Hick’s Law – Reaction Time in Combat

Myths and Misunderstandings in Martial Training
Hick's Law – Reaction Time in Combat
Or, How Modern Research Challenges the Value of the 70-Plus-Year-Old Hick's Law!"

     Remember when saying, "I'll be there in a second!" meant that you would be there very fast? A second is a very fast and elusive time. Now imagine milliseconds. Can you? I have trouble doing so, grasping the length of milliseconds. Did you know there are 1,000 milliseconds splitting one second? Can you imagine that split? ONE THOUSAND! UCLA researchers state that an eye blinks in about 100 milliseconds. That’s an eye blick! How fast can you go? How fast can you get?  
     In fighting and in sports, we all know "action beats reaction" If you are reacting to an attack, as the good guys generally are, you are already behind the action curve. Just how behind is your response? Or any mental, then physical response to anything? 
     Scientists have labored to discover this over the last 100 years? Like splitting the atom, scientists have split the single second into those one thousand parts. Then, you know scientists and quantum physics and stuff, and…well, they needed things cut down again, to nanoseconds. Whew! One second is equal to 1000000000 nanoseconds. 
     But, we usually find seconds discussed for "common man lingo," and milliseconds discussed by the not so common folk, and those being dramatic and poetic. Once in a while milliseconds gets a mention when discussing rave cars, the Olympics and car or horse races. 

     "She lost by 44 milliseconds!" 

     Wow! And we wonder what infinitesimal event occurred during the race that lost her a 44-millisecond lead. A small breeze at the turn of lap 5? A muscle twitch? One careless thought? Olympic athletes have complained about the seams on their uniforms slowing them a costly few milliseconds down . A butterfly's wing flutter 50 feet above? What? How fast can we go? How fast can we think? How fast can we react anyway?
     But it was about 30 years ago in the late 1980s when I attended a police defensive tactics course and I was rather insulted by the attitude of the P.P.C.T. instructor. We were treated like Neanderthals. He declared, 

     “KISS! Keep it simple, stupid. Hick's Law says that it takes your mind too long to choose between two tactics. Worse with three! Four? Forget it! Therefore, I will show you only one response." 

    Huh? I wondered then and there–am I to stay this simple and stupid my whole life? Who is this Hicks anyway, and what is his law? It takes too long to know three things? How long was long? How long is TOO long, I wondered? 
     That training day, we learned one block versus a high punch. What about against a low punch, I thought? My one high block fails to cover much else but that one high attack.   
     Plus, this was contrary to ALL sports, martial arts, military, and police training I'd received up to that point. I first thought this statement a quirk; then I began to see the message spread. It seemed my choices were on some sort of mental Rolodex that I had to laboriously thumb through and inspect to find a single response? All while being beaten or slaughtered. This didnt match the kick boxing I was doing in karate.

     Later that evening while coaching my son's little league baseball team, I saw this very same police instructor coaching his boy's team on another ball field. He was teaching 10-year-olds to multi-task and make split-second decisions as his infielders worked double plays with runners on base, and various other situations. It was clear the coach expected more from these kids than he did from us adult cops that morning. Hick's Law was not to be found on that kid's baseball diamond. He could not make the connection? The perfomance connection?
     Intrigued, next I slid both feet into this base thing called Hick's Law to discover it was a growing favorite among law enforcement trainers. Other famous police trainers kept mentioning Hick's Law too:

     “… selection time gets compounded exponentially when a person has to select from several choices.”
      "… it takes 58 percent more time to pick between two choices." (add that up exponentially and you have a slow motion world.
     “… it takes 'about a second' to pick one tactic out of two tactics.”
     “… lag time increases significantly with the greater number of techniques.”
      "…tests have shown that when an individual has too many choices the result can be that they make no choice at all."  

