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Do You Fight or Flee (or Avoid?)

July 13, 2012
In the last blog I wondered if everyone was either a Dominator or Submissive, two terms I use and explain in my book “Pack Leader Psychology”. Both of these are based on primal responses.

I saw a great example of what I call a Dominator recently on “Shahs of Sunset” on Bravo. A clone of the Housewives franchise, this show follows a group of young, rich, beautiful and wacky Persians living in LA. They spend fabulous amounts of money, drink fabulous amounts of expensive champagne, and, of course, preen and squabble.

One character — “GG” — fascinates me, because she exemplifies Dominator behavior to  a T.

Let me give you some background: You’ve probably heard of the “fight-or-flight” response. (How did we get from Sunset Boulevard to primal responses, you may ask?! Hang with me, this does relate to human psychology.) Animals, when threatened, will flee or fight. Actually, it’s more complicated than that. Avoidance is really the first option, because most prey will avoid being around a predator. If they spot a predator, they usually freeze to avoid detection, then flee if spotted. They only fight when truly cornered. So the sequence is usually: avoidance, freeze, flight, fight. Walter Cannon when he named this behavior in 1929 came up with a catchy phrase, but it wasn’t quite accurate.

You can see the “fight-or-flight” response regularly, of course, on nature shows. I notice it on Cesar Millan’s “Dog Whisperer” TV show (geez, it sounds like I watch a lot of TV!). Some dogs will hide or slink away to avoid confrontation. Some will bark and bite. Some will do all of this in a range of behaviors.

Just as the idea of social hierarchy and a need for a Pack Leader came to me from watching dogs, the fight-or-flight concept plays out in parallel in dogs and humans. Usually, however, our fight-or-flight responses today are emotional, not physical. We’re not fleeing lions, but the threat of emotional pain — which feels exactly like a physical threat. Usually this involves social rejection or exclusion.

So if you want to see almost pure “fight” response watch for “GG” on “Shahs of Sunset.” This young woman has a hair trigger for lashing out at everyone and anyone for anything. She even fully admits that she has an “anger problem” and has been in therapy most of her life. She misperceives threats, as well, believing that others are out to get her. Many psychologists would label this “paranoid” but it’s just the “fear response” in overdrive.

I discuss the idea of  “fight-or-flight” in much more depth in “Pack Leader Psychology,” including WHY people behave this way….which I’ll cover in the next blog post!

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