Fight or Flight Responses to Political Prognostication

Sometimes I just can’t help myself. The recovering therapist in me wants to jump into this business of political commentary. Today is one of those days.

Perhaps you are someone who reacts negatively to the kinds of articles I just wrote about the current state of the presidential race. When you read assurances from David Plouffe that Clinton’s lock on 300+ electoral college votes is “rock solid,” your response is to get worried that an assessment like that will depress voter turnout. If so, you’ll appreciate what Greg Sargent has written this morning in a piece titled, “Here’s the Election Day nightmare scenario that should terrify you.”

The new Washington Post/ABC News national tracking poll finds Donald Trump leading Clinton by one point in the four-way match-up, 46-45, while Clinton leads in the head-to-head by 48-47. You shouldn’t overreact to individual polls — instead, keep focused on the national and state polling averages.

But plainly, the race is tightening, and it’s increasingly possible we’ll see a very close finish. Which means that it’s time to start pondering an Election Day nightmare scenario that is made up of two parts. First, the tight finish produces an outcome that is contested well beyond Election Day, with Trump (should he lose) claiming the results are rigged. Second, Trump supplements his claim about the rigged outcome by continuing to point to the FBI’s latest discovery of emails as proof of an ongoing cover-up of Hillary Clinton’s criminality.

The truth is that how you react to those different assessments is probably tied in to whether or not your instinctive response to a threat is to fight or flight.

For those whose response is to fight, the kind of analysis provided by Sargent gets your juices going and you become motivated to take on the challenge. If your response is to flight, it makes you want to run and hide in a corner somewhere.

Conversely, assurances that your candidate will likely win takes all the air out of the sails of someone whose instinctive response is to fight. But it provides the calming message to continue efforts for those who might otherwise feel the need to run away.

Keep that in mind when pundits tell you how an event is likely to affect enthusiasm to get out and vote. The point here is to get away from condemning one message or the other. If what you seek is motivation to keep up the work you are doing, then you simply need to know what works for you.

It is also helpful to know that there is psychological research pointing to the idea that men and women respond very differently to stress.

According to some psychologists, there is basic difference in the way men and women respond to social stress: for men, it’s either “fight or flight” while for women it’s “tend and befriend.”

Physiologist Walter Cannon – a pioneer of research on stress – argued in the 1930s that “fight-or-flight” is a universal physiological response to stress shown not only by all humans, but by animals as well…Thousands of studies inspired by Cannon described and documented this response in a variety of species and situations. The vast majority of these studies, however, were conducted with males…

Instead of getting ready to fight or to flee, women become more likely to express affiliative social behavior, either to befriend the enemy – if there is an enemy and is causing the stress – or to seek social support from their family members or friends.

One of the ways this election is unique is that it is the first time we’re hearing psychologists weigh in on the effects that it is having on the mental health of Americans. The APA went so far as to publish a list of tips to help people manage their stress.

Of primary concern is the fact that people need to take care of themselves in a way that is healthy for them. Secondarily, it is important to recognize that different people have different ways of coping. Assuming a one size fits all on this question is just another way to create divisions.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .