Unconscious Competence: What is it? How can we train for it?
Martin D. Topper, Ph.D., Jack M. Feldman, Ph.D.
What Is Unconscious Competence?
The term "Unconscious Competence," is used by members of the American Tactical Shooting Association and others in the training community to describe a rapid, seamless and successful response to a situation involving deadly force or the potential for deadly force. It is a term many believe they inherently understand, but which is, in reality, very hard to define.
For example, what does the word "unconscious" imply? Obviously, it doesn't mean unconsciousness as in a boxer who's been KO'ed. Most people who use the term unconscious competence are really describing an effective action performed outside of focal awareness. People who have achieved unconscious competence in some area (e.g. music, baseball, self-defense) can carry out an action or sequence of actions at a high level of performance without being focally aware of the precise details of their own behavior. They are aware of their goal (playing a blues tune, hitting a curve ball, engaging a threat) and whether or not they are achieving their goal. But they are not aware of the details of the separate components of their actions.
In the area of self-defense, the unconsciously competent person knows he or she is responding to a threat and perceives threat's overall response to their actions. In a gunfight, this means the person defending him/herself is not paying attention to how they are drawing their gun or to how many shots they've fired. The defender's attention is locked on the assailant's aggressive actions and the assailant's response to the shots fired by the defender. If the defender is well-trained he/she may also be scanning the environment for multiple assailants and for cover. But if the defender finds cover and decides to move to it, he/she is probably still focusing on the threat and on fighting all the way to that cover, rather than thinking about how many steps are required to get to safety. So the "unconscious" in unconscious competence really refers to selective awareness in which the defender is focused on the threat, tactics and evolving outcome rather than the precise details of his/her own behavior.
"Competence" isn't easy to define either. That's because competence is context-dependent. A person can be a champion bullseye shooter and miss the target completely in a shoothouse or in force-on-force training. As Bruce Siddle explains in Sharpening the Warrior's Edge, a person fighting to stay alive must be competent to perform under high levels of stress and arousal. Furthermore, "competence" in one situation may be both quantitatively and qualitatively different from competence in another. Therefore, the "competence" aspect of unconscious competence refers to the ability to successfully implement learned behaviors and achieve a defined objective in a specific context or set of similar contexts in an automatic manner.
For the purposes of this discussion, we'll define an unconsciously competent person as one who recognizes a situation/problem without first having to perceive it in focal awareness and then implements a learned set of behaviors to resolve that situation/problem without having to mediate the behavioral response in focal awareness. In the case of self-defense, focal awareness is reserved for analyzing "big picture" issues, such as monitoring the on-going course of the interaction with the assailant/potential assailant. This monitoring allows the individual to recognize` when the situation has become less "safe," and allows him/her to implement an appropriate defensive or alerting response. It also allows him/her to recognize when the situation has become "safe" and terminate a defensive response, or implement a follow-up response at a lower level of the force continuum. This is very similar to what psychologists have referred to as "recognition-primed decision-making."
To be sure, the defender's response can still be described in terms of Col. John Boyd's process of Observing, Orienting, Deciding and Acting (i.e. the OODA Loop). However, solving the tactical problem is not undertaken through a process of bringing observations into full awareness, orienting to the details of the situation, weighing the pros and cons of alternative responses and then implementing a step-by-step remedy. Instead, the unconsciously competent individual begins responding appropriately as he or she first becomes aware of the threat. Therefore he/she orients while observing and acts while deciding, and none of these cognitive processes take place in focal awareness. For this reason, people who have experienced a critical incident involving deadly force are often unable to describe the exact, step-by-step process by which they defended themselves.
But how can someone act appropriately before fully perceiving the details of an emerging situation? On the surface, this sounds impossible. Yet think for a moment. Most of us do this all the time. Ever steer your car through a skid on slick pavement? Do you stop and observe, "Damn! I'm skidding to the left!" Then orient yourself by saying, "Remember, I'm driving a rear wheel drive car, and the lane to my left is empty." Then tell yourself, "Therefore, my decision is to take my foot slowly off of the gas and steer into the skid." And finally say to yourself, "Okay Joe, now slowly lift your right foot from the gas while you use your arms and hands to slowly turn the wheel to the left."
Of course you don't! You begin maneuver almost instantaneously as the visual image in your brain perceives your car leaving its lane and your kinesthetic sense tells you that your car is moving in a direction you don't want it to go.
But how can this all happen at once? Currently, the best explanation is provided by psychologist Gary Klein in Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. He's proposed that the human brain is capable of multi-tasking. His 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, pre-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 pre-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.
Each of these frames has been recorded in the brain through personal life experience and each is associated in the brain's motor centers with a behavioral routine, or set of routines, which, again by experience, the individual has learned are appropriate responses. As the pre-frontal areas of the brain scan the visual/sensory information it receives, they attempt to match it to the frames that are stored in memory, most likely in a hierarchical manner. When a match or near match is made to a frame that contains a situation which represents a serious threat to the safety of the individual the pre-frontal areas that have received the sensory input immediately send a message to the brain's motor center initiating what the individual has learned is the most appropriate response to that frame. By the time the higher levels of the brain realize that there is a problem, the solution is already in progress. The higher levels then switch to co-monitoring the progress of the solution to ensure the response is indeed the proper one. If so, and if the situation contained in the frame is successfully resolved, the pre-frontal brain returns control of behavior to the higher levels of the cortex. If not, both levels of the brain continue to work toward an appropriate resolution.
Of course, the situation isn't quite that simple. There is a complex interaction between the higher levels of the brain and the pre-frontal areas, and the possibility always exists that the two can get out of synchronization or the individual may encounter a situation for which he/she has no frame that's even close. At that point, a fatal error is possible, unless the various levels of the brain can work quickly together to craft a new adaptive routine. Fortunately, the fast and slow tracks are usually complimentary, one focusing on insight, the other on action. Together they produce a synergistic effect that enhances the actor's chances of survival.
But even though these two tracks are complimentary, we know that some people seem to be much more skilled than others at integrating System 1 and System 2. These especially competent individuals seem to resolve critical situations and also adapt to rapid changes in those situations. They invent routines they have never before performed and act in a fluid, seamless manner without employing full focal awareness.
So at this point in our understanding, we have a model that tells us something about how the brain can operate on two tracks at the same time, but we don't really have a good idea of how the two levels interact, except to say that the interaction is very complex, and some people do it better than others. We really don't know everything we'd like to know. But we do know that specific types of training can help a person develop unconscious competence, and this is enough to make some suggestions about the kind of training that will help make relatively unskilled people more competent in finding solutions to potentially violent encounters.
How can a self-defense trainer take a person who is already has the capability to multi-task, but who does not have the knowledge base or the motor skills to swiftly and competently resolve self-defense problems, and help him/her learn to multi-task in self-defense contexts? The answer seems straightforward. To use a computer analogy: upgrade their software and add RAM. By upgrading software we mean increasing the capacity to perform mental operations through the acquisition of new frames and associated behavioral routines. By adding RAM we are referring to the biological process by which new cell assemblies are formed within the brain and by which existing ones are reinforced. The process of developing cell assemblies is triggered by training, especially when it's done under stress. Training stimulates the brain to create new synapses, or connections, between brain cells. This process strings brain cells together in neural nets called "assemblies." Training-induced synaptic growth therefore allows the various regions of the brain to communicate more efficiently. This growth also allows for the creation of new thought patterns, because thought itself is an emergent property of the cellular structure and bio-chemical processes of the brain.
In order to grow the type of cell assemblies needed to resolve self-defense problems, the instructor needs to move beyond teaching basic shooting skills and teach the trainee to respond to frames. That's because there's a significant difference between training that builds basic, or even advanced, shooting skills on a "square range" and training which builds tactical competence in the context of critical incidents. Both types of training are necessary, but simply teaching shooting skills provides behavioral routines that are unconnected to real life threats.
To have a tactically competent individual, one must teach behavioral solutions to problems that are presented in the form of frames. Otherwise, the trainee will simply apply the same basic skills to a broad variety of situations, regardless of whether they are appropriate for those various contexts. For example, a trainee who has only been trained on a square range may simply stand in front of an armed assailant, draw, "double tap" the target, lower the pistol and wait for the next command. If the trainee shoots well, and if the assailant's central nervous system is compromised by the trainee's fire, then all may turn out well. However, if the assailant does not immediately succumb to his injuries, then the trainee could very well wind up being fatally wounded by return fire while subconsciously waiting for the next range command.
However, an instructor can't just offer the trainee a few frames and then teach their corresponding frame-specific solutions. The instructor must present both a rich variety of frames and an equally broad variety of appropriate remedies. Imparting a broader number of frames and solutions helps the trainee understand the complexity and variability of self-defense contexts and starts him/her on the road to developing situational awareness.
