The “Z” Pattern of Fallback Behaviors (Revised)

Some years ago while participating in a workshop with several psychologists, I uncovered an idea about a possible pattern of behavior that seems to have some merit, but I’ve found no clinical studies available.  It had to do with going beyond anticipating the primary fallback behavior likely to occur based on the behavior style of a person under stress when the stress does not go away.  Under normal circumstances, the primary fallback behaviors to expect according to a person’s social style profile would be:

*  The Driver (more assertive; doesn’t easily show emotions) ~ to become autocratic (sensing control is threatened).

*  The Amiable (less assertive; emotionally responsive) ~ to acquiesce (sensing a threat of being disliked).

*  The Expressive (more assertive; emotionally responsive) ~ to attack (sensing withdrawal of emotional validation; approval, and applause).

* The Analytic (less assertive; emotionally reserved) ~ to avoid (sensing a risk of being proven wrong, or not allowed the opportunity to be certain).

From any of these starting points, it’s fairly easy to anticipate a primary response from an individual.  But what remains curious is to see was what happens when the stress does not go away.  When their principal modus operandi fails, it makes sense for them to try something else.  So, would not they be likely to try other fallbacks?  And additionally, is the pattern of how they might go through a series of them predictable?

Perhaps the order of them may not be, but what is likely to happen will be an emergence of some kind of pattern.  So far, I see at least an emergence of a pattern that shifts from primary to secondary fallback.  It is the automatic tendency to try “plan B”.  Additionally, since the primary is from home base (where”comfort” lives), it could easily be the secondary reaction that is first noticed by the casual observer.

Lets take a look at an example of a primary and a secondary.  A person may be analytic in their home quadrant, but particularly a driving analytic.  Their first avoidance might go unnoticed, and only when they show signs of unrelenting tensions, and take on their “driver” behavior and become autocratic, do they begin to seem unreasonable and possibly reacting out of desperation.  And, it is possible that they could oscillate back and forth between first and second base for quite some time before attempting to steal third.  That might be conditional to the intensity of the stress being felt.

I think the kind of tension and the perceived weight of risk may also have an effect.  For example, a person might vacillate between primary and secondary before moving on to the fallback behaviors of the other variant styles, and feel no need to try “plans C or D” as long as they hope to get some relief due to “plans A or B”.  A person operating outside their comfort zone will feel some tension depending on how flexible they are, and also how far they are having to stretch.  But it is a reaction to some kind of stress that tends cause us to pull tightly to a home position and allow others to see us in a fallback mode in the first place.

Consider former President Richard Nixon: his reactions to Watergate are examples of radical shifts in behavior under stress.  He went from his primary fallback to his secondary; back to his first, and then through all of them by the time he resigned.

Nixon’s social style profile (by my assessment) was that of a Driving Analytic.  The corresponding Myers-Briggs Type Indicator I mapped for him is ISTP (introversion, sensing, thinking, perception).  He generally appeared rather formal in his business dealings.  He took pride in wanting to appear rationally and logically in his thinking.  He was very loyal to what he believed were his rules rather than those of the “system”.   And eventually that got him into trouble.  His attempts to appear warm and caring were regularly perceived by the public at large to be awkward and clumsy at best.  He was not what you might think of when the word “charisma” is used.

When Watergate raised its ugly head, Nixon said nothing at first (avoiding), hoping to steer clear of giving any validity to the idea that there might be anything at all there worth looking at.  But the problem kept coming, growing bigger.

Soon, he appeared in front of the press, assuming a position of strength (control-autocrat) and announced that all the hullabaloo was just hyperbole; that as president, and for matters important to national security, there was nothing the public needed to know.  But he was under stress, and it showed.  The problem did not go away.

Then, he reverted to the fallback of the analytic by again appearing in front of the press with stacks of books, reports, and papers.  He spoke about his due diligence and meticulous handling of the complex matters of interest to the United States, and that if anything wrong or criminal took place that was the fault of anyone in government, he would find it and deal with it.  The attempt to appear thorough, and that his work was ongoing did not satisfy the public.  So it stands to reason that the tension still did not go away.

Feeling quite frustrated by not getting relief, he then tried the fallback of the expressive – to attack.  This time in front of the TV cameras he attacked those he felt were being unduly disloyal to him, and by that, also disloyal to the country.  He attacked the press; he attacked congress and the senate, and even attacked his own cabinet.  It was not a pretty sight.  By the time he realized his mistake, it was too late.  Impeachment was gaining momentum.  Now, the stress had him near the breaking point.

So, he then moved to the amiable (please don’t hate me) style, and acquiesced.  He resigned.  Had his acquiescence not gained relief, he would most likely have continued to zig zag all over the matrix until the public would begin to see a noticeable image of instability.  But by resigning the pressures let up, and he was eventually pardoned.

