Emotional Components of Knife Defense, Part 1

knife defense

Why do people fear knives more than guns?
Photo: author

When I teach my defensive knife courses, at least one student always says, “I’d rather defend against a handgun than a knife. Knives scare me more than guns!”

I’m sure you have also heard it and perhaps have even said it yourself. The perception that knives are more intimidating than guns appears to be common. It intrigues me because it clearly influences the students’ mindset, which in turn reduces their ability to defend themselves effectively.

Self-defense programs, especially those that incorporate weapons, must be designed to develop the appropriate mindset and resolve in the student so the tactics can be applied decisively. When students are taught tactics alone, disregarding the psychological aspect of defending against and using a weapon, the exercise is futile and sets the students up for failure. As an instructor, I feel a strong responsibility to research the fear-based response to knives so I can help my students manage that fear successfully and become better able to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Fear can have a positive effect on our survival. Unfortunately, if we cannot manage it, it devolves into anxiety and panic. Panic, on the other hand, has a detrimental effect on our survival because it causes wildly irrational thinking and behavior. The more clearly the students understand and articulate the origins of their fear of knives, the less this fear will be able to control them.

In this three-part article, I will share the research I’ve conducted on the emotional components of knife defense, my understanding of why most people seem to fear knives more than guns, and how to change this mindset through training. While reviewing this information, be aware that it is not meant as the final word on the subject, but rather as a starting point for further research and discussion. I hope you will find it helpful.

knife stab

Knife defense training should help students understand their fear of knives. Photo: author

If you are a student of self-defense and train with both knives and firearms, you are probably aware that a handgun is a far more efficient tool than a knife:

  • Handguns can deliver a lot of damage in a very short time, with little physical exertion.
  • Bullets generally create more physiological trauma than knives. For example, 68% of victims stabbed in the heart survive, while only 14% survive being shot in the heart (The Pathology of Trauma, J.K. Mason and B.N. Purdue, 2000).
  • Handguns can be used outside of contact distance, where it is much more difficult to defend against being shot. Have you seen any instructional videos on gun disarms during which the attacker holds the gun more than two feet away from the defender? I would venture to guess you have not.
  • Handguns produce small explosions, with loud noises and flames, and launch very fast projectiles, all things that we instinctively fear and want to avoid.

Yet, on an emotional level, to most students the thought of a blade coming toward them trumps all that!

The question is: Why?

Below, I present several hypotheses that have been formulated about this phenomenon. I explore each hypothesis and provide thoughts and expert opinion.

Hypothesis 1: Survival Instinct Bias

If we look at the fear of knives from a survival instinct perspective, our response to the danger of a knife attack is likely embedded in our genes from millennia of natural selection. Knife defense is not a new phenomenon. Human beings have defended against blunt objects, sharp objects, and blades for far longer than they have had the need to defend against firearms. The first recognized edged tools were developed during the Stone Age, approximately 2.5 million years ago, when people began to fashion simple hunting tools from flint and obsidian.

Firearms, on the other hand, have only existed for a few centuries. Could this be the reason most people have a much stronger aversion to knives?

self defense tools

It doesn’t matter the weapon — our limbic system reacts to all of them in the same way. Photo: author

I have to admit that this line of reasoning made sense to me until I read an email conversation between Rob Pincus and Dr. David Geary (The Origin of Mind, Author 2005) that Rob shared in his book Combat Focus Shooting: Evolution 2010 (p. 87). In short, recent research shows us that once the brain learns to recognize the firearm as dangerous to our survival, the limbic system reacts to it just like it would to other dangerous stimuli. The brain does not significantly differentiate between evolved and learned dangerous stimuli.

Takeaways

  • Our instinctive reactions upon being threatened by a gun or a knife are the same.
  • Our emotional reaction can be very different in intensity. The bias is emotional, not instinctive.

Hypothesis 2: Prior Experience

Another factor that may affect a person’s response to a knife threat is a widespread familiarity with the amount of damage a blade can inflict. People use knives every day for a variety of tasks and are aware of their capabilities. Most people have cut themselves by accident while cutting vegetables for dinner or opening a well-sealed package. We are familiar with the effect a blade has on flesh, not only cognitively, such as for the imagined effect of getting shot, but on a more intimate and emotional level. When you last cut your hand, do you remember the sound the knife edge made on your flesh — no matter how big or small the cut — the warm, bright blood, the stitches, and the pain? Yes? You are not alone: most people hold onto such memories, likely because of the value of avoiding the danger in the future.

