The Psychology of Real Violence: Reconsidering the Fight-or-Flight Model

Undoubtedly the media has not only glorified violence to such an extent that the majority of shows, video-games, and movies cannot do without grotesque, heart-thumping scenes that grip the audience, but the media has simultaneously propagated an unspoken myth that violence is easy and comes naturally. This notion is completely false, and veritably so for anyone willing to consult texts written by those social and military psychologists who have studied the nature of human on human violence (aka intra-species aggression).

Enter one of my favorite authors on the subject of real violence, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the man who coined the term and science of Killology.

Grossman is a former Army Ranger, paratrooper, and a psychologist who has been deployed a number of times to places such as the Arctic Tundras, the jungles of Central America, and “countless mountains and deserts”. His book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society is the most authoritative work of its kind concerning what dynamics are at play when soldiers take the life of another human being.

While his entire work is well-worth a lengthy review, I wish to draw particular attention to the first chapter of On Killing as it relates to violent acts in a non-combat zone – upon the streets of our nation. Self-defense instructors are quick to have you believe that the most accurate model for what happens in a truly life-threatening altercation is in accord with the fight-or-flight model. You probably heard the spiel before. Instructors will tout the effectiveness of their system by citing the fight-or-flight adrenaline dump as reason for using gross-motor movements to demolish the enemy (so far this is reasonable). But where they go wrong has to do with a conviction of what physiological/psychological distortions are manifest in a life-threatening situation, and that they don’t account for the wide-range of circumstances that can make hand-to-hand techniques ineffective. The fact that their notion  of the fight-or-flight response is wrong may not take away from the utility of techniques that one might learn under these instructors’ tutelage, but it does suggest that their understanding of human psychology and physiology as it relates to life-threatening violence is shallow. That being said, learn from those instructors who have actually been in the situations you wish to defend against.

As Grossman explains with a wealth of references to actual combat, the fight or flight model is really only applicable to inter-species aggression, whereas intra-species aggression (human vs. human) has historically played out within the scope of ‘fight, flight, posture, or submit’. Taking another swing at the Hollywood which presents images of easy violence, the reality of combat is that humans have an innate resistance to killing one of their own kind. This is evidenced by countless battles wherein the casualty rates were quite low given the rate of fire between the opposing parties. For example, Grossman cites the fire to hit ratio during Vietnam as 50,000 expended rounds for each hit. General S.L.A. Marshall’s study on WW2 firing rates among men of combat found that about 15% of the men actually engaged the enemy, and the majority of casualties were psychological in nature. Even during the Civil War, regiments of 200-1000 men would engage at a distance of 30 yards and accrue a single casualty only every other minute!

So in explaining this phenomenon of combat one must cast off the notion that fighting or fleeing is the default model, and one must abolish the notion that violence and killing are easy.

These men are, as Grossman notes, posturing. Combat instances of posturing are innumerable. During the Civil War men were literally postured out of their positions by the yelling of the enemy. So once again, fight or flight is not an adequate explanatory model of intra-species aggression. For more content supporting this idea I suggest reading Grossman’s On Killing because I am now going to address the nature of self-defense in non-combat zones.

One can see how posturing and submission are frequently at play with your typical ‘monkey dance’ altercation. One guy bows up to another, one might even try to look meaner than the other while holding eye-contact. This posturing is wired into human psychology and is intended to effect a submission. If posturing fails to gain a submission, then one participant may walk away or engage. What self-defense instructors need to incorporate into their training is the wealth of research on the physiological and psychological underpinnings of the situations they are training for prior to developing any technique in the student. As noted by Grossman, for soldiers “modern training or conditioning techniques can partially overcome the inclination to posture”, and likewise effective self-defense can be dealt if one will simply understand how violence really operates.

Bottom line, if it is a historical and biological fact that humans are not wired to easily inflict lethal harm on a member of their own species, then how does one interested in self-defense against homicidal criminals develop his/her skill without first addressing the resistance problem? Ask yourself, could you really take a life if you had to? Even if you ask yourself this question, chances are you wont know until the situation presents itself. Self-defense gurus need to stop peddling magical techniques premised on the fight-or flight model and instead cultivate a superior foundation of understanding human psychology as it relates to violence. Only by doing this will any self-defense system, intended to protect against psycopathic/sociopathic criminals, hold water.

(Further note)

Below is an example of the typical “monkey dance” that Sgt. Rory Miller expounds upon in his texts on violence. These situations are not typically life-threatening and therefore not only do not constitute real violence, but should not even be engaged in from the start. Notice the posturing prior to engaging.


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