In hindsight, there was no real benefit that Nixon should have expected to gain from the break-in to the Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate building.  There was nothing there that could help him strategically.  He just wanted to peek.  And his ego lead him to think he could get away with it.  His rules (not society’s) allowed him to justify his actions–to himself.  But according to practically all of the polls at the time, he already had re-election sewed up.  So, was it a stupid decision?  As things turned out, it was certainly not an intelligent one.

I wish to draw a parallel here to the fictional character of Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie: “The Caine Mutiny”.  Feeling himself surrounded by disloyal subordinates who he thought were intending to prove his decisions wrong and usurp his authority, things began to go badly.  In the eyes of his crew, even before serious conflict began, Queeg was not the kind of person to seem “lovable”, or likely to attract any sense of closeness, or even the appearance of it, from others.

His early attempts to resolve conflict and controversy met with no support or validation.  His emotional responses, all of them outside his own personal comfort zone, met with failure.  In the end, he was locked into insisting all his measures were justified no matter how foolish or impulsive they appeared to others.  This left him seemingly in a state of apparent psychosis, and that he was not dealing with it in any rational or logical manner–perhaps the one thing he feared more than anything else.

So had Nixon’s resignation been rejected by a hostile tribunal bent on continuing the impeachment process in order to punish Nixon by forceful expulsion and possible other retributions, I suspect Nixon’s behavior would have become even more frantic as he looked for a way to get loose from his demon.  Then what we might have seen could have been a much closer comparison to Commander Queeg in his final scenes.

These “Z-Patterns”, as I call them, are quite difficult to predict until they actually occur.  For without unrelenting stress, we have no observable behavior characteristics to measure.  This is unfortunate for those who’d wish to have some advance notice of possible sociopathic explosions (such as rage random killing), but the fact remains that a criminal profile does not exist until behavior starts noticeably moving in that direction.  In fact, serious and lengthy psychoanalysis might be required, and even that does not guarantee complete disclosure.

That there even is a pattern tied to the social style fallback behaviors is only a theory, and I have no large pool of empirical data to back it up.  Perhaps behavior that seems chaotic for an individual could be linked to something else?  Maybe it can.  I’m not a neuroscientist.  There are some studies, however, that are beginning to suggest some sociopathic behavior patterns may have genetic roots.  But as we move outside the realm of normal psychology, I suppose the function of a social style matrix could easily break down altogether.

So without formal scientific proof, what I’m observing could simply turn out to be just my way of explaining phenomena.  I’ll have to have more than just deductive reasoning, or I might come up with something no more valid than: “Cows eat grass.  My horse, Buddy, eats grass.  Therefore Buddy is a cow.”

Since I am an actor, I often study characters in plays, and novels.  These are stories.  They are usually fiction, although sometimes based on real people.  Since we are dealing with actions and behaviors that come singularly from the mind of an author or playwright, it is not possible to get real information or feedback, because the “character” doesn’t really exist.

I talked to several of the psychologists about using the models as a tool for directors and actors.  Generally I’m told that the models for style are for and about real people to solve real problems in workplace relationships, so applying it to fiction would be not only silly, it would be a waste of time.  But in spite of that, I’ve continued to use the matrix with some degree of satisfaction off and on now for twenty-three years.  Problems seem to occur when an author or playwright has arbitrarily assigned behaviors to a character that, for the purposes of understanding motivation, seem “out of character” to me.

While the study of behavior of story characters may be interesting, how it applies to real people has some merit, because I’ve seen these patterns play out in real people.  And, so have you whether you recognized them as such at the time, or not.  Sometimes, the “why in the world did they do that?” becomes obvious when we look carefully at what motivates them; both for what they want to happen, and particularly what they do not want to happen.

Motivation is what the actor needs to know. Without it, no stage business is justified.  If a person gets up and walks across the room, there is a reason for it, even if it’s a bad one.  What does the character want/need? Why do they pursue a particular pattern of action? What is likely to be the thing they do next when they don’t get what they wanted? And if that doesn’t work, then what next? And Next? A pattern sometimes evolves, and the intrigue to me is wondering if the pattern is predictable.  I’ve seen it in workplaces; I’ve seen it in politicians, and even in some abnormal psychological profiles, such as serial killers.

The twig snaps. It gets our attention. You and I may want to know what it is. But when a deer in the forest hears a twig snap, it is alerted to potential danger. It waits to see if other twigs snap so it can triangulate the position and direction of movement of some potential threat.  If it hears a whole bunch of twigs snapping, and all coming from different directions, the deer might panic, and make the mistake of running into, instead of out of harm’s way. People do that, too. And they keep running until they think they don’t hear anymore twigs snapping. Sometimes it works. But once in a while, that turns out to be the worst thing they could have done.

