Guns and Gear

Emerson Combatives: Your Brain’s Bias For Normalcy Could Be Your Downfall

Ernest Emerson Contributor
Font Size:

What you see is not always what you get.

We all see the world through our own eyes. We all process what we see through the filters of our own life experience. So if something “abnormal” happens unexpectedly, we will all interpret that event according to our own reality construct. The easiest way to relate to this is the story of five witnesses to a crime. Some would say the perp was tall, some say short. Some say he had long hair, some say short hair. Some say he had a beard, some say he was clean-shaven. People even disagree on the color of the clothes the bad guy was wearing.

Here is an exercise I do in my martial arts classes. I ask the trainees to relax and shut their eyes. I ask them to visualize in their mind’s eye an attacker. Someone who is about to bring violence against them. I tell them to paint their picture in detail, noting the hair color, eye color, clothing, shoes. Everything you can see, just like you’re looking at a picture of that person as if you would possibly have to ID that person for police. I give them a couple of minutes and then I randomly pick a few of the trainees to tell me, or describe their photo. Almost always they describe the same archetypal villain, a big biker type, unshaven, roughly dressed, scars, tattoos, et cetera.

Then I ask, How many pictured a female? A teenager? A well-dressed businessman? Or a homeless guy dragging around a dead Christmas tree in July? All of these “types” have also attacked and/or killed someone.

So what we think is normal is not always reality, and what we think we see or hear is not always what we’ve really seen or heard.

Here’s another example. You’re in the mall shopping when you hear, pop, pop, pop, from somewhere inside. What is it? Ask people and some will say balloons breaking. Some will say firecrackers. Some will say they heard a car backfiring (in a mall?). But a Marine, just back from deployment in Afghanistan, will say this, “I heard gunfire.” His “normal” is not the same as the soccer mom who heard balloons popping.

Our brains work overtime to keep our internal world neat and tidy, nothing out of place – nothing abnormal. So when events take place that don’t fit into our “normal” our brain tries very hard to change a literal reality into something we would interpret as normal – the bias for normalcy.

Here’s another example. Take for instance a serial killer. When we hear the horrid details, we have all asked “How can someone do those things? What kind of person would do that to another person? I can’t understand it.” You’re right, you can’t understand it because you’re not a serial killer. You’re trying to take crazy and understand it through a non-crazy filter, your bias for normalcy. It doesn’t work because his “normal” is a whole lot different from yours. We have often heard this saying, “To catch a thief, you have to think like a thief.” Or, “To catch a killer, you have to think like a killer.” These are true statements. For most of us though, it’s just difficult to go there because it’s not who we are.

Here’s yet another example, and a big one that we are all now facing – Islamic extremist jihadi terrorists. When soldiers face this evil, feel its danger and see its aftermath, they develop an understanding of who it is, what it does, and how it operates. They see that evil for what it is, and realistically know how it works. Conversely, politicians and statesmen 11,000 miles away (along with most civilians), think we can reason with or just talk the bad guys out of their evil ways. In reality, we know that does not work. It hasn’t worked forever. The politicians and statesmen generally don’t understand that they are trying to force the evil jihadi “abnormal” into our interpretation through our own eyes, our collective view of what is normal. And it just doesn’t fit. But maybe we’re starting to get that.

So the old saying, “Know your enemy”, is more than just a cursory phrase. I think it comes to us from Sun Tzu in his book, The Art of War, written over 2,500 years ago. And it was as true then as it is now. But it’s deeper than just a literal interpretation of those words. Yes, you do need to know your enemy, how your enemy acts, what weapons he uses, when does he attack and the intended victims. More importantly what could make you a potential victim? But in order to really protect yourself and develop an ongoing strategical effort of personal safety for you and those you protect, you need to think like the enemy – the bad guy, the terrorist. When you start thinking things like, “How would I break into that house – or your own house?” Or “Where would I hide to attack someone in this parking lot?” Then you are starting to think like the enemy. I know that it can be a very scary, dark place to go for most of us, but it’s the only way to start to see the holes in your nice, safe, and “normal” world. It is only then that you can start to plug those holes. Some call it street smarts, but whatever its name, don’t try to fit abnormal into your normal world, because you will lose every time.

NEW- Click here to hear the new Emerson Podcast.

Ernest Emerson is the owner of Emerson Knives, Inc. He is a tier one Combatives instructor, Master at Arms, noted author and lecturer, Black Belt Hall of Fame member and a connoisseur of fine whiskey.

Click here to visit Mr. Emerson offers a 10% discount on his knives to Daily Caller readers. Use the discount code – tdc (all lower case). Click here to visit the Emerson Training Center.


Ernest Emerson