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Taking the 'fight' out of 'fight and flight': Managing masks part 2

In my last blog, we looked at how singling out and shaming those who do not wear masks can drive conflict and even aggression. One mask-exempt person responded to the last blog by saying that he had noticed that “People who are normally liberal-minded and open are very aggressive” in their response to his non-mask wearing. Why is that? In this second part, I want to switch the issue around and consider some of the reasons why some people act angrily and aggressively when they encounter a non-masked person – especially in an enclosed setting.


I want to focus here on the role of uncertain threats and I’m going to start with a true story which, I hope, will provide an analogy for the context we are in.


In Barcelona, there is a beautiful fun fair on the top of Tibidabo mountain. It has lots of vintage rides and a wonderful view of the city. It also has a haunted house attraction: Hotel Krueger. When I went there, several years ago, I cheerfully entered this ‘haunted hotel’ with my young daughter. As there were no age restrictions and a queue of young boys also waiting to go inside, I made the judgement that it was likely to be a relatively ‘tame’ attraction.


But, instead of a ride with some mild peril and Hallowe’en level scares, Hotel Krueger was a suspense-ridden, immersive experience full of narrow corridors, jump-scares and near total darkness. After the first ‘zombie’ terrifyingly jumped out at us from a dark corner, it was apparent that there could be similar episodes throughout the attraction. As the interior was so eerily lit, and the twists and turns were so disorientating, it was impossible to predict where the next scare would come from. I knew that all these sources of terror were carefully crafted mechanical contraptions or actors playing a host of horror characters, and yet, this attraction truly put my system on fight, flight, freeze mode. Heart pounding, eyes straining to see through the gloom, and head whipping in all directions for the next threat, I edged my way around Hotel Krueger’s interior, with my daughter grasping my hand. As I turned the final corridor, the last ‘ghoul’ jumped out to my right and I immediately launched a fist in his direction. Luckily (or more probably, by design), the actor was just out of reach, but that didn’t stop my daughter spending the next week telling anyone who would listen: ‘Mummy punched a zombie’.


Our fight, flight, freeze system is designed to help us survive when there is a perceived threat in our environment. It means we can escape a threat (flight), keep motionless so that the threat does not see us, and we avoid running into danger (freeze), or attack the source of the threat (fight). This system is difficult to over-ride once activated. Human brains are very sensitive to potential threats to our safety. You may have already heard about the role of the amygdala: a pair of small structures deep inside the brain which regulate our experience of basic fear and anxiety. More recent research also highlights the role of a connected structure, called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis. This area is especially active when we know danger is present but we don’t know exactly from where or when harm may occur: a bit like walking through a dark haunted hotel and not knowing if, or when, a zombie might attack.


So, what does this have to do with mask-wearing? It is impossible to ignore the fact that we are living under a pandemic – the news, social media, and our ‘new normal’ daily experiences serve to keep the threat of the virus at the forefront of our awareness – keeping us ‘on guard’. Indeed, in the UK, government advice has literally been to ‘Stay Alert’ and wear a mask. As we cannot see this invisible pathogen, we need to stay alert to the source of the threat. In this case, the threat is other people, but the presence of infection is uncertain. Every individual we encounter may have Covid-19, or they may not. This uncertainty can engage our fight, flight and freeze system. Seeing others wearing a mask can signal relative safety and help us feel as though others are following guidelines and making the environment less threatening. Seeing a person not wearing a mask in environments where mask-wearing is required, conversely, can increase this sense of uncertain threat, pushing us towards an activated fight, flight, freeze system designed to get us back to an experience of safety.


Aggression is clearly more likely when the ‘fight’ component of the fight, flight, freeze system is engaged. So, why is ‘fight’ chosen and what can we do to avoid this being the automatic response? Here are just some perspectives, based on research.


1. Our research shows repeatedly that people act more aggressively (verbally and physically) when they believe other people are being intentionally negligent or provoking towards them. When such behaviours are excused as stemming from a lack of choice (e.g. the person is mask-exempt), ‘fight’ responses become less likely. If non-mask wearing is interpreted as a wilful disregard for the welfare of others, then the ‘fight’ option is more likely.

So, for staff working with the public, it is important to offer masks for those who do not have one, but otherwise assume that non-mask wearing is due to valid exemptions. This links to the next point.

2. ‘Fight’ is an ‘approach’ behaviour, which brings the individual closer to harm (both the threat of infection as well as the threat of harm from violence). ‘Fight’ responses are activated when escape options are no longer available. Just like a cornered animal, usually, we try to escape before we resort to fight.

So, behavioural alternatives need to be provided: Providing escape routes allows people to feel as though they could move away from the perceived threat (engage ‘flight’), should they need to. This can be in the form of physical distance to put space between individuals, and by increased ventilation, to reduce the proximity of any pathogen. Similarly, perspex shields or barriers between employees and clients and customers can offer the perception of distance from the perceived threat. Engage employees, customers or clients in the organisation and design of spaces where possible.

3. Fight responses are more likely when we perceive the source of the threat to be a member of an ‘outgroup’.

Emphasise the commonalities between staff, customers, clients. Shared goals, such as the shared need for safety and support, have been shown to reduce these outgroup assumptions, and highlighting shared characteristics can be useful in the same way.

4. We all differ in our sensitivities to threat, and our brains and past experiences can cause some of us to have a more easily activated ‘fight’ response to threat.

It is especially important that members of staff, some of whom may have such a sensitive 'fight' system, have a clear means to feedback their experience of safety or threat. Appreciate that for some employees, feelings of vulnerability may increase lower-level hostility to people not wearing a mask. In turn this can escalate retaliatory behaviours. Additional support for staff in maintaining good customer care alongside providing safe working conditions is vital.

There are many more options, and these are just a few. Knowing our own triggers and how quickly we and our colleagues move to fight, flight and freeze responses can help in staff training, but also safer procedures overall.


How might you stop the ‘fight’ system from taking the lead in your workplace?

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