This is a good start, but it's still not sufficient to engender what we consider to be true competence. That's because competence doesn't only involve the speedy application of a learned response to a known situation, it also includes the behavioral flexibility to appropriately respond to situations that are similar to, but not exactly alike, those frames which have been learned in training. To teach this, an instructor must employ training frames that are open-ended, and "branch" (evolve) depending either upon actions taken by the trainee, or by changes in the trainee's environment that are beyond his/her control. The reason for this is simple. A trainer will never be able to anticipate all the frames that the trainee will need to experience in order to successfully handle the broad variety of potential threats he or she may experience on the street. The trainer also will never be able to teach all appropriate behaviors that a trainee may need to implement to resolve such a diverse set of tactical problems. Therefore, training must provide frames that challenge the trainee to develop his/her own responses.
So far we've discussed a training approach that could fit any skill that humans can perform. But how does this approach specifically apply to teaching people to survive in situations that are likely to escalate into deadly force confrontations? That's done by employing frames and responses that are based on real-life deadly force encounters. In short, the instructor must add the appropriate context.
Assuming that the psychological theories described above are correct, and that the brain's cognitive structure has an insight-based slow track and an action-based fast track, we propose that context-relevant "frame training" for self-defense is best accomplished on three levels. The first level includes two types of training: insight development through formal instruction, and defensive skill drills. Insight development is fostered by using audio-visual instructional aids, like the al-Qaeda videos. This type of training offers the trainee cognitive frames or "constructs" by bringing them into full focal awareness. Doing so, affords maximum frame image resolution. Such detailed constructs are very important for conveying meaning, so that the trainee can interpret the frame, and internalize the kind and level of danger that the visual image represents. It also gives the trainee an idea of how behavior within the frame flows. In short, it lets the trainee know his/her enemy's tactics and gives the trainee a chance to begin planning ways to neutralize those tactics. This type of training creates new recognition software and it also promotes the development of cell assemblies in the higher, cognitive areas of the brain which are very useful in the overall monitoring of one's own behavior and the behavior of the assailant.
The second type of training on level one, defensive skill drills, involves teaching the full force continuum, from verbal judo and unarmed defensive techniques through deadly force. This training focuses on developing cell assemblies that are associated with motor pathways. These are the behavioral routines that are triggered by the pre-frontal brain when it receives the sensory input that tells it something is very wrong. With respect to these routines we always must remember that we have to construct them out of behaviors that are appropriate to a human body that is heavily influenced by the physiological and psychological responses caused by a rush of adrenalin. In short, they must be focused on gross motor skills and they must account for the perceptual changes that are common when a person is undergoing what has commonly been referred to as the "flight, fight or freeze" response. With respect to training, Bruce Siddle demonstrates that skill sets should be taught in discrete, progressive units with a great deal of positive reinforcement, because "confidence builds competence."
The second level of training may either be done under the direction of a trainer or as self-training. Let's call it "visualized interaction." It takes at least two major forms: pure visualization and judgment training using audio-visual training simulators. In either case, the trainee connects a visual image of a frame with a set of appropriate behaviors. In pure visualization, the trainee only imagines the behavioral solutions to the problem. When audio-visual simulators like FATS are used, the trainee actually implements the behavioral solution to the visual and, in the case of most simulators, auditory stimuli associated with the frame. In both types of visualized interaction training, the trainee adds new "software" frames and cell assemblies. These serve both the fast and slow tracks and they also serve to enhance performance in the motor areas that initiate the appropriate behaviors for solving the problem presented in the visualized frames.
Audio-visual simulators like FATS conduct training in real time, and this produces emotional stress that causes hormonal changes in the bloodstream. On the one hand, because cell assembly production is stimulated by stress hormones, audio-visual simulators probably offer more effective training than pure visualization, especially if branching scenarios are used. On the other hand, these audio-visual simulators produce stress. Effective learning under stress requires short sessions and longer periods of recovery if the student is to learn without being traumatized. Therefore, pure visualization can be an important ancillary training technique to the use of audio-visual scenarios. However, one must remember that the stressful nature of real-time, realistic training requires that the instructor keep the exercises discrete and focused and that he/she provide constructive critiques immediately after the session concludes. Properly constructed real-time training is no place for a Hollywood Drill Instructor, either on this second level or on the next one.