This idea gained more traction after I read an article by Dr. Karl Albrecht entitled “The (Only) 5 Fears We All Share” (Psychology Today, March 2012). Dr. Albrecht makes some interesting points that are pertinent to our discussion:

  • He describes fear as an anxious feeling caused by our anticipation of some imagined event or experience (experience = memory).
  • He explains fear of mutilation, one of the five fears common to all human beings: “the fear of losing any part of our precious bodily structure; the thought of having our body’s boundaries invaded…”

I propose that the fear of mutilation provides no major distinctions between the fear of getting shot and the fear of getting cut or stabbed. Interestingly, Dr. Albrecht discusses President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He explains that the idea of fearing our fears becomes less strange when we realize that many of our avoidance reactions are in response to the memories of fear.

Takeaways

  • Most people are more familiar with the damage a blade can do and have a memory (experience) of getting cut, while they are not likely to have a memory of getting shot.
  • This important distinction may play a role in the difference of our fear response to the knife.

knife training

Students’ memories of being cut with a knife rise to the surface during knife defense training.
Photo: author

So Far So Good, Or So I Thought!

One day I was discussing some of these ideas with a friend who, in the course of his long career as a Special Forces soldier and armed professional, had been shot and stabbed multiple times on separate occasions. Although the physical damage from his gunshot wounds was, on average, much more severe than the damage he received from his knife wounds, he confided that he too was more afraid of the knife than the gun. He actually gets uncomfortable around knives, even when people at his work grab their pocket knife to carry out any mundane tasks. He gets a strong emotional reaction with increased heart rate and hypervigilance. Yet he still trains regularly with firearms, both on his own and with other students, with no adverse emotional reaction.

Here is a guy who has fear memories both of getting shot and getting stabbed. He understands that gunshots are generally harder to survive than knife wounds … and he still fears the blade more. He’s not alone in this. I’ve talked with a few other individuals with similar backgrounds and experiences, and most share his emotions. Although these individuals are too few to gain meaningful conclusion from, their experience makes me wonder what else influences our fear of the knife.

Hypothesis 3: The Knife Is Personal

Something else that piqued my curiosity was the fact that once the class progresses to where the students start to apply on a training partner the knife defense tactics they have learned, nervous laughter can be heard, and something along the lines of “Gross! I’d rather use a gun to defend myself than a knife” is another oft-repeated phrase.

At first, this statement seem at odds with “I’d rather defend against a handgun than a knife. Knives scare me more than guns!” After all, if someone deems a certain weapon more dangerous, why wouldn’t they want to use it to defend themselves?

But when you analyze the two statements more in depth, you realize they stem from the same emotional issues. The blade is a much more intimate tool than the gun. It is used at contact distance. It’s messy and bloody, the very definition of gruesome. As such, the thought of defending against it inspires more fear, and the thought of using it on another human being elicits more revulsion. For our purposes, it is imperative to understand the origin of this revulsion to using a knife on a fellow human being.

It is a well-known fact that most people have an innate reticence toward hurting and killing other human beings. There are a few evolutionary biology theories about this, with the common denominator being that since we have a better chance to survive and procreate when we are part of a group, we needed an innate set of emotional responses that would help us manage our aggressive behavior and inhibit our violent tendencies to better fit in with our family, tribe, society.

“Evolution dealt with this species-threatening conflict between our violence and our close-knit social life by building guilt, shame, and anxiety into our genes. These inhibiting emotions were needed prehistorically to control our self-assertiveness and aggression within intimate family and clan relationships.” (Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions, Peter R. Breggin, M.D., 2014)

In his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning To Kill in War and Society, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman writes at length about this widespread resistance to killing and analyzes the psychological differences between killing at different ranges:

“The link between distance and ease of aggression is not a new discovery. It has long been understood that there is a direct relationship between the emphatic and physical proximity of the victim and the resulting difficulty and trauma of the kill.”

