Does Our Primitive Survival Instinct Still Work in the 21st Century?

Our survival instinct, which has served us so well since we climbed out of the primordial muck eons ago may now be failing us. Why? Because the fight-or-flight reaction that arises in response to a threat to our lives is often no longer effective in a world that is far more complex, unpredictable, and uncontrollable than that of our primitive ancestors’ from which the survival instinct arose. In this article, I want to explore this disconnect between our survival instinct and what kind of new survival instinct might work better today.

At the heart of fight-or-flight are what I call the “Big Three” crisis reactions : fear, gloom, and panic.


First, the emotional reaction of fear is instantaneous and intense, ensuring that we pay attention and respond to a perceived crisis. In other words, fear causes us to act fast! Fear paralyzes our ability to think clearly, identify problems, and make deliberate decisions because thinking takes time and there just wasn’t enough time back in the cavepeople days for that; the only viable options were to fight or flee, immediately!

Unfortunately, many of today’s threats can’t be fought because there is no readily confrontable enemy (think terrorist attacks, climate change, and job loss). And they can’t be run away from because many are diffuse rather than localized; you can run, but you can’t hide. And burying your head in the sand may work for ostriches, but for humans, it leaves a very important part of the body exposed!


Second, gloom can work if the crisis is clear and present. In prehistoric times, focusing on the negative dimensions of a threat — namely, what can go wrong in the near term — ensured that we stayed vigilant to the most relevant dangers, allowing us to respond most quickly. By focusing on the negative aspects of the crisis during primitive times, our ancestors had the simple choice of fighting or fleeing. These primitive threats were also usually short lived — for example, an attacking animal or rival tribe — so gloom had no long-term implications.

But today’s crises are often amorphous, distant, and long lasting. So the initial gloom, which had short-term survival benefits, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that can worsen the threat. We saw this play out during the Great Recession. Many people distrusted the stock market, many businesses had little confidence in their own survival, and governments lost faith in their ability to overcome the crisis. In all these cases, an attitude of gloom led to behavior that may have actually worsened the financial crisis.


Third, panic produces immediate and frenzied behavior. Panic was quite functional back in prehistoric days because it triggered in our ancestors either a furious attack or a frantic retreat from the threat. Panic in reaction to many of today’s crises, however, produces actions that are more ill-advised and destructive than helpful. Where there should be patience, there is haste. Where there should be reasoned deliberation, there is irrationality. Where there should be calm, there is, well, panic.

In the panic after the fall of the investment bank Lehman Brothers and the stock market crash that followed, many people fled the financial markets, many businesses drastically cut costs by letting go of employees, and governments went into austerity mode at the worst possible time. All of these efforts were intended to ensure everyone’s respective survival, but such panicked behavior was short-sighted and had the exact opposite effect in the long run.

A New Survival Instinct

If these instincts that are so deeply woven into our DNA no longer fulfill our most basic needs to survive, what new form of survival instinct do we need to evolve to help us to endure in the concrete, metal, and hard-wired jungle in which we now live? As with earlier stages of evolution, we need to adapt to our surroundings and produce a response that will be more effective than the fight-or-flight reaction that helped us survive for hundreds of thousands of years.

But we can’t wait millions of years for evolution to do its job and ingrain a new survival instinct in us that is more functional for the modern world. In fact, we can, to paraphrase a well-known adage, take evolution by the horns and bend it to our will with a new survival instinct that is the antithesis of the time-worn fight-or-flight reaction. Instead of overwhelming and uncontrollable fear, a crisis should trigger courage, which isn’t the absence of fear — it’s impossible to not to experience fear in the face of a threat — but rather the ability to confront the fear and act proactively and deliberately despite it. It involves being able to manage negative emotions, such as fear, anger, frustration, and despair, and to generate helpful emotions, including hope, inspiration, excitement, and pride.

Instead of gloom, we should engage in rational thinking that includes calculated risk-reward analysis, in-depth problem solving, and effective decision making. It means being cognizant of the threat, but focusing more on finding solutions to overcome it. In a crisis that encompasses a group (e.g., work, family, team), this reasoned thinking requires that people set aside differences, communicate openly, establish priorities, and work together — because that is the rational thing to do in the face of significant societal crises — to produce answers to the pressing dangers that today’s threats present to us.

Finally, we don’t need to wait for evolution to adapt our survival instinct to today’s challenges. Rather, we already have the capacity to override our primitive survival instinct. We are already capable of experiencing courage, thinking rationally, and acting deliberately. That is the gift that evolution has also given us; it’s called the cerebral cortex.

Tips For Responding to a Crisis

Instead of panic, we should take calm and measured action that is directed and purposeful.  This new survival instinct can increase our chances of surviving during periods of crisis. What results is a psychology—what I call an ‘opportunity mindset’— that is diametrically opposed to and entirely more effective than the survival instinct that now dominates our DNA and our lives.

Of course, the real challenge involves how to resist those millions of years of evolution and stop the instinctive flight-or-flight reaction before it takes complete control of us. Here are a few tips for ingraining a more evolved response to a crisis:

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