The Fourth "F"

Updated: Apr 15

As the human brain has evolved, it has developed a self-protective mechanism designed to ensure survival in times of extreme danger or stress. Faced with a threat, the brain must react in a split second; deciding how to best protect itself is an instantaneous reaction. This is widely referred to as the “Fight or Flight” response.

More recently, the field of psychology has added “freeze” as a significant and common behavioural response. In the event of a harmful attack, this may mean playing dead while literally petrified with fear. Today, psychologists are beginning to observe and document a fourth “F” that manifests in times of real or perceived danger “fib” or “fabrication”.

The Limbic region of the brain processes an immense variety of information from myriad sources. It senses the presence of danger, assesses threats, and activates defence. These Limbic structures are ready to respond to threat. By activating the sympathetic nervous system, which is in contact with the brainstem or cerebellum, a person is “chemically fuelled” by the provision of adrenaline being released into the body. This adrenaline, in turn, triggers the decision to Fight (attack and defend) or Flight (to flee) or Freeze (play dead). Meanwhile, the body is flooded with the stress hormone, cortisol. As neuroscience research itself continues to evolve, it appears to support these observed behaviours related to stress. However, neuroscience also encourages us to study the development of the neocortex (the outermost layer of the brain), which is an additional avenue for processing thoughts and a new line of self-defence achieved through language. With complex and advanced language (not available to our primitive ancestors), we have the ability to verbalize both factual and/or fictitious reasoning instantaneously at point of performance, most notably in times of stress and threat.

The Fib mechanism protects in a number of ways:

  • Protection (temporary) from the feeling of having disappointed someone.

  • Deflection (temporary) of anger and the anticipated consequence.

  • Extension: This may be caused by a desire to “buy some time” in the momentary absence of information, or information that is not acceptable to the person that is perceived as a threat. This provides the maker with an extension of available processing or thinking time. The consequence of the fib is not planned for.

  • Self-preservation: Preserving self-esteem and self-efficacy; perceived reduced self- esteem of a “failure” due to behaviour that ended in a negative consequence, leading to shame and embarrassment.

Often, a “fib” or “fabrication” does allow an individual to avert a present danger or threat, at least for the time being. The escape from fear, embarrassment, judgment, guilt, or shame provides a brief sense of escape. This is evidenced when an individual lies to lessen the intensity of an inquisition, being able to gain relief from what seems like a barrage of questions. What’s more, an individual may lie to him or herself to avoid the fear of the perceived threat of their current situation.

Examining four key elements of executive functioning we can understand how this self-fibbing happens easily and readily:

  • Weak Inhibition: The inability to stop an action when under pressure for an answer.

  • Poor Emotional Regulation: Overwhelming fear in the face of the stressful situation.

  • Faulty Working Memory: By not accessing the information of “the relief of now” in contrast to the later unpleasant outcome, the working memory weakness is evident. Also, the inability of “self-talk” to self-soothe and plan a logical way forward.

  • Inconsistent Attention Regulation: This may be implicated if the subject had succumbed to a dire situation from ineffective regulation of attention or was distracted, causing their inability to achieve success.

The evolving and adaptable human brain has undergone significant expansion and modification over millennia as we progress and face new threats to our survival. With the advancement of complex brain regions and neural networks, we are able to access a more complex, self-preserving response beyond Fight, Flight, or Freeze. The Fib or Fabrication response is a less successful self-preservation strategy, but that doesn’t make it any less popular. Fibbing is a neurological response and one sign of a fractured self-esteem, not a character flaw.

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