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If an animal has an option, he will always flee. Corner him, and he will fight.

So the animal behaviorists tell us.

Fortunately, I'm not out on the savannah or threading my way through the jungle. However, today's existence does have its fight-or-flight situations, from actual physical attacks to emotional stresses. And in these situations, just as creatures in the wild, the human animal tends to run away:

  • A woman sat in her car when another car violently and suddenly launched into it, careened off, and smashed into another vehicle. She frantically started her sedan and drove away, the right rear wheel shaking and scraping the car's undercarriage. She had just been in a nearby salon; when the receptionist called to see if she were okay, she sounded dazed and unable to state her location. (I'm not fabricating this. It happened Friday. And no, not to me.)

  • In 1964, over the course of over half an hour, Winston Moseley stabbed and then raped Kitty Genovese in the alleyways near her apartment building in the Queens borough of New York City. Dozens of neighbors heard or saw portions of the attack; few took action. (The story is now a classic for psychology textbooks and prompted research into the "bystander effect" and "diffusion of responsibility." I'm willing to venture it's also an example of bystanders' fundamental conflict reluctance—even when conflict could save a life.)

  • Nearly everyone you'll ask will tell a story of how he should have stood up for himself but didn't. Personally, I had a guy jab a finger in my face and berate me on the Tube in London when I tried to stand up for someone he was railroading. Stunned, speechless, I backed away.

Clearly, situations must be pretty extreme for us to stand and fight. Given another option, we run.

So why is there so much conflict in the world today?

I think it's because we're backing people into real and virtual corners more than we realize—and more than we should. If we give people an out, they'll take it. Yet if they feel they have no other option than to fight, if they are desperate and fearful and panicked, they have nothing to lose in conflict.

What do you think?