Understanding the importance of psychology in self-defense

Understanding some basic Psychology is a vital part of any  self-defense training
Understanding some basic Psychology is a vital part of any self-defense training

Understanding the importance of Psychology in self-defense

It might seem odd connecting Freud to some neanderthal trying to take your head off with a right-hand punch, but psychology is more relevant than you might think when it comes to self-defense.

Psychology is a key part of any modern self-defense training system. Its use in self-defense can affect both the attacker and the supposed “victim”. It can help turn a dangerous situation to your advantage if correctly understood and applied.

The 5 main schools of Psychology and how they apply to modern self-defense

Let’s look at the main schools of psychology and how they relate to self-defense ( Collated by The Combat Academy. Thanks! )

1, Behaviorism

Behaviorism is the study of human reaction to stimuli and reactions to it. How we behave, basically. From a self-defense perspective, it helps in understanding how we react instinctively to unexpected loud noise or sudden movement. We can then develop techniques that use this to create a more efficient response to an attack.

2, Psychoanalysis

Developed by Sigmund Freud it emphasizes the importance of the subconscious mind. The theory is that the subconscious mind governs behaviour. This knowledge can be used to understand how to manipulate certain psychological traits in the assailant or in yourself.

3, Cognitive Psychology

The core focus of cognitive psychology is on how people acquire, process and store information. Understanding how the mind learns and what it recognizes can be used to create suitable training programs. It can also help predict certain responses from your “attacker” that can then be acted upon.

4, Humanistic Psychology

Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

The Humanistic approach to psychology was developed in the 1940s by Maslow and Rogers. Maslow developed a theory that we live with a set of needs that can be arranged in a hierarchy. The pyramid diagram shows the most essential and basic needs of food/shelter/warmth, etc. being at the bottom. The more complex “cerebral” needs are at the top.

It could be argued, that a life mainly led in a more primal state existence at the bottom of the pyramid, better equips a person to deal with a tough physical or psychological situation. A typical attacker may well live and thrive at this level of the pyramid.

Using this knowledge to defend yourself, for example, you could tap into your own aggressive primal state to deter an attacker. You could also take the opposite approach and appeal to their higher humanistic needs ( those at the top of the pyramid) to deter them.

5, Biological Approach

This deals with the actual physical mechanics of how the human body works. It deals with the functions of the nervous system and its various subsidiaries. For example, the well known “fight or flight” state that arises when in a difficult or aggressive situation. By understanding the physiological reactions of the body and its workings, it is possible to condition responses and control reactions in a positive way.

How do I apply all of this “psychology” to self-defense?

If you analyze and understand findings from each school of psychology you can then develop training systems to use this knowledge to your advantage. As simple as that really.

This is not something new as it is commonly understood in military combat yet very much missing in traditional martial arts classes. I would argue, it is a vital part of any complete system.

Once you have an understanding of how psychology can be used in training you can then develop specific techniques to be able to use it to your advantage. It’s more obvious than you might think as we mostly do a lot of these things without thinking.

So let’s describe a fairly common assault situation and look at how you could apply any knowledge of psychology to get yourself out of trouble.

Using psychology to your advantage when threatened

  • You are in a bar and you are being hassled by an individual who is shouting aggressively. This is characteristic of a primal state aggressor at the bottom of Maslow’s Pyramid. Knowing this, it is possible to predict certain things he will do.
  • You proceed to keep him at arm’s length to avoid a surprise attack. This is behavioural/cognitive function control, something you have developed in training.
  • Whilst you are doing this you try to talk him down to a calmer manner. You do this by tapping into his psychological motives and weaknesses, subconsciously or otherwise. You have learned how to do this having understood Freud’s theory of subconscious behaviour and developed usable skills in training.
  • As you do all of this you control your body language and voice so as not to appear scared. You have worked on this in training as you know how your nervous system functions when the fight or flight adrenaline kicks in. This also helps deter the attacker as he sees you have no fear.

You then continue this process until you can escape or dictate the terms of any physical attack which is a mixture of all the schools above.

To conclude

So as you can see. Psychology is a relevant and important part of contemporary self-defense. Most of us use psychology instinctively, but it is also something that can be taught, understood and trained. The more you understand the underlying reasons certain things are happening, the more you can develop and train a form of response that will help you survive a dangerous or violent situation.

Author: Andrew Johnson

I trained many years in Kung Fu, fought in full contact competitions and am a qualified instructor at The Combat Academy in the UK. The aim of this blog is to look at what modern self-defense training actually is and what it most probably should be.

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