Why Do People Sometimes Fail when Adapting to Danger? A Theoretical Discussion from a Psychological Perspective

August 2001 (VOL. 19, NO. 2)

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During life-threatening danger, people may react in ways that decrease their chances of surviving or coping with the event. Several empirically demonstrated reactions have a potentially maladaptive effect on performance, due to limitations in our cognitive and emotional processing capacity or the activation of obsolete adaptive mechanisms. The possible psychological explanations for this are discussed in terms of assumptions derived from three major psychological paradigms: Darwinian, Freudian, and cognitive psychology. These theoretical models all illustrate useful concepts and assumptions, which do not logically exclude one another, necessary to understand more thoroughly how psychological adaption occurs in danger situations. However, no theory alone explains the empirical findings, and the various theories should be integrated into a model that includes different levels of psychological function, from consciously controlled processes to emotional and automatic process.