The Importance of Instinct in Threat Assessment


Spotting potentially dangerous situations before they occur is one of the most important jobs security professionals have. Whether they’re bouncers at a bar, or a night watchmen at a construction site, recognizing a hazardous situation before it begins keeps people safe.

Like all skills, some people are very good at predicting & preventing dangerous situations, and some people aren’t. Why is that?

When I’m working a special event where alcohol is being served, I’ll see hundreds of intoxicated people over the course of my shift. Only a very small fraction of those individuals will be any sort of problem, violent or otherwise, and yet I can often pick out the people that are going to cause trouble from those who aren’t.

Recently, I spotted a gentleman staggering around at a concert, and I knew he was going to be trouble. He wasn’t the only person so drunk he was staggering, but something about him set me off, so I made sure the rest of the security staff present knew about him. The supervisor decided to cut him off from alcohol in an attempt to prevent any issues, hoping sobriety would solve the problem.

Later in the evening the gentleman was back near me, and exhibiting signs of an aggressive nature. He was glaring at the roving security guards, and trying to intimidate those around him.

I took the pre-emptive action of getting some backup, in the form of a 6’4″, nearly 400lbs giant of a security guard. While I was doing this, the drunk even tried to tear some speakers off the wall. Once he saw our mountain of a security officer, the drunk changed from aggressive to compliant in the blink of an eye, and left the establishment when asked, relatively quietly.


So how did I know that this man was going to be a problem? He was staggering a little bit, but at a concert, that’s not exactly stand-out behaviour. He was chatting with the strangers around around him, again not weird behaviour, but there was something about his movements, his demeanour and the way he was looking around that put the hair on the back of my neck up, and made me single him out of the several hundred drunks within my view that night.

It was instinct.

This is why some security staff are better at spotting the potentially dangerous drunks over the safe drunks. While some of it’s experience and knowing what to look for, it’s also knowing to trust your instincts. Your brain takes in lots of information, and sometimes your subconscious knows when something is wrong even when you can’t see it. When people feel wary, or frightened but can’t see an obvious reason for it, they tend to rationalize it away. More than once I’ve heard guards say, “well I thought he was just…” and it was that thinking that kept them from acting and possibly preventing an incident. Had they acted on how they felt, there is a chance they may have prevented the fight,  or stopped the women before she drank herself into a stupor, or any of the dozens of issues security deals with nightly.

But they didn’t want to call attention to something that could be explained away and then feel stupid about it.

And this applies to self-defense. One of the statistics we use in the women’s self-defense class is that 90% of assaults on women can be prevented through avoidance and de-escalation tactics. Women who have been assaulted have been able to recognize the signs after the fact, but rationalized away the instincts they had at the time because they thought they were over-reacting. By responding to those feelings of discomfort and not rationalizing them away, you have the option of avoiding conflict or dangerous situations.

Now, that’s not to say you should be living in fear, jumping at every shadow, since a heightened state of fear will over-power those instincts. But when your brain is trying to send you a message, don’t be afraid to listen to it.

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt uncomfortable and couldn’t explain it, but didn’t act and ended up regretting it? Or have you been in situations where you couldn’t explain your discomfort, acted on it, and it turned out to be the right call? Share your stories below.

Comments (6)

6 thoughts on “The Importance of Instinct in Threat Assessment

  1. Humans are the only animals who routinely ignore their instincts. The instincts are there to protect us, and we should always listen to them- whether they can be backed up with logic or not.

    1. I was in Portland the other day reading a book at Powell’s Books, about instincts, etc, and apparently women are more likely to follow their instincts because “women’s intuition” is more acceptable in society than the make “gut instinct.”

  2. Two years ago, i was going to the gym at night when I passed a heavily-muscled, tattooed dude. I didn’t need to have ESP to be on guard. He stopped me and asked where Cambie was. Now, we were a block away from Cambie (in fact he had obviously just crossed it), and I remembered a previous blog where you warned against getting a question that forced you to turn your back to a potential attacker (and I would have had to do so to point out where that street was). In this case, I stepped well away, only slightly turned, and pointed over my shoulder, never losing eye contact. Then we both went on our way.

    Did I prevent a mugging or was I just paranoid? Will never know, but I was definitely more aware because this guy rubbed me the wrong way. Better safe than sorry, I say!

    1. I had a similar situation, where a gentleman came up and asked me for the time. I kept my eyes on him, and kept a few paces back as I felt uncomfortable. I brought my wrist up to my face, so I could look at the time while keeping an eye on him. I gave him the time and stepped wide around him, and it was then that I noticed he was fingering a fork he was trying to keep hidden up his sleeve. He gruffly thanked me and kept walking. I’ll never know if I prevent getting “forked” or if he was just some guy off his medication, but as you said, “better safe than sorry.”

  3. I’m sorry I don’t have my own story to contribute, I just wanted to know where the 90% avoidability of assaults on women statistic comes from?

    1. That stat was given to me by my Sensei from his original women’s self-defense program material. I believe that material was provided by some sort of police stat reports, but I don’t know the source.

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