      Six or more choices really runs the response time numbers up then huh?! Four hundred milliseconds to choose or two, four, or even six seconds to Rolodex through all of them? Remember the police trainer's quote of "about a second per choice?" 
     Let's go back to the ol' ball game. We expect a common shortstop in baseball to perform a select list of actions instantly, thoughtlessly, and at the crack of the bat. The baseball shortstop is expected to: 
     Catch a ground ball to his left, or
     Catch a ground ball to his center, or
     Catch a ground ball straight at him, or
     Catch a line drive, or
     Catch a pop-up, or
     Tag a runner out, or
     Catch the ball traversing across second base for a double play, or
     Instantly consider consequences to the overall game, like diving for the ball or missing.
      But all this in a world of milliseconds, what is the official definition of "significant time" by all these people? And 58 percent of what? What exactly is "about a second"? And what do they mean by "exponentially"? "Compounded"? I had to delve even deeper into these very cavalier statements. If I was going to become this pessimistic, I needed more proof. I hit the textbooks and contacted the experts. (And no internet back then either! The info explosion came decades later and is all here.
     The actual original Hick's idea was based on a paper written in 1952 that simply set up an equation that states it takes time to decide between options. Just for the record, the equation is  "TR+a+b{Log2 (N)}."
      You have a colored light that suddenly comes on with a color. You have ten and later eight colored lights in front of you. The test light comes on. You hit the matching light button. Hick and buddies count the response times.
      Then somehow, this 1950's idea was then extrapolated over into human performance? Usually based on very primitive, 1950's old "see-then-push-button" tests were used.  Somehow from this 1950's button-test, in some twisted path, I suddenly couldn't learn two punches in the 1980s? The mythology of the slow brain, the slow, stuttering, decision-making brain premise developed into a modern combatives training doctrine thanks to some people reading, misusing, and misinterpreting Hick's Law.

      Today, programmers still ponder Hick's, like when they make long menu lists on web pages, preferring to use shorter lists to attract customers with short attention spans. And many computer and web people are familiar with their world’s application of the Law. Jason Gross of Smashing Magazine, a popular publication about computer science says, 
     "We have to remember that Hick's Law did not come about with the invention of the Internet. Hick's research simply shed light on how a website's options (choices/menus) affect the speed and ease of the user's decision making. This makes for a pretty broad scope because we aren't measuring physical responses…."
     What now? Not about measuring physical responses? Then why are all these instructors ragging on about Hick’s Law then? Those extrapolating computer screen readings over to physical fighting often use the term "exponential time for decision making." Instructors often ignorantly tag Hick's Law with "exponential math." Bear with me as I repeat the math experts here–"any exponential function is a constant multiple of its own derivative." 
     That will really slow you down. Many still just blindly associate a never-ending, doubling ratio to Hick's Law- that is, for every two choices, selection time doubles per added choice. Yet, despite all these quotes on times, Hick made no official proclamation on the milliseconds it takes to mentally decide between options. Meanwhile, experts say that logarithm math actually relates more to Hick's, not the doubling ratio of exponentials. Still, doubling persists in trainers' minds, doctrines, and outlines.
     There is a general consensus in the modern kinesiology community that "Simple Reaction Time," called SRT, takes an average of 100 or 150 milliseconds to decide to take any action. That's considerably less than a quarter of a second, or 250 milliseconds, or a 500-millisecond "half-a-second," or the loss of "about a second" we hear from martial trainers. 
     Based on the doubling/exponentially rule with the commonly discussed SRT average, then choosing between two choices must take 300 milliseconds. Run out that timetable. Three choices? Six hundred milliseconds. Four choices? One second and 200 milliseconds. A mere five choices? Two seconds and 400 milliseconds! Six? Four full seconds and 800 milliseconds. Should a boxer only learn one or two tactics? A few moves would mean nine seconds and 600 milliseconds to choose one tactic from another? 
     You would really see people physically shut down while trying to select options at this point and beyond. Has this been your viewing experience of a football game? Basketball? Tennis? Has this been your experience as a witness to life? Under this casual, exponential increase rule, it would seem athletes would stand dumbfounded as index cards rolled through their heads in an attempt to pick a choice of action. Every eye jab could not be blocked if the blocker was taught even just two blocks. The eye attack would hit the eyes as the defender sluggishly selects between the two blocks.
     One then begins to wonder how a football game can be played, how a jazz pianist functions, or how a bicyclist can pedal himself in a New York City rush hour. How does a boxer, who sees a split-second opening, select a jab or a cross, hook, uppercut, overhand combination, or to step back straight, right, or left? If he dares to throw combination punches, how can he select them so quickly?
     Simple, modern athletic performance studies attack the simplistic, loose "doubling rule," but we need not just look to athletes. How can a typist type so quickly? Look at all the selections on a computer? Twenty-six letters plus options! How can you read this typed essay? How can your mind select and process from 26 different letters in the alphabet and spell with speed? How can an elderly person drive a car across town? A child play soccer? It is obvious that the exponential rule of “doubling” with each option has serious scientific problems when you run a simple math table out or just look about you at everyday life. And, despite the constant use of the word exponentially by quoters, real experts clarify that logarithms should be used. These exponentials or logarithms, the math of many choices, do not play in the life we see around us.
     New tests upon new tests on skills like driving vehicles, flying, sports, and psychology have created so many layers of fresh information. Larish and Stelmach in 1982 established that one could select from 20 complex options in 340 milliseconds, providing the complex choices have been previously trained. One other study even had a reaction time of .03 milliseconds between two trained choices–.03! Merkel's Law, for example, says that trouble begins when a person has to select between eight choices, but can still select a choice from the eight well under 500 milliseconds. Brace yourself! Mowbray and Rhodes Law of 1959 or the Welford Law of 1986 even found no difference in reaction time at all when selecting from numerous, well-trained choices.
     Why all these time differences? Sometimes experts challenge test results by questioning the test process and equipment involved. In 2003, I conducted an email survey of 50 college university professors of Psychology and Kinesiology. It is crystal clear to all of them that training makes a considerable difference in reaction time. Plus, people, tests, and testing equipment are different. Respondents state that every person and the skills they perform in tests vary, so reaction times vary. One universal difficulty mentioned by researchers is the mechanical task of splitting the second in their testing–that is, identifying the exact millisecond that the tested reaction took place. Many recorded tests are performed by undergrads in less than favorable conditions.
     Discoveries made in the 1990s, decades well after the 1950's Hick's Law began, blowing the original, antiquated "mental Rolodex/task selection" concept out of the water as an important martial training tenet. The brain does not operate like a Rolodex. The brain has a fast track! Neuroplastician Dr. Michael Merzenich, regarded among experts as a leading source on the human brain when reporting in the book The Brain that Changes Itself, "We can change the very structure of the brain and increase its capacity … unlike a computer, the brain is constantly adapting itself." Below, researchers Martin D. Topper, Ph.D., and Jack M. Feldman, Ph.D., write about them:
     "Currently, the best explanation is provided by psychologist Gary Klein, Senior Scientist at MacroCognition LLC, in his Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, he's proposed that the human brain is capable of multi-tasking. Dr, Klein is a good-to master sourse on the subject of decision making, having spent years researching the subject. Gary's theory works like this: 
     "A visual image is picked up by the retina and is transmitted to the visual center of the brain in the occipital lobe. From there the image is sent to two locations in the brain. On the one hand, it goes to the higher levels of the cerebral cortex, which is the seat of full conscious awareness. There, in the frontal lobes, the image is available to be recognized, analyzed, input into a decision process, and acted upon as the person considers appropriate. Let's call this 'the slow track' because full recognition of the meaning of a visual image, analyzing what it represents, deciding what to do, and then doing it takes time. Some psychologists also refer to this mental process as 'System II cognition.' If you used System II cognition in critical situations like a skid, you wouldn't have enough time to finish processing the OODA Loop before your car went over the cliff. 
      "Fortunately, there's a second track, which we'll call "the fast track" or 'System I Cognition.' In this system, the image is also sent to a lower, per-conscious region of the brain, which is the amygdala. This area of the brain stores visual memory and performs other mental operations as well. The visual image is compared here on a per-conscious level at incredible speed with many thousands of images that are stored in memory. Let's call each image a 'frame,' which is a term that Dr. Erving Goffman used in his book Frame Analysis to describe specific, cognitively-bounded sets of environmental conditions. I like to use the word 'frame' here because the memory probably contains more than just visual information. There may be sound, kinesthetic, tactile, olfactory, or other sensory information that also helps complement the visual image contained within the frame–fortunately, the fast and slow tracks are usually complementary, one focusing on insight, the other on action. Together they produce a synergistic effect that enhances the actor's chances of survival." – Dr. Gary Klein

book, Kelin shadows

     Doctors Richard A. Schmidt (a decades-long expert) and Timothy Donald Lee in the groundbreaking 1980's book and subsequent new editions, Motor Control and Learning, reported that task selection is made up of two parts, RT (reaction time)–seeing the problem–and MT (movement time)–physically moving to respond–and thus may be a "few milliseconds" for fast, simple chores, not this compounding, exponential, doubling, half-second, and full second formats.
     And another major factor, so simply explained in a sentence or two, concerns "arousal." Arousal is another word for alertness and also adrenaline in performance sports and psychology.   
     "One of the most investigated factors affecting reaction time is 'arousal' or state of attention, including muscular tension. Reaction time is fastest with an intermediate level of arousal and deteriorates when the subject is either too relaxed or too tense." (Welford, 1980; Broadbent, 1971; Freeman, 1933).
     Practice helps. Dr. Robert J. Kosinski of Clemson University reported on his research in September of 2010: "Sanders (1998, p. 21) cited studies showing that when subjects are new to a reaction time task, their reaction times are less consistent than when they've had an adequate amount of practice. Ando et al., 2002, found that reaction time to a visual stimulus decreased with three weeks of practice, and the same research team (2004) reported that the effects of practice last for at least three weeks. Fontani et al., 2006, showed that in karate, more experienced practitioners had shorter reaction times…." Visser et al., 2007.
     In 2012, in the new book, Wait, the Art and Science of Delay, Professor Frank Partnoy collects numerous studies on the split-second or millisecond-second decision-making of mental and physical choices. He has all the very latest 2012 medical and psychological testing on sports, self-defense, and on down to fast-paced, internet stock trading. It is interesting to note that in this new book, the infamous Hick's Law is not even mentioned, not a whisper. That is how research has advanced in this field from the 1950s.
     Wait breaks down the three critical steps–vision, decision, and reaction averages–all in the milliseconds arena with the latest high-technology and knowledge. In many ways, Wait refutes a former bestseller, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, by proving that the very best-of-the-best performers know how to delay reaction to the last–well–millisecond, making the best choice. 
     The secret? Some genetics and a lot of proper training. Blink tells the reader to go with your first impulse. Wait tells you to sometimes go with your last impulse, not your first. All these choices occur in less than a second anyway, and the book makes for good reading. 

Wait, Partnoy

     Perception, Cognition, and Decision Training, a fantastic textbook written just a few years ago by Dr. Joan Vickers, is all about response times. In quick summary here, Vickers barely mentions Hick's Law, but for two respectful, "historical paragraphs" referencing the obligatory history of the subject. Tips of the hat. She states that Hick's selection times can easily be increased by simple training. For more on this, you must absolutely read this book.  Get it! Read it, and read it again once a year.

Decision Vickers book

    Dr. M. Blackspear of the Brain Dynamics Center at the University of Sydney, Australia, reports that the: "… study of functional inter-dependences between brain regions is a rapidly growing focus of neuroscience research. “People select and change options "mid-flight" in milliseconds split into milliseconds.

     Smarter? Faster! Intelligence matters as a variable in Deary et al., 2001. “there is a slight tendency for more intelligent people to have faster reaction times, but there is much variation between people of similar intelligence." (Nettelbeck, 1980) The speed advantage of more intelligent people is greatest on tests requiring complex responses. (Schweitzer, 2001)

 How can we possibly improve reaction times?
     Aside from the fact that the generic Hick's Law exists within in a small world of 1,000 milliseconds within one single second, here are some proven methods that improve overall reaction time and performance:
     * Sequential Learning–the stringing of tasks working together like connected notes in music really reduces reaction and selection time.
     * Conceptual Learning–is another speed track. In relation to survival training, this means a person first makes an either/or conceptual decision like “Shoot/Don't shoot” or “Move In/Move Back.” Rather than selecting from a series of hand strikes in Conceptual Learning, the boxer does not waste milliseconds selecting specific punches, but rather makes one overall decision, “punch many times!” The trained body then takes over following paths learned from prior repetition training.

     * Implicit and Procedural Memory–In Dr. Lee Dye's 2009 article for ABC News, "How the Brain Makes Quick Decisions,” he reports: 
     "[People] … have been helped by a kind of human memory that scientists have been struggling to understand.” Dye reports that people use "implicit" memory, a short-term memory that people are not consciously aware they are using. Doctors Ken Paller at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and Joel L. Voss from the Beckman Institute and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have conducted long-term research on this subject; and while they did not specifically involve athletics, the conclusions are consistent with other researchers who are also studying how top athletes can make split-second decisions and take action. 
     How does a batter hit a fastball when he has to start swinging the bat before the ball even leaves the pitcher's hand? “He relies on visual cues, even if he doesn't know it.” Athletes and people learn to predict and act and react spontaneously based on very little information. One way is implicit memory.
     Implicit memory (IM) is a type of memory in which previous experiences aid in the performance of a task without conscious awareness of these previous experiences. People rely on implicit memory in a form called procedural memory–the type of memory that allows people to remember how to tie their shoes or ride a bicycle without consciously thinking about these activities. Implicit memory taps into procedural memory. 

     * Procedural Memory— One more related subject in this chain of memory and performance. Procedural memory. Connecting small multi-tasks and problem solving. Examples of procedural learning are learning to ride a bike, learning to touch-type, learning to play a musical instrument, learning to swim, and performing athletic tasks like sports. For our readers, here this includes martial moves, fighting, self-defense, and combatives. Experts report that procedural memory can be very durable, however perishable, like any task. And the physical fitness to perform these tasks may not be so durable. Given the ravages of aging, a pro tennis player away from the game for many years is still likely to pick up a tennis racket and beat most common tennis players, but not qualify for Wimbledon.

The Good, the Bad, and the Simple 
     Sure, sure, sure, simple is good. I am all for simple. Absolutely. And there is the old, great expression, “our training should be designed to be as simple as possible and as complex as is necessary,” What a key phrase, "as complex as is necessary." Dwell on that phrase, please.  
     And reaction time is an important concern when you are dodging a knife, pulling a gun, driving a car, etc. And there may actually come a point in a learning progression when there are way, way too many reactions/techniques to counter an attack; and if these moves are a bit unnatural, not guided somewhat by some natural reflex, and taught poorly and trained poorly. Poor systems and poor training may lead to untimely confusion. But we are not as simple and slow as Hick's Law misleaders want to scare us into believing.
     Earlier I listed the scary quote "…tests have shown that when an individual has too many choices the result can be that they make no choice at all." This is in direct relation to sales, purchases, customers and computer menus – all topics where you find the transactions of Hick's Law today. Not jabs or crosses, or tackles, or shooting a gunman. 
     Decisions all to be executed in the sheer "splitest" of a split second? Then, our ape-man ball player has even more split-second, follow-up decisions to make with runners on different bases. Even a child playing shortstop has a lot to decide and very fast, AND can do it faster than four or six seconds or more! I hope that the police trainer I mentioned at the beginning of this essay is reading this article and will apply it not just when he teaches his kids in Little League, but when he teaches his adults in law enforcement tactics. In fact, I hope all martial instructors are reading this and paying attention.  

