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June 27th, 2012
In a recent post, I suggested that our survival instinct, which has served us so well for so long, may now be failing us. Why? Because the reactions that arise as part of the fight-or-flight response are often no longer effective in a world that is far more complex, unpredictable, and uncontrollable than that of our primitive ancestors’ from which the survival instinct arose. In this post, I want to explore further this disconnect between our survival instinct and what kind of new survival instinct might work better today.
At the heart of the fight-or-flight response are what I call the “Big Three” reactions to threats to our survival: fear, gloom, and panic. First, the emotional reaction of fear is instantaneous and intense, ensuring that we recognize and respond to the perceived threat. In other words, fear causes us to just act fast! Fear paralyzes our ability to think clearly, identify problems, and make deliberate decisions because thinking takes time and there just wasn’t enough time back in the cavepeople days for us; the only viable options were to fight or flee.
Many of today’s threats can’t be fought because there is no readily confrontable enemy. And they can’t be run away from because many are diffuse rather than localized; you can run, but you can’t hide. And burying your head in the sand may work for ostriches, but for humans, it leaves a very important part of the body exposed!
Second, gloom can work if the threat is clear and present. Focusing on the negative dimensions of the threat, namely, what can go wrong in the near term, ensured that we stayed vigilant to the most relevant dangers, allowing us to respond most quickly. By focusing on the negative aspects of the threat during primitive times, our ancestors had the simple choice of fighting or fleeing. These primitive threats were also usually short lived, for example, an attacking animal or rival tribe, so gloom had no long-term implications.
But today’s threats are often amorphous, distant, and long lasting. So the initial gloom, which had short-term survival benefits, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that worsens the threat. We saw this play out with the ongoing financial crisis. Many people distrusted the stock market. Many businesses had little confidence in their own survival. And governments lost faith in their ability to overcome the crisis. In all these cases, an attitude of gloom led to behavior that may have worsened the financial crisis.
Third, panic causes knee-jerk reactions that produce immediate and frenzied behavior. Panic was quite functional back in prehistoric days because it triggered in our ancestors either a furious attack or a frantic retreat from the threat. Panic in response to many of today’s crises, however, produces actions that are more ill-advised and destructive than helpful. Where there should be patience, there was haste. Where there should have been reasoned deliberation, there was irrationality. Where there should have been calm, there was, well, panic.
In the panic after the fall of the investment bank Lehman Brothers and the stock market crash that followed, many people fled the financial markets, many businesses drastically cut costs by letting go of employees, and governments went into austerity mode at the worst possible time. All of these efforts were intended to ensure everyone’s respective survival, but such panicked behavior was short-sighted and had the exact opposite effect in the long run.
If this survival instinct that is so deeply woven into our DNA no longer fulfills our most basic needs to survive, what new form of survival instinct do we need to evolve to help us to survive in the concrete, metal, and hard-wired world in which we now live? As with earlier stages of evolution, we need to adapt to our surroundings and produce a shift that will be more effective than the fight-or-flight response that served us so well for these hundreds of thousands of years. Admittedly though, we will want to leave a bit of the old-school survival instinct and its accompanying fear, gloom, and panic in our genes for when an immediate threat arises.
This new survival instinct would be the antithesis of the fight-or-flight reaction. Instead of overwhelming and uncontrollable fear, a threat would trigger courage, which isn’t the absence of fear—it’s impossible to not to experience fear in the face of a threat—but rather the ability to confront the fear and act proactively and deliberately despite it. It involves being able to manage negative emotions, such as fear, anger, frustration, and despair, and to generate helpful emotions, including hope, inspiration, excitement, and pride.
Instead of gloom, we would engage in rational thinking that includes calculated risk-reward analysis, in-depth problem solving, and effective decision making. It means being cognizant of the threat, but focusing more on finding solutions. This reasoned thinking would require that people set aside differences, establish priorities, and work together—because that is the rational thing to do in the face of significant societal threats—to produce answers to the pressing dangers that today’s threats present to us.
Finally, instead of panic, we would take calm and measured action that is directed and purposeful. This new survival instinct would act as the foundation for creating change that can actually increase our chances of surviving and thriving during periods of threat. What results is a psychology that is diametrically opposed to and entirely more effective than the survival instinct that now dominated our lives.
We don’t need to wait for evolution to adapt our survival instinct to today’s challenges. Rather, we already have the capacity to override our primitive survival instinct. We are already capable of experiencing courage, thinking rationally, and acting deliberately. In fact, we see this reaction quite a bit these days, though obviously not enough to avert disaster in many cases. That is the gift that evolution has also given us; it’s called the cerebral cortex. I guess we just need to exercise that “muscle” more so that when faced with a real 21st-century threat, we use it rather than falling back on our primitive flight-or-flight reaction which doesn’t do us much good any longer.
(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)
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