Situational Awareness and Positioning (part III)

When he got within 5 or 6 feet… Lawler leveled the Glock and fired once, hitting DeCosta in the groin.

Man pulls 13-inch knife during fight, gets shot

A previous post discussed The Tueller Principle, or as Dennis put it originally “How Close Is Too Close?” In light of the above incident, The Tueller Principle and two related concepts bear further clarification and quantification.

A concept that is seldom discussed in the personal protection community, among either instructors or practitioners, is proxemics. The term proxemics was originated by a cultural anthropologist, Edward Hall, in his book The Hidden Dimension.  Its meaning is how we, as humans, interpret and manage the physical space around us. This should be an integral part of planning for personal protection, but usually is not.

Professor Hall’s work breaks out several spatial zones that we perceive around us. Most important to us regarding the realm of personal protection is that we make instinctive judgments about whom we allow into these zones and what our reactions are to those who enter, or try to enter, the zones.

  • Intimate Space – where we only allow loved ones to be.
  • Personal Space – the area in which we are comfortable having people we know and trust.
  • Social Space – the zone where we communicate and/or interact with others generally.
  • Public Space – an area where we accept that people in general can be, regardless of whether we know them or are interacting with them.
Diagram by WebHamster

Diagram by WebHamster

It is also important to note that Hall’s work was preceded and partially inspired by the work of a Swiss zoologist, Dr. Heini Hediger. After extensive study of animals in the wild, Dr Hediger, in his book Wild Animals in Captivity, introduced several concepts about predator-prey behavior that are particularly relevant to the personal protection community.

  • Flight distance – the distance at which prey will seek to escape the approach of a predator.
  • Defense distance – the point at which pursued prey, which is being overtaken by a predator, will have a ‘defense reaction,’ in the words of Dr. Hediger.
  • Critical distance – the boundary at which prey that is cornered, or feels it is, will initiate a counter-attack on the predator. I.e., the prey has lost its ability to maneuver or escape (decisively engaged) and then reacts in an emergency mode.

Dr. Hediger states that these distances “are specific, within certain limits, and may be accurately measured, often within inches.” p20 When he says inches, he is referring to very small animals; larger animals will generally be measured at intervals of feet or yards/meters. The larger the animal, the greater each distance will be, generally speaking.

The questions that then arise are: 1) what is the overlap between the works of Tueller, Hall, and Hediger and 2) why is that overlap important? Hall theorized that Hediger’s concepts of flight, defense, and critical distance are no longer applicable to humans. However, I do not believe that is true. Human behavior during a criminal predation tends to follow Dr. Hediger’s concept quite closely.

The incident described in the first paragraph is an excellent example of a phenomenon I observed in my long term study of The Armed Citizen and other reports of armed self-defense by private citizens. My impression after the study of thousands of incidents was that people tended to allow human predators to encroach not quite to arm’s length before shooting. When I say encroach, I do not mean actually shoot at, as in a gunfight, but rather attempt to close the distance, whether armed or unarmed.

Encroaching is actually more dangerous than a full throttle attack. If an armed predator runs at us at full speed, it’s obvious what his intent is and our decision becomes fairly simple. On the other hand, an encroachment induces uncertainty into the encounter, in the form of the question “How Close Is Too Close?” Of course, if gunfire is being exchanged, then typical spatial boundaries and zones no longer apply.

Shooting a human predator, especially when he is encroaching, is a communication and social transaction. It is the strongest form of communicating “Stop, don’t come any closer!” Dr. Hediger would term this the critical reaction that occurs at ‘Critical Distance.’ My impression is that it will most likely occur in what Hall termed the ‘near phase of Social Space.’ For North Americans, this zone is between four and seven feet. In other words, our Critical Distance lies within that zone. We will do what we need to do to prevent a predator from crossing the boundary between Social Space and our Personal Space.

How does this relate to The Tueller Principle? The minimum safe boundary established by Tueller is 21 feet. However, the boundary that Hall theorized between public space and social space is only 12 feet. What this means is that we will have an inherent tendency to allow people, and specifically predators, to approach us well with the boundary of safety established by Tueller. That 12 foot boundary for Social Space may be the maximum boundary of our Flight Distance, even with a sketchy character. If our Critical Distance is only 4-7 feet, that could represent a major problem when dealing with a predator.

My late colleague Paul Gomez periodically quizzically commented that “people don’t shoot criminals far enough away.” The relationship between the concepts of Tueller, Hall, and Hediger may be the reason why. It’s something we in the training community need to do a better job of explaining and training.

Situational awareness is not just about seeing what’s going on; it’s also about interpreting that information and what to do about it.

At least a half-dozen times, I ordered him to stop.

Another of my colleagues commented to me “We only say ‘Drop the gun’ once around here.”

11 responses

  1. That makes sense, a lot of sense. I guess we should train to keep situational awareness and to keep distance.

    Thanks for sharing this info.

  2. It is scary to comtemplate but i expect i would be apt to let a predator get too close before shooting in fear of my life. How does one overcome this hesitance?

    1. Jo ann, what you might try is to draw some lines on the ground at the boundaries of the zones. Have someone walk quickly, not run, toward you from each. Try to draw an inert weapon (you could use a squirt gun) from your carry gear and see what happens at each distance. That would be your personalized version of The Tueller Principle. It might give you the information you need to influence your decision making.

  3. Try working in a crowded city. You will find that these distances are exaggerated. In the real world folks will be even closer and sometimes you will be touched. During rush hour a train can get very crowded. That is life. Its like poker you have to read them. Yes that is going to be very subjective.

  4. “Situational awareness is not just about seeing what’s going on; it’s also about interpreting that information and what to do about it.”
    Seems to me as though this overlaps with the OODA loop and how we interpret the information in our brain. What your quoted statement addresses if the Observe and Orient phase leading up to the decision to act. The problem is that everyone’s “Orient” is going to be different based on their life experiences with close physical interactions. Someone who grew up in a mild suburb and never got into a fist fight growing up is going to perceive those spacial boundaries differently than someone who has been held up at gun or knife point in a large urban city. I discuss proxemics and how it relates to responding to violent critical incidents and relate it to what use of force options may be appropriate in addition to the context in which you state…some folks just don’t get it so easily and unfortunately, seem to become more confused.

  5. Innocent Bystander

    Given all of the emphasis placed on making sure any shoot is a justified (and justifiable) shoot, and the consequences if it isn’t, I can understand the hesitation to fire upon an aggressor until he is well within the danger zone; I don’t know if that was this man’s impetus for not firing sooner. He obviously was reluctant to shoot knifeman and only did so after exhausting other options, save beating feet, which might have worked (or not, I’d love to see the video of this incident) if he had been alone. From my armchair quarterback perspective, he not only met but exceeded all reasonable expectations of what constitutes a good shoot. I’m just thankful that he, or his companion, weren’t hurt in the process.

  6. This is also cultural. The concept of personal space is very different in, for example, India. People from some of these other cultures may be literally “speaking a different language” when it comes to distance.

  7. Reblogged this on RealDefense and commented:
    More great material from Tactical Professor

  8. Defensive Training Group

    Reblogged this on The Defensive Training Group.

  9. Very well written. I will use some of this in the CCW class I teach. I promise to give you credit.

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