And with different tools:

knife penetration

A knife attack is serious business. Photo: author

“The second corollary to the distance relationship is that it is far easier to deliver a slashing or hacking blow than a piercing blow. To pierce is to penetrate, while to slash is to sidestep or deny the objective of piercing into the enemy’s essence. For a bayonet-, spear-, or sword-armed soldier, his weapon becomes a natural extension of his body — an appendage. And the piercing of the enemy’s body with this appendage is an act with some of the sexual connotations we will see in hand-to-hand combat range. To reach out and penetrate the enemy’s flesh and thrust a portion of ourselves into his vitals is deeply akin to the sexual act, yet deadly, and is therefore strongly repulsive to us.”

Incidentally, modern homicide statistics seem to support this notion by showing that when these inhibitions are absent, as in people with marked sociopathic and psychopathic characteristics, the opposite behavior is true: “Multiple stabbing occurs significantly more frequently in sex-related homicides than in other homicide types.” (Naftali Berrill, Forensic Psychologist)

About the use of a knife during combat, Lt. Col. Grossman explains that “As we bring the physical distance spectrum down to its culmination point, we must recognize that killing with a knife is significantly more difficult than killing with the bayonet affixed to the end of a rifle.”

Takeaways

  • The average human being has a strong innate resistance to hurting and killing a fellow human being. This resistance increases as distance decreases. It increases further when we add a contact weapon and further still with the modality of the strike: slash vs. stab.
  • The intimate brutality and gruesomeness of a knife attack are likely the main reasons for our more intense fear response to the blade.

Conclusions

It seems that this disproportionate fear of the knife is based on an emotional bias fueled by familiarity with the tool, prior negative experiences with its capability, and our innate emotional and psychological responses to hurting other people or being hurt, which are exacerbated by close distances and by using a blade.

Interesting. But knowledge alone, without a way for it to influence our training methodology, is pretty useless.

In Part 2, we’ll look at how to successfully integrate this knowledge into our knife defense training program in order to mitigate these detrimental effects to our ability to defend ourselves as efficiently as possible.

Posted by Alessandro Padovani

Discussion
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39 Responses to “Emotional Components of Knife Defense, Part 1”
  1. Paula meyers

    I just finished Craig Douglasses edged weapon overview and I would say you hit the nail on the coffin In the course recap afterwards, I mentioned the same thing and how I wanted to include in my thought process the psychological barrier of actually stabbing somebody.

    Reply
  2. Steve Raymond

    You generally see a gun as a distance killer. Distance equals chance. With a knife, it all happens in your space and quietly. I would tend to fear the silent surprise.

    Reply
  3. Irondoor

    This goes a long way to explaining the ease of intimidation of a person who is confronted on the street by a perpetrator with a knife. He is probably up close, since most people are not intimidated by a knife from 20 ft away. Secondly, an attacker who is mentally deranged may have had that part of his psychological system that causes revulsion by the use of the knife “turned off” by his mental state. That is the person we most fear, the one who has no compunction to stabbing us with the knife up close and personal.

    Reply
  4. Ken Carver

    A long time resident/survivor of the ghetto was asked, “Are you more afraid of a gun (pistol) or a knife?” His immediate answer, “A knife. A gun might snap (misfire). A knife won’t snap.” I imagine a lot of people share his perspective.

    Reply
  5. Larry Kelly

    My fear is that u don’t have to reload a knife. I myself have a knife because I know how to use it (better than the average person). In my line of work I always expect the worst and hope for the best. So chances are if my assailant has a knife he/she knows how to use it.

    Reply
  6. Don

    A knife is alot easier to obtain, its easily hidden, and quiet. and in the wrong hands all it takes is one small incision in the right place and it is all over. I have been wounded by both, and the knife is far more common than running across a nutcase with a gun. I have also notice people are far more likely to use a knife on you than a gun. seeing as almost every convenience store in the country sells knife’s, i would be spending a little more time on learning how to defend against the blade. that is just my opinion… get stabbed four or five good times, and then shot see which one you remember most. For me the knife stands out in my memory, the look of someone actively trying to take your life, the way thier eyes look… dark and dull, you remember that.

    Reply
  7. Bart Benjamin

    Very interesting reading. I look forward to receiving other emails sharing factual information to benefit my ability to defend myself and protect others.

    Reply
  8. Robert

    I’m a security officer..in training we were taught if someone comes at you within 25ft you are going to get cut before you can draw your weapon and fire

    Reply
  9. Steven

    We must consider that there is a inverse correlation to fear of gun and fear of knife in consideration of the tool. What do I fear more? A knife attack or an attack with a gun? This question may not be enough in detail to assist us with an understanding of the fear. For example most of us probably internalize within the question that a gun is far away and a knife is right there about to penetrate our skin and flight is not an option, fear overwhelms because now, how do we defend without getting sliced at every stab, and every slice, hurting badly. Possible more stabs than a gun has bullets. We might even perceive that getting shot will not necessarily hurt as much as having a knife slice off a body part, rip nerves and tendons, etc.

    Maybe to ask the question as to which is most feared, is do you fear a gun pointed at you (attack with a gun) when the attacker is 4′ away, or more so the knife attacker at the same distance? Then gun vs. knife ration may change but I think the knife may still be the most feared (unscientific assumption).

    Regardless, once we put the attacker at 4′ away, gun or knife, we can then begin to address the defense of each with the aim to increase the capability to remove ourselves from the situation and hopefully replace a ‘frozen in fear’ response to an awareness and, fight and flight response.

    Looking forward to Part 2.

    Reply
  10. mgkoenig

    I think that the biggest fear of a knife fight versus a gun fight is the perceived time interval of both. A gunshot (as shown in the movies) ends quickly – the person gets shot and drops. A knife fight can last considerably longer, with numerous painful wounds being inflicted as the opponents dodge and parry back and forth.

    Just my two cents…

    Reply
    • Richard

      mgkoenig your 2 cents are a very learned opinion. Security survaliance video of knife attacks often depict the attacker enganged in ‘energizer bunny’ frenzy striking rapid and numerous blows, rather than the single stab of entertainment media. PSTD accounts described of armored cladancient warriors deploying edged weapons often relates that while in such combat the survivors often clenched and ground their teeth to self inflict severe oral injury and loosen and lose teeth while so engaged.

      Reply
  11. Henri Grobler

    I must agree, if you attack someone using a knife it is more of a personal thing. Shooting someone is more like a hunting experience. You feel more remorse when using a knife at close range than using a gun at long range.

    Reply
  12. ray

    It is the intimacy of knifing someone or of being knifed that is repulsive and generates fear of the knife or any weapon we may use to destroy flesh. Guns, even at very close range are much more impersonal.

    Reply
    • John

      Knives also are “always loaded” whereas a gun may or may not be.

      Reply
  13. simon151

    very interesting topic. This is one of the items we’ve all thought about but never discuss. Another interesting question is why are we not squeamish about butchering an animal but this idea of butchering a person is much more emotional. Maybe Hypothesis #2 & #3 touches on this but I think there is a bit more to it.
    If you go to the Knife Defense section in Videos there are several videos with Michael Janich. Block off about 30 min and watch them all. Then go back and watch them again. Wait about a week and then watch them again. We can be conditioned for certain responses. These videos are great (some of the best content on PDN). Michael Janich has clearly dealt with the issues of cutting another person. The first time you watch these videos you my flinch a bit in your seat but as he takes you through the training you get more comfortable with the ideas. By the end of watching these videos (3) times your mind should have it clear that you are not hacking your way through a human body but simply creating time and space between you and an attacker. Also he helps create a distinction between cutting yourself in the kitchen and fighting for your life. Oh BTW, you’ll also learn some basic knife techniques that could save your life.

    Reply
    • Alessandro Padovani

      Actually I find that watching You tube videos of a
      knife attacks and googling images of knife wounds is a better way to desensitize yourself to using a knife.

      Reply
  14. Robert Benson

    We won’t see the the isis cowards coming after everyone with a knife. This is why, they really are cowards. Marter or not they fear death as well…….

    Reply
  15. Tom Gillis

    that was a very good article. It went in a totally different direction than I anticipated. I loved the format with the “take aways” summary at the end of each point

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi, Rick. The poster, Alessandro Padovani is also the author.

      Reply
  16. Ian

    Thank you for this article. I live in a nanny state where defending myself with a gun is not really a legal option, but knife fighting is a very real possibility even the law greatly restricts one’s use and possession of one. I really appreciate material like this which is not firearm centric even though I am interested in guns.

