Say Hick’s Law One More Time:

The shooting community is riddled with emotionally charged terms and catch phrases like; tactical, dynamic, operator, tier 1, and the like. But the shooting community is not the only one plagued with misused and misapplied terminology. Dabble a little in the intelligence world and you will hear terms like covert, clandestine or even agent used incorrectly. So, it should come as no surprise that when it comes to combatives and defensive tactics (not the same) the trend of ignorance continues.

One such misapplication is the use of pseudo-science in the field of combatives, and in particular the use of the Hick-Hyman Law or more commonly known as just Hick’s Law. Named after British and American psychologists William Hick and Ray Hyman, the two determined that the time it takes for a person to make a decision is logarithmically linked to the number of choices that person has to choose from. In other words, the more options you have to choose from, the longer it will take to make a decision.

This principle has often been applied as the support structure for teaching combatives students less vs more. The idea is that by teaching an individual multiple different blocks to repel an oncoming punch you actually slow the student’s reaction time by providing them with more choices to choose from. This is then packaged into a predetermined auto-response that is designed to cover a myriad of attacks, thus taking the decision making out of the process.

However, there are a few aspects of this study that are often overlooked for the sake of preserving “the sacred auto-response”. First, is known as the ‘stimulus-response compatibility principle’. This principle states that there is a direct connection between response time and the logical application of choices we have to choose from. For example, turning the steering wheel left to turn the car left, or in the realm of combatives, blocking with our left arm to defend against a blow on our left side. The idea is that our brains automatically weed out invalid choices at a subconscious level resulting in faster decision making and reaction times. For instance, if we have 3 blocks that we know, they become 6 by virtue of the fact that these blocks can be executed from either the left or right side. However, a stimuli to the left side automatically rules out a right side block by virtue of the stimulus-response compatibility principle and thus our reaction time can be calculated using only 3 choices, not 6, resulting in a decision making period that is twice as fast.

The second principle that is often overlooked is that of ‘familiar stimulus’. Research on the exceptions to Hick’s Law was conducted and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 1985. This research, comprised of 5 different experiments on 113 test subjects, concluded that familiar response and a large number of test trials both proved to be exceptions to Hick’s Law providing for decision making and reaction times. In other words, TRAINING MATTERS!

All skillsets are learned in the same methodology. First, we learn a technique. Whether we are learning to execute a reload, assault a near ambush or defend against an attackers punch we must first learn the skill in isolation. Constant repetitions with gradual increases of external stressors however, begin to move this skill to the subconscious level while at the same time associating the response with the stimuli. Once on the subconscious level the abyss of decision making has been bridged by the familiar stimulus principle and we are no longer functioning at a conscious decision-making level. We call this conditioned response and it is a well vetted principle within all realms of combat and combat sports. The idea is that by associating a response with a particular stimulus and doing so with great repetition over time we bypass Hick’s Law and fall under the exception clause. Proof of concept can be seen anytime you see a competitive shooter vs a novice shooter or an amateur boxer vs a professional boxer, responding to stimuli. Both are trained on the proper execution of the technique, however the time spent responding to that particular stimulus is what determines their level of competence.

Finally, the last principle that is often overlooked is that of being taught vs that of being instructed. While we can increase decision making speed and thereby decrease reaction time through the use of the stimulus-response compatibility and the familiar stimulus principles, both require the proper environment for the skills to be absorbed. Instructors often regurgitate information because its how they were taught but the end result is that they themselves unable to adequately convey that information on to another person. It’s kind of like when one person vomits, and it causes another person to vomit, and so on and so on, this is the curse of the “instructor”. Without the requisite “why” and a true understanding and grasp of the fundamental principles behind what is being taught one can never bridge the gap between instructor and teacher.

Teachers possess the ability to read students and determine what precisely they need to excel. Increase the external stressors to quickly and the student’s reaction time and decision-making ability degrade, increase them to slowly and the student goes into a performance plateau and stagnates. Instructors often lack this insight simply vomiting information as they were vomited upon. The result is students become very good at executing drills but lack the ability to determine the context of when and why things should occur. Thus, they are then forced to operate within the Hick’s Law paradigm making decisions at the conscious level vs within the exception clause at the subconscious level and this has a direct negative effect on overall response time.

But all is not lost. We must get ourselves out of the fast food, one-size-fits-all mentality and realize that all skills require time to acquire. We become masters at that which we are most passionate about. But to reach that level requires time, patience and endurance. Learning less to achieve a faster reaction time is a lazy man’s approach to replicating any skill. It is not substantiated by science and is in fact pseudoscience perpetuated by snake oil salesmen whose sole purpose is to profit on our inherent weakness to have it “right now”. There is no assembly line to learning combatives anymore than there is an assembly line to reach mastery at the Special Operation level. Both will require sacrifice and commitment to learning, not replicating.

Ben RBC. Security Specialist, Tactical Intelligence International President, Redbeard Combatives, Inc. Vice President, Automated Consulting Services, Inc.

About the Author: Ben has over 13 years of experience working with the DoD and Private Security sectors, with a focus on training, physical security, and vulnerability assessments. He has deployed multiple times to austere locations including the Middle East and South America, as well as numerous at sea deployments providing vessel security aboard commercial ships transiting high-risk waters. Ben was the Assistant Team Leader on a US Department of State contract supporting humanitarian operations in Bolivia and Peru, conducting site security surveys and PSD operations in areas of civil unrest. He further provided physical security and personnel escort duties, working alongside U.S. military personnel at a forward operating base in Northern Afghanistan. Ben has provided courses of instruction in combatives to Army’s 101st Airborne Division and members of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and is one of TII’s primary self-defense and hand-to-hand combat instructors. Additionally, Ben holds rating of general contractor in the state of Florida with experience in design and construction supervision of over 150 hotels, and countless other commercial developments. He is an experienced civil and structural designer with over 20 years’ experience in the field. Schools: Ben holds advanced degrees in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, with advanced certifications in Counter Intelligence. He is a certified protection specialist, weapons instructor, and Florida Licensed Private Investigator.

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