Thursday, November 3, 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011

California Dreaming

I know this has made the rounds, but given Crocop's retirement fight this evening I felt compelled to put it up here as well---Pat Barry sneak-cams the legendary Mirko Crocop as the two fighters sing "California Dreaming" in Mirko's car:

EDIT: Well, the match didn't go as I had hoped. I'll miss seeing Crocop's fights, but he did leave us with many good memories.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Marriage Supermarkets, Guttentag-Secord Theory, Falling Sexual Prices

(Frank Dicksee, Chivalry)

From a recent New York Post article:

In today’s lousy economy, men can take comfort in knowing that there is one sought-after good that is becoming steadily more affordable: sex.

Women are jumping into the sack faster and with fewer expectations about long-term commitments than ever, effectively discounting the “price” of sex to a record low, according to social psychologists.

More than 25% of young women report giving it up within the first week of dating. While researchers don’t have a baseline to compare it to, interviews they have conducted lead them to believe this is higher than before, which increases the pressure on other women and changes the expectations of men.

“The price of sex is about how much one party has to do in order to entice the other into being sexual,” said Kathleen Vohs, of the University of Minnesota, who has authored several papers on “sexual economics.” “It might mean buying her a drink or an engagement ring. These behaviors vary in how costly they are to the man, and that is how we quantify the price of sex.”

By boiling dating down to an economic model, researchers have found that men are literally getting lots of bang for their buck. Women, meanwhile, are getting very little tat for their . . . well, you get the idea.

Sex is so cheap that researchers found a full 30% of young men’s sexual relationships involve no romance at all -- no wooing, dating, goofy text messaging. Nothing. Just sex.

Men want sex more than women do. It’s a fact that sounds sexist and outdated. But it is a fact all the same -- one that women used for centuries to keep the price of sex high (if you liked it back in the day, you really had to put a ring on it). With gender equality, the Pill and the advent of Internet porn, women’s control of the meet market has been butchered.

As a result, says Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, men are “quicker to have sex in our relationships these days, slower to commitment and just plain pickier.”

The issue is partly one of supply and demand, and it begins at US colleges, where 57% of students are women. With such an imbalanced sex ratio, women are using hookups to compete with other women for men’s affections. Once they get out of school, the pool of successful, educated men also is imbalanced, and the bed-hopping continues.

Regnerus likens the price of sex to the housing market. Too many foreclosures in one community, and the price of neighboring homes start to plummet. This is why single women in New York sometimes feel as though sex on the first date is a given: According to the market, it is.

“Every sex act is part of a ‘pricing’ of sex for subsequent relationships,” Regnerus said. “If sex has been very easy to get for a particular young man for many years and over the course of multiple relationships, what would eventually prompt him to pay a lot for it in the future -- that is, committing to marry?”

Did you answer, “Love”? You’re adorable.

“Sexual strategies for making men ‘fall in love’ typically backfire, because men don’t often work like that,” Regnerus says.

It’s little wonder that the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who are married has shrunk by an average of 1% each year this past decade -- down to 46% now. Single women have been catching on, but those who don’t discount sex say they can’t seem to get anyone to “pay” their higher price.

As with many other markets, outsourcing and technology have affected the price of sex as well.

“If men don’t want to take the time to woo a real woman, they can watch sex acts in high definition with images of women who never say no,” Regnerus says. “If you have a suboptimal date with someone you met online, you’re apt now to log on and see who else is available rather than to have another try at it.”

The poor economy is adding to men’s reluctance to commit. Men worry about not being able to provide for a family and about the economic pitfalls of divorce.

So, what can women do to return the balance of sexual power in their favor? Stop putting out, experts say. If women collectively decided to cross their legs, the price of sex would soar and women would regain control of the market. Like a whoopie cartel.

Women in less egalitarian countries do tend to restrict sex as a means of keeping the cost high. This makes sense when women have no access to education and employment. But in the US, it would take a major cultural movement for women to convince each other to say no to nookie.

“Let’s be realistic: It’s not going to happen here,” Regnerus says. “Women don’t really need men and marriage -- economically, socially, and culturally -- like they once did. What I hear in interviews with women is plenty of complaining about men or about the dating scene, but their annoyance is seldom directed at other women.”

The Auction for Marriage

Imagine this experiment: twenty men and twenty women, all strangers, are placed in a room. Women stand on one side, men on the other, and then the mingling begins at the sound of a bell. Each individual has as his or her primary goal the task of negotiating an agreement with a member of the opposite sex. The stakes are very simple and come down to the question of how a $100 payoff will be split between the man and the woman in any particular couple. The point of the game is to find a member of the opposite sex and negotiate a deal with him/her as quickly as possible, get paid, split the winnings as agreed, and leave the others to continue to hash it out in the room.

If, after searching through 20 potential candidates from the other gender, a man and woman can find a mutually-agreeable split and shake hands on it, they are awarded $100, apportion it as per the deal terms, and leave the game.

In other words, if a woman offers a 50/50 split of the $100 pot to the first candidate man she meets and the man accepts, the two form a "marriage couple" in game terms and leave the pool. They are awarded $100 for their trouble and each takes home $50 as per their agreement. If the woman's offer is rejected by the first man, she can change her offer to him or move on to another candidate and continue with the same offer or a new one.

In a relatively egalitarian society and assuming equal numbers of men and women, the standard deal is, unsurprisingly, a 50/50 split between the man and woman (i.e., each makes $50 from the deal and successfully exits the game).

Game theorists studying this "Supermarket for Marriage" in experiments---a scenario in which all of the variables involved in real-world mate selection have obviously been simplified---have always known that the assumptions of the game were grossly unrealistic. In the real world, of course, men and women have different levels of attractiveness and relational power and computing the payoff to a successful deal is a much more complex undertaking. Still, the simplified framework is thought to have validity when one looks at how behavior may change on a very general, macro level, where individual differences between potential mates can cancel each other out and generalizations about average participants can be made.

Researchers decided to tweak the game by removing just one of the men, leaving 19 males and 20 females left in the supermarket. The assumption was that removing a single man would give the remaining men a little bit more negotiating power, since they now enjoyed the advantage of artificial scarcity. Perhaps the new results would show that this advantage meant that men were getting 55%, perhaps even 60% of the $100 take.

These hunches proved to be wrong. Removing just one man from the game meant that the remaining men ended up receiving 95% or more of the winnings.

What appears to be happening is this: women survey the numbers and rapidly conclude that one of them is going to be left with nothing when the music stops. As the play begins, the odd woman out attempts to undercut other women by making more attractive offers to her male counterparts. This creates a new odd woman out, who must do the same. Ultimately no woman in the game is safe; men look at the situation and realize that they will lose out on profitable opportunities if they accept a deal too quickly, so they hold out for the highest bids. Mounting desperation and competitive bidding among the female players lead to situations in which absurdly rich offers are made to men.

Something conceptually similar to these results can be found in the structure of so-called "Wisdom of Crowds" games. In a Wisdom of Crowds scenario, it may be safely assumed that, say, 2 people in a field of 100 actually know the correct answer to a difficult question. When a certain type of polling system is used, however, the 2 correct answers can come to dominate the entire field and so the seemingly-unruly mob magically gets things right. The critical issue for the Wisdom of Crowds scenario is that the 98 people who are wrong are wrong in truly random ways: the incorrect answers will cancel each other out (if the crowd is biased towards systematic errors, the correct answer will not emerge) and the last men standing will be the 2 who had things right. They will throw their pivotal, non-random weight towards the correct response and the "smartcrowd" effect will be captured.

For a number of sociological and biological reasons, the "devil take the hindmost" Marriage Supermarket scenario is apparently becoming a social reality. Today's post and several that follow will explore some recent research that may help to explain this state of affairs, and then will offer some thoughts on how the tide may eventually turn again.

Everyone's Favorite Topic

The situation is rapidly rising to a prominent place in both pop culture and social science. In an interesting recent piece for The Atlantic entitled "All The Single Ladies", journalist Kate Bolick writes that:

In their 1983 book, "Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question", two psychologists developed what has become known as the Guttentag-Secord theory, which holds that members of the gender in shorter supply are less dependent on their partners, because they have a greater number of alternative relationships available to them; that is, they have greater “dyadic power” than members of the sex in oversupply. How this plays out, however, varies drastically between genders.

In societies where men heavily outnumber women—in what’s known as a “high-sex-ratio society”—women are valued and treated with deference and respect and use their high dyadic power to create loving, committed bonds with their partners and raise families. Rates of illegitimacy and divorce are low. Women’s traditional roles as mothers and homemakers are held in high esteem. In such situations, however, men also use the power of their greater numbers to limit women’s economic and political strength, and female literacy and labor-force participation drop.

One might hope that in low-sex-ratio societies—where women outnumber men—women would have the social and sexual advantage. (After all, didn’t the mythical all-female nation of Amazons capture men and keep them as their sex slaves?) But that’s not what happens: instead, when confronted with a surplus of women, men become promiscuous and unwilling to commit to a monogamous relationship. (Which, I suppose, might explain the Amazons’ need to keep men in slave quarters.) In societies with too many women, the theory holds, fewer people marry, and those who do marry do so later in life. Because men take advantage of the variety of potential partners available to them, women’s traditional roles are not valued, and because these women can’t rely on their partners to stick around, more turn to extrafamilial ambitions like education and career.

In 1988, the sociologists Scott J. South and Katherine Trent set out to test the Guttentag-Secord theory by analyzing data from 117 countries. Most aspects of the theory tested out. In each country, more men meant more married women, less divorce, and fewer women in the workforce. South and Trent also found that the Guttentag-Secord dynamics were more pronounced in developed rather than developing countries.