    Reply
  17. Harvey

    Nice article and I realize we are talking about defending ourselves from a knife attack. But something I have observed I would like to bring up is, the fear of a gun verses a knife for the average person who does not carry. I carry a Kershaw all the time. I can pull that out anytime and get no reaction from anybody. But if you ask those same people how they would feel about someone wearing a gun they have the opposite reaction (fear!). It’s like they think the gun is going to jump out of the holster and shoot them. Just something I’ve observed through casual conversation.

    Reply
  18. Don

    Killing is difficult. Period. In my military service and law enforcement training I have received, I have conditioned my mind to be able to do so. But butchering turkeys that I raised with a blade, gave me a revealing look into my soul. Shooting a deer with a gun is much easier for me.

    Reply
  19. Dennis Marken

    Great article. I have been training with edge weapons for decades. As your article states when working with students the edge weapon does bring additional fear. Police do not do will around edge weapons. I only see the edge weapon being used in close quarters combat or when one has been overpowered and needs to break free. A perfect example was when I trained with some UFC ground fighters. After training with them for a few weeks I asked to introduce my ideas of how to break away from some of their ground work. They agreed but when I applied edge weapons explaining how cutting a certain tendon etc would break their hold they freaked out because I introduced the knife. Yep you got it! As your article stated; the fear was more than they could handle and I was asked to leave. Just for the record, the edge weapons I train with is a LAST RESORT!! Run or gun first and second.

    Reply
  20. Frank Witter

    As a long time instructor of self defense theory and practices, I have often used and believe “If you take a knife to a knife fight, you WILL get cut. If you take a gun to a gun fight you MIGHT get shot.” For example, the gunfights that have taken place at relatively short distance (10 to 20 feet) where multiple shots were fired by both sides, yet no one was hit. Most gun assailants are not trained gunfighters and so go to the “spray and pray” method rather than use aimed, controlled fire. At the short, by necessity, distance of knife fighting even the flailing, untrained user can inflict great damage. Additionally, I ascribe to the statement “If you are not there, they can’t hurt you.” Distance is a great self-defense.

    Reply
  21. Stan Atkins

    The Joker said the reason he uses knives is because it is more personal and he can feel the life leaving the victim.

    Reply
  22. A.X. Perez

    I noticed some years ago that it seemed in my hometown that more people were beaten or stabbed to death than shot dead ( not really so, but we do have a higher percentage of contact killings than shootings.). It’s as if though people hesitated to kill unless they meant it from the heart. Perhaps people have a hard time accepting that someone is angry enough or hates them enough to come in close and personal to cut them.

    Reply
  23. Boaz

    Years ago I was attacked by three men armed with double edged OTF switchbaldes and I’ll tell you first hand it’s an awful, sinking feeling when you realize what’s happening and there’s no diffusing the situation at that point. Thankfully I already had experience with violence. My best advice would be to stay back and make your assailant come to you. When the time comes strike hard and low. I was able to disarm the lead guy and sever his abdominal wall albeit at the cost of several tendons, nerves, and an artery in my left hand. I was a semi professional guitarist at the time. The wound was so horrific that it psychologically defeated the other two attackers and I was able to make it to a hospital a couple pints low. I can’t stress it enough, strike low. Hands typically go up in a fight and there’s no prize for second place.

    Reply
  24. richard rossetto

    Read all of every ones responses, and the best one was from Boaz. Personal experience trumps perceived actions any day.
    I thank you for your sharing of such a personal experience. And so glad you survived.

    3 years ago I was walking out of a Mall and right into a small gang dispute (4 on one side of lot and 6 on the other)
    Funny both sides stopped everything and were looking at me. My hand went under my shirt to my pistol but stayed there covered by my shirt, I kept my composure and nodded first to one side and then to the other to both gangs. they just looked at me and I continued walking, not even a comment from either side.
    The Police arrived just as I was getting into my car.

    Moral of story: Never, Ever NOT be aware of your surroundings and #2 STAY CALM

    Reply
  25. Will

    Good points. I conceal carry when I can, but my job precludes this. I can and do always carry a knife however. Perhaps, a bit of topic, but important nevertheless. Get a good locking knife if you chose to carry. I had a cheap one fold back on my hand while using it against a criminal in a fight. Also practice opening it a lot. When the moment comes to use it, you will be glad you did. Good discussion, and I really like the knife defense videos.

    Reply
  26. Lobo

    Excellent read. Very valuable and has changed my perspective on the blade. As a marital artist I will be incorporating edge weapons into my profile.

    Reply