It takes an enormous amount of training and persistence to learn to fight effectively.

As I’ve mentioned occasionally before, I know, based on experience what my response would be. If I were attacked I would experience a feeling of great tranquility and I would destroy my opponents. That’s exactly what happened when I was jumped by three guys. I broke one’s arm, another’s collar-bone. Then I ran away.

9 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds Link

    I’m not trained in fighting but I know that feeling of weird calm. I was held up at gunpoint once and was perfectly at ease. I even found it faintly amusing. Later I was scared. I’ve been in roughly analogous situations at other times as well, same thing. My first response is always a Spockian, “Fascinating.”

    A lot of my life has consisted of, “Later, I was scared.” And what’s odd is that the degree of fear actually seems to increase over time. There are moments I endured with perfect equanimity that now, remembering, absolutely stop my breath.

  • I even found it faintly amusing

    My experience is joy. It sounds awful to put it that way.

  • Dan Glenn Link

    Remind me to ask you about that story when I visit at the end of the month, David.

  • The first time I had anything similar was when a guy wanted to stop me from leaving a room and grabbed my wrist as I was trying to turn the knob. I just calmly looked at him and said, “Let go, I’m going to leave.” And he did, I realized I had decided that if he didn’t let go I was going to do everything I could to put him on the ground. Second time was after a near traffic accident the other guy followed me, as I parked I got out of my car walked right towards him and when he was about 10 feet away I stopped him dead with, “Are you alright, that was pretty stupid of me.” Again, I had decided if he was going to keep coming I was going to do everything I had to to stop him. He then stood there for a few seconds, got in his van and drove off (latino guy in rather rough neighborhood covered in tatoos–i.e. probably a gang banger). Like Michael, in both instances I wasn’t scared until after.

  • Drew Link

    Pearls of wisdom:

    “For the many years during which I taught self-defense I advised flight and taught fight, knowing that the former was far more likely to succeed.”

    Indeed. But like Michael, and I’m sure others, we all have had certain experiences. In a former life I worked in a steel mill in NW Indiana but travelled to my place in Chicago. A good buddy at the mill lived on the S side in a, uh, “less desirable” neighborhood and we would frequent local haunts from time to time when we were “thirsty.” As they say – there were “moments” – and as MR relates, an amazing calm and clarity can come upon you in those “moments’ when the world seems to go into slow motion and you feel in command, or at least in control. I suspect it is a survival instinct that comes from the primordial soup. However – later – you look at it and say WTF……..and in the comfort of your living room break out into a cold sweat.


  • john personna Link

    re. clarity. I’d guess glucose consumption in the brain spikes to unsustainable levels.

    We could put someone in scanner and then threaten them ;-), but that’s probably not ethical.

    I haven’t had many exposures to violent harm, but in a lot of situations it’s less that I’m scared than that I think I should be. I’m ok with earthquakes, but don’t like that scary step from roof back to ladder.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I experienced timeless moment of weird calm a few weeks ago as I totalled my car. I suppose hurtling forward in your car one doesn’t have a choice of fleeing, but when I decided that I was either going to skid into the cars in front of me or take the car off the road and try to weave between wall and pole, it got slow and quiet. And only after I hit the pole and the air bags deployed did all the surrounding noises, including my crying son in the back seat, rush back. Very odd feeling, somewhat out-of-bodyish. Everybody was safe, except the Olds, but it should have performed better. I assume these are adaptions of the primitive brain. I didn’t feel joy; I did feel the comfort of a singularity of purpose.

    And yeah, by the time I got home and was in safe spot, I was shaking.

  • Drew Link

    PD –

    Ouch! I don’t know you from Adam, but truley best wishes. Those must have been frightening moments.

    My father died in a traffic accident. Highway – black ice – head on with an 18 wheeler. ‘Nuff said.

    Just an anecdote: I was about 12-13. We were returning from Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry. We were on I-80 going to NW Indiana and it was raining. A car going west lost control, was crossing the median and coming at us. I was seated, literally, in the middle back seat and center of gravity in the car. head down; oblivious. I just remember my mother screaming “my babies” as she thought the car was going to hit us head on. Then just whoosh, whoosh, whoosh as he actually just clipped us in the left back door and we started spinning. My brother took that impact in the arm and started crying, but my father was yelling as we spun “its going to be OK, its going to be OK” as I just – at the center of gravity – felt us spinning around. We stopped by hitting a bridge before falling down from an overpass onto a railroad track. Then – silence. Just a bruise on my younger brother’s left arm….and the emotional tole. Amaizing. We all were 3 feet to the right from death.

    My father, a doctor, left the car to see what had happened behind us and what he could do. The car that had hit us did in fact head on the car behind us.

    In later years he told me what he saw. Its not to be repeated in polite company. This was before seat belts and air bags.

    Live everyday to the fullest, people.

  • john personna Link

    Glad everyone is safe, PD. I was a passenger in a crash once (also no injury) and got to see the slo-mo. It was in high school, and I actually thought my friend had brought the 69 Mustang to a stop. “Wow, we stopped” I thought, just before we hit and I saw the shower of glass in slow motion. I kept thinking “how could there be this much damage when we weren’t even moving?”

    The time I had a car totalled around me I was calm. There was a jam-up, I managed to stop, and then I looked in my view rear mirror, and saw a semi coming at me with speed. I put my hands in my lap, closed my eyes, put my head back against the headrest, and relaxed.

    LOL, the crash seemed to go on for a really long time, but I had my eyes closed and didn’t really see it. I was pushed 4 car lengths forward, with all the cars in front of me.

    Oh, I had to use my legs to push/bend open my car door. I remember thinking I must be amped, so I should take it easy and not hurt myself.

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