Guttentag and Secord themselves described the outcomes of high and low sex ratios this way:

In a nutshell, when women are scarce and men are readily available, a protective morality develops that favors monogamy for women, limits their interactions with men, and shapes female roles in traditional domestic directions. But when men are scarce and women are readily available, no such protective morality arises to favor monogamy for men. Instead, the traditional protective customs and practices pertaining to women and the pressures on them to fulfill domestic roles weaken or disappear. Men have multiple relationships with women and become less willing to commit themselves in marriage to one woman.

College Girls Facing Shortages

The issue is not one of there being more women than men in society---the absolute ratio of men to women in the larger population is almost 50/50. Instead of representing a general problem, the Guttentag-Secord theory is coming into force when we: A) consider smaller subsections of the population in which women are now outnumbering men; and B) add the simple provision that most women are oriented towards hypergamy---seeking relationships with higher status members of the opposite sex.

With women now outperforming men in general academic achievement at both the undergraduate and graduate school levels, females with degrees who expect their partners to meet or exceed their own levels of education now face a scarcity of men who pass their tests. To make matters even worse, the time requirements these demanding academic and professional goals impose also cause many career-minded women to find themselves only ready to pursue the "MAB Agenda" ("Marriage-and-A-Baby") at a time when they are pushing the end of the normal/safe reproductive window and their male counterparts have no such constraints.

In short, women may face the relative scarcity of highly attractive mates (and the male behaviors anticipated by both game theoretical abstractions like the Marriage Supermarket and anthropological frameworks like the Guttentag-Secord model) at a time when their biological clocks are beginning to sound alarms. The intensity of this experience is compounded by an expectation that the mate will possess a long list of physical, intellectual, and personality attributes, some of which may be hardwired aspects of evolutionary selection, some of which may be the result of expectations created by the media, and at least some of which may actually be in opposition to one another and impossible to find in a single man.

We will explore how this state of affairs has slowly come about, how several interconnected social factors have dramatically increased the risk of marital unhappiness and made for a more mercenary and self-absorbed overall mating dance, how highly controversial research into relationship dynamics within the African-American community may offer a glimpse of the direction that the larger population will go in, and how a new, technically-proficient breed of male social operator has arisen to take full advantage of the new terms of the game.

NEXT UP: The Paradox of Female Unhappiness, "Superior Wife Syndrome", How Marriage Became a Gamble with Negative Mathematical Expectancy

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Predators and Chaos Math: Shark Hunting Patterns and Levy Flights

Regular readers of this blog may dimly recall a piece about investment strategies and the Levy flight, a type of mathematical jump that punctuates those natural and man-made phenomena associated with Chaotic processes. James Dacey's review of a study published in the prestigious Nature may be of interest:

Sharks hunt via Levy flights

They were menacing enough before, but how would you feel if you knew sharks were employing advanced mathematical concepts in their hunt for the kill? Well, this is the case, according to new research, which has tracked the movement of these marine predators along with a number of other species as they foraged for prey in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The results showed that these animals hunt for food by alternating between Brownian motion and Lévy flights, depending on the scarcity of prey.

Lévy flight is a special class of movement characterized by many small steps punctuated by longer relocations. As the patterns show little invariance over a range of different scales, the processes associated with these movements are closely linked with fractal geometry. For instance, it has been suggested that the colourful squiggles that characterize the work of Jackson Pollock, the celebrated abstract painter, were created as his brush took a number of Lévy flights.

("Good morning, class.")

For the past decade, several biologists have been claiming that certain animals may also be using Lévy flights to maximize their chances of encountering prey when there is not much choice on offer. The suggestion is that they revert to this from the more random, Brownian, motion that they follow when prey is available in abundance. This hypothesis, however, has never been tested on wild animals, and it is difficult to separate the movement of animals into its different phases, which also include resting and migration.

Over 12 million movements

In new research, David Sims at the Marine Biological Association Laboratory in Plymouth, UK, working with colleagues in Europe and the US, has carried out the first large-scale survey to track the movement of foraging marine predators. Sims' team attached electronic tags to animals from 14 different species including silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) and yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares). 55 individuals were tracked over 12 million movements in the north-east Atlantic and the eastern and northern Pacific.

By analysing the results as a time series, the researchers were able to break down the results into sections that showed more consistent behaviour than the whole. They found that found that the sharks, tuna, billfish and ocean sunfish showed movement patterns well approximated by a Lévy walk, but that they also showed Brownian-type motion. Closer analysis revealed that individuals were switching between Lévy and Brownian movements, consistent with the idea that predators adjust their movement depending on the abundance of prey.

"We used the most reliable and robust statistical analyses on the largest data set yet analysed in this way," Sims told

Managing stocks more effectively

"The results show that to a certain degree the movements of animals are predictable in relation to habitat types they encounter. In the case of fish, we think this will help parameterize a new wave of spatially structured population models that will help us to manage stocks more effectively in the face of overfishing and climate change, for example," says Sims.

But despite the scale of the research, not all researchers are convinced that the research provides a particularly complete picture of marine foraging. "In this study predators are considered as fully stupid, unable to process environmental information and to act accordingly," says Simon Benhamou, a marine ecologist at the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in France. Benhamou feels that future studies should take a more integrated approach including neuroscience, ethology and behavioural ecology.

Sims and his team intend to develop their research by tracking the foraging paths of other marine species, lower down the food chain, including octopuses and marine snails.

This research is published in Nature.

About the author

James Dacey is a reporter for

Link to original article:

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Muga-Mushin, Part 2: Machiavelli's Flood, Two-Factor Theory of Emotions, Bi-Strategic Controllers, Theory of Critical Moments

(Lorenzo Bartolini's sculpture of Niccolo Machiavelli)

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.

-Niccolo Machiavelli

This post will take a bit of a detour from the martial nature of the previous one and will instead look at how our emotional response mechanisms can aid and sabotage our efforts as we attempt to move through a strategic social environment. One finding is that our experience of significant, emotionally charged events often comes in predictable two-wave emotional sets, with the second wave containing an "attribution" loophole that can be used to manipulate us (alternatively, we could use this loophole to manipulate ourselves by framing a situation so that emotional energy was diverted into a pre-arranged path, as per Machiavelli and his quote about Lady Fortune).

Getting Past the First Reaction

The previous piece considered a very simple and primal flinch/protective reaction that occurred when an individual was suddenly subjected to a physical threat. Two possibilities were explored:

1. The victim's alerting network, which sorts through environmental information to provide warning of a threat, failed to keep on top of the situation. As a result, the threat information arrived via the first incoming punch or thrown object. This visual stimulus triggered a primitive defensive reaction that attempted to protect the eyes/face, throat, and upper spine by forming a protective shield between the threat and the head, closing the eyes, and (frequently) hunching the shoulders.

2. In this case, the victim's alerting network did recognize a problem early on, and handed the information off to the brain's more sophisticated orienting system. The orienting system, lacking a trained reason to do something else, defaulted to an algorithm we will term the 4Fs: Freeze, Flight, Fight, and Freeze (again). As a result, the victim waited, doing nothing particularly useful, as the threat came within range and launched an attack. At that point, an untrained protective motion was attempted.

We also considered how trained responses from well-tested fighting systems such as Western boxing and Muay Thai could be used to provide more effective counters to an initial attack.

Today's entry will look at what happens when our inner worlds must adjust and calibrate themselves to a more subtle---yet still-threatening in many cases---environment. A sudden physical threat that triggers a protective response will not be present in these situations; instead, pressure and stress will be created by emotional threats. We will focus on the orienting system and the role of the brain's emotional circuitry in forming an opinion about a situation (often categorizing it as either "threatening" or "exciting"). The cascade ends with a psychological state being generated that is capable of heavily influencing the subject's subsequent physical performance, often causing him to "choke" and fail to properly execute his learned skills.

A simple model that could prove useful in conceptualizing what is coming next might go something like this:

1. Presence of danger or even novelty creates a general state of arousal in the subject. Figurative result: "I feel physiologically aroused."

2. Subject makes sense of this arousal by linking it to something in the environment, thus experiencing an emotion that can articulated more specifically. Figurative result: "No, not just aroused, I feel angry."

3. Subject's cerebral cortex takes this feeling and rationalizes it by selecting elements of the environment that would correspond to/justify this underlying feeling of anger. Conscious use of evidence is now biased towards legitimizing the anger and alternative explanations will tend to be suppressed or ignored. "I feel angry because..."

Orienting System and the HPA Axis

As discussed in earlier posts, the nervous system is roughly organized to allow the organism to make successful decisions along an approach-withdrawal continuum. Features of the environment that can aid in reproduction and related positive activities are meant to be approached; withdrawal behavior is meant to be linked to threats. The initial, primitive feelings of attraction and repulsion direct our attentional resources towards parts of our environment and have been termed the brain's orienting system. The orienting system's job is to pick up on cues as we move through the world and to point them out to higher brain functions, usually also giving them an emotional tag. This all can happen very quickly and before our neocortical executive centers have had an opportunity to get traction on the situation.

Particularly where threats are concerned, a brain assembly called the HPA axis---hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis---plays a major role. The HPA modulates our responses to threatening situations and is largely responsible for our related feelings of stress. Both physical emergencies and social ones can cause the HPA to get involved and to trigger a stress response---socially dominated fish who are placed in chronic subordinate roles show HPA activation. In human beings, a number of mood disorders are associated with malfunctions or overactivation of the HPAA.

Our stress systems evolved for physical emergencies that lasted a relatively short period of time and then were dealt with, one way or another, in a fairly definitive way. Our modern world features few of these physical crisis points, although people engaged in high-risk jobs may encounter them fairly regularly, but it does tend to stress us in social dimensions. One problem with these chronic social stresses and the constant need to monitor one's position in a hierarchy is that the HPA axis may be overtaxed, resulting in a person's gradual physical and psychological deterioration. Thus, it can become important to have high-performance strategies and skills available to identify and neutralize threats of various stripes before they can cause us to poison ourselves.

