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Hick's Law


Hick's law, first proposed in 1952, states that response times increase in proportion to the logarithm of the number of potential stimulus-response alternatives; it is expressed in the equation TR+a+b{Log2 (N)}.

In other words, the more choices you have to choose from, the longer it takes for you to make a decision.


Although Hick didn’t state a certain number of milliseconds it takes to decide between options; nowadays, most researchers believe that the time it takes to decide on an action is about 150 milliseconds. Since there are 1,000 milliseconds in one second, this means it takes about a tenth of a second to decide on one action. Since each additional choice effectively doubles the decision time, if you have two choices, it will take about 300 milliseconds to make a decision; three choices will take about 450 milliseconds, etc.

While I was a design student at NC State University in the 1960's, I remember studying a football training method that was used to train quarterbacks to make instantaneous throwing decisions. A coach made a helmet that had an opaque visor that could be raised or lowered by pulling on a long cord attached to the back of the helmet. The quarterback wore the helmet and stood ready to throw the football with the visor down. Three receivers began to run patterns, the quarterback was told which receiver to throw to, the visor was raised by the coach for a tenth of a second, and then it was lowered. In that tenth of a second, the quarterback had to locate the correct receiver and compute all the throwing parameters, since he had to throw the ball after the visor had dropped. During the action of the game, the time a quarterback had to make his throwing decision was very large in comparison to the tenth of a second used in the training exercise.

So, in a self-defense situation, how does a martial artist instantly choose the correct technique to use from the many he or she has learned over the years? Hesitating too long could result in the martial artist being seriously injured or killed.

Since 1952, new research has been published about decision making. In 1982, Larish and Stelmach found that a person could make a selection from 20 complex options in about 340 milliseconds, provided the choices had been previously trained. Merkel's Law says a person can make a selection from 8 choices in under 500 milliseconds, but that more choices would greatly increase the decision time. Other researchers, such as Mowbray and Rhoades in 1959 and Welford in 1986, found no differences in reaction times when selecting between numerous, well-trained choices.

In recent years, new methodologies have been created that decrease decision times when faced with multiple options. Two of these methodologies are:
  • Sequential learning. If you string similar choices together, like connecting notes in music, it reduces selection time. So, if you use combinations that flow from one to the other, it will reduce reaction time, especially in a self-defense situation.
  • Conceptual learning. In relation to a self-defense situation, this means that if you make an either/or conceptual decision, such as “punch or don't punch,” rather than selecting from a list of hand strikes; it will reduce your reaction and decision time. For example, a boxer does not waste time selecting specific punches for a particular situation, he or she just decides to punch as many times as possible and then punches instinctively as he or she has been trained.

  • Hochheim, Hock. (2005). Hicks Law? Hicks Legacy: Reaction Time In Combat.  [Online]. Available:

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