Research Breakdown: Behavioural Response to Threat

The amount of research that is out there on the topic of self-defence is limited, and a lot of it is not necessarily very accessible. I’ve spent a lot of time going through the existing papers as part of my own research project a while ago So I thought it might be interesting to break some of them down on this blog every once in a while. These are a lot more work than most other posts, so I’m not going to do this all that often.
This time I’m going to look at a paper from 2015 by Anderson and Cahill, titled “Behavioural Response to Threat (BRTT) as a key behaviour for sexual assault reduction intervention: A critical review“. It’s quite a large paper, mostly looking at other studies. Because this post is quite long, I’m including a bullet point overview, and you can read the full breakdown below.
The paper deals with sexual assault and focuses on the behaviour of the targets of such assaults. Be aware that this is the topic of this post.


  • The paper is a review paper and mostly looks at a variety of other research
  • The area of focus is sexual assault, specifically the effect that the responses of potential victims may or may not have on the outcome
  • The existing research on this topic is quite inconsistent in terms of methodology and terminology, which means it’s hard to make really valid conclusions
  • The authors are trying to introduce a term they came up with: “Behavioural Response to Threat” to make the terminology more consistent


  • According to the authors, the outcome of assaults is affected by the threat perception and the threat response of the potential victim
  • The authors conclude that based on the existing research assertive responses by the victim result in more favourable outcomes
  • They suggest that internal psychological factors may play a larger role in determining the responses than environmental factors
  • The environmental factor with the largest effect on the response of the target was the relationship with the perpetrator
  • Previous victimization was also found to have a correlation with risk assessment and threat response, therefore being a risk factor for more likely re-victimisation
  • Regarding interventions such as self-defence training, the authors state that they should work, but that there is some evidence against that, partly because of a major mistake with a reference they used.
  • Due to the scattered and limited nature of the existing research, more is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn


  • The paper is valuable because it reviews a huge amount of existing research done in a variety of ways, making it a good starting point for getting into SD research
  • For a self-defence instructor, the focus on potential risk factors is really useful
  • Especially the focus on acquaintance assault – we really tend to overdo the stranger danger thing in SD – and how it can impact victim responses is great
  • Everything in the paper needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as there is little solid evidence for many of the statements made in it

Goals and nature of the paper

The paper seeks to provide a review of the existing literature on the nature and impact of the different responses of potential victims to the sexual assault threats. The goal of the paper is to introduce a term the authors developed for the potential responses of someone targeted for sexual assault. The term is “Behavioural Response to Threat”, or “BRTT”. They -correctly – point out that the existing terminology is inconsistent, and want to introduce the term to provide a better framework to be able to do things like compare results across studies. To this end they review a large chunk of the existing literature on the subject, looking at both qualitative and quantitative studies, describing some of the methodologies used and results obtained.
This is quite fascinating, as the nature of the subject limits truly empirical studies severely. The most common way studies are done is with questionnaires or interviews asking if women – like most existing research on self-defence, this paper focuses exclusively on women as potential victims – had been assaulted and about their responses. There are two commonly used questionnaires (“Victim Response Strategies” and “Response Questionnaire” if anyone is interested), although the authors point out that they are often modified for individual studies, making comparison difficult. There are also numerous well known issues with the reliability of self-reporting, particularly with sensitive subjects such as this one.

There are other ways research is conducted, often with hypothetical scenarios, using story vignettes, role-playing or even virtual reality. These are really interesting and innovative, and give some insightful results, though of course they come with their own caveats for reliability.

Different responses

What the research seems to suggest is that the responses of the target, in particular their ability to assess threats and the nature of their responses, have a significant impact on the outcome of the assault. It also suggests that assertive responses, both verbal and physical, are the most effective at deterring assaults. One study (Clay-Warner 2002) found that only a physical response predicted avoidance of a completed assault. The authors seem surprised by the relatively high (29% in a hypothetical scenario and 35% in epidemiological studies) percentage of women listing non-assertive responses or no responses. This should only really be surprising from a deeply academic point of view, as things like freeze reactions, socialised beliefs about the viability and consequences of resistance etc. impact this number. A caveat here is that the limitations of the existing research make it really difficult to assess details such as under which circumstances different responses may or may not be effective.

