Fight or flight – instinct or training?

Goal-oriented training can have a marked impact on the nature of decision-making under pressure in life-altering moments.

We’re all very familiar with the idea of ‘fight or flight’ – the response to acute stress which dictates how we deal with a perceived threat. The principle is often talked about as though it’s nothing more than pure instinct – you’ll simply do one or the other automatically when faced with such a situation. This need not be the case, however. Gaining clarity in life altering moments can make a huge difference to both your response and the outcome.

Thankfully, life changing moments are few and far between for most of us, but for those involved in life and death situations as part of their job, making the right decision under extreme pressure is something they’re faced with on a frequent basis. You may think that the more often they face such situations the better they’d be able to cope with the situation, but often, learned behaviour has more of an impact than we’d like to believe.

Training time-served firefighters

An award-winning study at Cardiff University Honour for study, which revealed ‘intuitive’ fire commanders has shed more light on how important it is to gain clarity before making critical decisions. Using helmet mounted cameras, the psychology team studied how commanders dealt with fast-moving emergency scenarios. What they found was that regardless of the type of incident, fire commanders’ decisions were likely to be intuitive or reflexive – they weren’t necessarily taking a moment to work through all the options.

Professor Rob Honey, School of Psychology at Cardiff University said: “This ground-breaking research has led to major changes in the way commanders address major emergency incidents. The findings showed that a relatively short period of goal-oriented training had a marked impact on the nature of decision-making…” The training has since been rolled out to fire commanders nationally, and forms part of the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles, which guide decision making for all blue light services at major incidents.

Applying this to everyday life

Whilst we may not deal with threatening or life changing events frequently, we all experience complex situations where we’re likely to make an intuitive of reflexive decision. The Gazing Principle focuses on developing the mental skills needed to take a step back and view the situation from a wider angle, gaining a clear overview to ensure you can perform when under pressure. Taking a step back and shifting attention between overview and detail means keeping the long-term goal clear whilst effectively prioritising immediate tasks and objectives.

The ability to deliberately control and shift attention in such a way and in critical moments provides a wider frame of reference on which to base good decisions. This in turn means that when high pressure situations do arise, you’re able to step back and make clear, informed decisions based on all the information to hand – rather than choosing simply based on past experience. These skills are vital in everyday life. Whilst the situations you’re faced with may not be comparable to fire fighters, surgeons or pilots, they’re critical to you – be that a key sales pitch, a job interview or parenting – and the decision you make can still have life-altering consequences.

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