Neuroscientists and meditation experts Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius describe the functions of the HPA axis this way:

Suffering is not abstract or conceptual. It's embodied; you feel it in your body because it proceeds through bodily mechanisms (my note: Hanson and Mendius refer to the physiological cascade using Buddhist terminology as the "First Dart", and the avoidable emotional reaction of the self to the cascade as the "Second Dart")...

Suffering cascades through your body via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) of the endocrine (hormonal) system...while the SNS and HPAA are anatomically distinct, they are so intertwined that they're best described together, as an integrated system.

...the thalamus---the relay station in the middle of your brain---sends a 'Wake up!' signal to your brain stem, which in turn releases stimulating norepinephrine throughout your brain.

...the hypothalamus---the brain's primary regulator of the endocrine system---prompts the pituitary gland to signal the adrenal glands to release the 'stress hormones' adrenaline and cortisol.

Your emotions intensify, organizing and mobilizing the whole brain for action. SBS/HPAA arousal stimulates the amygdala, which is hardwired to focus on negative information and react intensely to it. Consequently, feeling stressed sets you up for fear and anger...As limbic and endocrine activation increases, the relative strength of executive control from the (prefrontal cortex) declines. It's like being in a car with a runaway accelerator: the driver has less control over her vehicle.

The defense against a chronic stimulation of the HPAA axis in everyday social situations has multiple layers, but perhaps the most important one is to be able to identify people who have adopted social strategies that are designed to trigger prolonged HPAA "reigns of terror" in others, and who employ random doses of positive and negative feedback to keep the game going and increase their spheres of influence.

Two Phases of Panic

We will return to toxic social arrangements and those who generate them in a moment, but first let me detour and say a quick word on tactical training and the execution of physical skills under emergency conditions. There has been much debate about whether or not training can be accessed in a fight-or-flight environment, and it is here that we can use the metaphor of a big-wave surfer to look at the difference between survival stress and panic. If a surfer dropping in on some monster wave is able to stay ahead of the wave, he will have access to his learned repertoire of techniques. He can react as a trained and conditioned athlete even though he will certainly be under a certain amount of survival stress the entire time, and he may suffer nervous agitation before he ever gets out in the water. If he slips and falls into the wave and is unable to escape before it crashes, however, he will be sent for a cartwheeling underwater ride that will induce a panic reaction in even the most experienced surfers. To survive, the surfer may now have to successfully suppress a far more acute and blind emotional upwelling than he did when he first confronted the wave.

If training has taken place at a deep enough level and the skills are owned by the cerebellum, technical performance will be accessible under natural stress. We could term these the "win set" skills because they are largely concerned with good performance. If the stress level suddenly spikes upward again because the skills have failed, then a new and stronger wave of panic reaction may set in and have to be confronted. The skills associated with recovering from this secondary panic reaction could be considered "survival set" skills because they normally are recruited when the perfect plan is no longer available. In order words, the shift from a failed Plan A to a contingency Plan B often requires the successful suppression of a panic spike that is greater than the one associated with the original Plan A.

Thus, it is entirely possible for someone to have magnificent win set skills and to coast along on these until a situation does cause the first set of training failures. At this point, the individual may metaphorically drown under the secondary panic reaction. In simple terms, what may be happening is that the initial performance was managed almost entirely by the cerebellum and supporting elements of the brain, all of which were running on a subconscious level. When a failure occurs, the executive center of the brain gets involved and the smooth, continuous flow of deeply trained skills becomes disrupted by new and potentially self-destructive cognitive processes. Recovery from the first failure may require the ability to manage one's emotions and avoid becoming absorbed in the problems that have already occurred.

As we will soon see, this quality may represent a big part of the so-called "mental game" of athletics, and those who are frequently able to prevent precious cognitive resources from being diverted towards rumination are prized for their ability to perform under particularly stressful conditions.

Please also note that the two-tiered panic description normally applies to individuals who are competent. An untrained individual may be swamped by the first wave, go straight to a thermonuclear panic spike, and never recover. The multiple-panics model does assume that the subject is already legitimately skilled, so it is not particularly useful for designing an initial skills exposure program and could be thought of as a beneficial approach for intermediate and advanced students.

Omega Rules and Delta Moments

Some insights into how the autopilot and manual-control decision systems interact in practice can be gained from specialists in neuromarketing, a relatively new branch of applied psychology that seeks to optimize advertising and marketing campaigns by understanding what is really going on in the minds of shoppers.

Two consumer behavior experts at the venerable AC Nielsen market research firm, Alastair Gordon and Duncan Stuart, have developed an analytical framework that they call "DeltaQual." DeltaQual examines shopper behavior by considering two aspects: Omega rules and Delta moments.

Omega Rules are quick, efficient cognitive shortcuts that are based on habits. These habits in turn are founded on repeated exposure to patterns; over time, the link between a scenario context, a decision rule, and an outcome becomes encoded as a heuristic (rule of thumb). A key consideration here is that heuristic-based learning may take place without the customer ever being aware that a learning event has occurred. This type of knowledge can become implicit: customers make decisions in a reliable way, but may not be able to articulate why they do so.

Shoppers who are using Omega rules will tend to move through a store on autopilot, selecting products based on subconscious criteria. Many popular brands such as Coca-Cola have invested decades in forming positive associations in the minds of shoppers, and these associations pay off when customers make purchases based on Omega rules.

In contrast, a so-called Delta moment takes place when one of these conventional habit pathways is blocked or disrupted and a customer pauses to make a conscious decision between alternatives. In marketing terms, the Delta moment is desired by new firms, while older and established firms would probably wish to suppress Delta moments and have customers shop by Omega auto-pilot. Nielsen's consultants believe that these Delta moments tend to motivated by three different conscious goals: bargain-shopping, in which prices of similar products are evaluated to find the best price; variety-seeking, in which a customer decides to try something different; and buzz-seeking, in which a customer is enticed enough by word-of-mouth or a structured product marketing campaign that he or she will look for the product specifically.

Going back to our example of an extreme surfer going out to meet heavy waves, we could consider the normal, prepared behavior as the following of the Omega rules (in many cases, an experienced, sane professional adventurer would not put himself into harm's way unless he could operate via Omega rules) and a failure of the rules as the equivalent to a Delta moment, albeit one that is forced upon the surfer.

The Omega rules/Delta moments framework may also help to conceptualize the underlying cognitive mechanism for the muga-mushin experience: on the battlefield, a superbly trained warrior could be carrying out many tasks by following a tacit set of habitual Omega rules. His ability to perform combat tasks on autopilot thus frees the conscious working memory capacity of his prefrontal lobes to look for Delta moments: particular variations in the emerging scenario that would present opportunities or threats. Once a Delta moment event took place, the warrior could branch to an appropriate contingency plan, staying ahead of the metaphorical monster wave, and "surfing" it to his destination even as it overwhelmed other, less-prepared individuals and pulled them under, drowning them or breaking them.

Amygdala Hijackings, Narcissism, and Social Consequences

Because the brain evolved during a time period in which physical dangers to life and limb were far more common than they are today, there are situations in which the HPA axis may prove to create some reactions that are maladaptive where modern life is concerned. Daniel Goleman, the somewhat controversial author of Emotional Intelligence and popularizer of related concepts, coined the term "amygdala hijacking" to refer to a situation in which a given environmental stress has (in Goleman's normal context) been misdiagnosed by the ancient fight-or-flight system, leading to a socially inappropriate response.

As we discussed in a previous post, a number of non-life threatening threats can still be placed in the fight-or-flight response category; the acronym SCARF---Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness---has been used to describe social threat triggers that can reliably generate adrenal dumps and cause unpleasant emotions to cascade. When threatened by a SCARF attack in a social environment, the amygdala-modulated survival reaction may actually serve to make things worse by either: A)dramatically escalating the confrontation; or B) forcing the subject to endure continued adrenal stress reactions without recourse to any solution.

There appears to be a certain type of competitive and aggressive human being who learns about SCARF relatively early in life and who develops a social skillset based around using these threats to control resources. Researchers have observed that some young children, typically showing signs of narcissism, learn to manipulate others by using SCARF attacks. For examples, consider the potential impact of kicking another little girl out of the clique one day for some made-up transgression (attack on Relatedness); using public ridicule, usually over appearance, to cause shame and humiliation (attack on Status); and forcing obedience to tightly-controlled fashion trends (attack on Autonomy).

However, this is only half of the story: children who use these tactics will also reward servile behavior by including a new child in the group, presenting compliments or gifts or invitations, and so on (note that Autonomy is rarely encouraged). Because the strategies shift to manipulate both positive and negative social emotions, the manipulative children are termed "bi-strategic controllers" and they are often praised by teachers for showing "leadership qualities".

Unfortunately, the situation seems to be getting much worse: average scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) screen have been steadily increasing over time (bi-strategic control tendencies are highly correlated with narcissism) and there is significant evidence that popular social networking sites can end up rewarding the core skills of the narcissist (aggressive self-promotion; tightly edited and lavishly photojournaled lifestyle descriptions designed to depict achievement, travel, wealth, popularity, and excitement; demanding a self-centered audience-performer relationship within the social network).

An equally troubling finding is that a disproportionate share of the increase in narcissism is concentrated in young girls. I am not a sociologist and tend to favor the reductionist and static view of human nature that is offered by evolutionary psychology, but I have to concede that there does appear to be a significant learned or cultural component to narcissism and that it is shaped by positive and negative feedback loops.

Findings are inconclusive and the research is very controversial, but for argument's sake we can say this: if there is indeed a strong gender-biased aspect to the overall trend of increasing narcissism, then this will have very serious long-term social ramifications in regards to dating norms, divorce rates (which will increase dramatically, thus creating an expectation of divorce among those who are considering marriage), and rates of childbirth.

Rational men, once informed about the data, will react with misogynistic expectations: the anticipation of narcissistic/entitlement trend tendencies among females (which could, among other things, cause women to underestimate the probability of divorce) could combine with the biological fact that the genders have very different reproductive windows to create interesting, extremely cynical game theoretical results where optimal male mating strategies are concerned.