Predictors” of Responses

For these different BRTT’s, the paper also examines research regarding any predictors of them, i.e. what factor affect how people respond. There are some caveats here: While the authors frame it as “predictors”, upon reading I personal think it might be more accurate to say that these are correlates, I think there’s not quite enough empirical data to support a direct causation. This section is also written a little bit inconsistently, I suspect because the different studies they look at give different results. For example, at one point they mention that high relationship expectations are predictive of more diplomatic and non-forceful responses, while two paragraphs further they state that there are few predictors of non-forceful responses. Again, I think this is simply because they look at a wide range of studies and it’s difficult to synergise them consistently. If you read the paper, it’s just something to be aware of.
The way the authors model the factors is based on existing research (Nurius & Norris 1995), dividing them into background, interpersonal and intrapersonal factors.

For background the only thing that they really look at, and that seems to be a strong correlate is victimisation history. Some of the studies (Craford, Wright and Birchmeier 2008; Messman-Moore and Brown 2006) suggest that previous victimisation is linked to less threat awareness, lower response to risk – e.g. leaving a threatening scenario later – and less forceful responses. It is not clear from the presented data how the causation plays out, whether the effects are due to the previous victimisation or previous victimisation is more likely in people where the above factors are present.

For interpersonal factors, the most substantial effect on the response is the relationship of the potential victim to the perpetrator (Clay-Warner, 2002). This is hugely important, as acquaintance assaults are more likely than ones by strangers. Any tacticool “murderdeathdefence” techniques we teach might go straight out the window in such a situation, and we need to be able to take this into account in our training. The severity and exact nature of the assault may also play a role, but the evidence is still inconclusive. An existing relationship, as well as high expectations about that relationship, and concerns about it correlate with less forceful and less effective behavioural responses. This holds up even in some of the research with hypothetical scenarios which is remarkable.

The authors suggest, based largely on one study (Fisher et al, 2007) that intrapersonal (i.e. internal psychological) factors play a greater role than external environmental ones in determining the responses a target will be able to utilise. This is quite a controversial statement, and the evidence is definitely not conclusive. However some of the data points strongly towards this, and it is definitely something to keep in mind when teaching, as it suggests that mindset and psychological conditioning are major factors in successfully resiting assaults of this nature. Higher levels of assertiveness, (shockingly…) correspond to more assertive responses. Feelings of anger, lower concern for injury, less fear and less confusion, less self blame and lower concerns about the relationship all correspond to more forceful and effective responses. The inverse appears to apply as well. Also feelings of sadness correspond with less forceful responses.

This entire topic is very complicated, as well as highly sensitive, so I don’t think any of the above should be taken at face value. It’s interesting data, but more thorough research is absolutely necessary. Things like the interaction between different factors, or the impact of multiple response strategies are not examined at all.

Existing Interventions

The authors also look at existing interventions to reduce sexual assault, including self-defence training. This part of the paper is a little iffy however. They do include some recent studies (Rowe, Jouriles and McDonald 2015) and a review paper (Anderson and Whiston 2005), pointing out an apparent paradox: Based on their previous results, interventions that improve risk assessment and teach more assertive threat responses should reduce assault risks, but while some studies show such outcomes (Senn et al 2015), the review paper ( Anderson and Whiston 2005) shows an insignificant impact. While there really isn’t a huge amount of conclusive empirical evidence that self-defence training reduces assaults, in this case the reason for the contradiction is more simple: The authors made a mistake! The review paper they reference does not actually review self-defence training, but rather sexual assault education programs, which are quite different. In fairness to them, this is not immediately apparent on looking at the review paper, but not being able to tell the difference does suggest that either a) they were superficial in checking their references or b) their understanding of the subject matter is rather limited from a practical standpoint. They do reference other papers which show positive outcomes, but correctly point out that in most cases the outcome measures fall short in some ways, for instance in that there is usually no assessment of the skill improvement of individuals who have received training.