The third and final level of training involves role-playing. This is the level where unconscious competence is truly built. This level employs multi-stimulus, problem-solving scenario-based training. It is multi-stimulus because it involves frames that are populated with more than audio-visual stimuli. Smell, touch and even taste should be involved in these frames. In addition, the frames should involve linguistic and kinesthetic stimuli in the form of targets and role players that communicate and move in meaningful ways and confront the trainee at different locations within the trainees' personal spatial and emotional "comfort zones." To the greatest degree possible, hostile and non-hostile targets should convey stimuli that involve linguistic and proxemic information in the areas of verbal language, "body language" and spatial relationships.
Generally, this type of training involves three forms of scenario-based exercises: the shoot house, red gun exercises and force-on-force training with simunitions, paintball or air soft training guns. To the degree that they can, shoot houses should be interactive. They should have life-like hostile and non-hostile targets that respond with both movement and verbal communication to the actions of the trainee. This will allow the instructors to branch the scenario to the greatest degree possible and require the trainee to interact with a flexible rather than a static frame. In addition, shoot houses should introduce stimuli that are distracting and extraneous to the scenario, like smoke or loud music. The shoothouse may also present complicating factors that reduce information, e.g. via low light. Adding such sensory complexity will create sensory challenges that will help the trainee develop his or her ability to discriminate between information that is vital to understanding the frame and solving the problem and information that is simply "noise" which has to be screened out. It will also teach the trainee to deal with a lack of information. Regardless of whether the scenario contains extraneous stimuli or lacks important stimuli such sensory challenges teach the trainee to maintain focus at an appropriate level on the tactical problem presented in the frame. This is an extremely important cognitive skill that must be learned if a person is to competently recognize and neutralize threats.
Red gun and force-on-force training are perhaps the most effective forms of multi-stimulus, problem-solving scenario-based training because they offer the most opportunity for the frame to change both in response to the trainee's actions and in response to the actions of the role players, who the trainee can influence but not control. The trainee can hide from a target in a shoot house, but he/she may not be able to escape so easily from a role player. The frame flexibility found in role-playing training most closely approximates real life. However, since all role-playing scenarios are constrained to some degree by the structure of the facility in which they are conducted, even this most flexible form of training will always exhibit less variation than actual events one might encounter on the street or in military combat. Still, role-playing is the best tool we have at present.
One added teaching element in red gun and force-on-force training is increased consequences, either through reinforcement or by punishment. These types of exercises contain both psychological rewards and real penalties for the trainee. If the trainee makes a mistake in evaluating the frame he/she will be robbed, assaulted or even "killed." Simunitions, paintball and air soft exercises add an additional level of consequence above red gun training because pellet impacts are a clear reminder that the trainee has done something very wrong. Being hit with simunitions makes a lasting impression. Conversely, escaping a difficult situation or defeating a threat that shoots back gives one a sense of emotional satisfaction that is highly reinforcing. So force-on-force training doesn't just teach good habits, it deeply ingrains them.
However, there is one caveat that must be mentioned when discussing multi-stimulus, problem-solving, scenario-based level three training. The frames must be constructed so that they are somewhat above the current skill level of the trainee, but they should not be so difficult that they are over his/her head. The teaching frames must challenge, not overwhelm, the trainee. If the scenario is too far beyond the trainee's ability, then the trainee may become traumatized, develop a lack of self-confidence and simply give up on developing new skills. This could have serious potential consequences if the trainee ever becomes involved in a critical incident involving deadly force.
"Unconscious competence" may not be completely understood, but we know it when we see it. For now, we'll have to live with the fact that the psychological and neurological sciences are not sufficiently advanced for us to offer a detailed description of how competence is encoded in the brain and executed through split-second decision-making.
However, our understanding is sufficient to create a model of unconscious competence and develop teaching points based on that model. This can be tested and applied to real life. Reports of actual critical incidents involving deadly force indicate that people who are trained to resolve problems that are presented in frame-based, multi-stimulus, problem-solving scenarios do appear to have a higher probability of both avoiding violence and of surviving deadly force encounters, on the street and in combat. Even though this feedback is anecdotal, it argues for both systematic study and for continuing to train law enforcement officers, military personnel and law-abiding citizens to not just shoot, but to integrate a whole range of situational awareness and defensive skills into a meaningful approach to their everyday personal safety.
Gary Klein, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1998.
Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis, New York, Harper and Row, 1974.
Bruce Siddle, Sharpening the Warrior's Edge, Millstadt, IL, PPCT Research Publications, 1995.