Understanding Preemptive Behavioral Response - Watch Your Back: How to Avoid the Most Dangerous Moments in Daily Life (2016)

Watch Your Back: How to Avoid the Most Dangerous Moments in Daily Life (2016)

Chapter 1 Understanding Preemptive Behavioral Response

Gunfights in the Old West are among the most romanticized of all American lore. But by many accounts most gunfighters did not actually face off, agreeing to such rules as “When the music stops, draw!” Killers often ambushed their rivals by shooting them in the back. Imagine the surprise if one would-be victim was wearing a bulletproof vest, turned around, and shot back? The forethought of strapping on a vest could be referred to as a preemptive behavioral response.

Preemptive behavioral response is very specialized terminology referring to possibly the greatest lesson to be learned in terms of everyday survival skills. The wording might seem confusing because it starts with “pre” yet ends with “response,” so let’s break it down.

Webster’s Dictionary defines preemptive as “designed or having the power to deter or prevent an anticipated situation or occurrence.” For example, if our cowboy had known that someone was in town gunning for him, the act of putting on a bulletproof vest before leaving the hotel would qualify as a response to a specific threat. Let’s say wherever our cowboy went he suspected there would be outlaws gunning for him. Then, he’d make it a regular practice of wearing the vest, putting it on each morning without thinking of it as any big deal. His behavior would offer safety by design. Consider this. In the 1950s, connecting a seat belt inside an automobile would have been so rare, odd, and out of place that you would have to remind yourself to do it.

In fact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in the year 1996 seat belt use was as low as 61% nationwide.1 But today, drivers and passengers alike have become so used to wearing a seat belt that most people don’t even remember putting theirs on. One might better refer to the 1950s application of a seat belt as a practice. Given how habitually we now strap ourselves in, it could be referred to as behavior.

In order to survive not just an anomaly to our peaceful lives, but a possible ongoing threat, we must develop additional habits not unlike wearing a seat belt or locking the front door to our homes before leaving. As such, the question becomes how to reinforce adequate repetition to develop the necessary safety habits. Do we need someone to nag us, or will that just make for rejection of the practices, much like a rebellious child?

For those who recognize the dangers inherent in their professions, the motivation for developing safe habits is easier to accept than for the average person who has never felt threatened before. For the average commuter that works in an office building and doesn’t drive around in a yellow cab (which when I was a cab driver I referred to as a “cash register on wheels”), or work in a check cashing store (I like the term “deer feeder” better), internalizing new standard operating procedures to ensure safety may take more convincing.

Hopefully, adding in a step or two such as always parking front end forward and looking around before exiting the car won’t be looked upon with same burden as dieting or giving up smoking cigarettes cold turkey.

None of us likes to be inconvenienced, and that’s why the perception of additional safety precautions needs to be changed from being a pain in the neck and a waste of time to implementation without undue emotion. I’m sure the physical discomfort of wearing a vest every day is something police personnel would like to do without. But remembering to wear it is regularly reinforced by the painful memory of losing a fellow officer.


The vast majority of people alive today wouldn’t remember what it was like to ride in an automobile without a seat belt. Even race car drivers were initially suspicious, complaining a seat belt would cause them to be trapped in burning cars. The businessman pictured here doesn’t seem to be inconvenienced at all as he works on his laptop and speaks on his cell phone. If we can accept buckling up, which was once considered a nuisance, then it shouldn’t be difficult to adapt our daily routine to include measures of personal defense. Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.


Where we go is what we are exposed to. Many people who for one reason or another cannot access a proper bank to cash a check may be forced to utilize a commercial check-cashing store. There is nothing wrong with using one. As with a bank, the primary reason one goes to a check-cashing store is to handle money, either on the way in or on the way out. Therefore, a visit to either establishment is likely to make you more vulnerable to crime. When choosing a bank or a commercial check casher, it is important to take into account the surroundings. Utilizing a bank or cash store in proximity to businesses that either sell alcohol or promote other vices, such as a “smoke shop,” means you are likely to cross paths with their clientele. And just because a check-cashing store is open twenty-four hours a day doesn’t mean you should go there after dark.

Beloved race car driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. had the option of wearing a head and neck restraint, but it was not mandatory and he wasn’t comfortable wearing it. The HANS (head and neck support) was developed specifically for race car drivers to prevent basilar skull fractures, also a major cause of death in highway accidents.

The HANS device tethers the head to the body by way of a small harness to prevent the head from snapping forward, injuring or breaking the connection between the head and spine. According to the article “Historic Trauma Cases: Dale Earnhardt” by Cynthia Blank Reid, “A basilar skull fracture is any fracture of the skull that originates in or propagates to the base of the skull.”2

Earnhardt died at the final turn on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 stock car race when his car impacted the wall head on, but the severity of the impact was not immediately obvious even to the other drivers involved in the very same incident. But Earnhardt suffered multiple injuries, including a basilar ring fracture as a result of his head continuing to move forward and striking the steering wheel due to inertial head loading. Months later, the HANS device was deemed mandatory by stock car racing’s governing body (NASCAR). As with modern police, contemporary racers have put aside their objections to proven safety gear and learned to ignore the impulse to complain. For these people, the necessary preemptive behavioral response of gearing up is hardly noticeable because behavior has been transformed into habit.


Before World War II, race cars didn’t even have seat belts. Today, the head and neck restraint known as the HANS device is the industry standard. Before its use became popular, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in an accident that upon first viewing was not expected to result in a fatality. Given the option of wearing a HANS device, Earnhardt Sr. deemed it too uncomfortable and, like many drivers at that time, lamented that it might make it too difficult to get out of the car if it caught on fire. But a head and neck restraint would have saved his life by not letting the driver’s head shift violently beyond its natural tether. Renowned American Sprint Car Series driver Tommy Bryant knows this and wouldn’t think of firing up his 800 hp beast without one. Like all modern athletes, Bryant practices safe habits of preparation because doing so affords him the best chance of continuing to enjoy life.

Not all preemptive behavioral responses are as pointed as putting on a helmet or a bulletproof vest. There are many smaller, more subtle, precautionary actions we can internalize that protect us from harm. For example, several years ago it was pointed out to me that every time I stopped for gas I would start the pump and then proceed to walk around the car. On that particular day, the weather was cold and blustery so why didn’t I just get back into the driver’s seat and warm up? Asked what I was doing, I blurted out that I was inspecting the tires and checking to see if all the lights were intact. This pronouncement was accompanied by the most incredulous of feelings. It was as if someone had yanked me out of bed in the middle of the night and asked me what I was doing. Doesn’t everybody check the condition of the car during a gas stop? I guess you could say this was one preemptive behavioral response I could perform in my sleep.

How did I get to the point where walking around the car during gas stops was habitual to the point of being almost unconscious? Was I copying an elder, or had there been a bad experience when simple inspection would have saved me the trouble of being stopped with a flat tire? Actually, it was both. In my father’s time, tires and lights were the least reliable components of automotive construction and I’ve had my share of blowouts, too. So there was a direct reinforcement of the behavior from which to develop an SOP, or standard operating procedure. My experience told me that someday a simple inspection process would save me from a situation that could be anything from annoying to dangerous. Have you ever tried to change a tire on a busy street or expressway? What if the tire blew out at high speed or some helpful strangers showed up to do me harm? I’d rather walk around the car and troubleshoot no matter how cold it gets.

Many of the preemptive behavioral responses in this book were developed after action, but in the meantime too many people have had to pay too high a price. No one should have to suffer to learn how to set up precautionary measures. We can all learn to engage in “preventive maintenance” that builds in a measure of safety if we are willing to internalize or better yet “habitualize” security measures preemptively. Sometimes this isn’t easy, or just too tempting to bypass. The real question becomes, “What does it take for you to willingly accept the performance of precautionary actions throughout your day in order to increase the chances of your survival?”

There’s a lot of pop psychology or “psychobabble” out there about behavior and how to enhance or change it. One of my favorites is satisfying or embracing the “inner child.” To me the inner child is the immature voice that acts as though there will always be someone or something to fall back on. I hope there will always be a place in your life for the inner child, but it is the voice of responsibility that protects us and it must learn to holler loud and clear.

The problem is most people do not take up methods of personal defense until after something has happened to them or a loved one. Certainly the vision of tragedy or violence is a great motivator. Yet, many people who desire more effective means of personal security find it difficult to implement proven preemptive behavioral responses as a course of action. It’s a type of learning disability that has forever fascinated me. Whenever I cannot get myself to learn something, I look for a way to trick myself into doing it. In fact, I thought I was the only one doing this until I read Practical Shooting, Beyond Fundamentals by Brian Enos.3 It seems that Enos and his buddy Rob Leatham were practicing high speed competitive shooting so diligently they would sometimes get stale and stumble trying to perform the simplest draw or reload. To combat this they developed the “Trick of the Day” as a temporary distraction to “quiet the mind.” It was something to throw them off just enough so that they’d have to concentrate brick by brick on their technique rather than take any shortcuts and miss out on performing a necessary fundamental along the way.

Out of curiosity, I turned to the world of child psychology to see if there was any way of breaking through to the child that was suddenly being stubborn and didn’t want to learn. Consider the study found in the Sage Journals entitled “Using Pre-task Requests to Increase the Probability of Compliance for Students with Severe Disabilities” by George H. S. Singer, Joanne Singer, and Robert H. Horner4. The initial description or Abstract refers to the challenge of seeking “a non-aversive procedure to increase the probability that students with moderate and severe handicapping conditions will follow a directive to begin to work.” In this case the students, “age 7 to 10 years with documented IQ scores between 20 and 44,” have much more to complain about than the average healthy child. And so did their teachers. Bouts of noncompliance included violent behavior toward classmates, including hitting, biting, and scratching. In this test case the request being made of the students was simply to come into the classroom and sit in their designated seats so class could begin. The problem was the students wanted to remain in recess and continue to play in the yard; in technical terms a “transition from play to work.”

