When most animals, including human beings, are confronted with danger, they typically respond with what psychologists nickname the "fight or flight" response--either confront and combat the threat, or retreat from it.

In modern times, however, this doesn't necessarily involve dangerous predators. The "fight or flight" response will manifest when someone is, say, confronted with a new assignment in class or a new chore at home. The individual may "fight" by taking it on or refusing to comply, or "take flight" by avoiding the work or hiding from the person assigning it. The response is still there, but the idea of "danger" takes on a less literal form.

What's interesting, though, is that this "fight or flight" response is mainly a male reflex. Men, on the average, are more likely to respond to stress, problems or arguments by tackling them head-on, by themselves and right away. Women are more likely to want to discuss the problem before confronting it. The reason for this, it turns out, may be hormonal.

In May of 2000, a psychologist at the University of California named Shelley Taylor defined what her team called the "tend and befriend" response, a tendency to seek out social support which was far more common in female humans and animals than in males. This response went unnoticed in previous studies, they argue, due to heavily male participation.

The suggested culprit is a hormone called oxytocin which is released into the body in response to stress, not unlike adrenaline. Unlike adrenaline, however, oxytocin induces calm and relaxation and counteracts the "flight" reflex. Oxytocin is present in both males and females, but male hormones seem to counteract its influence, while estrogen enhances it.

"Fight or flight" is a physiological response to stress.*

When the amygdala recognizes a threat, or anything that causes stress, it signals the brain and the nervous system to get the body ready to either fight or run. Either way, the body will need extra blood and oxygen in the muscles.

First, the hypothalamus stimulates the autonomic nervous system to slow down the gastrointestinal system (who needs to digest food at a time like this?) and speeds up the cardiovascular system. It also gets the pituitary gland to go to work: The pituary releases vasopressin (increasing blood pressure), ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic hormone) to get the adrenal gland going, and TSH (Thyroid stimulating hormone) to get the thyroid stimulated. The thyroid gland releases thyroxine, increasing the body's metabolism. The adrenal gland releases glucocorticoids to stimulate the pancreas to increase blood sugar, as well as about 30 stress hormones, including epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) to stimulate heart rate, white blood cell count, oxygen level, and clotting agents.

Other bodily responses: surface capillaries shut down, sexual function stops, pupils expand (vision as well as hearing can become more acute). The immune system temporarily shuts down. In some animals, an emergency evacuation of the bowels gets rid of excess weight.

Now the body is ready to fight, or flee.


* At least in males. Shelly Taylor of UCLA noted that "Women were largely excluded in stress research because many researchers believed that monthly fluctuations in hormones created stress responses that varied too widely to be considered statistically valid." (Reuters, May 19, 2001)

In his excellent book On Killing Dave Grossman outlines a more complex version of fight or flight based on his observations and experiences in combat. He suggests that rather than fight or flight, we should speak of Fight, flight, posture or submit when talking about intraspecies conflict. The basic idea of his book is that people are very reluctant to kill each other even when ordered to and placed in life threatening situations. He gives numerous examples of soldiers who did not Fight or Flee, but, rather, chose to submit to the enemy, or to posture (that is try to scare the enemy without harming him.)

You're walking, crouched, inside the enemy entrenchment, shouting back every few seconds, just like you're shooting forward every few sec's. If you stop your shouting the man behind you may well turn the corner shooting - your shouting is your only way of letting him know you're still alive - he can't tell your shots from all the shooting and explosions around. If he kept constant eye-contact with you, you could both be killed by the same grenade or burst of fire. You can't lift your head, either - someone, an enemy unit or one of yours that doesn't know your squad has reached this entrenchment is bombarding the place - probably heavy mortars and not artillery, you guess. You can hardly hear yourself think, hardly feel the pain in your feet, and you haven't taken your boots off in three days. You fumble for a second as you take a fresh magazine and stick it in your M16. If you encounter another squad from your unit you'll be lucky if you're not all dead before you discover the mistake you've made.

What I described is probably one of the most "intimate" forms of combat in modern warfare. Mostly, people are just sitting in tanks, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, etc. and shooting each other to death by remote control. During the cold war, if the world would have been destroyed due to some stupid policy or stupid mistake, the "combatants" would never have seen each other. Modern warfare has, to a large extent, "dehumanized" warfare. The rising casualty count in wars isn't only due to us being able to kill more people faster - it's because of the loss of the means of communication futurebird mentioned. It's very hard for one person to surrender during war today. Of-course, low intensity conflict can be different, and obviously surrender is also an option (sometimes) for small units left stuck behind enemy lines, downed pilots, surrounded forces, etc. Modern warfare has negated the posture and submit reflexes, and with them has ruined many of the violence regulating behaviors we humans probably used to have. If you were going to stab someone to death with your sword, you could see the fear in his eyes, watch him drop his weapon, surrender. When you've locked a sidewinder on the enemy airplane's tail, you can hardly tell how young the pilot is, and what a terrible waste of life this whole bombing mission you're escorting is.

On the other hand, It's worth bearing in mind, that submission (unlike retreat) isn't all that common in the chimp world, for example, between members of different groups. Chimpanzee "patrols" will kill a foreign male encountered if they have the chance. Submissive behavior is mostly left for inter-group communication.

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