In Summary 
This quote from a true leader in the industry says it all.
     "Hick’s Law is really not applicable to use of force incidents. People simply don’t consider all the options they have available. They choose their favorite option or the one that is most available, effectively limiting response options to a very small number. They never consider ALL of their options, so the idea that having too many options will slow reaction times never comes into play." – Dr. Bill Lewinski, University of Minnesota, Force Science.
     For years and perhaps still, this original "paper" I wrote on Hick’s Law was the highest viewed on the web for this subject. Therefore I got a lot of love and hate mail. More love than hate because people understand the logic, the research, and less hate. Recently in 2011, someone accused me of claiming that Hick's Law doesn't exist and that I was ignorant of what Hick's Law really is.  
     I replied – “Of course, it exists. A Mr. William Edmund Hick existed. This British psychologist, Mr. Hick, created a test; and his test had results. The results were that response took time. That is the main conclusion. Things take time. And the central point of all this reaction research? Milliseconds. Mere milliseconds. 

     Probably the few reasons the misunderstanding and myth has spread on Hick's Law , infesting the police, martial, and military fields is
          1: people can’t grasp or define how short a millesecond is.
          2: The concept has been used as a sales pitch to sell training programs. Since the 1970s, I have been a police field training officer and presented/taught police at police academies since the 1990s. In my world of observing training programs, I have to tag Bruce Siddle's archaic, P.P.C.T., and then Tony Blauer's SPEAR program as main spreaders of this dumbing-down years ago in the 1990s "era." Others heard and still hear these words and terms from “the instructors” of the day, and they automatically revere them as biblical and mindlessly regurgitate them. The thoughtless virus spreads and frankly, it mutates into worse versions. PPCT is all but gone now and I say “good riddance,” and I do not what Tony says about it anymore. He's a pretty smart guy and probably has adjusted his outline with new research. 

     But this and a few other subjects were all once 1990s, insider, pop-psychology marketing to spout and then re-spout it. The over-emphasis, myth, mutations and misunderstanding of Hick’s Law can still be found today in police, fire military and martial arts training doctrine. And after all, its a great admin tale and a personal excuse to be lazy in training programs.

     But just how fast can we get? How dumb should we be to fight back confusion and stalling out? Don't ask Mr. Hick from the 1950s. Mr. Hick was not conducting tests on baseball or fighting, and the 1950's computer he used long ago became a stone-age museum piece. 

     1) Hick's Law certainly exists, in its most generic sense of an idea. The overall idea is good to know. Things do take milliseconds to see and respond.
     2) There are 1,000 milliseconds within one second. Not many grasp this. Almost no one can conceive just how fast 100, 250, 500, or even 750 milliseconds actually are. 

     3) There are other, more modern, reaction studies with differing and prove even faster results than Hick's. 

     4) It is blindly regurgitated and over rated in training courses. 

     5) These misuses and misunderstandings are frequently used to sell training programs or to feign a certain "insider" expertise. 

     6) Hick's Law  is often used to dumb down police, military, and martial arts programs. 

     7) People can only get so fast within these milliseconds anyway. Losing or winning by milliseconds may not be consistantly manageable. 

     8) Hick's widely accepted version of math and expanding delays between multiple choices cannot be played out in the reality we witness in our daily lives around us such as walking, driving cars, or the common sports events that even children play successfully. 

     9) Many other definable issues can cause choice delay. And all delays simply cannot be blamed on the root, Hick's Law principle. Stress and emotion can cause delay. Stuns and gas can confuse and delay. Also lack of sleep, antihistamines, and numerous other ailments. Also your “zero-to-sixty”alertness before the needed response is important and the subject of a whole other essay.

   10) Hick's Law and its milliseconds are rather inconsequential as a martial training tenet.

     “They” sell you Hick’s Law for about $1. It may only be worth about 15 cents.



Hocks email is HockHochheim@ForceNecessary.com


This is excerpted from the upcoming book, Fightin' Words, due out Winter 2017

1-cover Fighten words_med


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