This will be the topic for another day, but one interesting paradox that results is that the most desirable man for a narcissistic woman to get married to under one set of expectations (the idea that marriage is a self-glorifying and glamorous stand-alone public event to attain status within a peer group) may simultaneously be among the least desirable men of all to be married to if marriage comes with a different set of expectations (the idea that marriage is a largely private, long-term process of relationship management in which the ability to put a positive spin on tough conditions, to compromise, and to offer emotional stability will be prized).

In any case, we can safely say that having to deal with emotionally manipulative and self-absorbed bi-strategic controllers in either a childhood or adulthood setting can lead to terrible psychological and physiological costs in the long-run. Remember that aggression triggered by threats to status or self-preservation is associated with a different neural circuit than is the type of aggression triggered by predatory instincts, with the RAGE circuit (reaction to threats) being experienced as emotionally unpleasant while the SEEKING circuits (reaction to a hunting situation) is experienced as emotionally pleasant.

Besides being insulated against SCARF attacks by having fall-back positions in each category, the social operator who must navigate an emotionally treacherous world may decide to acquire skills of offense as well as defense. The trick to dealing with certain types of unavoidable/recurring conflict may be to be able to emotionally reclassify the other party as a prey item rather than a threat, thus creating an emotional landscape of pleasurable hunting and sensation-seeking rather than competition and anger. I believe that this is best handled by what negotiation analysts and decision theorists at Harvard have termed "BATNA dominance" ("BATNA" means "best alternative to a negotiated agreement")in several likely conflict dimensions, but I will leave this for the next post.

Schachter's Two-Factor Model of Emotion

Returning to the Plan A and Plan B cartoon illustration of a double wave of panic responses, we can generalize a bit and turn now to the rich body of experimental results supporting the notion that virtually any substantive emotional response to events also comes in two waves. In the first wave, we react physiologically to the event. This could be termed the "arousal switch" and it is general in nature: the same basic physiological reaction will take place in situations that are correlated with fear, excitement, lust, or anger. The second wave could be termed the "categorization" switch, and this is the component that pushes the general feeling of arousal in a more specific emotional direction.

Because we may not subjectively experience a discontinuity between arousal and categorization, the idea of emotionality starting with a common state and then branching into a specific emotion may be deeply counter-intuitive to us. Psychologist Arthur Aron has done a great deal of work in this area; his research findings are just fascinating to me and I have found that author Ayala Malach Pines provides some of the best summaries:

In (Aron's) study, the male students who served as subjects assumed the role of a soldier who was captured behind enemy lines. The soldier was tortured by an interrogator, played by an attractive female research assistant, who was trying to force him to reveal Army secrets. The interrogator "tortured" the soldier by dropping "acid" (actually water) into his eye. Each subject was told to imagine that acid caused him unbearable pain, that it burned his eye, that if the torture continued, it would burn his brain and eventually result in a horrible death. The subject was encouraged to scream every time the "acid" touched his eye. The students really got into the role. They shook and sweated, later reported that they had felt terrible fear. Even the female assistant had to comforted and calmed after going through the difficult experience of "torturing" six soldiers every day. A control group, also playing captured soldiers, had water dropped into their eyes but were told that the water represented the first, easy stage of interrogation.

What were the results? The young men who went through the hair-raising experience of being "tortured" were far more attracted to their interrogator (!). They expressed a greater desire to kiss her and be close to her. In addition, there were more erotic and romantic themes in the stories they wrote afterward.

("You poor fool, I torture you with electric cattle prods and yet you are still aroused," hissed the Hungarian femme-fatale as she adjusted her necktie).

Similar experiments have been conducted using wobbly, suspended foot bridges and mild electrical shocks that some subjects were told to imagine being vicious forms of torture. In each case, those that were first aroused by fear or anger reported members of the opposite sex to be more attractive than those who were not stimulated first.


Even when we mistakenly believe that we find someone sexually arousing, the person seems more attractive to us. Here is an elegant demonstration of this surprising finding. Male subjects were told that their heartbeats would be amplified and recorded while they looked at 10 slides of half-nude Playboy Bunnies. In fact, the subject heard not his own heartbeat, but prerecorded heartbeats arranged to beat faster when various, randomly chosen, photographs were projected. In other words, the men believed that their hearts were beating faster in response to certain photographs when in fact they were not.

Then, they were asked to rate the attractiveness of the 10 Playboy Bunnies. Results showed that the men rated those women who supposedly made their hearts beat faster as significantly more attractive and chose their pictures when offered a poster of a Bunny as a token of appreciation for taking part in the study. Even a month later, in a totally unrelated situation, when asked to rate the same 10 pictures, they again rated the same women as more attractive.

There are various explanations for these results. The excitation transfer hypothesis states that there is an additive, if not multiplicative, relationship between arousal states. A man aroused by electric shocks and then aroused by the sight of an attractive woman will combine the arousal states for an extreme result. Misattribution is another explanation: a woman goes sky diving or skiing and then reports finding her instructor to be more attractive because she misattributes her fear arousal as a romantic one (note that this is a weaker form of excitation transfer, with one arousal being mistakenly interpreted rather than two different arousals combining to form a super-arousal). Yet a third explanation---response facilitation---suggests that a general physiological arousal created by almost anything---including vigorous exercise---will turbo-boost every subsequent emotional reaction we have. Response facilitation is probably the most gentle of the three in terms of its potentially self-destructive effects.

Individuals who look to use neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to influence or directly manipulate others have a field day with these results. So-called "pick-up artists" and "seduction engineers" who specialize in science-based sexual predation and conquests will no doubt attempt to harness these loopholes in human psychology to piggyback their seduction attempts on top of independently-triggered states of arousal, perhaps by designing first dates to include events that will reliably cause stimulation. It will also generally be desirable for such individuals to isolate the target in order to ensure that the arousal does not get "grabbed" by someone else in the immediate vicinity: a lot of hard work could go down the drain if the intended victim was carefully prepped for physiological arousal and then ran into an ex or a co-worker and linked the arousal to attraction to that third-party rather than the would-be master of puppets.

The goal of many seduction engineers is to obtain sexual access to multiple women by employing tactics and techniques that are normally derived from evolutionary psychology and related fields such as neuromarketing and influence studies. In effect, the egocentric overconfidence and lack of sophisticated emotional self-management or "theory of mind" associated with self-absorbed narcissism are systematically exploited by cynics (who usually feel quite justified in doing so, some even going so far as suggesting that they are providing a socially beneficial vigilante-type service).

On the other hand, those who find themselves on the receiving end of manipulation, whether by chance or deliberate planning, may gain an edge if they can separate the physiological arousal from the emotionality. This would be particularly important for non-reflective, "spontaneous" individuals who were prone to basing important life decisions on fleeting episodes of emotional flooding.

It goes without saying that long-term mate selection based on an initial misattribution or elicitation transfer could be ruinous. The wrong information would be used to inform long-term decisions. Men and women are equally prone to making long-term extrapolations based on initial results, with men typically finding that women are less sexual and carefree than extrapolations suggested and women typically finding that men are prone to provide less emotional and administrative support than extrapolations suggested.


I have routinely been surprised at how often individuals who perform with great competence in certain domains make very poor, unreflective decisions when it comes to critical issues like long-term mate selection, despite the overwhelming evidence about attribution issues and the horribly debilitating effects of a toxic domestic environment.

Pines is clearly very concerned with this same problem and she focuses on the origins of love. She states that:

The two-factor theory of love is a derivation of a more general theory of emotions. According to this theory, like a car that in order to arrive at its destination needs us to start the engine and then determine its direction, to define a certain emotion we also need two things: One (which is analogous to starting the engine) is a general state of arousal; it is similar for all strong emotions and includes such physiological responses as a rapid heart beat and fast breathing. The second (which is analogous to steering the car in a certain direction) is an emotional label that explains the arousal---love, anger, fear, jealousy. We learn the appropriate labels for different states of arousal (which is what we are supposed to feel in different situations) from our parents, teachers, friends, the media, and personal experience...what we are expected to feel has a major influence on what we actually feel.

In other words, our bodies react first to the external stimulus with a blind, universal reaction that is value-neutral (neither good nor bad), then we consciously perceive that physiological arousal and come up with a matching emotion or feeling to explain it in the current context. This initial period of diffuse physiological arousal (DPA) may present a chokepoint or funnel opportunity for a social strategist: perhaps we can, with training, consciously intervene in the interpretation of DPA and look at spin-doctoring ourselves to make sure that the right emotional CEO (using Kenrick's terminology) is put in charge when it comes to taking action.

The Theory of Critical Moments

An intriguing and related concept comes from sports psychologist Roland Carlstedt. Carlstedt's model, which he terms the "Theory of Critical Moments" (TCM), identifies psychological factors that are particularly important during high-level athletic performances. In his words:

Critical moments can be defined as instances or situations that are pivotal to the successful outcome of competition. These moments test athletes' ability to perform their best when it counts the most, demanding extraordinary control over mind-body processes. In a tennis match on a grass court, a critical moment might be a break point opportunity against a good server. In golf, a critical moment might involve having to reach the green with an approach shot in order to have a chance at making a birdie...critical moments can be operationalized quantitatively...using a hierarchical system that rates the psychological effect that critical moments are expected to exert on an athlete's psyche.

Carlsted goes on to discuss the theoretical "High-Risk Model of Threat-Perception", an applied model that seeks to isolate personality components that have been linked to high susceptibility to stress and stress-related physical illness. The three variables that Carlsted focuses on in his own work are absorption, negative affect (also referred to as neuroticism), and repressive coping.