So is the paper useful to SD/MA instructors?

Overall I think the paper is quite valuable, and if you are a self-defence instructor – or just interested in the subject – it’s worth a read if you can get access. The number of studies it reviews alone are quite useful, and depending on how familliar you are with violence and the responses to it, you can get a lot of good information. There are a few things that are a bit iffy, and reading about the varied methodologies used in other studies you begin to understand that a lot of this data is not very reliable – so you still have to think for yourself! There various suggestions for future research, which I sincerely hope somebody will follow up on to get us more accurate data.
I have a few main takeaways from the paper. First that it’s really important to address the psychological and social aspects of acquaintance assaults and how that affects responses in training. Also it supports the view that we need to address mindset, it’s not enough to teach physical techniques. Training needs to include a spectrum of skills, and we need to also help build people’s inner strength in order to be able to utilise their training appropriately. Also, from an aftermath point of view, several of the referenced studies show that there is quite a wide reange of responses to these situations. If we have survivors in our classes, we can use this data to help them come to terms with their own responses, because they may feel that they “should have done something else”. Finally, I really like the “threat perception and threat response” idea as a model, and I’ve incorporated it into some of my seminar programs.

Stuff you really don’t need for SD

Last post I talked about what to do if we want to do self-defence training as part of our martial practice. This time I’ll keep it a bit shorter, and mention a few things that you really don’t need to do to make your training self-defence relevant:

  1. Scowl fiercely when performing techniques
    Look, I get it, you want to show that you’re not like those other pansies who are all relaxed and actually having a good time when they train. You’re a warrior TM for crying out loud! This is serious. Ah, suuuure. Except it does absolutely fuck all to make your training relevant. Looks mighty fierce on camera though, so if it’s just part of your marketing effort (or you have resting scowl face I guess) good for you.
  2. Do stuff faster and harder
    Doing the wrong things faster and harder is not making them better (martial arts is a lot like sex in this regard, really). Just because you’re single handedly responsible for your training partner’s addiction to painkillers does not make what you do actually relevant. Don’t get me wrong, training fast and hard can be important and has its place, but doing stuff to a compliant uke is not that place.
  3. Have a skull in your school’s logo
    Is it a dojo, is it a metal band – who knows? Despite reports the skulls, knives and other warrior branding of choice do not actually impact the abilities of practitioners in any way whatsoever. Some of these do look really cool though.
  4. Do three moves for every one your uke does
    Ok, admit it, you saw this on Jason Bourne and thought it looked cool. Here’s the deal though – if you have to move three times every time your partner moves once, then a) your being very inefficient and b) what your showing might work if you’re attacked by a turtle approaching retirement age. Seriously, they don’t even do this in the better action movies these days.
  5. Be a dick to your students
    No, it doesn’t make you edgy and realistic. If it walks like a dick and quacks like a dick, it’s probably a dick. Yes, I’ve read Angry White Pyjamas too, and no that part is not worth replicating. Yelling insults at your students is not coaching, assaulting them teaches them nothing except that you are not to be trusted.
  6. Say “On the street”
    Please for the love of deity-of-choice, don’t! Just don’t! Unless you are literally referring to the physical difference between the dojo and the pavement covered area outside, this is a good way to get anyone who has a clue to instantly turn off.

What does training for self-defence even mean?

Self-defence is a loaded term in the martial arts world. Everyone kinda has their own definition of what they mean by it, and this leads to a lot of people talking past each other when they try to discuss it. (As an aside, it’s absolutely the same in the – limited – academic research that exists on the subject).
It’s technically a legal term, and there are worse things than to use it that way. For the sake of a more universal definition, and for clarity in what I am about to write, I’ll give the simple definition I used in my dojo:

” In self-defence, the goal is to prevent other people from inflicting violence on us, and to go home safely at the end of the day. Preferably uninjured and in no legal trouble. “

When we are training for self-defence – and we aren’t always, there’s plenty of other stuff we can do in the martial arts that has little relevance to it – that’s what we are training for.

So to break that down a little, self-defence focused training means a couple of things. First, if the goal is to prevent other people from inflicting violence upon us, that is quite different from the goal being to win fights. It means that we acknowledge that a lot of the time the easiest way to do that is to head off the violence before it happens. The old saying that prevention is better than the cure definitely applies here. OK Dan, sounds good, so we want to train for the avoidance of violence, what does that mean?
Well, to avoid it, we first need to know what it looks like. That means we need to look at the problems that we or our students are likely to face. Of course those are quite different for each individual, so we need to develop a decent understanding of different types of violence and how they occur, and what dangers each student might face, based on demographics and lifestyle. We need to understand how the victim selection process for criminal violence works, and what the factors are that lead to fights breaking out. OK, so now we know what can happen, what else do we need to be able to avoid violence?

Well, it does kinda help to see it coming. So we need to work on awareness. What are the warning signs of the above? What does a potential approach for a mugging look like, when is someone gearing up for a fight, what are the red flags that suggest a relationship might be turning sour? We need to work on the relevant knowledge, and train awareness skills such as attention control. Note that I say “train”, we actually need to practice this stuff. Now let’s say we’ve done that. Very good. That’s a nice start, and to be fair if you had limited time you could do significantly worse than just learning those things for self-defence. But it’s not always possible to avoid everything, so as responsible trainers – or students- we shouldn’t stop there. What do we do when we are surprised, or our efforts at avoidance have failed? De-escalation or deterrence seem like a good start. So we go back to the different kinds of violence that we looked at above, and practice how to talk them down. Usually apologies for the social stuff, the fights over status and sports teams. The opposite for the predatory things, we train to set and maintain boundaries, and signal that we are not going to put up with crap. OK, so far so good. Does not work 100% of the time though, does it? So we need more.

We need tools for if avoidance and de-escalation don’t work. Then we come to physical options I guess. We’ve already looked at how violence happens, so we know what we need tools for. We need something to help us recover from a sudden attack we didn’t see coming, and we need to understand the effect such a thing can have on us, like triggering a freeze response, and causing an adrenaline dump. This is also where it gets a little tricky not to get our wires crossed as martial artists. Physical is our toy box, and boy do we love our toys. We need to be careful that the toys we pick are appropriate for the goals we’ve set. We want to go home safely at the end of the day. OK, one of the best ways to do that is to go home really fast right away, aka escape. So we should train for that. First we need to work on the mindset of doing that early and often, and second we train to do that as the end point of our physical tactics. Again, we need to practice it, not just pay lip service. Telling ourselves or others to run away is all well and good, but there are skills involved which need actual practice to be useable.

OK, so now we have physical skills that might get us through the initial phase of an assault and we’re practising to escape, we can look at what to do when that’s just not possible. In those cases, we need skills to make our attacker unable to hurt us, which means physically disabling them. So we need to understand what that means – usually they are unconscious, badly injured or in a position from which they cannot hurt us any more. So we need to practice doing that decisively. Now we are in the part most of our martial arts tools are really designed for, with one big caveat. We need to go back and take another look at what actually happens, and then make sure we are practising to use our tools for those problems. If we’re looking at knife attacks for example, we might have a really good tool for dealing with someone trying to stab through armour with their backup weapon in feudal Japan, but a modern knife attack might look a little different. Which doesn’t invalidate our technique – and more importantly the principles behind it – but it does mean that if we want to train for self-defence we need to make some changes.
We also need to acknowledge the areas where maybe our toolbox isn’t so strong. For Aikido, we might not have a lot for when we get dragged to the ground, or when we need to hit someone.
So then we have a choice, we can acknowledge that and get the training somewhere else, or in the case of our students, refer them elsewhere (as an aside, if you are not willing to do that last part even where it would better serve your students, kindly fuck off out of the self-defence sphere). Or we can acquire tools through extra training and adaptation of other things we have. We don’t need to be experts at everything, but we need to at least have some basic tools for the most common things that happen in a physical assault.

