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The myth of situational awareness, illustrated.

This story has been making the rounds over the last few days, and some people in the training business have been using it as an example of why situational awareness is So Very, Very Important: "if this guy hadn't been texting and been aware of his surroundings, he'd be alive today!"

Bull twaddle.

Frankly, I think it's a perfect illustration of a
controversial piece I wrote for the Personal Defense Network nearly two years ago. In it I explained why situational awareness simply isn't the magic wand that everyone wants it to be. Not that it's bad or completely useless, mind you, just that it doesn't do what you think it does.

In that article I point out that if the attacker is sufficiently motivated (i.e., there is enough reward in the crime relative to the risk he’s taking) he'll simply wait you out until you eventually succumb to a distraction. Since then I've expounded on that concept, but it boils down to the fact that sooner or later you're going to stop being 'aware' and start living your life. Whether it's reading the menu or watching your kids swing or admiring the form of the Hot Thing walking past, you will become distracted many times every day no matter who you are. The savvy criminal knows that innately and will simply wait for his opportunity unless something better comes along.

In this case we have a professional gang hit. The shooter, as we found out, got to that parking space several minutes before the victim and waited for him to pass. This suggests that there was active surveillance and that they were in contact with the killer. Short of a round-the-clock five man protective detail, there was very little chance this guy was going to survive that level of dedication to his demise.

He could have had his "head on a swivel" and been in "condition orange" all he wanted, but at some point he would have looked down at his watch or stopped at a store window or done something that would have allowed his attacker to pierce his invincible cloak of situational awareness. He was very obviously a high value target, his attacker was skilled and motivated, and it was just a matter of time before he got nailed.

This isn't an example of why situational awareness is a great thing; it's an illustration of why it's not the panacea so many make it out to be. Just so we're clear: this doesn't mean it's completely unimportant or that it has zero value, only that it needs to be understood in context and subject to critical analysis instead of defended with clichéd one-liners. (Or color codes.)

-=[ Grant ]=-


Check out my latest article!

My newest article, "
The Myth of Situational Awareness", is up at the Personal Defense Network.

This one is sure to raise a few eyebrows. In it I question the value ascribed to situational awareness as it is taught in most self defense courses today. Note that I don't suggest that it has zero value, only that it has a different value than what most believe. It's that difference which affects how and what we should train.


-=[ Grant ]=-

Book Report: "Mistakes Were Made"

"Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)." By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

I learned of this book when
Dr. Tavris appeared on the "For Good Reason" podcast with D.J. Grothe.

(Quick aside: if you want to hear one of the better interviewers around, listen to D.J.'s show. He formerly hosted the critically acclaimed "Point Of Inquiry" podcast, where he built a reputation for his ability to intelligently discuss all sides of an argument regardless of his own position. His shows are as good as podcasting gets.)

Dr. Tavris is an expert on cognitive dissonance - the inability of the mind to hold two conflicting pieces of information without resolving the conflict in some way. (
I've talked about dissonance before, as it relates to commonly promoted safety rules.) Dissonance theory, as I learned, has a profound effect on how we make decisions and how we come to hold certain beliefs. Dissonance occurs when evidence contradicts firmly held conviction. The subconscious, in an effort to resolve the conflict between what it believes and what it sees, will go to astonishing lengths.

One way the mind resolves conflict is to devalue the incoming evidence by belittling its source. This is what we see in so many forum fights over shooting gurus. If what one instructor teaches is in opposition to another instructor, supporters often react by attacking the source: "he's a convicted criminal." "He's never been anywhere." "He wrote a porno script!" "He's a womanizer." "He drinks too much." All in an effort to avoid examining what we believe, lest it be proven to be wrong.

Human beings are incredibly reluctant to change their beliefs. Dissonance in action shows in the statements of crime victims: "I couldn't believe it was happening to me!" Dissonance theory explains this easily, and what is going through the subconscious looks more like this: "I'm a smart and successful person; being smart and successful means that I would never live in a slum where crime is rampant. If crime happens here, it must mean that I'm not smart or successful, so this attack isn't really happening!" The danger to effective self defense preparations should be obvious.

The chapter dealing with memory is probably the most interesting of the whole book. Dissonance is so powerful that it can cause people to remember events differently than they actually happened - sometimes, the exact opposite of the real event. Ever wonder why witnesses to something often have conflicting views of what happened? It's not because their physical sight was different; it's because what they saw is modified unconsciously by their prejudices.

This has implications for survivor interviews when they’re used to support a specific type of training. Is the subject’s subconscious desire to justify their pre-existing knowledge, or to support their self image, influencing their memories? Unless we have objective observational evidence, such as a videotape, we don't know. The lesson is clear: we must be very cautious when making decisions based on singular events, unless we know for a fact what actually transpired.

This self-delusion isn't something humans set out to do; no one does it consciously. This is a mechanism that the subconscious uses to reconcile what we believe with what we see, and it’s transparent to us. People who perceive past events as being the opposite of what actually happened aren't lying. They honestly believe their version of what happened, because their subconscious has told them the new version is correct. (The book chronicles the astonishing detail that the subconscious is able to construct to support its version of reality. It's an eye-opener, believe me!)

Mistakes Were Made is less a textbook than it is a collection of stories with explanations. The book is heavily geared toward a self-help audience (hence the cover blurb "Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts"), but the research behind it is solid. Tavris and Aronson are well regarded in the field of psychology, and their ability to explain difficult concepts in clear language goes a long way to helping us understand this powerful facet of our minds. While this knowledge won't make us immune, it will help us recognize that what we believe isn't always correct.

If you'd like to get a feel of the subject matter, listen to the aforementioned interview with Dr. Tavris.
Mistakes Were Made is a good way for non-scientists to get a grasp of what our minds actually do with conflicting information. Recommended reading, but only if you're ready to face the idea that your mind may not always be telling you the truth!

-=[ Grant ]=-