Absorption refers to the athlete's ability to control his or her attention in the face of external information or distractions. This would seem to be a factor in which one would want a high score, but the situation is complicated by the effects of the other two major factors, negative affect and repressive coping. Negative affect is straightforward: a high score in this factor predicts that the athlete would frequently engage in negative self-talk or thoughts that referenced loss or failure. Repressive coping refers to the ability to focus away from negative situations or memories---in other words, to "forget" the bad stuff and move on.

An athlete who has a high score in absorption but an equally high score in neuroticism and a low score in repressive coping could become effectively paralyzed during play, trapped in a depressing inner monologue that ignored the demands of the outside world (thanks to the absorption) and gave preferential treatment to thoughts of catastrophe and humiliation. The lack of repressive coping ability would mean that a single mistake or even departure from technical perfection could initiate a spiral of rumination and negative emotionality that could affect performance for the rest of the game. The result, of course, is a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the athlete's focus on negative potential outcomes sabotages his or her real-time performance and causes those bad outcomes to come true.

Closed and Open Motor Skills

As a general rule, high scores in neuroticism and low scores in repressive coping are not going to be of benefit to an athlete. However, the degree to which higher or lower absorption scores benefits an athlete will depend on whether the athlete's sport is dominated by open motor skills or by closed motor skills. Closed motor skills require the execution of a task that has been choreographed and rehearsed to perfection prior to the event: a ballet dancer or gymnast is normally charged with executing a sequence of closed motor skills. Open motor skills are characterized by a dynamic operating environment and the need to adjust techniques in the face of new information: directly oppositional sports including football, basketball, and tennis demand the employment of open motor skills. As one would expect, the ability to ignore the outside world (i.e., to become absorbed) would be of far greater use during the performance of closed motor skills than it would be during the performance of open ones.

There are also a number of performance environments that impose rapid attention-switching demands on athletes. Rather than fitting fairly neatly into the open vs. closed motor skill schema, these environments force participants to transition from dynamic play and fluid improvisation to ideally becoming machine-like cyborgs---cold, disassociated beings capable of systematic execution of very technical, well-rehearsed movements. Penalty kicks and free throws are examples of how isolated, mechanical techniques can suddenly be imposed on what was previously a very busy game of hustle and scramble.

Thus, the ideal athlete in at least some games will be able to switch between two different regimes: one moment being fully engaged in what his opponents are doing and changing tactics and techniques on the fly as these opponents commit to certain courses of action, while the next moment he can ignore the screaming taunts of the crowd or other distracting elements of the environment and flawlessly execute an isolated motor program that he has rehearsed thousands of times in practice.

(swashbuckling Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo is frequently cited as one of the rare and brilliant athletes who displays great powers of concentration, psychological resistance to stress, and near-effortless mastery in both closed and open motor skill categories within his sport)

At the risk of oversimplifying the process, here's how a TCM intervention might work: high or low score tendencies for absorption, neuroticism, and repressive coping are identified by administering psychological tests on the athlete. Carlsted takes these scores and overlays the athlete's peculiar threat-perception characteristics over a "map" of the stress characteristics that have been identified for that particular sport or activity (this map is created using heavy input from coaches and other athletes).

Those scenarios that would be predicted to reveal the clash between the athlete's psychological weaknesses and the demands of the game would then be specifically articulated and the athlete's mental training plan would be designed to prevent him from choking during these pre-identified critical moments. Highly-salient scenario training exercises and very detailed visualization would probably be used to try to make the athlete mentally "bombproofed" as much as possible and to avoid destructive psychological spirals.

TCM and Interpersonal Relations

I rather like the idea of using the Theory of Critical Moments to make predictions about human behavior outside of sports and war. Extensions of TCM-type testing have been suggested to uncover those who would have great difficulty creating happy and satisfying relationships. While it may be popular to speak of "emotional complexity" and "the need for emotional support" as if these things were benign, an individual who has rapid and uncontrolled mood shifts, emotional incoherence, and a tendency towards negative affect could prove to be a ticking time bomb in a long-term relationship if that relationship requires the application of effective conflict resolution techniques (e.g., most marriages).

At critical inflection points within a relationship, a person who has high scores in negative affect/neuroticism and self-absorption will tend to think that his or her relationship is not ideally represented as a win-win situation based on highlighting the areas of overlapping interest. In contrast, the ideal relationship for such a person would be a sort of pseudo-therapeutic one in which the partner with the most unstable emotional command system apparatus would come to dominate his or her partner, and then the combined psychic resources could be hijacked and dedicated to the afflicted partner's neurotic spirals.

It is worth noting that self-absorbed neurotics do not normally choose other neurotics as partners; they complain bitterly about neurotic or self-absorbed traits in others, and seek those stable types who are seen to have spare, readily-accessible emotional resources. In other words, the possibility of a true win-win arrangement with mutual support may have been rejected from the very start in favor of a form of quiet predation. Some therapists have argued that this is still a workable deal provided that the neurotic partner carry the relationship in other ways, and perhaps there is an opportunity for negotiation if the partner with the emotional condition is conscious of his or her issues and can put in place a process for compensating the stable partner for putting up with it. The problem I see with this form of reasoning is that it once again assumes that the executive centers of the brain are going to be running the show on a day-to-day basis.

Scientists studying marketing campaigns have long been puzzled by the very low correlation between product scores on customer satisfaction surveys and the consumers' actual repurchase rates for the same product. The intuition clearly would be that a satisfied customer would be more likely to buy the same product again, but the relationship between the two is shockingly weak. It appears that people will engage in executive brain-heavy processes when filling out a survey, but will return to autopilot habits when they actually go back to making purchase decisions.

A lesson that we can take from this work and apply to relationships suggests that it is important that our friends and partners are habitually kind people. Waiting to see how someone behaves during a crisis and thinking that this will reflect true colors may not be a safe way to proceed: during a crisis, the executive brain engages and may make very crafty, opportunistic cost-benefit decisions if the future social payoffs from good behavior during the crisis are seen to justify an immediate investment.

Crisis-opportunism is epitomized in the classic "wolf in sheep's clothing" mating strategy, in which a sexual predator, typically male, poses as a considerate and emotionally supportive friend to his target and waits for her to endure a crisis. During the crisis, the predator seeks to outperform his rival(s) and to gain sexual access by being seen as kind, sensitive, emotionally generous, etc. It will be later, perhaps months later, when the true autopilot settings of the predator are revealed.

One possibility for further research would be to combine the TCM testing battery with the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) and a longitudinal study in order to find if strong correlations exist between some of these "high risk" psychological traits and destructive relationship patterns in the real world. The idea here is that a person who is predicted to choke under pressure based on TCM scores and who also possessed a high score on the NPI might: A) be prone to negative moods; B) feel non-reflective about the feedback loops and contagion effects that these negative moods could create within a relationship; and C) could still feel entitled (via narcissistic traits) to force these on another person in a relationship setting. Of course, such a person would likely resent and resist psychological testing batteries and would attempt to make his or her behavior seem normal, perhaps even desirable.

It is also possible that performance arts which typically require dedication to extreme, highly choreographed technical perfection---ballet being one example---could also tend to attract fragile-but-perfectionist "diva" personalities that carry these risk factors. At the other end, a total lack of neuroticism and absorption and a very high score in repressive coping could create a person who is perceived to be detached and to offer a limited emotional range (note that such an individual could do well with another like himself or herself, but the same cannot be said of the self-absorbed neurotic, who by nature would fail the most basic test of Kant's famous categorical imperative to "act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law").

Psychological Assessments for War Zone Deployments

Ironically (?), the best psychological attributes to look for in a potential spouse may be the same ones that you would want in a teammate you were deploying with for dangerous missions overseas. Psychologist Paul Brand, formerly the head of human resources for private military contractor DynCorp, is the CEO of a company called Mission Critical Psychological Services. Brand's group specializes in conducting selection and training programs for individuals who will be deployed to conflict areas (and, more notably, in developing support services for those returning home). His written test and "MCPS" interview methodology apparently are quite good at identifying applicants who will tend fare well when it comes to dealing with the psychological stresses often associated with war zone jobs.

Brand's process selects for traits such as aggression, confidence, ability to be autonomous/self-directed, and novelty-seeking behavior (i.e., EXPLORER personality traits as per the Fisher test battery). National-level military special mission units (SMUs) also have access to trained psychologists and make use of them during screenings.

None of these will catch a clever Machiavellian sociopath (fortunately, such an individual may even have useful traits for this type of work). I have found that many of the popular tests for Emotional Intelligence have obviously correct and incorrect answers from the standpoint of how people are *supposed* to act, and as a result these tests are fairly easy to defeat. A robust exam will expose true tendencies because the person taking the battery will feel that the true answer is also the justified, consistent, or morally correct one.

Any interview process obviously runs the risk of participants gaming the system and telling the interviewer what he or she wants to hear, but perhaps a combination of the Brand pre-mission assessment methodology, standard personality testing (the "Big 5" and so on), and Carlstedt's TCM tests could help to round out a nice psychological battery. Fisher's relationship-type classification system based on brain chemistry and emotional circuits could be used as a second step to look for compatibility (remember that, to Fisher, EXPLORERs tend to do well with other EXPLORERs and BUILDERs with other BUILDERs, but DIRECTOR and NEGOTIATOR types work well in mixed pairings).

At the risk of sounding like an unromantic freak who should be put to use collecting dangerous occult manuscripts or some similar activity, I think the ultimate psychological relationship-fitness battery would probably include Fisher, TCM testing, and a variant on DeltaQual that looked to identify heuristics-based everyday decision rules as used within a relationship (this would mean that a potential mate was seen as a shopper who emotionally, economically, and sexually "purchased" his or her relationship on a daily basis, which is an admittedly cynical way to view such things. I will of course use just such a cynical proposition---a relationship being a lifestyle contract that bundles services and products into a mix of potential benefits for the partner---as the central organizing theme of my next post).

