ARTICLE | HICK’S LAW AND SELF DEFENCE | by Orjan Pettersen
Hick's law, or the Hick–Hyman law, is named after British and American psychologists William Hick and Ray Hyman. It covers the time it takes for a person to make a decision as a result of the possible choices he or she has, where increasing the number of choices will increase the decision time.
Why is this scientific principle applicable to self defence?
Let’s conduct a thought experiment most self defence practitioners or instructors can easily be familiar with from their training regime. An attacker stands in front of you with an impact weapon. The arms swings back, ready to set up a hit with the weapon, maybe in real life an iron bar or a baseball bat.
At this point multiple scenarios can play out, all feasible at the point of the weapon being set up for an attack, but prior to the trajectory of the swing being put in motion.
Can the weapon be swung diagonally downward towards the head of the defender? Yes.
Can it be curved more horizontally and lower down towards the ribs or hips? Yes.
Can it be directed lower towards the legs or knees? Yes.
Can it initially be lowered, only to be swung in a curve back up again towards the upper body or head? Yes.
Just simply in this single violent scenario there are multiple outcome scenarios. Now, slowly imagine each possible outcome and freeze the weapon trajectory at the point by which the final destination becomes apparent to the defender. Once done, speed the movement back to real time and consider the time it would take for it to connect with the targeted body part. You’re talking a fraction of a second, right?
Hick’s law states that it takes the mind around half a second to decide on an action after a stimuli. That’s when you see the trajectory, in this case. The more options you have available, the slower this process now becomes. It’s half a second for two options, longer for three, even longer for four and so on. This is in addition to actually conducting the response. We’re talking dead time here, before you even react to the attack.
Now consider if you have multiple defences against an impact weapon, based on where it is targeted. How realistic is it to decide and conduct a reactive defence if the attack is done by surprise and in real time? Have you tested it? You may be surprised if you haven’t tried it yet.
Hick’s law applies to a range of self defence situations, especially where reality-based scenarios come into play. Ignore the training in the dojo, where the attack is pre-set and the student has already trained it several times and is expecting the same attack again. No Hick’s law applies here, it’s just doing without thinking.
What about the hand attack swung towards your face from a hidden position behind the back, or at night, or by total surprise - or all of the above? Another experiment can be to test this. Put a small training knife in the hand of the attacker. Turn the lights down. Put on some protective headgear and gloves. Swing hard and fast, randomly with or without the knife. Can you detect which is which - and choose between an open hand attack or an upper body knife defence? Do you have different techniques for each scenario? Try it. What did you learn?
What is the take-away from Hick’s law? Science tells us that brain decision-making has certain parameters, before we can react and respond to the stimuli. If a violence action has multiple possible outcomes; weapon or no weapon, angle of attack, target of attack or force of attack, having multiple options to handle it will immediately start to slow the response down, considerably and potentially dangerously, for the student outside of the dojo experience.
The multiple-choice training also has a further limitation. Having to train two, three or more possible options against a similar type of attack will equally divide the training time into equally smaller sections, when having a single defence will reversely multiply the training time against the same type of scenario.
Not only will we give the student a more difficult reality-based preparation, but the training has been equally made much more limited that it otherwise could have been.
The simplification process (rather than diversifying a curriculum) is a staple of many progressive Krav Maga or self defence schools, recognising the need to apply more reality-based training, tested under pressure and in the actual outside-the-dojo experience, where instant decision-making under fight, flight and freeze responses, where the mammalian brain is limiting the functioning of the neocortex and trauma and pulse rates can remove both fine and mixed motor skills.
They strive to continually critically question, re-design, re-develop and modernise their self defence teaching based on testing, science and development in crime.
Isn’t it time you did the same, if you’re not already on this journey?