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Complacency: The Silent Killer

shark“That Would Never Happen To Me!”

When you think about a violent incident from the “armchair of retrospect,” it’s easy to assume that the victim was careless, complacent and oblivious to the warning signs that must have existed as the situation unfolded.  You take the position that he or she should have known better and should have taken steps to avoid such a predicament.

It’s common and natural to wonder, “What the heck were they thinking?”   It’s easy to adopt a position of superiority by thinking, “You wouldn’t catch ME being that naive and vulnerable.

I’d put money on the fact that you’ve undoubtedly been complacent and vulnerable on countless occasions that could have turned out badly for you.  I bet you’ve been oblivious to the potential for violence and didn’t even realize it (not at the time any way).  I know I have.

Having spent most of my life studying self-defense and almost half of my 28-year police career teaching cops how to anticipate and respond to violence,  I’ve had the unique opportunity to study and analyze countless crimes, confrontations and killings.

I’ve uncovered many clues about how these situations happen and how we respond to them, or in many cases, fail to respond.  I am a strong believer that the “solution” to violence and danger is knowledge, awareness and training.  But is that enough?

Why is it that cops, black belts, and everyone else who becomes a crime statistic get blind-sided, caught of guard and victimized as often as they do?

“Don’t become complacent with your life or your training.  Just because your life seems to be normal and peaceful, doesn’t mean that the bad guys aren’t out there.  Don’t make the mistake of believing that ‘those kinds of things never happen to me.’  The very minute you let your guard down, is the opportunity that the (predator) has beeing waiting for all day.”  ~ Bohdi Sanders

Self-Defense Training Cures Complacency (for a while)

Lets say you attend a self-defense or street survival seminar.  In addition to being shown a few slick fighting tricks, you are provided with a list of proactive things you can do to increase your personal safety.

The course material is reinforced with crime statistics, horror stories about the misfortune of others and horrific acts of violence caught on video.  It gets you thinking.

You leave the seminar “sensitized” to the potential of becoming a victim.   Not paranoid or fearful; just more informed and aware, more conscious and deliberate about your personal safety.

After the seminar, you find yourself locking your doors, scanning your surroundings and being more aware of suspicious people around you.

How long do you think your new-found “spidey-senses” will last?

Over time you begin to drop your guard.  You begin NOT to notice many of the things you detected immediately after the seminar.  Your training, awareness, and preventive measures are still there.  It’s just that your application of them starts to fade. Why is that?

We Don’t Expect The Unexpected

Few people leave the security of their home expecting to be robbed, raped or beaten.  If they did, you can bet that they’d take measures to prevent it.   Like the saying goes, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans!

Most people already know what they need to do to improve their personal safety. Sometimes they apply that knowledge, usually when they detect something suspicious or unusual, but often times they don’t.

If you knew that there was a violent predator prowling your neighbourhood, you’d undoubtedly take steps to protect yourself and your loved ones from harm.

The core message I’m trying to get across here is: If you only apply personal safety measures when you think you need them, then complacency is your enemy.

Its doesn’t make sense to adopt safety strategies SOME OF THE TIME.  People seldom get hurt when they anticipate danger. We are most susceptible when we least expect to be; when we’re not actively looking for clues and warning signs.

Habits Make Complacency Your Friend

If you are well-versed in self-defense concepts but you don’t align your behavior to it that knowledge on a consistent basis in the ABSENCE OF PERCEIVED DANGER then it is safe to say that you DON’T HAVE a self-defense mind-set.

That my friend is the essence of effective self-defense training… the antidote to complacency is the deliberate effort to apply safety habits in the absence of perceived danger.  Eventually, the same tendency to be complacent that put you in danger, now contributes to your safety… because those safety measures, repeated over and over again become automated… and become your new habits.

Your Brain Is Wired For Complacency

Psychologists estimate that as much as 90% of our day-to-day behaviour goes on without conscious or deliberate thought.  The brain is “designed” to automate repetitive behaviour.

Complacency is not the result of apathy, carelessness or a flaw in your personality.  It is the way the human brain works.

When we think about complacency, we look at it as an undesirable trait; as if it were a flaw in our character like ignorance or laziness.  The truth is that we are all complacent.

Repetitive tasks become automated to free up our attention (short-term memory) for things that are new, novel, complex or threatening.  If it didn’t work that way ,we’d be overwhelmed with the simplest of tasks.

However, repeated exposure to situations, even if they are potentially dangerous, dulls our defense mechanism and our awareness.

People exposed repeatedly to high places eventually reduce their fear of heights.  People terrified about public speaking often get more comfortable in front of an audience after repeated exposure.

Likewise, people who are repeatedly exposed to potentially violent situations become less concerned and cautious about them.  Psychologists call this “getting-used-to” response “habituation.”

I’ve seen many highly trained police officers over the years walk in to volatile and dangerous situations, totally nonchalant and unprepared.  The problem is that they’ve been to so many similar situations WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE, that they’ve become habituated and assume that this one will turn out the same.

We become complacent about our personal safety by repeated exposure to threatening situations without consequence.

