Fight, Flight, Freeze (or Flirt)
[This is one of those tangents I spoke about. It relates to the question of violence in our society. It is an impression, rather than a completed solution or suggestion. For the beginning of the series go to Violence in Entertainment][i]
In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, there is increased discussion on what to do when there is an “active shooter” on campus. The accepted procedure is to Lock Down: everyone goes in a classroom, locks the door, covers the windows, hides and remains quiet until the police tell you all is clear.[ii] They followed this procedure at Sandy Hook and it has been followed at many other school shootings with disastrous results for rooms the shooter entered.
Experts in preparedness are now considering other strategies when a shooter is on campus. One strategy is to flee, just run. Studies show an untrained shooter with a hand gun will miss a still target four out ten times. The same shooter will miss a moving target, especially one running away, nine out of ten times. So it seems it is better to run, climb out the window and flee.[iii]
Another strategy that is being touted is to fight. If a shooter enters a room, all of the occupants should throw what they can at the shooter and charge him en masse. The idea is that some will still be shot and die, but less than if you just hide. Also, you will neutralize the shooter. We respect the heroic actions of those on United Airlines Flight 93 who took out the hijackers rather than have their plane crash into the White House or Capital. This strategy is also behind the incredible idea to arm teachers with guns.[iv]
Experts are now touting the new phrase “run, hide or fight”. I say touting, because none of these experts will go so far as recommending or advocating for any other procedure than the lock down. The variables are too many, the liability too great to be the one that says to run, then be the cause of students being killed while running away.
This suggestion might be right for adults who have the right and responsibility to make their own decisions. However in a school setting where the teacher has responsibility for a class on minors, it is different. If the teacher tells the class to run, she/he has lost the control or ability to lead the class. The police tactical units will be hindered from stopping a shooter when the campus is filled with running students. And, how would anyone know that there is not a second or third shooter. It is also difficult to imagine telling a classroom of second graders to attack or storm a shooter as he comes through the classroom door. An even worse scenario is the parents who are telling their children to ignore the teachers.
The biggest challenge with these alternative strategies is that it requires a momentary decision. Which do you do? How do you guide your students to safety? Do you run, hide or fight? Do you tell your class to run, hide or fight? How does the teacher decide? How can you train the teachers what to do? There are too many variables. It is impossible develop a workable decision tree as a person in this situation lacks sufficient knowledge to make decisions.
Knowing what to do in a situation such as this would require us to connect to our most primal instincts. Teachers and students would be required to acknowledge, respect and include their deepest physical and emotional impulses in the decision process. This is not what is taught in our educational system.
We, along with all organisms on this planet, have a highly developed response to danger: Fight, Flight or Freeze. It is instinctual and learned behavior, or I would say honed behavior since we can develop the ability to adhere to instinct or to purposefully ignore it. Our Sympathetic Nervous System kicks in increasing our ability to act and limiting the use of systems not required to save and protect us.
Like “run, hide or fight”, our fight, flight or freeze response is programmed to protect us. At the very possibility of danger, we become hyper-aware. Our blood and adrenalin go to our senses to hear, see, feel and smell the danger. To freeze or become still is often the first response. We initially freeze or go quiet to heighten our awareness of the exact danger. If the threat passes, we resume our previous way of being. Sometimes to freeze and remain frozen is the best course of action. Freezing is a way of acknowledging ones inability to fight or escape the danger. For many animals, this is their best and preferred action, playing possum or pretending to be dead.[v] For most species, the freeze is only a preamble to take in more information. A lock down is a freeze, you play "dead" or absent to not attract attention of the hunter. It’s interesting that the lock down is the first and last prescribed response to danger in a school setting. It suggests that all other options, i.e. running, fighting or gathering more information, are not viable.
After an initial freeze to identify the threat, most choose their moment and flee. Flight is a good alternative. It takes you out of the danger. I imagine the rabbit hearing my dog in the grass. He initially freezes to determine the direction the danger is coming, then at the best moment sprints out of danger. This is an instinctual response rather than a cognitive analysis. It is something to be known using different ways of knowing than reason.
Most animals and humans will only turn to fight as a last resort. Many will never choose to fight. If the only remaining choice is to fight then we must train for that potential. Being pack animals, we learned many tens of thousands of years ago that the best defense is to fight as a pack rather than as a lone individual. Fighting for the group seems counter-intuitive to our ‘me, myself and I’ culture. It seems easier to sacrifice the young, old or infirmed rather than to risk an attack as a group. However, we know innately that the group can defeat any individual.
When I talk about the fight, flight or freeze impulse, my wife Adele always adds “or flirt.” I’ve also heard “fawn” and “fool around” as other options. While these tactics might not work on an active shooter, aggression and violence can be subverted by kindness, distraction or absurdity. In our Modern society, these high level tactics are often used with more success than the big three. This has to do with flipping the status. By lowering your status, you reduce yourself as a threat. It also has to do with play. We are playful creatures. If we can engage the other in play, we have the potential to change the dynamic of competition.
I wonder if by teaching the fight, flight, freeze and flirt tactics of safety preparedness we could better prepare for other challenges in our more day to day life. I don’t know what actions to recommend to someone confronted with real danger, but I suspect that we know innately more than we think and the challenge is to use that knowing.
[i] My current day job is with a school district. I manage the facility use, including performances, filming, special events, joint use of athletic facilities, leases, etc. I sit on the District Safety Committee. While I sometimes think my interest in disaster preparedness has more to do with my wish for cataclysmic change than my interest is protecting people, I know I’m passionate about being prepared. As part of the Safety Committee, we spend a lot of time discussing the worst case scenarios and asking how the District can be more prepared.
[ii] I am a big advocate for distinguishing between a Lockdown and to Shelter in Place. When you lockdown, you lock the door and hide. It is used when there is an imminent and immediate threat. Sheltering in Place is used when the threat is near but not imminent. It means you stay in the building or on campus, but can still go to the bathroom and you don’t need to hide under your desk. I think we overuse the lockdown, when a shelter in place would suffice.
[iii] This statistic and strategy is diminished when the shooter has a rapid fire assault weapon and a 100 plus ammo clip. This is one reason I support some gun control. Give us a fighting chance. It is also why I respect bow hunters as being more sporting.
[iv] The idea of arming teachers is stupid. The number of students killed by psychopaths and mass murderers would pale in comparison with the number of accidental shootings if all teachers were armed. As a society we don’t pay properly to educate our children, do you really think we will properly fund, train and support teachers being armed? Not to mention how this would change the entire nature and dynamic of the educational relationship.
[v] Having been threatened by an opossum while driving down a street one night, I know they employ other strategies than just playing dead.