The Dunning-Kruger Effect Of Self-Defense

I started teaching martial arts at a time when the internet barely existed, when there was no Google. Outside of Black Belt magazine, some books and later VHS instructional tapes, for the most part, information wasn’t readily available. You had to be really interested and go out and search for material that you thought may have value. In other words it wasn’t simply a click away.

I think one of the major turning points of information overload in the world of martial arts began as YouTube emerged in 2005. Over the past decade the web has continued to evolve and explode. Today when we talk about martial arts you can literally find anything you like — from the most obscure styles likely never seen before except by a handful of people in the ‘know’ — to ‘experts’ galore on every conceivable topic related to martial arts.

Initially this may have seemed a really good thing as it gave a platform for anyone to present their position on ‘effective’ martial arts. However, it now seems that the consensus is that every opinion should have equal weight on these platforms. Everyone is a self proclaimed expert, just because they say so. Because so many people have the concentration span of a Goldfish these days too — most people don’t spend any length of time objectively evaluating what they see, weighing it on evidence, on personal experience, rather than on tacticool rhetoric and flashy demo’s.

Because You Saw It, Doesn’t Make It Real

Of course it’s not all bad. The ‘everyone is a self-defense expert’ paradigm peddled on the net, at least for those discerning enough to do due diligence on what they are watching — has a tendency to uncover how many people out their teaching self defense stuff are pretty much clueless themselves about the reality of interpersonal violence. Sadly though, most people watch something on YouTube, and then say it makes sense, fall into the trap of faith, rather than objective reality. I can’t tell you how many people argue with me on what works on the street based on what they watched on YouTube. When I then ask them have they at the very least attempted to apply what they saw in actual training against a resisting uncooperative opponent/s? I am met with silence! I hate to point out the obvious, the map is never the terrain.

Watching something someone teaches who claims expertise and truth in interpersonal violence — and your actual ability to apply it yourself — is not the same thing. This is why I tell everyone, don’t take my word for it, try it out. Take what I teach and see if you can make it work. If you can’t lets troubleshoot, but don’t ever take my word for it. This is why, and anyone who has ever come to one of my workshops can attest too, I always teach, and then we apply what we learned. I get on the mat, and I spar everyone, or if we doing realistic scenario drills I show I can do it myself. Then, without exception, I work with everyone to get it right themselves. I may not teach you a million things, but what I teach you works, not because I say so, but because you can achieve success in it yourself.

I think the landscape in approaches specifically to self-defense such as reality based self defense, unarmed combatives (or what ever name it goes by) would change over night if people began standing up and asking the ‘self-defense expert’ to show them how they make what they are teaching work against actual resisting opponents. If people who keep taking what they see on the net as self-defense gospel truth — actually attempted to apply what they see for real — their position on what actually works in interpersonal violence would change dramatically.

In my experience, many people teaching ‘self-defense’ do so, not because they honestly care about teaching people how to be safe, but rather because it’s one of those murky places in the world of martial arts where you can teach stuff without ever proving it actually works. It’s a place to hide, because there’s an underlying self esteem thing going on here, and inherent insecurity, but yet masked by a grandiosity complex. In other words, they are there for the wrong reasons, they are inherently afraid, chicken shit to show that what they teach works, but yet revel in being seen as someone of importance. We all are pulled by evolution to demonstrate our fitness signals. How awesome is it then to be able to be perceived as a bad ass Alpha male, without every having to put your money where your mouth is?


As a counter point, you can claim X will work say in MMA, but if no one is doing it, or no one can pull it off with consistency, then X becomes irrelevant, and so do you as the proclaimed expert on the topic of X. It’s for this reason, so much of what was suggested as deadly moves in martial arts pre MMA never made it into MMA, because simply it was bullshit.

Now this is not to say that disciplines like MMA don’t have room for improvement or will not continue to evolve — because it will. But it evolves based on the reality of the game, not on a fantasy of what should work. For example, in my humble opinion MMA athletes need to begin to focus more on getting hit less, not only because this is how you can lose, but more importantly the longterm consequences of taking sustained blows to the head. There does seem to be an absolute disregard when it comes to defense, and how to effectively apply it, as seen in the recent Rousey fight. But the reality of the game of MMA at the very least highlights what needs further development not based on a demonstration, but in actual reality of application.

If you really care about your safety, and those you love, don’t fall into the Dunning-Kruger effect of Self-Defense. If you take the position of watching something as the truth, it’s dumb. The more you do this the dumber you become about the truth of what works in interpersonal violence.That dumbness leads to over confidence, albeit it false confidence that you are in fact, not actually dumb about the subject of interpersonal violence. I have said it before, and I will say it again, you should always ask “show me.” Don’t show me a neatly packaged drill as suggestive as how it will actually be for real in a fight, show me, how you as the proclaimed expert can pull this off against a resisting opponent and then begin to believe. Then, when you can do it yourself, then become a believer.


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