Returning to our DeltaQual discussion, perhaps a similar study could be applied to interpersonal habits. The ideal template may well be a personality that is very easy to get along with as a result of the habitual, subconscious use of positive decision rules (Omega rules) during a normal day. These decision rules would of course be based on emotional systems that whirred quietly in the background. Because habitual behavior must be forcibly brought up into the light for executive review, we would expect the Delta moments in the relationship to correspond to conflicts that inevitably take place. These inflection points in the relationship could be thought of as negotiation opportunities, and more structured skills related to negotiation and persuasion could be used. Deliberate social strategies based on exploiting the underlying mathematics of evolutionary game theory will be the subject of the next post.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Point Break and Sock Puppets

A classic film brilliantly re-imagined:

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Muga-Mushin, Part 1: Sucker Punchers, Defensive Flinches, SPEAR, Dutch Muay Thai, British Doormen


Practitioners of Asian martial arts and meditative practices have often described an idealized performance state in which the epiphenomena of "self" is lifted and the martial artist is able to function without conscious regulation. Training in the physical mechanics has been embedded so deeply that the techniques flow as if by pure instinct, and an egoless, transcendent mental state has been cultivated so thoroughly that an uncluttered mind can essentially "get out of the way" and allow the training to run without interruption.

This is a worthwhile goal, to be sure. Today's post and the ones that follow will discuss some impediments to a free, ferocious expression of martial arts and other fighting skills during an actual physical confrontation, and offer a few measures that may be taken to try to mitigate the problems. The context here is the individual who encounters serious real-world violence and wishes to dominate himself, his opponent, and his overall strategic environment.

In terms of structure, I have tried to organize the posts by starting with the most basic and primitive issue and then concluding with problems related to strategic uncertainty. The themes will be:

1. Defensive flinch reactions that can interfere with trained responses.

2. Management of panic, anxiety, and other self-destructive emotions during an immediate crisis.

3. Training programs to "install" motor skills at a level that they are accessible on demand as established neural subroutines (freeing up limited, conscious working memory capacity resources).

4. The introduction of the COS model, a basic analytical framework for making strategic and tactical decisions under conditions that think-tanks refer to as "VUCA": Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. The COS model has potential application in problems on the battlefield, in the financial markets, and in the realm of social relationships.

Hopefully this will be an entertaining series...

I will for the time being assume that it is taken as a given that training that is unrealistic in the single most important dimension of conflict---an active enemy who wants to win, just like you do---runs the risk of immediate, catastrophic shocks if and when such resistance is eventually encountered.

At the other extreme, people who did attempt to train with 100% resistance at all times would find that technical development was difficult. The urgency of the moment would probably preclude experiment or play with new ideas and tools (in other words, desperation would cause students to stick with what they already knew, and development would be stunted). A complete training program will have provisions for both the embryonic learning stage, trial-and-error incremental learning, and the realism and pressure of a live, competitive situation.

To keep things simple today, I'm not going to add variables such as the presence of weapons or recovery from immediate injury in order to try to fight back. These are very important elements that can present new challenges and decision problems, but the scenario of the moment is a comparatively simple one in which an individual decides to try to ambush another with a surprise punch before the would-be victim realizes that hostile intent is present. We'll start with a straightforward base case and the extrapolate from it to deal with more complicated and dangerous situations later on.

Defensive Wounds and Startle Reflex

One potential obstacle to the mushin goal would be a situation in which training was simply not accessible because a more primitive movement had essentially overridden the learned one. A subject of some controversy within the tactical training community has been the existence of a hardwired "startle flinch" reaction to surprise. The flinch reaction, which usually happens at great speed, becomes an interesting field of study when the researcher is looking at small-but-potentially-influential pockets of time within an emergency situation.

From a fighting perspective, the concern is that a physiological flinch reaction to sudden unpleasantness(say, a sucker punch thrown in a bar fight) may dominate any other response, including years of martial arts training, causing a trained individual with years of experience to behave as if he was untrained. It would be necessary to recover from this initial startle-flinch position (although recovering psychologically is probably much more important, as we will see) before trained techniques can be accessed.

Blueprint for a Startle Flinch Response

The origins of a protective flinch reaction are somewhat controversial, as it is not fully understood whether or not this is a truly instinctive reaction that is hardwired into the human nervous system or a learned response that follows from the experience of collisions and physical pain early in child development. An example of a truly reflexive flinch reaction would be the "Moro" that newborn babies display:

The Moro reflex appears to be an instinctive response of an infant to being dropped; the arms spread and close and the infant typically cries out. One can readily imagine the evolutionary basis for this behavior.

There is some evidence that an equally primitive reaction is present to deal with loud noises and impending collisions with other objects. Experiments conducted with laboratory rats found a "startle" reflex that attempted to protect the neck (by hunching the shoulders) and the eyes (by blinking and turning the head away). Note that most mammals are quadrupeds and are not well-equipped to attempt to shield their heads with their paws.

There is now a stylized, prototypical example of the human startle-flinch protective reaction that many use as a template. Specifics will of course vary, but the general depiction of this flinch is a sharp, sudden compound movement that raises the subject's hands to form a shield or buffer between the threat and the subject's head. At the same time the stomach tightens, the shoulders hunch upwards, and the knees bend into a quarter or half-squatting position. The head usually turns away from the threat and the eyes are often closed, and this all happens at extreme speeds and with an absence of executive planning or coordination by the frontal areas of the brain.

The idea here is that a human being who suddenly encounters danger in his or her environment may, depending on intensity and proximity, first launch into a flinch reaction, and then may recover to a trained response a bit later (assuming a trained response is possible because the person has in fact been properly trained). This line of reasoning usually continues to state that the reaction exists on a deep enough level that de-training the startle-flinch would be for all practical purposes impossible; instead, the logic suggests that we should go with the flow, piggybacking trained responses on top of the flinch and using it as a sort of fighting platform from which we can employ more deliberate techniques.

The Protective Relay-Race

There are three networks within the human brain itself that help to provide further detail when considering what goes on within a protective flinch situation. The networks map fairly closely to the triune model of the brain---reptilian, mammalian, primate---that is often proposed to show how relatively newer parts of the brain are built on top of---but do not replace---older parts that saw evolutionary success. Together, the three networks manage questions of "approach" and "withdrawal" that are the basis for much of sentient life.

First we have the alerting network, which manages "intrinsic alertness" and clearly relies heavily on visual and auditory cues. The alerting network must receive a "danger" snapshot, a piece of information indicating an immediate threat.

Next, the orienting system, which is rooted in emotions and could be thought of as a more advanced approach-withdrawal system, would normally receive the baton from the orienting system and attach an emotional significance---a "salience"---to the package (the cingulate gyrus and amygdala use dopamine markers to emotionally charge events, and this plays a significant role in how some things are remembered. More on this later when we talk about emotional capacities and survival). Think of the orienting system as the cylinders of a revolver, with each cylinder containing a different circuit of Panksepp's emotional command system. The trick with this revolver is that the cylinders spin to match the appropriate system to the information (a more elaborate and abstract take on the revolver model would be to use Kenrick's theory of multiple, modular selves and to insert a different self-module into each chamber).

Finally, the executive network would get a chance to add a strategic, more explicit decision-making overlay to the experience. In physical emergencies, this network tends to play a greater role in designing the preparation and training program than it does when the problem actually presents itself and has to be dealt with.

What we have during this initial, "oh f*%$!" moment of shock and defense is a break between the alerting network and the orienting system. In some ways, the alerting network has failed to do its job and provide ample warning to the orienting system; instead of a smooth transition or hand-off of the baton during a neural relay race, the alerting network has suddenly screamed that a problem exists. The reflexive cover is activated as a failsafe. More mechanically, the type of covering reaction appears to be linked to visual reaction time---the lag between the sudden appearance of a visual stimulus and the ability to take physical action to deal with it appropriately (catching a ball, swinging a baseball bat, slipping a punch, etc.).

Frequently the protective flinch is mistakenly considered part of an evolved and emotional fight-or-flight reaction within the orienting system, but that's really a secondary issue relating to the psychological impact of the threat as it is more fully recognized, marked as urgent, and a pre-conscious strategy starts to form. Because all of these things happen so quickly and below the level of our conscious awareness, they may be experienced as a single package.

The initial consideration that creates the sense of urgency and alarm---demanding a protective flinch---may be based on a measure called "tau" (size of the image of the stimulus on the retina divided by the rate of change of the image). Tau gives a sense of speed. The eyes cannot continuously track small, fast-moving objects at these incoming angles: studies of baseball players successfully swinging at bat confirm that batters see the initial stage of the pitch and then are functionally swinging blind at the time of connection between the bat and the ball. They must base their swings on the first 50-70% of the ball's flight; after that, the ball has become "invisible" in the sense of the human eye's ability to continuously track it at that speed and angle. The brain makes a "predictive saccade" (a visual jump in the mind's eye, used to complete the information gained in the first jump or two) to trigger a physical response, and a big piece of hand-eye coordination is this immediately linking of the visual cue to the correct physical response.

Think of the foveal cone---the most information-dense piece of our visual field---as being correlated with our selective attention, or the components of our environment that we are actively devoting resources to caring about. If an object comes at us from within the foveal cone, we may be prepared to deal with it because, at least theoretically, we have been paying attention to it (whether or not there is training to actually reinforce this selective attention is another story and we will get to this very soon).

If something comes at us from outside of the foveal cone---the baseball coming in from the periphery, the big haymaker punch thrown by the ambusher, whatever---then the opportunity for a prepackaged response is almost certainly going to be less developed, as by definition we were not paying attention to this emerging threat.

Readers may recall from the previous post that evolutionary psychology Doug Kenrick has put forth a fascinating thesis regarding the existence of multiple "selves"---personalities with attention goals and priorities---in the human brain.


The mind is modular, and we all use different cognitive software when we are confronting different problems. There is not one single executive decision-maker inside your head, but a number of different subselves. When you’re in a threatening situation, your inner night watchman takes over; when someone attractive bats their eyelashes, your swinging single takes the helm; when you’re in a dirty public restroom in the back of a bad restaurant, your compulsive takes over your mind, and when you’re around your children, your inner parent steps up. Each of those subselves uses different decision-rules, values different things, and feels good or bad about different things.

