The Myth of Situational Awareness

Even the highest levels of situational awareness are not a defense against a surprise ambush attack.

Even the highest levels of situational awareness are not a defense against a surprise ambush attack.

Over the last several decades, it has been fashionable to teach defensive handgunning from the premise of “awareness.” From color codes to misinterpretations of Boyd’s OODA loop, the idea persists that awareness allows one to see a threat coming farther out and prepare to face it. This supposedly gives the defender time to deploy the competition and target-shooting techniques that are taught to go along with this artificial “awareness.”

I’m not at all convinced it works. At least, not as advertised.

Risk and Reward

Criminals are human, even when under the influence of illicit substances. While their decisions might seem irrational to us, the way in which they make those decisions—the actual neurological functions—are the same as ours. The fact that they’re predators with a human’s abilities is what makes them dangerous.

It doesn’t take education or socioeconomic status to be a human animal, with all the innate abilities that implies. Get the notion out of your mind that your superior intelligence is sufficient to outsmart a streetwise thug. He’s an expert at this—you’re not!

When looking for a victim, a criminal—like anyone else entering into a dangerous activity—is going to evaluate his personal risk versus the reward he’ll receive (what he’ll get from his victim). It may not be a conscious evaluation and he may not be able to articulate that he’s doing so, but that’s what he’s doing. In his case, it involves considering how valuable the target is compared to how much trouble it will be to extract that value.

One doesn’t have to be dressed in the latest Paris fashions and dripping with jewelry to be a high-value target. One’s value as a target can increase simply because of availability (one of a very few people in a largely empty parking garage or a lone jogger on a wooded trail). It can also increase by virtue of timing: the strung-out meth addict needs a fix now, which raises the value of anyone who happens by at that moment.

On the other side of the equation, risk to the attacker increases when witnesses are present and able to view/hear the altercation, law enforcement is close by or easily summoned, or the victim appears to be vigilant about his/her surroundings. Of course it increases if the victim is suitably armed, though if the intended target is legally carrying a concealed weapon, the perp may not know that.

“AH-HA!” you’re probably thinking, “Situational awareness works!”

Don’t be too hasty! Yes, vigilance or awareness or whatever you want to call it might reduce your victim profile by raising the apparent risk to the attacker. But if that’s the case, and situational awareness does lower one’s victimization chances, why am I so pessimistic about the concept?

The Awareness Fallacy

It’s because awareness is too often touted as a talisman against attack, and it’s used to justify training that doesn’t reflect the realities of criminal attacks. Being situationally aware doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to see your attack coming farther out. In fact, the opposite is more likely.

“Checking your six” will raise your profile, but won't give you advance notice of an attack.

“Checking your six” will raise your profile, but won’t give you advance notice of an attack.

Ever seen a movie or television show where someone is planning a jail break or burglary? They case the joint (usually at night), watching the guard patrol the area. They learn how long it takes the guard to make a complete circuit of the building, and just as he turns the corner, they make their move—secure in the knowledge that they have a predictable amount of time to work before he gets back.

This is the fallacy of situational awareness. You can “check your six” all you want, but if your attacker has determined you’re worth the increased risk, he’ll simply wait until your head starts to turn to the front again, and attack you from the rear. You’ll be ambushed because that’s the safest thing for him to do. He’s not going to stand 21 feet in front of you, knife in hand, and start running while your hands hover over the butt of your gun. He’ll wait until your attention is diverted and suddenly appear from your blind side.

Situational awareness doesn’t reduce your need to prepare for that ambush attack! An ambush, by its very nature, happens when you are least expecting it. Everyone, no matter how aware of their surroundings, has moments (lots of them) when their guard is down. Even if it’s only for a second or two, that’s all an attacker needs once he’s decided on his target. He’s not going to attack you while you’re looking at him—he’s going to wait until you’re not looking and then strike!

Don’t make the mistake of assuming the criminal is going to engage in a protracted surveillance of his target, giving you time to spot him. His assessment can happen in a matter of seconds, because an experienced perp uses the same kind of apperceptive pattern matching and recall that you do when you perform a task that you’re good at. That’s what makes him an expert at what he does, and it’s why he’s so dangerous.

What’s the Best Preparation?

This is the Catch-22: if you’re not aware of your surroundings, you’ll be more attractive to criminals and more likely to be caught off guard. Every attack will be an ambush to you. On the other hand, if you have a very high level of situational awareness, it’s more likely that the attack you do experience will be of the violent, ambush variety—because he’s going to wait until your attention is diverted just long enough to strike.

If your target value is high enough, the attacker will simply wait for the right time to strike.

If your target value is high enough, the attacker will simply wait for the right time to strike.

