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“Put the pieces of the puzzle together, though, and it becomes clear that the threat is severe, we are vulnerable and we are not yet equipped to fight. That means the solution for the moment is to flee, as fast and quickly as we can."”
Professor Brian Connelly of Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business has been studying for many years how people respond to external threats. He says the concept of “fight, flee or freeze” applies to a wide range of social situations, like coronavirus, and that business school professors use it to understanding managerial responses to threats such as economic downturns, supply chain problems and disruptive innovations. Understanding threat-responses sheds light on what we see unfolding in the public regarding coronavirus.
How are people responding to this crisis?
Many of us have tuned in to our televisions for information about COVID-19, only to see beach volleyball games in Florida, groups socializing at restaurants in Georgia and densely populated parks in California.
There seems to be a social divide in our response to COVID-19, with some advocating for a national lockdown and others taking only modest measures to safeguard themselves and others.
COVID-19 constitutes a threat to all of us. To understand what is happening at a societal level, it may be helpful to consider how people respond to a threat. Imagine, for instance, that you are out for a walk one sunny day and all is going well, much like we felt a few months ago before we heard the word “coronavirus.” Suddenly a loose dog comes running directly toward you, barking loudly. How do you respond to this threat?
It turns out, we quickly assess our options and make a choice that you may have heard as “fight, flee or freeze.” If we face a small and yappy dog, we might decide to fight, perhaps by kicking at it. If we face a German shepherd, the fight option is not available, so we try to flee to some nearby height or shelter. If the flee option is also not available, we freeze, tensing our body and contracting our position.
Fight, flee or freeze is a handy alliteration of a phenomenon that is actually scientific and applies to a wide range of social situations. Barry Staw of the University of California at Berkeley calls this “Threat Rigidity Theory,” and business school professors have been using it for many years as a framework for understanding managerial responses to threats such as economic downturns, supply chain problems, and disruptive innovations.
How does this apply COVID-19?
To respond to the threat of COVID-19, our first calculation is whether we can fight. It appears we cannot. That is partly why the virus is so nefarious, because we have no way to stop it. As we survey our arsenal of weapons, we find that none of them are effective against the threat.
Our next calculation is whether to flee, which is tantamount to social distancing and self-quarantines in the world of COVID-19. Some are doing this more than others. We are all asking ourselves whether we can flee the virus and even whether we should flee. It is much like the assessment about a charging dog of whether we can make it to safety or whether we should even try.
If fighting and fleeing are not effective, we freeze. When people and organizations freeze, they contract and protect. This is not just about doing nothing, it is an active response. My own research shows that CEOs are doing this all the time in response to minor threats, and they magnify their response as the threat grows. A societal-level freeze manifests itself in things we are already starting to see: investors avoiding the stock market, businesses laying off workers and people hoarding money and resources.
How do we unfreeze?
One way is to focus on fighting. The collective immunity we gain as people recover from the virus constitutes one means to fight, but that weapon takes a long time to develop. In the meantime, we latch on to information we can find about any potential weapon against the threat, no matter how early the evidence of its efficacy. We desperately want to unfreeze, so we attend closely to anything that might suggest a new way to fight. As news of medicine to mitigate the virus or a vaccination to prevent it leaks out, we sometimes ascribe inordinate legitimacy to the information because we are so eager to unfreeze.
Another way is to focus on fleeing. This is why many government leaders are advocating for strict social distancing, and self-quarantines for those that are symptomatic. One problem our leaders face is that there is no glory in fleeing. Nobody wants to be the one that ran away. For many, fleeing seems like failure, especially given the immediate adverse economic consequences of social distancing.
So why do people respond differently?
To explain differences in whether people protect themselves from, or ignore, a threat, psychologist Ronald Rogers developed what he called “Protection Motivation Theory.” He suggests the decision is based on two key factors: severity and vulnerability. To determine if they are going to take on protection mechanisms, people ask themselves: How severe are the consequences of this threat and how vulnerable am I to becoming a target?
For example, sociologists use protection motivation theory to explain the use of bicycle helmets. People ask themselves how severe would it be if I were in an accident, and how vulnerable am I to getting in an accident? Answers to these questions allow people to determine how willing they are to safeguard against the threat by wearing a helmet. Researchers have used protection motivation theory to explain whether people try to protect themselves from a wide variety of health threats.
Following this logic, people may be asking themselves these questions now about COVID-19. How severe would the consequences be if I contracted the disease? If they cognitively group it into the same category as the flu, which most people consider to be a minor annoyance, they will judge the severity as low. How vulnerable am I to the possibility of contracting the disease? If they consider themselves unlikely to get the virus, they will judge their vulnerability as low. In either case, they will not be motivated to protect against the threat of the virus.
Nobody wants to stay frozen indefinitely. Put the pieces of the puzzle together, though, and it becomes clear that the threat is severe, we are vulnerable and we are not yet equipped to fight. That means the solution for the moment is to flee, as fast and quickly as we can.
About Brian Connelly:
Brian Connelly is a professor of management and the Luck Eminent Scholar in Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business. He is editor-elect of the Journal of Management and has published in journals such as the Strategic Management Journal, Organization Science, Global Strategy Journal, Strategic Organization and the Journal of Management Studies. His work is often cited in media outlets, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today.