Then we need to make sure that those tools are usable under realistic conditions. That means a certain degree of stress testing, “live” practice and simulating realistic conditions to a degree that is practicable to our circumstances. That’s a whole big topic all by istself, so I’ll put a pin in it for the moment. The last thing I’ll say on the subject here is that a lot of the serious violent assaults we want to train against look very different from consensual, mutual fighting, and if we’re drawing on sources for training inspiration, we need to be a little bit careful what we pick.
One more thing we have to cover when we talk about the physical skills begin applicable is the emotional component. I’m not talking about the whole “rah rah channel your inner warrior and be empowered” stuff, I have issues with that for a number of reasons. No, what I’m referring to is that a lot of the stuff we’d have to do is icky, hurty and breaks a bunch of taboos (not to mention people). And that requires some work to deal with. It’s all well and good to be all tacticool and practice super special neck breaks, but if we completely ignore the emotional component of doing something like that (not to mention ethics and, you know, the f***ing law!) we’re setting ourselves and our students up for a potential freeze, or a really shitty aftermath.

Speaking of aftermath, this is also something we need to address. What do we do after something happens? Succeed or fail, if we’re not dead, we need to deal with what just happened. A lot of this is outside the scope of a martial arts class, but we need to at least address basic self-checks for injuries, immediate medical care, that people should get long term help if they need it (you’d think it wouldn’t need to be said…). Practising articulation to be able to talk to first responders. Things like that. It also really helps to have covered the legal basics of self-defence for wherever we live, and the ethics and potential social cost of using violence.

So that’s the thought process that goes into the frame for self-defence training. Or an overview at least. If we cover all of that to a decent extent, we have self-defence training. If not we don’t really. Notice how there is some overlap with traditional martial arts practice, but it’s not all that much. Our toy box of physical training is nice, and can be very useful, but it only really applies to a small part of the problem.

And that’s the biggest thing: Self-defence is about solving a problem. It’s less about accurately transmitting a system, even less about the traditions and cultural aspects of said system. Like in all such cases, it really helps to solve the actual problem the person actually has, rather than the one we so conveniently happen to have the right tool for.

If you want to get a more detailed dive into the necessary aspects of self-defence training, I highly recommend Rory Miller’s excellent book “Facing Violence“.

12 Aikidoka you will meet online

#1 – The Preacher

Has a topless poster of O’Sensei in their bedroom. Thinks O’Sensei is a god and their sacred duty is to spread his divine teachings. Often speaks in nonsensical quotes taken out of context.  Will occasionally come up with their own Aikido poetry using a random motivational poster generator.

#2 The Lethal Weapon

Thinks Aikido is not in the UFC because it is too lethal and would win too easily. Knows all about the street because they lived in a bad neighbourhood once. Tried to register their hands as lethal weapons. Owns a pair of Tacticool ™ camo pattern Hakama.

#3 – The Archaeologist

Everything was better in the 1920s. Everyone but them has wasted the last 100 years, because Aikido, its warm-ups, its training methods and life in general peaked then. Will die of preventable infection, because antibiotics were invented in the 1940s and are therefore fake.

#4 – The Pacifier

Believes that mastery of Aikido would let them resolve any situation effortlessly and without the slightest risk of injury to either party. Is convinced that people who have to cause anyone the slightest bruise to defend themselves are just not skilled enough. Has never been hit.

#5 – Anger Management

Has a lot of stress in their life, and hence is deeply angry. His commitment to the art of peace prevents him from having a healthy outlet for this, except when people are wrong on the internet about Aikido. Channels all his pent up rage into online rants.

#6 – The Innovator

Read a self-defence blog once, then realised that nobody in the history of Aikido has had the insights they had, and if people only listened to them everything would be so much better. Comes up with “ingenious” new techniques and training methods, most of which are low quality copies of other martial arts. Has a green belt.

#7 – So Fed Up With This shit

Usually older. Did Aikido for a long time, then discovered people talk about it on the web. Signed up to have productive, friendly and mature conversations about their favourite hobby. One week later, started drinking heavily.

