Fight or flight ‘not a personality type’

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oscar smile july 2 REUTERS Oscar Pistorius at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. Picture: Gianluigi Guercia

Johannesburg - When Darren Fresco’s gun went off in Tashas restaurant, Oscar Pistorius didn’t fight. He didn’t jump up startled and slap someone. He also didn’t flee – he never ran out or called for help.

From the account of Pistorius and two other witnesses, he stayed calm and remained at the table.

The evolutionary response known as “fight or flight” has been the topic of court discussions over the past two days.

The term refers to an involuntary response that kicks in when we perceive that we face danger.

We will either face the threat or run from it.

“The fight-or-flight response is almost ingrained in people,” said Dr Jackie de Wet, of the criminology and forensic studies department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

But fight or flight isn’t a personality type, and it doesn’t need to be consistent.

De Wet used the example of a dog that might attack another dog one day and run off the next. “It depends on the context,” he said.

The academic said the situation that the defence was trying to construct was one where, under a set of almost involuntary actions, Pistorius assumed he could not flee and had acted to fight for himself.

Expanding on this was defence witness Professor Wayne Derman’s testimony that the fight-or-flight response, and the inclination to fight rather than flee, was more pronounced in people with disabilities.

“The argument, at some point, is that the fact that he shot through the door four times was involuntary,” De Wet said. “He can’t control it.”

De Wet said people with a disability were hampered in terms of “flighting”, but he said he thought it was a generalisation to say they would always be more prone to fight or have an advanced response to a situation.

Professor James Grant, of the Wits School of Law, said part of the defence’s case appeared to be to convince the court that Pistorius could not be judged by the standard of any reasonable person, but needed to be judged by the standard of a “reasonable paraplegic”, for which there was no definition in our law.

“Can we say that we can lower (the standards of a reasonable man) based on an impediment?” Grant asked.

The defence needed to be careful of pushing the fight-or-flight issue too far, and making it appear that Pistorius wasn’t thinking at all, he added.

“The defence should lean towards, ‘I was thinking, but I was mistaken’. Not that I was not thinking at all… here you depart from the original defence (of putative self-defence),” Grant said.

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