An issue in social situations that offer an emotionally complex, information-rich landscape is that there are many potential decision cues to be attending to at any one time. Priorities will be established depending on which of Kenrick's revolving gallery of CEOs is functionally in charge, and that will depend on a complicated interaction between the information coming in from the environment and one's own psychological disposition when one entered the environment. Thus, being "alert" to the threat of a sucker punch or baseball may depend on a host of other uncontrolled variables, including the proximity of attractive mating opportunities, desires to make friends, the presence of children, and so on. As I stated before, I think a synthesis of the Kenrick and Panksepp material, if possible, would represent a truly significant advance in the fields of both evolutionary psychology and cognitive science.

However, our situation begins with an event that has not yet been given emotional significance. The existence of an incoming, fast flying object at a collision-freaked corner of the visual field, under surprise conditions, seems to be quite important here: this initial flinch is a defensive, protective reaction to the truly unexpected. A professional athlete like a major league ball player does not have a panic reaction to an incoming ball, but a member of the crowd who is removed from the concentration of actually playing the game may react with a startle display if a ball suddenly veers off in his direction. Both are dealing with the tau/visual reaction time issue, but one is surprised and one is not. "Surprise" in this case has a training and preparation content; there is a difference between an athlete's behavior in an unpredictable game that he is trained for and the same athlete's behavior in an unpredictable game that he has not trained for.

Now let's change our hapless victim candidate and say that the member of the crowd has his back turned when the baseball arrives. There will be no startle flinch display because the ball never entered his visual field, and thus never triggered it.

By the same token, being surprised by a loudly barking pit bull who suddenly appears 25 yards away, chained to his owner's Harley, meets the "surprise/startle" condition but not the "incoming flying object" condition. The flinch reaction in this case will actually be a tendency to suddenly freeze (more on the freeze reaction and the related cascades next time).

Tony Blauer and the SPEAR System

The man most responsible for raising awareness of startle-flinch reaction in a tactical context is probably the Canadian instructor
Tony Blauer. This clip gives a flavor of Blauer's argument:

So there are two different issues at work here: 1) the hypothesis that an unavoidable startle-flinch reaction occurs when we are surprised; 2) the hypothesis that if a flinch does occur, we will do better (during a violent emergency) to have trained to execute techniques directly from said flinch rather than to recover to a more traditional fighting stance or platform first.

This can be a polarizing debate, and some would probably enjoy it if I became pedantic here and tried to criticize Blauer's work on the grounds of the jargon used or a technical detail, but I think that would do all of us a disservice. It is easy to issue complaints against a practitioner, working in the field, for failure to use the vernacular of the lyceum, but doing so often serves to increase the distance between theory and applied practice. In addition to several other contributions, Blauer has done the tactical training community a service by bringing the startle-flinch problem to its attention. The jargon and acronyms may be unavoidable, both for practical marketing purposes and because even packaging the concept for discussion probably has to involve the creation of a precise, descriptive vocabulary.

At any rate, Blauer has developed a hand-to-hand combat training system ("SPEAR", or "Spontaneous Protection Enabling Accelerated Response") based around this notion of using the startle flinch body position as a loading mechanism or springboard for an initial, battering-ram type counterattack against the ambusher. His logic, at least as I understand it, is that: 1) the flinch, rooted in an evolved reflex, will happen spontaneously; and 2) the fastest next step would be to launch a technique right off of the flinch (rather than, say, recovering from the flinch to adopt a more formal martial arts stance, and then launching the technique from that stance). Those adopting the SPEAR system are adding a third condition: 3) the best tool to use from the flinch is a sort of extended wedge frame position with the arms that normally attempts to drive the nearside forearm into the side of the opponent's neck.

(a couple of views of the stylized SPEAR master-counterattack that Blauer proposes as an initial movement from the defensive flinch. The brachial stun via the forearm strike to the neck would be used to try to turn the tide of the fight and put the sucker puncher on the defensive)

I think that Blauer would argue that, in a surprise encounter on the street or in a bar fight, the pre-conscious defensive flinch would arrive first, his proprietary approach to springboarding off of the flinch (the SPEAR---a kind of diving wedge) would come next, and then the techniques of a preferred fighting system would come last. In other words, SPEAR would be Blauer's way of bridging between the completely untrained (the flinch) and the trained response (martial arts).

In terms of using the startle flinch display as a platform for other tools and techniques, there is a real lack of evidence for or against any particular ideas. We just don't see the SPEAR type of counter being successfully used enough in street fights or mixed-martial art competitions to know how to value it.

Although the general absence of a SPEAR-type counter in combat sports (there are some techniques that could qualify as being in the same family, if not the same genus or species, but they typically have a different purpose---perhaps being used as a physical frame to maintain space for a Muay Thai knee strike to the abdomen, for example) is not completely damning, I find it troubling: it is worth noting that a SPEAR-type double-arms drive to the side of the neck is fully within the rules of MMA competition if someone did want to try it. On the other hand, we have a great deal of evidence about what tends to work in real (uncontrolled) or realistic (synthetic, done in the mixed-martial arts laboratory) unarmed fights, and we would logically want to go from an untrained protective flinch reaction to a skilled, high-percentage counter as quickly as possible.

Note also that the flinch reaction as stylized by Tony Blauer is far better suited to a fully committed, looping, haymaker style punch or overhand right than it is to a trained fighter's rapier-like straight jab or cross directly to the face. In addition, a skilled sucker puncher who throws a quick feint may cause a flinch reaction that he can then exploit with a shot from the other side (indeed, we will see that checking for reactions is something many fighters will do). An argument could be made that the sucker punch of a street or bar fight is categorically different than a tight striking combination made by a trained combat athlete, and thus we would should not hold SPEAR to an unrealistic standard.

I do not believe these problems are particularly troublesome for Blauer, because his study plays the percentages well: the majority of streetfights are highly emotive affairs and do tend to involve wild, aggressive headhunting with looping, angry, uncontrolled shots. The disciplined, professional streetfighter equipped with years of structured Muay Thai training and a systematic approach to violence is, thankfully, still a rare animal outside of Marvel Comics.

If we do want to increase our search radius and include the potential for highly trained streetfighters, we may find that going from a startle protective reaction to a mixed-martial arts-based solution does not actually pose much of a conversion issue: the protective flinch posture that we adopt "automatically" can be quite similar to a standard high guard cover used in boxing (albeit less refined), and so there may be less of an attendant need to try to install a "bridging" technique between flinch and training.

Paul Howe, a noted firearms and tactics instructor with a background that includes service as a member of the U.S. Army's elite special mission unit (SMU), looks for technical consistency in different training and operational milieus.


Select a system that will go from dry fire, to range fire, to Sims (Simunition rounds used to shoot each other safely in Force-on-Force training), to live-fire CQB, to combat or a tactical encounter on the street with little or no changes to the system.

Perhaps hand-to-hand combat deserves its equivalent statement:

Select a system that will go from shadow boxing, to pad work, to sparring, to an MMA match, to combat or a streetfight with little or no changes to the system.

Perhaps the combat athlete could eliminate the middle man and look to go from flinch to accessing, say, boxing or Muay Thai fundamentals with little delay in between. After all, at least we know that boxing and MT work against skilled opponents; we cannot say with confidence that some of the alternatives work well under the same circumstances. My own preference would be to look at the most reliable trained responses and to work backwards from there until we hit the untrained startle-flinch, with the goal of converting the flinch directly to a mixed-martial arts counter.

This is a very formal guard; there are variations in boxing and Muay Thai that are even closer to the protective flinch hand-and-arm display.

To be fair, perhaps there is something else going on here and Blauer's SPEAR system exists in a quasi-instinctive shadow realm between a purely untrained response and a completely trained one. This argument would depend on evidence that it is faster (and equally effective) to go from a flinch to a SPEAR-type counter than to go from a flinch to a boxing barrage, a Greco-Roman clinch tie-up, or some other MMA-based response. Blauer might make the case that, working backwards from MMA to startle, we will find a gap in coverage that the SPEAR can bridge. I really don't know, and I think that this will probably come down to anecdotes, subjectivity, and speculation.

In the absence of a good reason not to do so, I think we should consider the initial startle flinch to be neutral or agnostic in terms of follow-up techniques, and then line up some major alternatives of things to do next and consider them in terms of observable performance. I think it is legitimate to ask what professional athletes do to get out of trouble when they are hurt, tired, and put against the side of the ring or cage and subjected to incoming strikes.

Sometimes it is a useful exercise to consider the evidence that would force one to change one's own mind on the matter. In the interests of Popperian falsifiability, I suppose that I can say this: to be compelled towards the need for a bridging system, I think I would need to be able to conclude that the type of initial counter that Blauer advocates is accessible---under these very specific conditions---in ways that preferred options are not. Thus, a competing alternative to the SPEAR would not be, for example, a standard boxing combination consisting of a left hook and right straight (or a right straight and left hook, depending on the side from which the counter is launched). The argument for SPEAR might be that the alternative is essentially being trapped in a defensive, protective flinch reaction and absorbing more damage. If recommending a bridging system between flinch and fighting skills, Blauer should try to establish that the alternative to something like the SPEAR would be allowing the opponent to throw additional unanswered strikes (due to an inability to fight back at all).

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to set up a reliable, reproducible experiment that would satisfy all parties. Indeed, the act of making it an experiment might be considered so contrived that it contaminates the data, since participants would probably be aware that this was a training environment and might become unrealistically vigilant as a result. Blauer may be right about the need for a bridging technique between an untrained defensive flinch reaction and the full expression of trained responses; my personal suspicion is that the bridging technique can come from a variety of sources and that ultimately there are more important issues to worry about, anyway.

