Friday, April 5, 2013

'Trust your instincts'

'Trust your instincts' - this is advice that is often proffered by activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter (e.g. martial arts, self defence, etc.). Sound advice, but what does it actually mean?

Instincts are often equated with intuition. Far from being a mystical, magical 'sixth-sense,' intuition is seen as being a product of knowledge and experience.

Gary Klein was commissioned by the US military to find out how experts made decision during periods of high stress. He initially studied veteran firefighters and has since gone on to study military, fighter pilots, oil riggers, air traffic controllers, nuclear power plant operators, etc, and how they make decisions during times of high anxiety-fear (although he refers to the ambiguous concept of stress). Much to his surprise, he found these experts could not tell him.

We'll take a step back. It has been found that the 'core to all learning' is the identification of similarities and differences. Four forms of identifying similarities and differences have been found to be highly effective: comparison, classification, creating metaphors, and creating analogies. Far from being literary or linguistic devices, these four forms of identifying similarities and differences are seen by cognitive theorists to be fundamental ways of thinking.

Klein found that experts, compared to novices, made decisions not through a conscious, analytical process, but rather based on 'pattern recognition.' Something in the situation they were experiencing was unconsciously matched with something from their experience which prompted a decisive action.

This pattern recognition involves comparison, classification and analogies (or metaphors which for all intents and purposes is the same thing). The expert compared the experience 'out there' with their past experiences, which have been conveniently classified (albeit unconsciously), and an analogy was drawn that enabled them to understand the unknown (the current experience) with the known (past experience).

So what? If you know the process by which experts make intuitive decisions, you can devise ways and means to expedite and enhance this process. This is precisely what Klein has done and his intuitive decision making (Recognition-Primed Decision Making) is being used by various organisations around the world (including the military of various countries) to enhance decision making during periods of high anxiety-fear.

Before I leave this post, I will make one point. The intuitive decision making model is heavily weighted in favour of experience. The more 'patterns' that a person has developed and classified, the more comparisons are available to be fitted which produces a decision. However, despite the experienced-biased proponents within the martial arts, it is not experience alone that produces faster and more high quality decisions. It is also the ability to identify similarities through comparison, classification and analogies. If we train these abilities, we leverage experience and experience produces the benefits it promises.


  1. Hi John,

    Your last two posts link together quite well. The expert who bases their decisions on intuition does not necessarily make a good teacher because they can no longer articulate to a novice how or why they do something, perhaps this is why they prefer implicit learning? The proficient but not yet intuitive expert can probably still teach explicitly because they still analyse their performance with conscious thoughts. Just an idea anyway!

    A while back I wrote a post that looked at how people learnt skills using intuition, experience and tacit knowledge (based on the Dreyfus model of learning). It fits in quite well with some of the things you say in this post. If you're interested here's the link:

    1. Hi Sue

      Thanks for the comment. Thanks for the reference to your post and the Dreyfus model of learning. I'm always on the lookout for new information that helps us understand martial arts and violence generally.

      Your point re proficient but not yet intuitive expert presupposes an explicit learning experience. If the learner is only exposed to implicit learning methods (as was traditional in the martial arts) they cannot fall back on any explicit learning. The modern sports approach is to focus on implicit learning but use explicit learning to supplement.

      I would make one point. Which form of teaching produces the better instructor? That is entirely a different question, and one which is not generally appreciated in the martial arts.

      It's a fascinating subject and one which challenges martial artists.



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