Interpersonal Violence: Your Response Time Matters By: Steve Tarani


Faster may not always be better, but in the context of your personal safety, i.e. events with the potential for interpersonal violence, response time matters.

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This YouTube image shows an unarmed man being beaten during a random attack carried out by a stranger. The attack took place in Manhattan. (Photo credit: ABC News Eyewitness 7)

A typical street violence attack cycle consists of a five-step process. This cycle is how one or more actors (bad guys) prepare. They…

1. look for a viable target (you).

2. select a target.

3. verify that you (the target) are, in fact, their best choice for predation.

4. close in on you and then, if unchallenged,

5. initiate their physical attack. 

During the first four steps of the attack cycle, you are offered an opportunity to take proactive measures to avoid the threat. This might be accomplished as simply as applying your situational awareness (a vital part of your suite of soft skills) and just walking away.

However, failing to hear, see, or smell the attack coming (step five of the attack cycle) you have no other choice but to react to that threat. By the time you get to the reaction phase of the attack cycle, where you have no other options but to respond physically, your opportunity to be proactive is forfeit.

Use of the personal threat matrix will help preempt step five.

Street violence: a possible victim in the street with someone looming over them.

At the point where you find yourself reacting to an active threat, you must respond physically. Reactive measures demand your body to run for your life, creating space between yourself and your attacker(s), which buys you time and affords you more options to solve the tactical problem. Or to expeditiously apply appropriate use of force to protect your life, limb, and/ or those with you. 

Applying appropriate use of force means either going empty-handed (martial arts or defensive tactics) or using a weapon such as a firearm, edged weapon, or impact weapon. Your first and foremost consideration is that you are required by law to respond with reasonable use of force against your assailant(s). To apply force beyond what would be considered reasonable use of force by twelve jurors could turn you into the aggressor. At that point, you are liable to subsequent litigious consequences. 

Should you find yourself at the business end of an attack cycle, there is a single paramount factor impacting the performance of your reactive measures, and that is response time.

In any real-world altercation, the actors bring the initiative as they determine the target, location, and means to perpetrate their nefarious plans. You, of course, can’t know any of this at the onset, and failing to apply proactive measures successfully, you are placed behind the action-reaction power curve.

Standing there frozen in your tracks, wide-eyed and mouth-breathing for an indiscriminate amount of time, does nothing to help reduce your response time and places you further behind the curve.

The good news is there are three approaches available to you from the world of professional protective services (the pros) that you can adopt and make part of your war chest to help reduce your response time should you one day find yourself in harm’s way. Listed in order of priority, these are psychological, decisional, and physical.

Atmospherics: a vital part of avoiding interpersonal violence might best be described as "reading the room".
Atmospherics are important. Are you “reading the room” wherever you go? Are you paying attention to non-verbal cues


The human mind is a fantastic machine – when it works. However, there are a few examples where certain conditions can stall or even stop that machine from functioning. One of these is Normalcy Bias which is a psychological phenomenon that causes your mind to reinterpret dangerous events and assure you that everything is OK when things are not OK. It can make you stare with a smile at an active threat. However, it can also be defeated by knowing what it is, how it works and getting yourself trained like what you’re doing right now by reading this article!

The gist of Normalcy Bias is that we humans need to process information incoming to our brain box before we can take any physical action. Dr. Daniel Johnson, a 20th-century human factor psychologist, best illustrates this as a six-part process comprising cognition, perception, comprehension, decision, implementation, and physical movement as necessary steps to process new, unfamiliar, and threatening information prior to physical action. Of course, you can do nothing about the threatening part, but because of your understanding and training, these concepts are no longer new and unfamiliar.

person standing on busy street with hood up

Another factor is the time interval measured from the onset of threat recognition (awareness) to physical movement (response). It is a psychological refractory period describing the time lag measured from the arrival of a suddenly presented and unanticipated stimulus (you observe a guy with a gun at a grocery store) to the beginning of your response to that stimulus. 

The instantaneous response does not happen, and there is a gap between recognition of an actionable observation and appropriate action. Realizing this factor subjectively allows your mind to help minimize that refractory period.


Following a time lag to process the information, you must ask yourself, “Is this an actionable item?” If not, then you carry on with your regularly scheduled program. However, if you determine it to be an actionable item, you are compelled to create an immediate plan of action and movement. 

Is this a shooting response? A tactical response? (grab your family member(s) and run the other way, toss a scalding hot cup of copy at your attacker, and the like). None of which can be determined had you not applied your situational awareness in the first place. 

person holding a revolver in a dark room

Forewarned is forearmed, and the sooner you hear it and see it coming, the greater your response time. If you decide to go to guns (or any other weapon) in your emergency action plan, your first consideration should be the appropriate use of force. Each of these decisions costs you valuable fractions of a second at a minimum and, when added together, contributes to the overall sum of response time.


Mechanically speaking, we all have a measurable amount of human reaction time. According to former FBI agent and renowned competitive shooter Bill Rogers, this reaction time, what Bill calls a “unit of human reaction time” (UHR), is approximately one-quarter of a second in most cases. However, training regularly in physical or complex skills such as martial arts or shooting can bring your UHR down below a quarter of a second.

A second physical action is to make the threat react to you. Making your adversary react causes them to relinquish control. Creating a plan of action and movement in your mind, followed by your physical movement, will cause your adversaries to react to you. You have taken control of the action-reaction power curve the split second they react to your actions.

Knife-wielding assailant in dark hallway: you cannot always prevent interpersonal avoidance but you can often avoid it.
You cannot always prevent interpersonal avoidance but you can often avoid it.

The terrorist, predator, or opportunist carrying out any planned attack, such as a home invasion, mugging, kidnapping, active shooting, etc., has no choice but to follow the steps of the attack cycle to ensure their success. Your knowledge of these steps, how they work, and how to use them as an active measure enables you to retake the initiative. The bad guy has control, and you make him react, you take control – it’s that easy. Making him react is the key to moving yourself to the front of the action-reaction power curve. 

Reducing your response timeline is to compress the time interval from the first movement of a reactive physical response to the end of that movement. If the instantaneous response does not happen, there is a gap between recognition and confirmation of an actionable item followed by appropriate action.

Effective psychomotor skills represent those activities that are primarily movement-oriented and executed along a compressed timeline. In practical application, emphasis is placed on the physical action response component. However, such on-demand performance requires a balanced integration of psychological, decisional, and physical skills.