When “flight” looks like “fight”

Question from Quora today: Psychology: What are some good examples of “fight or flight?”

Answer from Gus:

(Photo credit: not identified yet)

At first I passed on this question – examples are too easy to find for oneself. But then I remembered an interesting example of this in most snakes which isn’t well known.

Most people who get bit by snakes are stupidly attacking the snakes at the time. So you can hardly blame the snake for attacking back. But not all of these people were being as stupid as you might think. Sometimes it looks like you don’t have any choice but to get the snake before it gets you – which is actually caused by a common misunderstanding.

Looking closer you will find that almost all snakebites occur because the person was preventing the snake from running away in one way or another (even when they didn’t realise this is what they were doing). That is what really got them into trouble. In other words, flight is the first option of most snake species when they feel threatened, not fight. (Not all species, though: a few, like the mambo, are just mean mofos.)

However, most snakes are not “running from” in their attempts to flee; they don’t just flee “away” from the threat in whatever seems the easiest direction. Their instincts are not flexible (adaptable) enough for that.

They are actually “running to” their home. Yes, their flight instinct is specifically to run away to their safe zone which is their lair. So their particular flight instinct is fused or conflated with their homing instinct. This particular survival mechanism has been serving most snake species well now for millions and millions of years.

But snakes aren’t real bright: they have a very limited capacity for adapting their instinctive reactions to circumstances. So “go home” to a snake doesn’t mean “find your way home by the easiest means” or “keep going in the general direction of home but detour around threats and obstacles on the way”. No, they haven’t got the brains for that level of sophistication.

Therefore, if you happen to be situated between the snake and its home when you accidentally (or deliberately) make it feel threatened, it will appear to be attacking you even when it is actually trying to get away from you. It can only go straight home and if “straight home” is on the other side of you, then it will try to go through you to get home. So it’s particular form of “flighting” makes it look like it’s “fighting”. Of course, the flighting instinct does switch gears to the fighting instinct at the moment it can no longer obey the “go home” command. Fight is the alternate command when flight seems impossible.

In this situation, many people think they have no option but to fight back – and so many of them end up getting bit. Which they could have avoided easily, if he or she only knew that just a little bit of “snakely courtesy” was in order. All the attacked person really needed to do was step to the side and the snake would have slithered past with relief on its direct path home.

Something to keep in mind the next time you go out bushwalking. Even more useful than a compression bandage and a cellphone.

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Posted November 22, 2016 at 8:04 pm by Gus Griffin · Permalink
In: Misc