Regardless of your level of awareness at the time, the attack is likely to be close, fast and violent. That kind of attack—the ambush—is what you need to prepare and train for! Situational awareness advocates usually miss this point, because color codes and OODA loops and all that other stuff are used to justify training that doesn’t reflect this gritty reality.

The most productive thing you can do is incorporate counter-ambush methodology into your training, whether it be armed or unarmed. Counter-ambush methodology looks at the realities of surprise attacks, then considers the body’s natural reactions to those attacks, and from that derives the techniques that will be of most use when you don’t know the attack is coming.

A training regimen that ignores how these attacks go down is of little use. If you don’t understand that criminals rarely signal their intent ahead of time, you’ll end up spending precious training resources in irrelevant drills of the “21-foot rule.” If you don’t understand that ambulatory conjoined twin criminals are non-existent, you’ll waste time and effort performing unrealistic, choreographed “multiple target engagement” drills.

Perhaps more importantly, a counter-ambush strategy understands that the body reacts very differently to a surprise threat than to one which is even slightly anticipated. This isn’t “shooting under stress.” It’s the realization that the body has very specific natural responses to a threat stimulus that go well beyond the simple anxiety of the firing line. It takes those natural reactions into account in both what is taught and how it’s taught.

It's unlikely that a predator will stand 21 feet away and give you time to respond.

It’s unlikely that a predator will stand 21 feet away and give you time to respond.

Successful counter-ambush methodology puts all this together to come up with a training regimen that prepares the good guy for the completely unanticipated need to engage a lethal threat. If it involves any sort of assumption that you’ll know the time, place, or nature of the attack ahead of time, it’s not counter-ambush training!

Is There a Place For Awareness?

None of this means that situational awareness is useless. Properly understood, it can alter the criminal’s risk-reward assessment in your favor. It might reduce the number of potential attackers simply because not all of them will be sufficiently expert enough to work around your alertness. What it probably won’t do is give you advance notice, nor lessen the severity, of their attack. As we’ve explored, the opposite is probably true.

Change the risk/reward equation. Make yourself look like a hard target by cultivating an appearance of readiness, then back it up with learning good counter-ambush techniques for the time when awareness just isn’t enough.

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35 Responses to “The Myth of Situational Awareness”

  1. Gary

    Nice job of stirring the pot. It does not hurt to poke at sacred cows to make us consider the reality of life. We need to be aware, it will HELP keep us out of trouble but it is not a guarantee. Why not work at dealing with the unanticipated. Can't be over- prepared.

  2. Christopher

    It seems to me ole Bob is not arguing with Grant Cunningham himself, but with an imagined and wished for Grant Cunningham.

  3. Victor

    Glad the author didn't completely try to throw out situational awareness. As a Texas Police Office of MANY years in an inner city substation I can GUARANTEE that situational awareness is vital! However, most people only THINK they are practicing proper situational awareness. Also, the author is right that if the attacker is INTENT on a specific victim, SA plays a smaller role. However, I have seen many times that the attacker chose a presented opportunity, rather than a specific victim. With this in mind, situational awareness is VERY important. As is environmental awareness. Some good info here, but don't ever assume that you can't avoid a problem with SA. The best fight is one that you avoid. Period. In any street fight I've even encountered or been a part of (and that would be plenty) there are no true "winners". You might be standing at the end, but "winning" isn't a good definition in this case. Everyone loses a little bit in a fight, some more than others. When you can, avoid. When you can't be prepared, aware, and ready.

  4. Steve

    I have been a budoka for over 40 years and have spent the majority of that time living in ghetto areas and working security as a bouncer and a bodyguard. I am a 4th Dan in Oh Do Kwan Taekwondo, and hold multiple black, red and brown belts in a variety of other Japanese and Korean arts. All this said I highly reccomend immersion in Target Focus Training. It is the best system I have ever encountered for an average Joe, or a seasoned martial artist to master quickly real skills, both physically and mentally to deal with asocial street violence. Street violence is not rocket science. The masters are mostly sickly drug addicted illiterate crack heads who never trained in anything, but have zero resistance to doing to you whatsver it takes to get what they want. Situational awareness is critcal. You also need to learn how to think and act like a predator when needed.

  5. Jack

    Not a very practical or sophisticated analysis.

  6. Sandy

    Your opinions about "safety" and "situational awareness" are predicated in fantasy, you live in a television reality which is nothing like the real world. No offense.

