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Threat assessment


People begin training in the martial arts for various reasons, such as fitness, weight loss, and to build character and self-esteem, but many people begin training to learn to protect themselves from attackers. This article deals with this fear of attack that causes people to be concerned about self-defense. Is this fear justified?

Irrational fears

Humans tend to fear threats that rarely occur, such a shark attack or even a mugger attack while they ignore threats that have a much greater chance of causing them harm, such as having unsafe sex and eating unhealthy foods. Therefore, people fear being mugged or raped that rarely occur, but they do not fear eating a greasy cheeseburger and fries that have been proven to be life threatening.

Some examples of risks are:
  • Cause of death: Lifetime odds
  • Heart Disease: 1-in-5
  • Cancer: 1-in-7
  • Stroke: 1-in-23
  • Accidental Injury: 1-in-36
  • Intentional Self-harm (suicide): 1-in-121
  • Falling: 1-in-246
  • Assault by Firearm: 1-in-325
  • Fire or Smoke: 1-in-1,116
  • Natural Forces (heat, cold, storms, quakes, etc.): 1-in-3,357
  • Electrocution: 1-in-5,000
  • Drowning: 1-in-8,942
  • Air Travel Accident: 1-in-20,000
  • Flood (included also in Natural Forces above): 1-in-30,000
  • Legal Execution: 1-in-58,618
  • Tornado (included also in Natural Forces above): 1-in-60,000
  • Lightning Strike (included also in Natural Forces above): 1-in-83,930
  • Snake, Bee or other Venomous Bite or Sting: 1-in-100,000
  • Earthquake (included also in Natural Forces above): 1-in-131,890
  • Dog Attack: 1-in-147,717
  • Asteroid Impact: 1-in-200,000
  • Tsunami: 1-in-500,000
  • Fireworks Discharge: 1-in-615,488
  • Shark Attack: 1-in-3,943,110
An example of irrational fear occurred after the 2011 Japanese earthquake that led to a tsunami and near nuclear meltdown. Of all the lives lost, most deaths were caused by the tsunami and none was caused by radiation.
Yet, people feared the radiation more than the tsunami. Potassium iodide pills are the recommended treatment for people within a 10-mile radius of a radiation leak. However, there was a run on potassium iodide pills at pharmacies along the West Coast of the United States, over 5,000 miles away, where the estimated doses of radiation from the Japanese reactor leak was about the same a person might receive during ONE round-trip international flight. Coincidentally, these same people continue to live along an area most likely to be affected by an earthquake or tsunami.
Irrational thinking
People like to think that humans think logically and rationally, but research into the field of risk perception has proven this incorrect. People have two inputs that affect their perceptions, logical thoughts from the brain and instinctive feelings from the gut, which are many times in conflict.
Perceptions are also affected by emotional associations and mental shortcuts. Rather than assessing risk by objective, verifiable data, such as the odds of a risk occurring, people tend to rely on subjective, subconscious calculations. What you have heard from friends, read recently on the internet, and what is occurring around you at the time carry more weight in your risk assessments than do cold, hard facts.
Our instinctive, gut reactions that originate in the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotions, have helped us avoid an attack from an enemy who charges out of the surrounding trees and bushes by giving us a split-second of lead time that allowed us to move away from the attack, but these gut reactions do not work when we are walking down a street with hundreds of different vehicles, buildings, and people carrying out all types of activities. Rarely does anything stand out as a threat. 
We are evolutionarily prepared to fear snakes and lions, even when they are caged and harmless, even though this seems irrational. Yet we rationally eat burgers and hotdogs even though we know they are harmful.
People fear becoming one of the 48 average annual airline fatalities while they think nothing about becoming one of the more than 30,000 annual vehicle fatalities. Perception controls our actions more than reality. This gap between our fears and the facts is called the perception gap.

Psychometric paradigm

A tool, called the psychometric paradigm, describes the little tricks our brain uses in evaluating risks. Optimism bias gives a rosier view of the future than the facts might suggest. Confirmation bias leads us to prefer information that supports our thoughts and discounts information that is contrary to those thoughts. We also tend to seek support from groups with which we identify ourselves. However, it is heuristics, the subtle mental stages that give rise to such biases, that most affect our risk perception.
The availability heuristic says that the easier a scenario is to conjure, the more common it must be. It is easier to imagine a tornado destroying a town than it is to imagine our arteries being clogged from too much saturated fat in our diet; therefore, we tend to think tornados are more common and more of a threat than heart disease.
The representative heuristic makes us think something is more probable if it’s part of a set of known characteristics. That guy up ahead is wearing baggy pants, gold chains, and backward ball cap, therefore it is probable that he is a gangsta. However, the more influential heuristics are the affect heuristics, that little voice that creeps into our decisions.
The positive feelings associated with something tend to make us think it is more beneficial, while negative correlations make us think something is riskier. People start smoking even though they know about all the dangers because they think about the pleasure they get from it rather than the risk of dying from it. Immediate pleasure wins over the chance of dying.


If your sole purpose of training in the martial arts is for self-defense, then your time could better be spent on other pursuits. Basic self-defense techniques may be learned rather easily but to become proficient and stay proficient at them takes a lot of time, money, and effort and your chances of ever needing the skills are slim.
If you are training in the martial arts for other purposes, such as fitness, self-confidence, self-esteem, sport, hobby, or just for fun, then you are not so concerned about the time, money, and effort it takes to be proficient, and self-defense is a useful side benefit. So, don’t worry about being able to protect yourself against something that probably will never happen and be happy training in a martial art that will probably make you a healthier and better person.


  • National Center for Health Statistics
  • CDC
  • American Cancer Society
  • National Safety Council
  • International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
  • World Health Organization
  • USGS; Clark Chapman
  • SWRI; David Morrison
  • NASA; Michael Paine
  • Planetary Society Australian Volunteers.
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