Article ~ The Nature of Conflict

Discussion in 'Self Defence' started by Judderman, Oct 18, 2004.

  1. Judderman

    Judderman 'Ello darlin'


    Almost every species on the planet engages in conflict. These conflicts are usually over resources, but often status and group dynamics are made and broken by conflict.

    Animals do not enter into physical conflict willingly, for no matter how strong they are and weak their opponent, there is still the risk that either could be seriously hurt. For an animal to carry such an injury would seriously reduce its ability to survive or it ability to fend off other rivals. Thus animals have developed a series of postures that signal not only their strength and dominance, but also their intent to submit. These cues allow for physical conflict to be avoided as much as possible, or when it does occur lethal force is ceased by means of submissive behaviour postures.

    Conflict in human terms is no different, with three exceptions that are particular to humans. Our evolution has removed many of the body signals, such as hair or coloured body parts, so spotting subtle changes in emotion can be difficult. This evolution has also taken our natural weapons from us. Instead of horns, teeth or claws we have developed other weapons, starting with the simple club and ending now with guns and bombs. These new weapons now put distance between the individual and that which it is attacking, thus depersonalising the intended victim. This might be why weapons are becoming more and more prevalent in physical conflict. The last exception is that we no longer respond to submissive cues as animals do. When we attack our attack is not halted by cues given by our “victim”. The culmination of this, along with other psychological developments, is that humans are the only animals to kill its own species in such high quantities.


    Posturing is a system of body language designed to avoid physical conflict. It is made up of a mixture of facial expressions, body positioning/movement and verbal directions. Some of these can be seen at a distance, but as the distance closes the posturing become more extreme. Just as animals strut and bellow, so do humans, all designed to intimidate an opponent in order to avoid a fight, to gain dominance over an opponent without coming to blows. These can range from “hard” stares to body positioning to pushing and shoving. However, if these postures are ignored or not placated then the fight might begin in earnest. The ritual can be broken down into four stages:

    Selection ~ an opponent is selected and visual and/or verbal challenges are issued.
    Posturing 1 ~ intimidation by size and voice, strutting and bellowing.
    Posturing 2 ~ not always seen, but intimidation by strength.
    Action ~ this might be fight, flight or disengage, dependant on how the cues are received and what cues are given off by the opponent.

    There is no guarantee of how long it will take for a person to move from posturing to action, but this ritual is always followed except in a few cases. Narcotics, alcohol and mental health may well negate the use of posturing as the “higher” brain functions are affected. If a person is well versed in conflict, they may avoid these rituals altogether, such as experienced fighters and criminals. In these cases we must look to the biological signs.


    The autonomic system is split into two sides, the sympathetic, which gears our body for action, and the parasympathetic, which calms us down.

    The action of the sympathetic system is sometimes referred to as the “Fight/Flight” syndrome. This syndrome governs our responses to stressors, be they internal (thoughts) or external (threats). It decides, as the name suggests, the level of either attack or defence we should apply to a stressor, be it a wasp flying past our face, a reprimand by our superior, an argument or a knife-wielding robber.

    When stimulated by a stressor the governing part of the brain, the limbic system, floods our bodies with a cocktail of chemicals via the endocrine system. These, amongst others, are:

    Adrenaline ~ the best known as it affects the heart rate, lungs, blood supply to the muscles and the production of glucose.
    Endorphins ~ the body’s natural painkillers.
    Dopamine ~ natural stimulants which increase mental activity and speed up muscle contractions.
    Nor Adrenaline ~ causes vasoconstriction and an increase in blood pressure.

    These chemicals prepare the body for action, be that attack or flight.


    Combining these two elements, biological and posturing, we can begin to decipher the cues in a confrontation. They can be broken down into two categories:

    The aggressive (fight) cues can be identified as:

    Squaring off, usually accompanied by wide arm gestures, this is to make the attacker look larger. (P)

    Loud, verbal abuse and challenges used to directly intimidate. As aggressive tendencies increase, the level of language reduces to monosyllabic responses. The questioning style is indicative to the issue of a challenge e.g. “Well?” “So?” “Eh?” “And?”*1 (P), then later (P)(B)

    Pushing/shoving to intimidate as a display of strength as well as size*1(P)

    Bared teeth, usually with the lips tight to the teeth and the corners of the mouth pushed forward. (P)

    Furrowed eyebrows to protect the eyes. *4 (P)

    Chin tucked towards chest to protect the throat. (P)

    Staring intently at specific area of the body a result of tunnel vision but also an indication to where a person intends to attack. (B)

    White face (as blood drains away towards muscles)*2(P)

    Red face *2(P)

    Clenching of fists.(P)(B)

    Leaning in. A state of preparation to launch forwards. *1(P)(B)

    Forward motion. A forward motion will precede just about every attack. Interestingly backward motion can also be seen, but it is usually another posturing movement, for intimidation. (P)(B)

    The Fear (flight) cues can be identified as:

    Muscle twitching/shaking/tightening.(B)

    Shaky voice.(B)

    Flushed face*2 (B)

    Furtive eye movements as if looking for an escape route.(P)

    Distractive movements*3(B)

    Staring intently,a result of tunnel vision, focusing on the perceived threat.(B)

    Eye brows raised*4(P)(B)

    Bared teeth, but with the corners of the mouth pulled back. (B)

    Hands splayed in front of the body, as if to ward of a threat (P)

    Freezing. This is known to occur in states of extreme fear. Animals use it as a defence mechanism against predators who hunt primarily by sight. (P)(B)

    Retreat or body movements indicating a desire to disengage, such as turning the body away.

