Tag Archives: Shelly Taylor

The Benefits and Limitations of Rhyming and Alliteration

Smoky Sunrise Aug 2017

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-rhyming and I’m not anti-rap.

Truth is, I think rhyming slogans are pretty darn cool. Ask my students, I use them all the time. Here are a few that have been known to slip out my mouth and into a class lecture from time to time:

  • A pill is not a skill.
  • Get curious, not furious.
  • Your goal should be within your personal control
  • To function to the best of your ability, you should embrace your multicultural humility
  • An alcoholic drink, will not help you think (better)

The benefits of rhyming (and I daresay, alliteration) is that messages emerge with might and mass, which makes them more memorable. What I meant to say here before my alliterative self took over is that rhyming produces a powerful and memorable message. That’s the good news.

The “less good” news (as us therapist types like to say) is that rhyming and alliteration, although clever and appealing, usually don’t capture ALL OF THE TRUTH, and, are often misleading.

All this initial commentary is my way of leading up to my recent critique of the liberal use of a couple of F-words (nope, I’m not talking about “Fire and fury” although that could be an alliterative example of something that’s simply not soothing the simmering psyches of people who need to settle down). Instead, the target of my critique today is the all-too-common utterance, “Fight or flight.”

What follows is an excerpt of a slight rambling rant that was included in my keynote speech at the Montana Prevent Child Abuse Conference this past April.

The context: I had just shown a video of a Harvard professor who happened to mention (without checking with me first) the clever and popular phrase, “fight or flight.” Here’s what came next:


You may not be aware of this, but I’m an official, self-appointed member of the counseling and psychotherapy theories police. I don’t have a badge, but I’ve got a book. What this book means is that I’ve done a little background reading on lots of theoretical concepts, like “Fight or Flight.” “Fight or Flight” – We hear that a lot, even from, as my older daughter would say, that fancy Harvard guy on the video.

The problem with most rhyming concepts is that they tend to oversimplify whatever it is we’re talking about. Take for example, “No pain, no gain.” There’s some truth to that, but that statement probably doesn’t hold for everyone, everywhere.

Well, the troubling truth is that fight or flight isn’t really all that accurate. Stress doesn’t just trigger two behavioral options. There are other behaviors activated by stress, some of which also start with an F, but don’t rhyme so neatly.

There’s Faint. And there’s Freeze. Chronic stress can also increase Feeding; some of us know that first-hand. My favorite stress food comes from places that rhyme with Fakery, so I guess that’s another F word. But, then again, stress can also dull your appetite, so the feeding thing isn’t a universal response.

Then there are the “P” words, like poop and pee. High stress can affect those, sometimes rather dramatically.

But what most people—even fancy Harvard guys—don’t tell you or don’t know, is that much of the Fight or Flight research was conducted on White Males.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the research was actually conducted on White, Male, Rats.

After re-analyzing old data and new studies focusing on female rats and female humans, years ago, Shelly Taylor and her research colleagues at UCLA discovered that for females of the species, there was a tendency toward a different set of rhyming words. The females coped with stressors using a strategy referred to as “Tend and Befriend.” And to further complexify the situation, sometimes males do the tend and befriend thing too. . . although not quite so frequently as the white, male, rats.

The point . . . I know I’ve strayed from it, is that financial and workplace interventions are very good for decreasing child abuse, but IMHO. . . interventions that increase social support and connection (the tending and befriending as methods for helping highly stressed families cope) are equally important . . . and that brings us right back to you and what you can do to prevent child abuse.


Today’s blog is just a reminder that although powerful and memorable communication is remarkably powerful and memorable, it’s usually incomplete, not always accurate, and a function of the speaker’s need or desire to be powerful and memorable. This is just as true when I say “a pill is not a skill” or when other people say other things that make use of rambling and reckless rhetoric of the alliterative or rhyming ilk.

To finish, I’ll leave you with what Shelly Taylor said back in the year 2000, as excerpted from our forthcoming textbook, Counseling and Psychotherapy in Context and Practice (John Wiley and Sons, 2018). This particular excerpt ends with brief comments from us that also, in case you are wondering, might be relevant to the recent Google manifesto brouhaha.


Stress researcher and social psychologist Shelly Taylor made a similar contribution when researching the well-known fight or flight phenomenon (Taylor et al., 2000). She and her colleagues wrote:

A little-known fact about the fight-or-flight response is that the preponderance of research exploring its parameters has been conducted on males, especially on male rats. Until recently, the gender distribution in the human literature was inequitable as well. Prior to 1995, women constituted about 17% of participants in laboratory studies of physiological and neuroendocrine responses to stress. (2000, p. 412)

Reanalysis of existing data and new research revealed significant differences in the ways in which females and males respond to stressful situations. Taylor and colleagues (2000) concluded:

We propose a theory of female responses to stress characterized by a pattern termed “tend-and-befriend.” Specifically, we propose that women’s responses to stress are characterized by patterns that involve caring for offspring under stressful circumstances, joining social groups to reduce vulnerability, and contributing to the development of social groupings, especially those involving female networks, for the exchange of resources and responsibilities. We maintain that aspects of these responses, both maternal and affiliative, may have built on the biobehavioral attachment caregiving system that depends, in part, on oxytocin, estrogen, and endogenous opioid mechanisms, among other neuroendocrine underpinnings. (p. 422)

The preponderance of the research suggests that in fact, that White male ways of being aren’t always normative for females, or even for all males. There are physical and psychological similarities between females and males, but there are also differences. In this case, it would be inappropriate to make the case that a typical male fight-or-flight response is superior to a typical female tend-and-befriend response. There is likely an evolutionary benefit to both stress-related behavior patterns (Master et al., 2009; Taylor & Gonzaga, 2007; Taylor & Master, 2011). Sometimes differences are just differences and there’s no need to advocate for one sex-related pattern as superior over another (although if they feel threatened by this information, white male rats are highly likely to fight for their position…or run and hide in little holes in our cupboards). In this case it seems clear: Neither behavior pattern represents psychopathology…and neither will always be the superior response to threat.