Shaping the Flinch: Boxing and Muay Thai Training

The "surprise" visual trigger for a flinch reaction may present some interesting questions. Those who have trained in boxing or Muay Thai have seen first-hand how a new student typically reacts to punches coming at his face: hands go out pawing towards the incoming punches, head turns away, eyes are closed. The flinch-plagued student may not be an ambush victim in the classic sense; he is probably not being tricked or sucker punched in an elaborate way, and is probably just engaged in relatively safe, consensual sparring with a training partner. He knows that he will be punched, knows that protective equipment is being worn, etc.

However, a flinch can still be there, and it is frequently exploited by more experienced fighters who will use feints to trigger the flinch prematurely, will move in and out of range to raise the experience of dread and panic, and will throw hook punches from outside angles to get around the new fighter's undisciplined pawing motion. In full-contact bouts, many knock-outs come from just this sort of scenario.

Skilled Muay Thai strikers and boxers will often use the first round to run a kind of diagnostic check on their opponent, and part of this process will involve using quick feints to see what the other guy's response is. If the opponent reacts to a feint with a high-strung, wild flinch reaction, this will be taken advantage of in short order as the more experienced, well-trained fighter can now throw longer and more sophisticated compound attacks without fear of being caught by a sharp counter.

(one of the best strikers in the world, Peter Aerts is a veteran of the K-1 circuit and a product of the revered Mejiro Gym in Holland)

I have noticed a lot of this in my own Muay Thai training, which is now heavily influenced by a coach who is the U.S. ambassador of Amsterdam's famous Mejiro Gym. The Dutch approach to Muay Thai is generally more concerned with footwork, angles, and optimal use of distance than is the traditional Thai version (the Thai fighters often take a hardcore "badman contest" approach and stand in the pocket to trade blows until someone is unable to continue).

One of the ways to avoid a panic and associated, maladaptive flinch/freak-out response is to keep on top of how distances are closing and opening during the fight, and to have a way to directly link a visual cue with a tactical decision. In creating an awareness/decision trigger to use for initiating various techniques, my coaches have been training me to maintain a peripheral awareness of the opponent's feet: if I can see his feet, he's out of range; if I can no longer see his feet, I need to either hit him or get out of there, because blunt trauma impacts are coming my way. In an MMA environment, the situation becomes even more urgent because the striking threat is combined with the threat of being taken down by a superior wrestler, or using one's own takedowns to drive the fight to the ground.

I think it goes without saying that one cannot simply stare at the other guy's feet; the ability to pick up on these visual cues while tracking the opponent's shoulders and hands takes many months to develop, and in practice it can require a constant, small movement of the eyes to direct attentional resources on a moment-by-moment basis.

I think this is one of the reasons that the Dutch-style Muay Thai training has such a heavy cognitive load: even with light, controlled striking, sparring and situational fighting drills can be very mentally taxing and some students later note headaches and sleep disruption. Hours are spent just learning to be able to maintain composure and attentional focus when punches and kicks are coming in, and to execute defensive techniques without going into a flinching, panic-driven reaction (a reaction that usually ends up having us attempt to turn our heads away from the threat while simultaneously throwing our hands out and making futile attempts to push the incoming strikes off. This is the stereotypical novice fighter's reaction to being hit, and it dovetails nicely with Blauer's depiction of a prototype flinch response).

"Hit to the Back Glove"

An essential part of the Dutch Muay Thai training program is to have training partners face each other in fighting stance. One man will then execute techniques---say, a jab-cross combination---while the other holds his rearhand glove---his power hand---next to his face as a target. The glove is held with the palm facing forward as a catcher's mitt for the incoming punches; a small movement is used to snap the palm at the punch at the last moment and create some resistance (note, the technique is slightly different for hooks and uppercuts).

Students tend to progress as they train. In the first stages, the glove is held away from the head because of fear of getting hit. As the student becomes more experienced, he starts holding the target glove closer and closer to his face, eventually reaching a point where the student stays in his fighting stance and his training partner can simply punch directly at his face. At this point, the glove will snap out from the fight stance to intercept that punch with a solid catch.

Variations on this theme take place with other training aids, such as Thai pads and boxing focus mitts: the man holding the pads learns to hold them closer and closer to his face, both to create more realistic targets for his partner and to train his own defense.

Instructors watch carefully for signs of flinching, blinking, leaning away from the punches, anticipation and fear leading to a reaching out for the punches to try to catch them early, and so on. Typically they will tell the student who is doing the punching to slow down if the defender is still dealing with a panic reaction, then they will speed things up again later as proficiency is achieved. It is a classic case of conditioning being used to cause a previous reaction to go extinct. This is not a quick process: conditioning takes many months because it is so difficult to retain composure when being stalked down by a trained striker.

Frequently the link between effective offense and equally capable defense seems to be muddied because of a desire to view them as distinct categories, but the two merge in an important psychological element. The development of an "auto-pilot" defense may create a sense of safety (even if it is sometimes an illusion of safety) that, in turn, allows one man to view another as a prey item rather than a rival. Controlled, cold "predatory aggression" requires this ability to stand apart from the opponent as if he is a member of a lesser, prey species: with this mindset, the attendant and enjoyable hunting emotions can then emerge. The objectification of the opponent may help to suppress panic reactions and to keep attentional resources devoted to exploiting vulnerabilities and hitting targets, rather than to concerns for one's own safety or doubts.

Bar Fights, Sucker Punches, Fences

Many real-world fights occur because of an irrational escalation of commitment: threats, insults, humiliation, and aggressive physical postures ramp the situation to a point where a blow is thrown or, more commonly, first contact involves one individual shoving the other. Thus, the ability to remain on top of a situation and prepare for violence, but to do so from a non-provocative position, offers an advantage. In these real-world scenarios, violence is not a given: one needs to try to remain safe while trying to exploit diplomacy opportunities and talk the situation down (usually by psychological appeasement methods that allow the belligerent party to withdraw with his perceived honor intact).

The pubs and streets of the United Kingdom, particularly in the industrial North, have provided a rich laboratory for interpersonal conflicts of this type. As a result of the (sometimes nightly) selection pressure, the British combatives training community, with its base in doormen and bouncers who have to deal with these situations regularly, has historically led the way in terms of developing viable approaches to street-level conflict management. In the near future, I hope to be able to post some interviews with leading British and American practitioners and to allow them to share their thoughts in ways far more thorough and articulate than I ever could, but for now I will just touch briefly on one original piece of work that has provided a basic framework for many others to use and elaborate upon.

A leader of the movement towards more responsible, effective, and professional streetfighting capability has been Geoff Thompson. Thompson's approach, which mixes combat sports such as boxing and judo with realistic, emotionally-charged scenario exercises (adrenal stress training; to be discussed in more depth next time), amateur MMA bouts (so-called "Animal Days"), and penetrating, almost philosophical insights into human nature, has a flagship tool that he terms "The Fence."

(legendary British doorman Geoff Thompson is perhaps best known for his approach to mitigating the threat of the sucker puncher without resorting to a transparently obvious fighting position that could needlessly escalate a situation)

The Fence (and its many variations; some version of it has been adopted by almost every progressive "street work"-oriented fighting instructor) is essentially a way to manage the uncertainty present in many real-world social situations. Within these scenarios, the potential for sudden, explosive violence exists in a tension with the potential for peaceful de-escalation and resolution. Thompson does not want to provide the spark that ignites the violent fuel present, but at the same time he does not want to get hit with a surprise sucker punch, perhaps being knocked out immediately or perhaps having to wrestle with the startle-flinch problems we have been discussing.

His solution is a physical approach that combines many of the defensive aspects of a proper fighting stance without the provocative, aggressive vibe that a true fighting stance would give off. The Fence, if trained, provides a suitable platform for most of the techniques that one finds in boxing and Muay Thai; in fact, one of my coaches favors a palm-out, Fence-like fighting stance even under normal conditions.

Take it away, Geoff:

Just to tie this back to earlier discussions of Panksepp's emotional command systems and related behaviors: when Thompson mentions the tendency of many people, even trained individuals, to leave the proper "Fence" posture of control and preparation and to make large arm movements and posture, he is raising a real tension between two different aggression types.

As noted previously, territorial aggression, which is associated with the RAGE circuit, is frequently going to dominate in the type of emotional bar fight situation being discussed here. Someone typically feels disrespected, insulted, or otherwise threatened, particularly in regards to status or access to sex, and acts out in a dis-inhibited way (due to the presence of alcohol). You may recall that territorial aggression is experienced as unpleasant: it is a toxic emotion that wants immediate satisfaction (hence the RAGE network). It "wants" the opponent to back down, to display fear and respect; associated physical behaviors include posturing displays designed to make one look bigger (i.e., spreading the arms), a loud voice, shoving, threats.

In contrast, the predatory aggression of the SEEKING circuit is all about stalking and hunting. Researchers studying predatory animals will refer to it as the "quiet bite" because of the lack of a dramatic, unpleasant emotional display. This is an enjoyable experience and most predators are equipped with an algorithmic hunting formula---a blueprint for success ultimately rooted in the mathematics of Nature---that is employed again and again. I note that most top predators do not have reason to fear being physically hurt by their prey items, while a territorial situation between predators does raise the stakes in terms of immediate personal risk.

Before closing, I will simply mention a paradox that will be explored more fully in later posts. The best way to protect oneself is normally going to be a trained response built on a solid foundation of healthy intuitive reactions (assuming mental health is present, obviously). However, the best way to access trained responses may well be to objectify the adversary and view the scenario as a hunting experience, thus engaging the SEEKING system and allowing for an optimal psychological state.

This would serve to make the term "self-defense" an interesting one, as chance encounters between predator and prey become more difficult to classify if the prey item does not perceive the reality of what it is up against, feels confident, and makes the terrible mistake of entering into a fight with a creature armed with evolved traits to hunt and kill that particular prey.

Coming Soon: