The tragic violent death this week of LaVoy Finicum, one of the Militia of Ranchers occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon illustrates the LIFEMORTS triggers of rage in action. The difficult situation is an example of the type of violence that I hope an understanding of the neuroscience of aggression can help to reduce.
I take no sides. I place no blame. There is a storm of discussion and analysis of this armed conflict from a political standpoint; my intention is to contribute what I can from a neuroscience perspective. I hope that this neuroscience perspective on human aggressive behavior will help us reach a deeper understanding of this violent episode in which ranchers armed themselves and braced for violent conflict with authorities. How is it possible for otherwise peaceful and apparently mentally stable group of individuals to suddenly commit to life-risking violence for a cause? From accounts I have read, Finicum and the other “occupiers” do not have violent criminal records and they were not considered mentally disturbed individuals. I will proceed from that presumption.
From a biological perspective, engaging in violence is extremely risky. No animal, and no person (barring criminality and mental illness), will engage in aggression that risks life or limb except in response to a very view, specific, provocations or circumstances. These distinct triggers of violence engage distinct neural circuits in the brain’s threat detection mechanism that activate neurons in the hypothalamus to unleash violent aggression. These triggers of rage can be remembered by the mnemonic, LIFEMORTS, as explained in my book Why We Snap. These 9 triggers of violence evolved in the human brain because they have critical survival value. We need them, because like other animals, humans must have the biological capability to fight for self-defense, to protect their young, and to obtain food as carnivores.
Any one of these 9 triggers of rage can provoke a person to extreme violence that blots out all else except the focused intent on violent aggression directed with full force on a perceived threat. Some complex situations present multiple LIFEMORTS triggers simultaneously. When this occurs, the probability of violent aggression multiplies. The situation leading to the occupation of the wildlife refuge by ranchers presses simultaneously on several LIFEMORTS triggers, making a violent outcome almost inevitable.
The primary trigger was R (Resources). The ranchers felt that their valuable resource, rangeland for their cattle, was being threatened. Just as a friendly family pet will lash out viciously to protect its food dish, and people will act aggressively in response to theft, the ranchers’ perception that their vital land resources were being threatened tripped the R trigger of aggression in their minds. This threat to resources will trigger violence. Whether it does so or not depends on a complex set of situational factors.
The probability of violent action was compounded by other triggers of rage that were also being pressed in this situation. The T (Tribe) trigger was a major contributor. All humans collect into groups (us vs. them) for mutual cooperation and defense. When the Tribe trigger is tripped, individuals in the group, be they gangs, militias, or nations, will commit to extreme violence to defend their tribe. The ranchers perceived the federal government as an outside group that threatened their group’s way of life.
The E (Environment) trigger was also pressed. This provocation to violent aggression exists in all territorial animals, and human beings are fiercely territorial. The ranchers in the Oregon stand-off felt that their property, the open rangeland, was being encroached upon and at risk from outsiders (the federal government).
Finally, all social animals use violence to maintain order in society. When an individual or group of individuals violates what is perceived to be the proper order and rules of society, the O (Order in society) trigger of aggression will be tripped. The ranchers felt that the action of the federal government was an abuse of power and a corruption of what they viewed as the proper organization and operation of a democracy. Perceptions of social injustice are often the trigger of violent riots and revolutions. At a biological level, this violence stems from tripping the O trigger of rage in the brain.
To a lesser extent, but very much contributing in this situation, were the F (Family) and S (Stopped) triggers of aggression. The ranchers felt that their livelihood, and thus their family’s welfare was at risk, and secondly that they were being restrained through force from pursuing their career, in maintaining their identity as ranchers, and in exercising their individual freedom as citizens. The F and S triggers of rage were thus also engaged in the minds of many in the militia.
This situation in Oregon was an explosive mixture of multiple LIFEMORTS triggers of rage and violence that are as difficult to diffuse as a complex bomb wired to go off from multiple triggers.
What ignited the deadly violence that ended Finicum’s life was the L (Life-or-limb) trigger of self-defense. Either Finicum or the police, who had cornered him after he sped away from a traffic stop, felt that their own life was suddenly at risk in a gun battle. This L trigger tripped swift deadly violence in which Finicum was shot.
The consensus is that Finicum forced the officer’s hand by failing to surrender and instead reaching to draw his handgun. This would legally justify the shooting as self-defense (L trigger). Some speculation has also been made that Finicum committed “suicide by cop” to avoid incarceration and to martyr himself for his cause, or that he was simply ambushed and shot. A forensic analysis and investigation will analyze these various scenarios, but regardless, for the purposes of this discussion, a shooting in any of these three versions was tripped by the L trigger, as both the police and the armed fugitives faced an intensely dangerous life-risking situation in a deadly face-off between people armed with guns.
The way authorities handled this armed occupation demonstrated a clear recognition of the volatile and violent danger it presented, and the need to handle this carefully. Authorities did not respond reflexively in a hot-headed manner and storm the building without first pursuing less violent action. The authorities showed restraint, but wider appreciation of the neuroscience of anger and aggression can be helpful. First, by recognizing that this situation was pressing on these specific triggers of rage, everyone would immediately understand that neural circuits in the human brain that are designed to unleash violent aggression were being activated in this situation.
Secondly, breaking down this complex stand-off in terms of the triggers of aggression could have been helpful, because these same triggers of aggression in our brain both divide and unite us. The same neurocircuitry of the T trigger of rage that divides us into warring factions also unites us just as powerfully in cooperation. The ranchers are all Americans. They all believe in the proper order and behavior in society and in democracy (the O trigger). Prior to resorting to storming public buildings with guns, individuals in society must be committed (or compelled) to first follow every recourse available to resolve threats to their individual wellbeing or survival through peaceful means. The occupiers have a legitimate concern in taking action to protect their resources (R triggers), but resources of all types are limited; likewise for territory (E trigger). Both must be allocated and managed appropriately, and on these matters there is no dispute.
The question is one of process. Armed threat is the last recourse left only after every other means has been exhausted. No matter what the issue, this is the overriding imperative that binds all of us together into a peaceful society. The O trigger of aggression enables us to operate according to rules of law rather than the brutal laws of the jungle. This means that in the end, violence will be used by society against these ranchers to make them comply with the agreed upon rules of our orderly society. That violence to maintain order in society is carried out in the form of taking away liberties through force (incarceration) through the legal system, or to defend life and limb of public officials and the public, through deadly force if necessary.
Likewise for the E, F, S triggers; there was no division between the militia, citizens at large, and the authorities, in recognizing the importance of any of these triggers.
My point is not that authorities failed to negotiate and otherwise handle this dangerous situation properly, but rather that that these triggers of rage, which exist in the brains of every one of us, had to be disarmed; otherwise violence was inevitable.
As of today four members of the militia remain at the wildlife refuge. All of these triggers of rage are still in place, and the chronic stress caused by the prolonged siege lowers the threshold on all the LIFEMORTS triggers, making it more likely that they will misfire. Some of these LIFEMORTS triggers have been pressed upon more forcefully by the death of Finicum, and by the loss of alternative peaceful options to avoid a resolution without violence. The call by the leader, Ammon Bundy for these remaining occupiers to turn themselves in now is being made by appeal to the O and T triggers; namely, by using agreed upon procedures and the laws that keep our society functioning cooperatively without unnecessary violence. Bundy is urging the remaining protesters to “turn yourselves in and do not use physical force.” He asked the holdouts to use the national platform they have to “defend liberty through our constitutional rights.”
One hopes that this appeal can be successful. The outcome of this tragic episode will depend on the balance of the LIFEMORTS triggers of violence in the minds of those involved. The fear is that martyrdom will satisfy the T trigger of rage in a dire situation that offers no outcome other than violence. One hopes that this dangerous standoff ends by surrendering voluntarily to the positive aspects of the LIFEMORTS triggers of rage that have guided our species’ survival for 100,000 years, but controlled through reason that derives from the cerebral cortex in the human brain that regulates the brain’s threat response circuitry. The occupiers can reach a deliberate decision to accept non-violent disarmament, and instead pursue their legitimate grievances through the legal system. They cannot escape martyrdom for their cause. Now the fate of these four remaining occupiers will end in violence–either through the legal system or in a gun battle.
Still from Video of Joint FBI and OSP Operation, https://www.fbi.gov/portland/press-releases/2016/image/still-from-video-of-joint-fbi-and-osp-operation-in-harney-county-oregon-1-of-3/view