What the study found was a simple strategy for increasing the probability of a positive response. Instead of jumping right to the endgame command to take their seats, a series of tasks that had the greater likelihood of being completed were requested. Requests such as “give me five,” “look at me,” or “say my name” resulted in an acceptance of interaction and led to compliance. When this technique was not used students’ compliance rapidly diminished. An earlier study by Englemann and Colvin (1983)5 shared in this conclusion by suggesting that a difficult request should be preceded by rapid series of short, easy requests.

For the soldier in the field that must leave a safer position of cover while bullets are flying by, an inner voice may appear in a moment of doubt. To allay doubt and enable the soldier to continue his mission, this voice would most likely go through a short series of pre-task questions or drills. One such drill would be to concentrate on a breathing pattern commonly referred to as tactical or combat breathing. As detailed in U.S. Army Ranger Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman’s book On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace, the drill consists of a repetition of breath such as intake through the nose, hold for four seconds, release through the lips to the count of four seconds, and repeat. Sometimes a distraction such as the aforementioned trick of the day can be used to change one’s focus from imagining a negative outcome to the mechanics of the job at hand. In one instance, Master Sergeant Paul Howe, proprietor of the Combat Shooting and Tactics school in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a veteran of many battles including Mogadishu (see Blackhawk Down), reports running between points of cover using a specific technique whenever there was room to do so. As I understand it, whenever possible, Howe would back off from the edge of cover and get a running start rather than expend the initial moments of exposure trying to pick up speed. Pre-task requests, such as looking for room to build up speed or checking your gear (magazines, check, knife, check…), are easier tasks to fulfill than making it across the field of fire. Paying attention to the details rather than the magnitude of what you are about to do may be all that’s needed to propel you into action. For anyone whose job it is to collect from a series of vending machines, one might also develop a Q&A program to invoke a mindset at a higher state of alert. The key is to keep the pre-task requests simple (a few quick, positively answered questions are better than one that requires debate) is the better way to construct a chain of positive thought.

Thinking in terms of pre-task requests and non-aversive procedure may also be helpful in accepting the process of putting extra precautions into action even when the behavior seems unnecessary. In other words, you are adopting preemptive behavioral response as standard operating procedure. For example, putting a dispenser of pepper spray on your belt when you only intend to weed the garden in your own fenced yard may seem unnecessary. For our purposes, the voice in your head saying you won’t need the pepper spray could parallel the objections of the students in the Singer study that wanted to stay outside and play.

Objecting to carrying pepper spray when not even leaving the “safety” of one’s yard ignores a basic fundamental of preemptive behavioral response. To always carry some sort of defense with you outside or in and around the home is valuable in maintaining the habit no matter how remote a threat may seem. The desired result is that someday you won’t even remember taking it with you but it will be there when you need it to fend off an aggressive stray dog. Then again, what is the likelihood of being attacked in one’s own yard by a complete stranger after virtually no interaction, inflammatory or otherwise?

Spending the day gardening in her own gated yard, a seventy-nine-year-old Texas woman was murdered in April of 2015 by a deranged man described as being homeless. This same man, later identified as Cavales Prater, thirty-five, attacked his own mother just two days later. In this attack, Prater was interrupted by his mother’s roommate and fled the scene. Reportedly, the roommate followed Prater, who was later arrested by police.

No motive for either crime has been established but Prater was described as being seen hanging around local convenience stores and acting unpredictably. County court records showed several arrests dating back to 1998 for convictions of marijuana possession, theft, and assault on a family member. The fatal attack on the woman, who was a complete stranger to Prater, involved an escalation of violence throughout multiple locations, moving from the garage area to inside a locked bathroom in the house, during which the victim was struck with a golf club, strangled, and stabbed with a scissors. The woman’s husband was alerted but was too late to render aid. A homicide detective for the Houston Police Department was quoted as saying, “I believe this to be a random act of violence by a crazy, demented person.”6

If we could make sense of the perpetrator’s actions, would it be more useful to know why the man attacked the woman in her yard or the reason why Prater cut short his attack on his mother two days later? I would say the latter. While it does not seem likely that Prater was overpowered, it was reported that the roommate, who was neither identified nor described in physical detail, was able to pull Prater off of his mother, at which time he fled. Perhaps simple discovery was enough to end the assault. In lieu of the ability or lack thereof for the victim in the fatal attack to defend herself with a lethal weapon, the deployment of any type of weapon immediately accessible might have prolonged the attack, offering a window of opportunity for help to arrive.

Preemptive behavioral response is preparation. In order for it to be effective, it has to be consistent. In order for preparation to be consistent, the actions taken need to be accepted in a manner that does not distract or feel out of place. For example, it’s perfectly natural to iron a blouse or shine one’s shoes before going to a job interview because it is your desire to improve your life. In terms of personal defense, preemptive behavioral response is perfectly natural because it is the embodiment of your desire to survive. The goal of learning any set of preemptive behavioral response is to internalize it to the point of becoming habit, therefore crossing over into the realm of behavior, or as I like to refer to your collective well of safe habits, your Internal Security Protocol.