On 23 September 2013, a 30-year-old man named Nikhom Thephakaysone was riding on a crowded commuter train in San Francisco. Surveillance video recorded the man drawing a large-frame pistol from his waistband or jacket pocket several times. He pointed the weapon across the aisle of the train directly at the man he would later shoot after exiting that train. At one point he even wiped his nose with his weapon hand while holding the pistol. Dozens of people were in that train car, many in close proximity to the shooter. No one saw him with the gun and as a result, a random innocent person is dead.
How can this possibly happen? It is arguably an extreme example of why so many crimes are successfully perpetrated every minute of every day. The first and often most difficult step to take in order to keep yourself and/or those around you safe is to learn the art of situational awareness. In a world of constant conflict between sheepdogs and wolves, the situationally unaware are the sheep. Colonel Jeff Cooper’s color-coded awareness scale called it being in condition “white.”
Whatever metaphor you wish to use, those who are not aware of their surroundings cannot take an active part in their own survival. The only reason they have not fallen prey to some vicious sociopath is because he has not chosen them … yet.
To be aware of your surroundings, not only do you have to look around you with some positive degree of regularity, but you also have to actually see what is around you and learn to recognize behavior that could represent a potential threat. To help accomplish this, there is a very simple formula to commit to memory.
Baseline + Anomaly = Decision.
Establishing a baseline and then detecting an anomaly are things most of us began doing in preschool with games like the one made popular by the Sesame Street song:
“One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong.
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?”
As you scan your surroundings in any given environment, you establish a baseline. The baseline, simply put, is what would be considered normal for a particular place, time, group, and/or general situation. That baseline includes, but is not limited to, personal behaviors and mannerisms, clothing, sounds, and objects. An anomaly may be something that should be somewhere, but isn’t.
The overall context of the environment is crucial to the establishment of the baseline. For example; someone who appears focused, quiet and still might be appropriate in the context of a church service. But at a rowdy sporting event, they would be the anomaly. A man bundled up and walking briskly in a heavy trench coat would be appropriate on a cold winter day, but in the summertime would be an obvious anomaly. When a panicked crowd is screaming and running in a single direction, the person who is calmly walking in a different direction is another obvious anomaly for anyone bothering to look.
Before you can begin to notice these things, you must actively look for them. Once you have found the anomaly, then you have to make a decision. The decision might simply be to watch the anomaly more closely and gather more information before making a final decision. The decision might be to run away. The decision might be to call 911. The decision might be to draw your legally carried firearm and take immediate action. Only you can make that decision, but if you don’t know that a decision needs to be made, you will be taken by surprise.
Earlier I made a reference to sheepdogs and wolves. Without going into too much detail, the wolves are always out there. They lurk in the shadows surrounding the sheep, waiting for the appropriate time to pounce. They tend to favor the weak, the small, the seemingly unprepared, or the one who has strayed from the herd. The sheepdogs are there to defend the sheep and themselves. The wolves favor the surprise attack. Becoming situationally aware makes you difficult to surprise, which means you are difficult to harm.
For the purpose of this article, I will limit baseline evaluations to human behavior. When we evaluate human behavior in an effort to detect the anomaly that indicates a potential threat, we have to pay attention to a person’s body language, which is controlled both consciously and subconsciously. Because the conscious mind is where most dishonest behaviors originate, the most honest behaviors are those that are subconscious.
How many times have you come face-to-face with someone you don’t like and whom you know does not like you, but you both smile for the sake of civility? Most adults have become skilled at lying with their facial expressions, learning to override the subconscious urge to wince, squint, or grimace, and to replace those urges with conscious smiles, raised eyebrows, or other deceptive expressions. Thus, facial expressions are the least trustworthy cue in a person’s body language.
For that reason, when evaluating body language, we look at a person’s hands to make certain that s/he is not an immediate threat, and then we evaluate from the feet, then to the legs, arms and hands (again), to the shoulders and finally the face. The face is last because that is where most of the deceptive body language takes place, but it can offer us some cues.
Many of the more honest, subconscious cues originate (at least in part) in the limbic system. That portion of the brain houses instincts that ensure survival. It is the center for strong emotions like rage, fear, hunger, and sexual drive. Limbic system responses are typically reflexive and instantaneous and do not involve the conscious brain. The fight, flight, or freeze response is also influenced by the limbic system. Therefore, cues that originate in this part of the brain are more genuine and more reliable as a threat assessment tool.
What are some of those subconscious behaviors that we should be looking for? One of the most common is what we call a “smuggling behavior.” When people are trying to hide something, whether on their person or elsewhere, they have a subconscious tendency to want to check on it to be sure it is still there and still concealed. The result is patting or touching the area of the body where the item is concealed, or walking with a stiff arm in an effort to hold on to the smuggled item. When the smuggled item is out of reach, the eyes will often dart to and from the area where the item is concealed. These behaviors are also common in people who carry concealed weapons legally. Becoming comfortable with your concealed weapon and aware of these subconscious indicators can prevent you from being picked out of the crowd by someone else who has good situational awareness. When I carry concealed, I do not want anyone to know until I decide that they need to know. Whether it is a good guy or a bad guy is irrelevant.
Another cue is the subconscious behavior that is the subject of this article. People who are hyper-aware are, whether they should be or not, an anomaly. Someone who is always looking around is likely either a sheepdog or a wolf. Both have the same goal in mind when they are scanning their environment: survival. But the reasoning for that awareness is starkly different between the two.
Hyper-focus is on the opposite side of the awareness spectrum. It is a behavior directly related to the predator-prey instinct. When a predator has committed himself to attacking his prey, he will often become hyper-focused on the target or mission, becoming oblivious to anything else in the environment. That is one reason we would look at a person’s face for cues. Strangers rarely make definitive, long-term eye contact. It is usually a quick glance with or without an acknowledgment. Eye contact of more than a second or two usually means the person has targeted you. Assuming the person isn’t an acquaintance, in a general sense they are likely a predator and you are the prey. That means they could be anything from a harmless but annoying salesman all the way up to a violent criminal, or anything in between. Whatever the reason, it is imperative that you detect the anomaly and make a decision.
The Four P’s
In conclusion, I would like to introduce you to my concept of the Four P’s of Situational Dynamics. They are:
Perceive. Process. Plan. Perform.
The first step is to perceive. You must not only look around you, but you must see what is around you and then process what you’ve seen. What does the information you perceive tell you in relation to the context of your environment? Establish the baseline and determine if there is an anomaly. The plan is the decision to act based on the processing. On a deeper level, the plan is also the pre-event training and practice that anyone who carries a concealed weapon should be doing on a regular basis. The last step is to perform the plan. Whether you decide to run, fight, or call the cavalry, you can do nothing until you are aware that you need to do something.