    Other cues in both categories are:

    Increase in breathing and heart rate.

    Digestive system is affected. On the one hand the sympathetic response
    causes a restriction, the parasympathetic release. This is why some feel the need to vomit, urinate or defecate when stress, a sign of the internal conflict between these two systems.

    Impaired vision ~ the loss of peripheral vision (tunnel vision).

    Impaired hearing ~ nothing but a high pitched ringing can be heard (auditory exclusion), this is due to the blood vessels in the ear dilating. May also be brought on be cognitive dissonance.

    Dry mouth


    Cognitive dissonance ~ this is where small details are focused on and the “bigger picture” is forgotten. In extreme states the “higher” functions of the brain appear to be restricted. Speaking becomes difficult either the voice is shaky or the words are monosyllabic.

    Time slows ~ events seem to occur in slow motion (tachypsychia).


    1. These movements and postures are usually done in the early stages of a confrontation. They are used to intimidate the opponent by size. If an opponent is not intimidated by size then the use of pushing or barging of the opponent may be used. This may be an indication of an unwillingness to engage in direct physical conflict, as if the intent were to attack, then a more damaging form would be used. It is also interesting to note that the push is often reciprocated by an attack from the pushed, so perhaps the pusher is so unwilling to begin the attack they must trigger it in the opponent. This might also reflect the questioning tone of voice, such as “So?” “Well?” as if issuing a challenge to attack first. Experienced fighters also refer to this posturing. It is well known that the person to be careful of is the one who is saying the least.

    2. The colouration of the face is often misunderstood. In readiness for action blood drains from the extremities to the muscles in preparation for action, which can be so severe in some that it causes unconsciousness due to the lack of blood in the brain. The flushing is a sign of the pendulum swinging back and forth as the body decides what action to take. Whereas an angry, red-faced person is still dangerous, it is the quieter, white-faced person we should be most cautious of. In this state the body is ready for action and we must look to other facial clues to decide whether they will attack or run.

    3. When an animals desire to advance (fight) is in increasing conflict with its desire to retreat (flight) it uses distraction movements almost as if it is trying to relieve some of the acute stress of the encounter. I observed this first with a colleague who was trying to remove a dead spider from the wall with a long ruler. Here there was conflict. On the one hand her mind said it was safe to attack the spider as it dead, however her fear of spiders kept her from doing so. As a result she looked at her watch, as a distraction, before taking any action. I have also observed similar actions during professional fights. A recent Kickboxing match I watched, the two opponents appeared evenly matched in skill however one was far more aggressive than the other. As the less aggressive fighter pulled away, he brushed his short hair backwards, a pointless gesture in a fight, but indicative of this inner conflict.

    4. It is interesting to note that position of the eyebrows seems to be directly linked to emotion. To experience this, furrow your eyebrows and think of aggressive thoughts. Whilst still thinking of these thoughts, raise your eyebrows and the thoughts seem less aggressive.


    It is possible to reduce the effects of the chemical imbalance on our bodies in a conflict, but we can never remove them. Training or working in conditions that induce this chemical response will tend to desensitise us, we become less “bothered” about the threat, and thus we can maintain an element of control.

    As has been stated, experienced fighters know a quieter individual can be a greater threat; positioning the body into a natural fighting stance can augment this. From this position they know that you probably know how to fight, as it is the most stable to launch a strike from.

    Another way to get some one to capitulate is to cause what is known as an “adrenal dump”. By behaving in a manner that causes the onlooker’s brain to flush the body with adrenaline, you can create the feeling of fear, which in turn causes them to capitulate. This can be done by sudden and extreme aggression. A way to enhance this is to push the opponent out of fighting range, it is thought that the creation of distance causes the body to go from “fight” to “flight” as they have suddenly been given a way out. Certainly when trying to intervene in a fight a very loud and aggressive “OI!!” has been known to stop a fight, this is certainly the case for some prisoners who end up fighting in order to “keep face”, but desperately want someone else to end the fight for them. It is important to remember, however, that this increase in aggression can refocus the opponent towards you and trigger an attack; after all they are already geared for action and just require the appropriate trigger.

    Issuing calming or passive body language can placate an aggressive opponent. Keeping a relaxed body with little movement, emphasised with a relaxed face and voice can help keep your attacker in the deciding phase as they still can’t decide if you’re a threat or not, but as with responding with aggression, this may also trigger an attack as the individual may decide you no longer pose a threat to themselves as you are passive.

    It is my hope that, just as I did, by gaining an understanding of these mechanics of conflict will not only help you to recognise your own responses, thus gain an element of control over them, but you will recognise them and the pre-fight rituals that accompany them in others, thus (hopefully) negating physical conflict at an earlier opportunity.
  2. Oddball

    Oddball New Member

    Great article, I enjoyed the read very much. Many of the points that you touched on make sense. Thanks, it opened my eyes.

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