#8 – The Aiki-Bro

Responds to criticisms of Aikido and the allegations that Aikidoka are easily offended and immature by challenging people to duels via social media – provided they live on another continent and are unlikely to take him up on it. Challenged Master Ken to a fight once, still isn’t convinced Enter the Dojo is comedy. Says “Osu” a lot, doesn’t know what it means.

#9 – The Critic

Thinks the problem with Aikido is that no one trains correctly any more. When pressed, displays extreme skill at never stating explicitly what “training correctly” means. Often says “you will get it after 20 years”, mostly because that’s how long it too them and if other people did it faster that would be embarrassing.

#10 – The Questioner

Asks questions online that they should be asking their instructor instead, so they don’t have to see the judgment in their eyes. Has “obnoxious question of the day” toilet paper, and apparently irritable bowel syndrome. Started training last month.

#11 – The Cultist

Is convinced Aikido is the greatest martial art on the planet, and will announce so loudly and obnoxiously. Loves lecturing people on how proper Aikido should be practised, and on the true meaning of Aikido’s philosophy. Is already planning their dojo and seminar tour. Started training last week.

#12 -The Tapout Troll

Doesn’t actually do Aikido, but feels it is important to educate Aikido practitioners about how fake their martial arts is and how they can’t fight. Has street cred because they got into a shoving match in a bar once, and “if my friends hadn’t held me back man…”. Gets into flame wars with Aiki-bro.

What is Aikido?

What is Aikido? If you ask online, you will get any number of answers, simply because there are many different organisations and approaches to it. Often these answers are sprinkled with very strong opinions on what is True AikidoTM.

Looking through moving boxes from a few years ago, I came across a number of old magazines of mine. One of them is the October 2011 issue of Blackbelt Magazine. I used to read that, though only infrequently, because there was a single kiosk in one specific train station that had it. This particular issue had an article on Aikido that I quite enjoy. It’s about Aikido’s place in the modern world, and includes some insight into the views of the current Doshu, Moriteru Ueshiba. In particular, it’s about whether the martial or the philosophical aspects of Aikido are more important. Which one represents “the True Aikido”?

His view as presented in the article, based on what he said at a dojo re-dedication in Hawaii, is that both are valid, that it is up to the individual instructor. He points out that he focuses on the philosophical aspect rather than martial – and so, one presumes, does the organisation he is the head of. However different practitioners have the choice to focus on martial aspects instead, without it being any less valid or part of Aikido. I have a great deal of respect for this viewpoint.

If you know me personally, you know I’m definitely one of the people who are more focused on the martial aspect. Specifically I’m interested in how Aikido can be applied to self-defence. I’ve trained and taught with this goal in mind for a number of years now, and this blog is where I’ll put some of my thoughts on the matter in writing.

The thing I want to lead with is that not everything that we do in training is useful for every purpose. It’s not that “focusing on the philosophy of Aikido” necessarily means that the training is not martially effective, but it does mean that a lack of martial effectiveness is a possibility, and the training can still be valid for its stated goal. Assuming of course that we can acknowledge what we are and aren’t doing, and do not delude ourselves. Similarly, if we practice with martial effectiveness as our primary goal, that does not mean we necessarily ignore the philosophical aspects, but it does mean that ignoring them is a possibility.

We also need to be careful to acknowledge that martial arts training is not the same as self-defence training, even if we have great martial effectiveness. Self-defence is a very specific goal, protecting yourself from criminal violence while staying within the law. The parameters of this are different for each student, and one-size-fits-all approaches are entirely inadequate. If we want self-defence in our training, we need to work on it specifically.

So with all of that in mind, what I want to write about here is both aspects, the Harm (martial effectiveness and self-defence) and the harmony (mental and physical development). There are of course other things that are involved in Aikido, such as cultural trappings and the social aspects. As far as those are concerned though, I want to finish with something that was said to the late Alan Ruddock, founder of the Aikido organisation I am a part of. When he left Japan after training with O’Sensei for some time, Ichihashi Sensei took him aside and said to him:

“Remember, all these things we do like bowing and sitting in seiza are Japanese – not Aikido. You know better than we do how to teach foreigners. When you go back home, respect the ways of your country, remember to teach aikido your way.”