ARTICLE | THE LAW OF THE INSTRUMENT | by Orjan Pettersen
‘If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail’, said psychologist Abraham Maslow in his book ‘The Psychology of Science’ in 1966.
This cognitive bias, also known as ‘The Law of the Instrument’, that people will tend to use the familiar tool or skill to fit any solution is often seen across not only how people try to approach interpersonal problems but across society as a whole, in business, in education and in medicine.
Limiting lateral thinking and out-of-the-box problem-solving, this cognitive bias draws the owner back to their comfort zone or known, familiar solution-territory. Simply put, it curbs the solution to the strength of the individual, even if this is not the best way forward.
The Law of the Instrument is a particular danger to self defence practitioners, especially where there’s an imbalance in skill between the physical/technical application of self defence and the enveloping topics surrounding it.
Self defence as a rounded skill is a vast array of expertise.
It encompasses situational awareness and OODA skills to pre-analyse and observe a physical environment (city, neighbourhood, venue) for threat levels. It involves assessing the human or emotive environment (actual threats, potential threats, potential helpers) to determine hazards. It means the ability to seek out how to use the surroundings for self defence (as tools, barriers and weapons).
Self defence is also about the self-control to avoid threat escalation through conflict management and body language usage. It uses psychology to read emotions and behaviours, apply verbal defences and physical movement to deescalate to lower or remove potential violent situations.
Staying safe is also about the mindset and capability of running away from a situation, even a lower risk one. (Do you really know the skill of the opponent? Can you guarantee they’re alone, now, later and in the future? Do you feel certain there’s no concealed weapon involved? Can you swear that your response will not be viewed as criminally or civilly liable in any way?). If any of the answers are No, maybe evading the fight is the better option, even if your pride is hurt. If so, is your mind primed for this - and the speed of your legs capable? That’s self defence, too.
These are more rounded skills. If you have them, great. You have options. You can adapt. If you don’t, and your only training and expertise is in the physical response side, that will be your natural preference, the hammer seeing the problem as a nail.
This may be the best solution. It may also be your worst. Legally. Medically. Financially. Even if you ‘win’.
Self defence training must incorporate all facets of personal protection. 95% of all violence can be avoided by the non-physical skills. These are your everyday problem-solvers. 5% or less may demand your movement, striking and techniques. This is your insurance guarantee. To be used in emergencies only.
Don’t be a one trick pony. Don’t fall for the Law of the Instrument. Self defence is more than being the hammer only. Not every situation or person is a nail. Indeed, most are not.
Check out the rest of the tool box first. It’s full of marvellous, skill-demanding instruments.