Hick’s Law and Self Protection

Not wanting to be bound by ego, I should point out that there are other opinions regarding the application of Hick’s Law. I encourage the reader to explore all sides of Hick’s Law and formulate their own opinions on the matter. I still contend that, to the absolute newb on the mat, less is more. For someone who has regularly trained for a much longer time, Hick’s Law is less-relevant. Now, to the original blog post.

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Let’s explore a concept that is all too under-spoken in self-defense/self-protection circles: less is more.  This is true whether it is being applied to the complete novice standing in a self-defense class for the very first time or the highly trained self protector who has spent years on the mat.

Less is always more.

To prove this out, we can explore Hick’s Law (or Hick-Hyman Law).  Simply put, Hick’s Law states that the time it takes to make a decision increases proportionally to the number and complexity of choices. The personal defender who is taught a dozen different techniques for defending against a bar-room haymaker is at a disadvantage to the student who is taught one technique to defend against the same attack.

When a new student walks into their self-defense class, there is already a high degree of incompetence.  That’s not intended as a slight, it’s just the truth. The student is so new, (s)he is experiencing a condition known as unconscious incompetence – they don’t even know what they don’t know. A less-effective self-defense instructor will try to fill that knowledge void with as much information and technique as possible. While the student might feel empowered with so much cool stuff, what the instructor has done is set his student up for later failure.

The ’empowered’ student who has learned 12 defenses for that bar-room haymaker will likely still be weighing his defensive options in the back of the ambulance on the way to the hospital. In the face of attack stimuli, it will take the new student too long to formulate a plan to receive the attack appropriately. The end result is being on the losing side of a physical confrontation.

Someone told me years ago, and over the course of a  22 year career in classroom education I’ve seen this played out more times than I can count, that confused people do nothing. They become inert observers of their surroundings as the brain attempts to formulate a response to stimuli.  Ever seen a kid (or have you ever been the kid) who had a question on the test that just seemed to come out of left field?  (S)he gets that (o.O) look on his/her face that precedes the lengthy stare down of the paper – as if boring a hole in the page with one’s eyes is going to magically make the answer to the question appear.

The same thing happens in violent confrontations: the defender sees an imminent attack coming and hesitates just long enough to get hit.  The confusion of deciding which action to take in response to the attack has rendered the defender motionless. Unfortunately, violence happens quickly, so that fraction-of-a-second hesitation results in being punched in the head or driven to the ground.

The best possible defensive response will be derived from the least intrusive input – one response for one (or more) attacks.

My response to the haymaker (and the takedown attempt, and a double lapel grab, and several other frontal attacks) is always the same, and I train it redundantly.  Further, I’m going to teach my students that same defensive maneuver.  Multiple attack possibilities, one defense. It’s more efficient and thus more effective. Do I demonstrate other options for my students? Absolutely, but that information will be delivered with one important caveat: pick an effective defense and stick with it.

There are other factors regarding Hick’s Law that should be discussed (action under stress, the use of distraction techniques, and follow up strikes, to name a few), but I’ll save those for other blog posts. For now, both student and teacher should be making strides to narrow the scope of applied defensive techniques.  To reduce the number of responses to attacks serves to raise the probability of victory in a defense encounter.

It is our good responsibility as self-defense teachers to ensure that our students are victorious when it matters most. Knowing, understanding, and applying Hick’s Law is a necessary first step for both student and instructor.

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