Is Our Survival Instinct Failing Us?

June 11th, 2012

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Fight or FlightThe human instinct to survive is our most powerful drive. Since animals climbed out of the primordial muck and as our early ancestors rose from all fours to walk upright, evolution has been guided by its ability to help us survive and reproduce. Just about everything that humans have become serves that essential purpose, in how we think, what emotions we experience, and the ways we behave and interact with others.

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics, has demonstrated that how we think has clear evolutionary value. The way we process and remember information, problem solve, and make decisions, what he calls “cognitive biases,” don’t always result in the most accurate or best outcomes, but they are most efficient in terms of time and energy expenditure and “good enough” for our survival.

Our emotions have also evolved to our greatest survival benefit. So-called “hot” emotions, such as surprise and disgust, are experienced instantaneously and powerfully. These emotions signal an imminent threat to our survival which then initiates urgent action in response to its cause (e.g., an attacker or rotten food, respectively) that increases our chances of survival (more on that shortly). In contrast, “cool” emotions, such as joy and love, typically take longer to be felt and are usually less intense initially because there isn’t a pressing need to experience them strongly or right away.

The way we think and the emotions we feel that have survival value then produce behaviors that increase our chances of survival. Our “fight or flight” reaction may be our best-known expression of our survival instinct. This response set is triggered when we (and all animals) perceive a situation as a threat to our existence; our sympathetic nervous system activates rapid emotional, psychological, and physical changes. Emotionally, we feel either fear or anger intensely. Psychologically, our senses are heightened and we’re able to make faster decisions. Physically, we get a shot of adrenaline, our heart rate increases, blood flow is diverted to essential parts of the body, and we experience increased strength and stamina. Without these essential changes, our primitive forbearers would have died, their genes wouldn’t have been passed on, and we wouldn’t be living large in 2012 America.

Now, we get to the question that I pose in the title of this post: Is our survival instinct failing us? Our fight-or-flight reaction worked well for many millennia. The most common threats to humans remained fairly simple and obvious, for example, the threat from a wild animal or a rival tribesman. Vanquishing the threat through fighting or distancing it through fleeing, our survival was ensured.

Unfortunately, what worked as cave people doesn’t necessarily work in the 21st century. You may ask: Why would a reaction that has served us so well, first, as animals that walked the earth some 300 million years ago and, later, as homo sapiens for the past 200,000 years, not work now? The answer lies in the increased complexity of life that has evolved as humankind has become more civilized and as technological advancements have changed our individual, social, and work lives.

The notion of survival and how best to ensure it has changed dramatically since the earliest days of humankind. It’s no longer about staying alive by fighting or fleeing in the face of an immediate threat. Survival isn’t even about putting a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food on the table. These essentials haven’t changed much since we lived in caves (though our “caves” have gotten larger, our clothes fancier, and our food better tasting).

The fight-or-flight reaction to threats is far too simplistic to effectively overcome many of those we are confronted with today. Unlike threats of the past, today’s are often neither immediate, foreseeable, or understandable, much less controllable. In fact, not only is this hard-wired response often not effective, but it can be counterproductive to our survival.

Let’s consider several examples. The Great Recession presented an existential threat to our survival. When the fight-or-flight reaction of people kicked in after seeing the world’s stock markets crash and their retirement funds decimated, what did many do? They attempted to flee the situation by liquidating their investment portfolios which, from what I understand from my friends in the financial world, was the worst thing to do for most people.

Also, you learn that you didn’t get the promotion you had expected. You feel threatened because it jeopardizes your financial future and your career aspirations. Your fight-or-flight reaction kicks in and you either: a) storm into your boss’s office in a rage and threaten her life, or b) leave the office in tears and never return. Clearly, neither are responses that will help your long-term survival, yet they have been wired into us for eons.

This analysis demonstrates that the survival instinct as it has existed for so many thousands of years may have outlived its usefulness. In an ideal world, the fight-or-flight reaction would go the way of the dinosaurs and the appendix, extinct or having no impact on us, respectively (except for the occasional appendicitis).

Okay, maybe it shouldn’t go away completely. Realistically, there are some people in modern society who still need it to function old-style, for example, soldiers on the battlefield, 20-somethings walking down the mean streets of SoHo at 2 am, and Tiger Moms who learn their second grader got a B+ in spelling. I’m obviously being facetious about the latter two, but perhaps fight or flight doesn’t even work that well in modern-day warfare either.

Yet, this ancient reaction is not going away any time soon; evolution is a very slow process. This programmed response to threats, which is coded into our very genes, cannot be readily excised from our psyches. Yes, over the next few hundred thousand years, our fight-or-flight reaction will likely evolve to better meet the threats we now face (though, of course, by then, the threats will likely have changed too).

But that very evolution can begin right now. Relying on the “survival of the fittest” maxim, those who respond with “old school” fight or flight today will not likely survive and pass on their outmoded genes. By contrast, those who learn to control and direct those primitive instinctive reactions will survive and their genes will begin the inevitable march toward a new and more adaptive response to today’s threats.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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