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Threat Assessment

 

Explanations > Meaning > Threat Assessment

The stick-or-gun problem | Naivety and vigilance | Blind trust and paranoia | Four dysfunctional types | A balanced position | Accuracy and decision | State and transitionSo what

 

One of the most important survival skills is the ability to see dangers around us in time to do something about them.

The stick-or-gun problem

If you are walking alone somewhere in a park and you see a man coming towards you with a short rod in his hand, you might be forgiven for thinking it could be a gun.

The dilemma is that if it is a stick, perhaps that the man is throwing for his dog, then you might embarrass yourself by running away. But if you bluff it out, they might rob or even kill you. The greater threat means that it makes sense to be worried, even though the chance of it being a gun is actually very low.

This is the nature of many threatening situations. If you underestimate the danger then you will be harmed. In consequence, we tend to over-estimate threats.

Naivety and vigilance

In the question of how much effort people put into watching out for threats, there is a spectrum from innocent naivety to careful vigilance. 

Naivety

The naive person skips along through life, oblivious to all the dangers around them. Like a tourist wandering gaily into a rough local bar, innocent people simply do not see the hazards.

This may be because they do not bother looking for threats and it may be they have a poor detection ability. The bottom line is that whether they get punched or deceived, they just did not see it coming.

Sometimes naive people appear vigilant, but when they are unable to spot threats they will still meet problems.

Vigilance

A vigilant person is always on the lookout for threats. They are keenly aware of the dangers around them and constantly scan. Like a martial artist, they extend their sensitivity and awareness beyond their reach and are constantly in a state of readiness.

Vigilant people may have learned to watch out for themselves at a young age or perhaps have concluded in other ways, such as stick-and-gun situations, that attention to the environment beats ignorance.

People who are vigilant are not necessarily distrusting. They just do so with care, keeping a weather eye on situations just in case they turn bad.

Blind trust and paranoia

Another dimension in scanning for possible threats is the extent to which you trust other people.

Blind trust

Trust is what enables society. If we trust others, then they will be more likely to trust us, and we can live without constantly worrying about threats from our friends.

Some people, however, take this too far. They blindly trust strangers with their possessions and their lives, assuming everyone is trustworthy. Even when others take advantage, they do not learn the lessons of life, continuing to blindly trust, then falling victim time and again.

Blind trust can be caused by a person constantly taking the child position, seeking parent figures who will care for them.

Paranoia

At the other end of the spectrum, people who are paranoid trust nothing and nobody. Whilst this reduces the chance of harm, it has a number of negative consequences.

A paranoid person, in not trusting others, will find they have few, if any friends. If others come close then the person backs away in case the others are harmful.

Another emotionally draining down-side of paranoia is fear. If you do not trust people then you will probably fear them. Fear can also turn into anger and hate, which are also negative and harmful emotions.

Four dysfunctional types

A simple model that combines naivety and vigilance with trust and paranoia is shown below. This results in four extreme types, any of which can be dysfunctional, harming the person more than it helps them. In consequence, most people are more towards the middle, taking a balanced position of moderate vigilance and reasonable trust.

 

Vigilance-Trust matrix

How much I trust others
Blind trust Paranoia

How carefully I watch for threats

Naivety
Vigilance
 

Innocent
lamb

 

Blind
fool
 

Foolish
victim

 

Terrified
wreck

 

A balanced position

Between the extreme positions is an effective, balanced position that many people find, where they are selectively vigilant and reasonably trusting.

In the balance of naivety and vigilance, it is worth being moderately vigilant much of the time, with a relaxed but attentive awareness of the world around you.

In the trust spectrum, a reasonable position is 'trust but verify'. Be initially trusting in most things, but do not put yourself in the path of possibly serious danger whilst you watch for evidence that others are decent and trustworthy.

In both spectra, the key is situations. Learn where you should be extra vigilant and particularly cautious with your trust. If you can see these 'hot spots' in your life, then you can be more trusting and less vigilant in others, hence saving cognitive and emotional effort most of the time.

Accuracy and Decision

The effectiveness of how we handle threats depends both on how accurately we assess them, and how effective our subsequent decisions are.

Accuracy

When assessing threats, some are better than others. Once you have recognized that there is a threat, the question is how serious this is. Our ability to predict now comes into play as we assess what might happen. The extent to which we trust people, and how valid that trust is, is a significant factor here.

In the manner of creating contrast, we will often polarize threats, making them overly large or small, good or bad. By exaggerating what we see, we are more able to differentiate. This also is related to Ellis' irrational beliefs.

Decision

After deciding there is a threat, we need to decide what to do about it. This initially depends on the accuracy of the threat assessment. If the accuracy is poor then the decision is unlikely to help the situation and could make things worse.

When the threat is human, decision depends on our understanding of human psychology. Other factors can also appear as threats, in which different skills are needed, such as meteorological ability to assess a weather threat.

State and Transition

As threat increases, people do not act consistently. What typically happens is that they jump through a series of states, for example becoming more tense and then suddenly becoming aggressive or hysterical.

When threat declines, people do not flip back to prior states at the same threat level as when they changed on the way up. Typically they will sustain higher caution for longer, transitioning back to higher trust only when they are very sure it is safe to do so. This kind of pattern also appears in the hysteresis of trust and betrayal.

So what?

To influence others, you can increase or decrease the apparent threat, although beware of the fight-or-flight reaction in which people may react in a way that is not helpful. We often run away from threats without realizing which direction we are going. This can be useful or it can be problematic.

You can also help to reduce threat, so making people grateful and more likely to collaborate with you.

Before making use of threat, see if you can calibrate people in terms of how they normally react to threats. Remember in this that people may have 'flip points' at which they change their response, reacting in a different way.

See also

Emotions, Trust

 

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