The search for a tool for theater has lead me to studies about the importance of determining what observable behavior tells us in many walks of life.  No doubt, it has a place for those who seek the value of qualities associated with good leadership, as well as in cultural issues of groups of people that are attempting to deal with resolving conflict and controversy.

While I think what I’ve described about former president Nixon’s behavior did happen, this article I’ve written here is only a beginning.  It is a set of observations, but perhaps little more.  Before I’d have a right to insist my opinions might be valid for everyone to use to predict accurately any pattern of fallback behaviors, a reasonable amount of scientific thought needs to be applied–perhaps a gallon or two.  So, the caution to you as the reader, is not so much that I’ve let the cat out of the bag, but that I have not yet proven it’s really a cat.


(Other interesting notes:  Nixon also attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy, although he never saw combat.  Herman Wouk’s novel, “The Caine Mutiny”, and also the movie itself were released during a period of American history often referred to as the “McCarthy Era”.  Nothing, as far as I would know, in the novel or the movie alluded to Nixon or any other real person , or of any of the investigations covered by The House Un-American Activities Committee, of which Nixon was a member.  My comparison only draws from retrospect of Nixon’s later behavior.  But it was during that era that the young politically ambitious Nixon participated in investigations, and allegations that some of his party’s adversaries had communist, or other “Un-American” affiliations.  While many of these accusations were never confirmed, in many cases serious damage was done to reputations–a circumstance that lead to some historians referring to the era as one of the darkest times in our past.  Although the investigations around “Watergate” were about different matters altogether, some felt due to his previous persecutions and unrelenting personal attacks on others, Nixon “had it coming.”) 

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Marlene Humberd on February 23, 2012 at 1:11 am

    Interesting book concept. It does intrique me. Keep us posted for the “birth.”


  2. Van, You always make me think and my brain hurts when I have to stretch it. Thanks for both.


  3. Very interesting observation, Van! Now I need to go lie down and rest! 🙂


  4. Posted by Tyler on February 16, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    I imagine you have a ripe test environment for your questions in telemarketers who call you trying to sell something. I’ve heard a thing or two about how you handle them, and I can only imagine the frantic shifting of gears in their brains as they figure out how to respond to someone who interacts with them in a way so far outside their sales script and automatic objections. Like so many mice in a maze who have had their cheese moved.


  5. Posted by Perry McLeod on June 28, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    Does anyone know of any research that has been done on this? I have heard of this pattern 2 other times but have not seen any studies.


    • Posted by thevanbrown on June 28, 2016 at 3:58 pm

      Perry, as one psychologist told me, the attempt to do a study is limited by the probability of the pattern being perhaps more prevalent among sociopaths, which represent a small number of the total population. Normal people often alter their behavior when becoming aware that what they’ve been doing doesn’t work. That requires a condition of recognition associated with accountability. Though some shifts are emotionally stimulated, other shifts are connected to an attempt to alter the perceived motivation–and sometimes that has a lot to do with an intent to shift blame to someone or something other than themselves.

      Since all shifts would be conditional to what is happening to stimulate change, the emergence of a predictable order of style shifts would be difficult. A primary fallback behavior might give way to a secondary (plan “B”?), but if the pressures are intense, the shift might be radical. Had the pressures of Watergate exploded in Nixon’s face early enough–and intensely enough, the probability of acquiescence and resignation could have occurred much sooner.


  6. Posted by Allison mcdonald on June 13, 2018 at 11:47 pm

    Where can you find a test for this including typical conflict patterns? Cheap versions of the social styles test are flimsy and inaccurate, where can I find a good social styles assessment that will also show z pattern/conflict style?


    • Posted by thevanbrown on June 14, 2018 at 1:35 am

      Allison, Yes, cheap versions are often inaccurate, and are often based entirely on self assessment without any peer or supervisory input. Those are usually cookie cutter formats, and seldom matched or processed using any database of large group studies where variable results of preferences can be determined by observable behavior characteristics. I have yet to see any reliable tool that can be presumed to be an accurate gauge for determining “Z” pattern/conflict style. If you find one, please let me know.


  7. Posted by Tina on December 3, 2018 at 6:12 am

    I had my first test done in the late 90’s and as part if the course we were told about ‘zedding out’ as we have gone through more and more stress and they mapped out how we add out. I’m a driver, become analytical with stress, then expressive, then amiable. Let’s get it done>let’s work out why we aren’t getting it done,>I’m effing mad were not getting it done,>ah well it is what it is, Eff it!

    The zedding out pattern is true for me, and my team mates on that course it’s true for them, I’ve been over it with colleagues who’ve been assessed since, with some as recently as this year, and they all recognize this pattern.


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