Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Surviving the (Romantic) Suspense #5: Men are from Mars, Women Process Adrenaline Slower

As a romantic suspense author, I spend a lot of time writing about ladies in peril. And by that token, I have to get them back out of it. So I'm going to use one day a week to talk about self defense and protecting yourself in various ways.

Men and women fight differently. It's a fact. There are numerous, often hotly debated, reasons for this. Some are cultural and sociological - men are conditioned to roughhouse from an early age, whereas women generally only associate fighting with punishment. And then some are physical - like the adrenaline dump.

Men process adrenaline faster. When that first punch hits them, they get a huge dump of epinephrine in their system. It makes them act, even though they've likely lost most of their fine motor control and critical thinking abilities.

Women process adrenaline slower. This means that while they will not necessarily be as immediately inclined to fight back, they will maintain the use of their motor control and critical thinking abilities for longer. Fights happen fast - by the time adrenaline kicks in for women, oftentimes the actual fight is over. This is why you will frequently see women shaking and crying after fights, while men are more often able to hold it together: the men have already gone through the shaky, jittery part of the adrenaline dump in the middle of the fight.

Both reactions have advantages and disadvantages. In a surprise fistfight, a man will usually fare better. But in a surprise firefight, a woman will be able to keep her cool and retain her ability to shoot accurately [Annual reports of police performance in the United States show that while police officers perform relatively well on low-pressure shooting tests (with hit percentages above 90%), they perform substantially worse when firing in the line of duty (with hit percentages around or below 50%; e.g., Morrison and Vila 1998)]. From an evolutionary standpoint it makes perfect sense - a tribe had to protect its women in order to sustain itself; a tribe of one man and several women would be much better off in the long run than a tribe of one woman and several men. The women were able to keep their cool, gather their babies, and get away while the men went fuzzy-headed with rage and fought, leaving the women and children time to escape.

Know your strengths, and train your weaknesses. If you're interested, here are a couple great sources on the subject.

ETA: Hey guys, go look at the comments for this one. Some very interesting, relevant stuff from JW.


  1. I love instances like this where realizing that men and women are wired differently and NOT saying "we're equal in all respects" can do good. I appreciate it when people candidly admit to the strengths and weakness of men and women in situations.


    1. For sure, it's worth acknowledging that men and women have different strengths. Not every problem is a nail, and not every solution is a hammer, you know?

  2. Good to know! I have a police procedural and my protagonist is a female detective...who will be shooting in a firefight. :)

    1. Definitely good stuff to keep in mind then! :)

  3. 1. Don't disagree with your points, but there are other issues, as well.
    2. A lot of combatants have always been conscientious objectors when it came to actually pulling a trigger on another human.
    3. The studies on this from WWII were flawed, but there is good information on the subject going back to the Civil War.
    4. Military solved that problem through training: in Vietnam and since, virtually all American combatants were willing to aim and shoot at the enemy.
    5. Another issue is the state of training. When well trained, most of your responses will be reflexive. The amount of practice required for optimum responses varies, but you can figure police officers and the like spend most of their time patrolling, not training.
    6. One of the local private ranges hosts a good number of police, practicing on their own dime. These individuals tend to be younger with fewer family obligations and more time and money for personal wants.
    7. Lastly, SGT (then SPC) Leigh Ann Hester was awarded the Silver Star for her actions in a firefight in Iraq in 2005.
    8. Her military police unit was guarding a convoy that was ambushed. She followed her squad leader into a network of ditches alongside the road and did in a fair number of Iraqi insurgents. The details of the incident and medal citation are out there.
    9. Several other members of the detachment were women, at least, one of whom also received an award for valor.
    10. Keep thinking about this stuff.
    V/R JW

  4. Do adrenaline surges feel different for everyone? If something jumps out and frightens me, it sends a physical shock through my whole body, and I feel very excited and alert for a few minutes. Is that adrenaline? I actually like it, which makes me wonder if it's the real thing. This info about women and men reacting differently is extremely interesting. Thinking about how I can apply it to my own work. Thanks.

    1. They absolutely do! Everyone's body/brain chemistry is different, so everyone has different reactions. There is a general "norm" in that on average women will take longer to process adrenaline than men, but how long that takes is different for each person, and you will likely feel some immediate reaction, just not one that will have you physically shaking, getting tunnel vision, etc. Also, I'd suggest that your reaction to something that you immediately realize is a joke will be very different to your reaction to someone legitimately threatening you.

    2. You've made me very curious about it. Now I'm wondering about what physical processes occur that make you shake when you have to do something that scares you e.g. public speaking, as opposed to fight or flight when someone chases you with a knife. Very interesting stuff. Thanks!