  7. Robert

    Well said

  8. GrantCunningham

    Bob - you really need to actually read the article. I used the word "myth" specifically to evoke the reaction you've had. Never do I say that situational awareness is a bad thing; what I said is that it isn't the panacea people hold it out to be, and by itself won't keep you safe. I could follow you for less than an hour and find countless instances when you are preoccupied with something other than what is around you, instances that are long enough that you could become a victim. It's not just you, it's me and everyone else. We have lives to live, and because of that we sometimes pay more attention to certain things than to other things. I was at dinner last night with three other defensive shooting instructors, one of whom is extremely well known. During the time that I was reading the menu I wasn't really aware of my surroundings. Oh, I looked up occasionally, but when I was actually reading the words which formed the descriptions of the dishes my attention was diverted long enough that someone could have burst in the door and shot all of us. The others did exactly the same thing. It couldn't have been any other way; I could have either paid attention to what I was reading, or to the door - BUT NOT BOTH AT THE SAME MOMENT. There were long moments that I chose to pay attention to the food or to my companions, because I was there to enjoy a meal with friends and colleagues. If not, why would I have bothered to leave my house? The difference between us is that I don't pretend about this stuff. Yes, I was aware of my surroundings - in between the times I was aware of the food and the conversation. When you're looking at the menu trying to decide between fries and onion rings, you're not aware either. "Head on a swivel", "condition yellow", and all the other trite nonsense aside, there are lots and lots of times every waking hour of every day when you are most assuredly NOT situationally aware. It's those times for which you really need to be prepared, because that's when you are most vulnerable (and bad guys do pay attention to those things.) Is situational awareness a good thing? Yes, it certainly is. But it's not all it's cracked up to be, it's surrounded by myth and hyperbole, and if you're serious about your self defense you need to acknowledge that. Anything else is make-believe.

  9. Bob

    Fro crying out loud...This is the dumbest article I've ever read. Why would you even use the word "myth" in the title? If this is in fact a myth are you implying that it's somehow BETTER to be totally clueless to what's going on around you? If you're getting gas and you see someone sketchy nearby or approaching, is in not safer to get in the car and drive off? Are soldiers at war not aware of their surroundings? Are police not practicing situational awareness every time they patrol? It's unbelievably responsible to publish articles like this. Not everyone is going to take a self-defense class or receive specialized training but EVERYONE can be aware of what's going on around them. Being aware may not thwart every attempt but it's definitely a great start and it gives you at least a fighting chance.

  10. smurray

    I agree completely that learning the typical modes of assault and how to deal with them is critical to any self defense program. I also agree that one needs to understand how the body "naturally" responds to assault, adrenaline, etc., in the formation of responsive training and tactics. However, I think the article's comments regarding the value of awareness (or the lack thereof) are dangerously flawed. Perhaps even irresponsibly so. The reality is that the vast majority of assaults are crimes of opportunity. The victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time and thereby made himself (or herself) an attractive target to the wrong people. In most cases, the victim wasn't aware of the danger he was in until it was too late to resolve it. This is primarily a function of self- and situational-awareness (or as we used to put it before all of the clever phrases, just "having a clue"). Being aware of yourself, your weaknesses, your surroundings, the people around you, etc., is critical to being able to anticipate likely danger and reduce the threat. The threat is obviously not reduced simply by being aware, but by *acting* immediately on that awareness. It is false to say that criminals do not signal their intent ahead of time. Certainly they do not intend to, but they actually do give off multiple signals in the minutes or seconds leading up to an attack. It is involuntary, and only a pro can suppress them. An observant person can detect these -- I have, myself -- and assault victims often recount specific behavioral things that they should have interpreted as cues of an attack, when they instead tried to rationalize them. It is also false to say that you cannot prepare (or train) for an ambush (which is the usual mode of assault). Common assault almost always takes one of two forms. Both are easily simulated and can be addressed in training and are avoidable without significant lifestyle or social changes. This doesn't guarantee that one is going to prevail (which is unlikely in any assault scenario) but it can increase the chances. Of course, there is also a VERY small minority of crimes that are not crimes of opportunity. These are the ones where the predator carefully researched you, stalked you, and waited for the perfect moment to strike. Again, awareness is critical in such a situation, and only by being keenly observant does one have a chance to detect such behavior by a clever predator, and therefore have any chance of pre-emptively addressing the matter. I'm not sure that there is a good chance of avoiding or prevailing against such a predator, irrespective of one's training. In other words, if someone has specifically picked you out and decided to kill you -- a highly unlikely scenario -- and is intelligent and resourceful enough to carry this out without significant risk to himself, you are going to end up dead, irrespective of your training. There is little point in training for something that (1) is highly unlikely, and (2) in which the training is unlikely to make any difference. I agree that people should seek training to deal with "close encounters," but the first and best approach of all is to avoid such encounters at all costs. This can only be done effectively if you are aware of the circumstances that typically lead to such encounters, avoid them, and are aware of when you have mistakenly inserted yourself into such situations. ... and I do teach Rex Kwon Do.