Habituation works against us when we are repeatedly exposed to the potential of predatory situations but nothing happens. We take shortcuts down dark alleys, forget to lock our doors, travel alone and become oblivious to strangers watching or following us.

Overtime the absence of consequences causes us become more lax about our personal safety. And, even though we’re concerned about our personal safety and possess the knowledge of what we SHOULD be doing, we can’t be bothered.

The Solution To Complacency

The solution to complacency is to establish safety habits in the ABSENCE of perceived danger.

Personal safety is not something you turn on and turn off.  Remember, the time that you are at greatest risk is when you least expect something bad is about to happen.

Of course there are situations where a higher level of vigilance and preventive measures are merited but the more consistent we can be about our safety, the more likely we will avoid becoming a victim.

The key is to form “Safety Habits,” things you do over and over again until they override your former unsafe behaviors and become automated.  THEN you are starting to form a realistic self-defense mindset.

What to do…

1.  Do a risk assessment of your personality and lifestyle. When are you most susceptible to violent or predatory situations? – Consider situations at home, while commuting, at work, while traveling, at the bar, etc.

2.  Understand the underlying principles of prevention habits that make sense and fit with your personality and lifestyle.

3.  Adopt safety measures that you are comfortable with and do them deliberately over and over on consistent basis in the ABSENCE OF PERCEIVED DANGER until they become habits.

4.  Continue to study the dynamics and realities of self-defense through articles, books and seminars. The more knowledgeable you are about self-defense, the more aware and effective you will be about your personal safety.

Preparation Does NOT Equal Paranoia!

Before I wrap things up… I just want to make one point perfectly clear.  I am not suggesting that you become pre-occupied and paranoid about personal safety.  Life is too short and the reality for the vast majority of us is that violence and crime have an extremely low probability of touching our lives.

What I encourage is a relaxed and smart balance of automating consistent, common sense habits that will enhance your safety without restricting or compromising your ability to live your life.

I have found over the years that people with a solid grasp of their personal safety are also the most relaxed and most able to enjoy their lives.

“The world is a dangerous place. Not because of the people who are evil; but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Albert Einstein

There you have it.  Complacency is just one part of the self-defense roadmap but its an important one.

The more opportunities you look for to apply safety-related behaviors, even if you don’t think they are needed, the sooner you’ll establish habits that might someday save your life!   You’ll be more prepared to detect, avoid and respond to a potentially bad situation.  Think about it.

If you have any questions, concerns or opinions of your own…please feel free to comment.

About Randy LaHaie

I’m the founder of “Protective Strategies,” a training and consulting company providing self-defense and combative fitness solutions to law enforcement, high-risk professionals and private citizens since 1994. I am a retired police officer, court-declared expert in use-of-force and critical incident performance, and a life-long student of self-defense and combative fitness. “My Thing” is to help people incorporate functional and minimalist workout strategies to improve their health, fitness and personal safety.

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  • Another great post Randy. I’ve been following you for a couple years now, and as always, your writing style is no B.S., straight forward, and easy to understand. I’m gonna put a link to your blog on my own site(s). Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Steve… I appreciate the feedback. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog and thanks for the link offer. If you have any suggestions about topics that would be of interest to your customers, by all means let me know. Take care and keep in touch.

  • Cole Summers

    Outstanding article Randy!

    • Thanks Cole… coming from you that means a lot!

  • Hi Randy, i enjoyed reading this piece and it inspired a blog post on our site. I have read your post a few times and I just wanted to try and clarify one point I think you are making.

    When you talk about the highly trained police officers walking into situations, nonchalant and unprepared, are you saying there are different types of complacency i.e. with lack of training you are not aware and can put yourself in danger, or paradoxically with lots of training and as such awareness, in the absence of experiencing a bad result complacency occurs.

    Maybe you are suggesting that high levels of awareness and exposure that desensitises us to the debilitating effects of confrontation such as adrenaline dump is not necessarily a good thing. A healthy dose of fear combined with good awareness – is that the perfect combination?

    All the best,
    Shaun O’Hagan (editor RMAGB)

    • Hey Shaun,

      Thanks for your comments and your questions… I’m happy the post got you thinking.

      As it turns out my reply to you kept getting more and more involved so I decided I may as well write a blog post on the topic. Chances are, if you’re thinking about it, so are others.

      A quick answer to your question though as to whether “a healthy dose of fear and awarenss” might be a good solution for complacency, I’d tend to disagree.

      Fear may be a good motivator to bring people to study self-defense but it’s not a good mechanism to address complacency or the decision about when and when not to apply what you know.

      When complacency is most likely to kick in the “abscense of fear”. The problem arises when people rely on the presence or abscence of fear in deciding whether or not to “activate” personal safety awareness and behaviors.

      The key is to implement self-defense awareness and habits at all times.

      Hopefully that makes sense… I’ll delve deeper into my thoughts on the issue in the upcoming post. In the meantime, take care and stay in touch.

      P.S. I checked out your self-defense site at . Excellent stuff.

  • The post I was talking about that I hope addresses your question Shaun…

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