In France this past week, we saw the actions of six people thwart what would mostly likely have been very severe on the Thalys Train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. There were over 500 people on the train, and yet only six acted. Undoubtedly, there were others in the vicinity who could have acted, but they choose not to, or chose instead to distance themselves from the attacker. Conversely we saw employee’s of the company that operated the train lock people out of cars in a desperate attempt to save their own lives, even though their actions clearly increased the risk for those who could not have escaped the gunman. What is interesting, is that undoubted, Americans were in the minority by a substantial percentage, and yet four of the six who acted, were American.
One of the Americans involved in thwarting the attack was quoted as saying “Do something! Once I started moving, all the fear left me” or something to that effect as I have seen about four different variations of his exact “quote”. There is actually a biological basis for his feeling. The body has a natural programmed response of the autonomic nervous system in response to stressors frequently referred to as the fight or flight response.
The fight or flight response is common across species and evolved as a means of increasing the chances of survival during violent or life threatening experiences. The trigger for the autonomic nervous system in response to stresso is recognition that an organism is in a stressful situation. Most of us have felt some version of this response at some point in our lives in response to an unexpected stimulus. In the case of an existential threat, the autonomic nervous system dumps a combination of cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine into the blood stream.
We aren’t going to get into the physiology of fight or flight but the impact of this chemical cocktail on the body is decreased sensitivity to pain and increased muscular performance which can be used to fight or run, or anything else we choose to do with it. Many on the train choose to sit and stare, others to hide or run, but only a handful to fight. The biological response to stressors is pretty standard across the human species. In the case of this attack, everyone who was aware of the situation was most likely physically primed to act, but the decision to act aggressively, and solve the problem, was only made by six.
The primary driver of what we decide to do with our genetic abilities and limitations is based on our environmental or cultural influences and is less influenced by genetics. In fact, you can condition people to be more or less prone to act through training. That is exactly what the training for military and some law enforcement personnel entails. It is called by a number of terms, but a bias for aggressive action is an apt description of the end goal of military training programs.
We do this by placing candidates in stressful situations and critiquing their response. One common principle in elite units is that bad decisions are not great and good decisions are preferred, but a lack of decision and action is a reason to be removed from the the unit. The bottom line is that a bad decision may result in a catastrophe, but no decision places you at the whim of the attacker, which will result in a catastrophe every time. Some combination of positive and negative reinforcement is used to instill a bias for doing something aggressive in the face of negative stress.
Many Americans respond well to this sort of training because it is in fact quite similar to what they are culturally used to. Conversely, most of the Arab militaries I have worked with do not have the cultural ability to act with out direct instruction and intense supervision. This is not, as far as we know a genetic limitation as there is no “bias for action” gene that we are aware of. There are certainly examples of Arabs who can learn to function in this type of environment, and many Arab Americans who serve in elite American military and intelligence assignments very successful. This further leads us to the conclusion that it is not a genetic limitation, which means it is likely environmentally induced.
Anyone who has worked with a nations military that comes from a culture of dependance will tell you how very different it is to working with Americans. You can see the culture of dependance result in an almost innate desire to have some else, anyone else make the decision for them. This delay is grossly ineffective in violent encounters. The question is what are the environmental conditions of American culture that lends itself to producing a predilection to act aggressively in the face of stress? Continue Reading>>
Author ~ Patrick Henry