Saturday, March 8, 2014

Hick's Law versus the World's Fastest Men


Hick's Law versus The World's Fastest Men

by W. Hock Hochheim

"Called the fastest man in history, in one
of the world's fastest sports, he did
not do well at all when selecting Hick's
pretty lights...."

     Just when freshly educated people began to realize what little influence the true 1950's Hick's Law actually plays in fighting, combat, and training doctrine, another piece of research "pops up," pushing it even further off the chart of importance.

     Just now pops up? Well, no, it is not new. The sad part of the story is this first little event popped up in the 1980s! Perhaps a decade before the real marketing ploy/rush of Hick's Law infected and overburdened the training programs of the world. It's the 1980's story of Desmond Douglas, our first and perhaps fastest athlete. But first, some quick Hick reviews …

In-a-Quick Review 1 - Hick's Law. I have written before about its misconceptions, misuse, myths, and misunderstandings in numerous articles. Need we revisit and belabor the perception more than a brief setup? People have been told about the 1950's lab test, which famously involves selecting colored lights and how fast you can select these lights. People believe that all the things you know are stored like a Rolodex card file in your brain, and the more things you know, the longer it takes for the Rolodex to spin and for you to pick one card and decide to take any physical response action. People say it might take about "a second" or "half-a-second" to respond between two choices. That grows "exponentially" - the more things that you know. The more time. Three options? About a second "Four Things"? Two seconds or more. So it is, therefore, best to stay pretty dumb. That, in a nutshell, is the common lore of the Hick's Law as it is perceived by the masses. But the Hick's math perception of life does not compute to the everyday life around you.

     The classic "split-second decision." Look at the words “split-second.” Splitting seconds. How many ways? The time-measuring pros, the scientists, commonly split a second into 1,000 parts or milliseconds. Atomic Clock experts split it even more. It is virtually impossible for a mere mortal to comprehend or properly experience one millisecond or even 500 milliseconds though we say so flippantly, so frequently, “be there in half a sec!” We can't get there that fast. A millisecond's true meaning exists for us after the fact, like when we see the finish-line photos of horse, people, or car races, all an “after-the-fact" performance measuring stick. Ten milliseconds or 25 milliseconds means about the same to us as saying “trillions” of dollars. We slightly grasp it as a concept, but we've never really handled the money. But before we talk about Desmond Douglas, "the fastest man alive," let's review:

In-a-Quick Review 2 - the "Zen of the Millisecond," if you will. Have we heard these lines much?

     “Oh, if Johnny Williams could only have been 34 milliseconds faster!”

     “Son, stick with me. As your coach, I will promise I will improve your speed by at least 45 milliseconds. Maybe even 47!” 

     Probably not. In truth, elusive milliseconds could well be gained or lost by things totally out of our control – like a sudden headwind or by the sheer thinness of the air itself or the heat on the spongy asphalt. Or your hair gel? In the recent Russian Olympics, athletes complained that the thin seams on their shirts were too big, costing them milliseconds. It might have nothing to do with the peak performance of an athlete on any given day. You are only so good or so fast. And so many teeny intangibles can affect milliseconds.

In-a-Quick Review 3 - Hick's Law is a 1950's-era computer test somehow extrapolated over in human performance and split-second reaction times of humans. Hick's Law has been overemphasized, twisted, and strangled into various misstatements in training programs. This misunderstanding has been covered extensively in my prior writings, so I shall not repeat them here, but one silly, extreme example reminder statement would be the classic,

     “… it takes about half a second to decide between two choices. This increases exponentially when you add another choice.” This little diddy is regurgitated in training sessions all over the world to this day. And they usually explain "exponentially" wrong, too. "Four choices? Two whole seconds. Six choices - four whole seconds, etc.," as if the adding machine numbers run up. If this common line were true, this would grind sports performance down to a slow-motion snoozer or standstill. The boxer would stand, still thinking, “Ahhh, jab? Cross? Or uppercut … or.…” A simple football play would not unfold as you see it before your very eyes.

     Another classic is the issue of "greater reaction time" to choose between two or more choices. I quickly ask, how long is "greater"? The word "greater" just sounds really big and great, but what if it were really only 17 milliseconds? Or 300 milliseconds? How fast can we as humans actually get, or how dumbed-down should we remain?

     No matter how theoretical the Hick's line might be, statements made that are this off base can really have a negative impact on training. Widespread, they do dumb down training. They express and promote a certain futility. They can just ... dumb you down. One example? I have had a police instructor tell me I couldn't learn a second punch because I would have trouble and waste seconds trying to choose between two punches. Three punches? Worse!

Now the Main Entree - UK's Desmond Douglas! Douglas was considered one of the fastest men alive in international, championship, and Olympic ping-pong/table tennis. The greatest. At this level, ping-pong is played furiously. You have to decide whether to strike a blurry ball rocketing at you by moving your feet and moving your torso and moving your arm and paddle up, down, right, or left and then maybe even apply whatever spin you can. You deliver your lightning ball to your opponent's weaker spot. This a quite a number of split-second choices; and under considerable stress in world championships and the Olympics, Douglas garnered the respect of players worldwide. (Oh, and as an aside, there is considerable stress in the Olympics. Certainly worse stress than sitting in a room matching colored light bulbs with buttons.)

     In 1984, the media decided to try and capture this lightning in a jar, to time Douglas's reactions and marvel at them and him. Enter the classic Hick's choice format. Under the watchful eyes of reporters and fans, they tested Douglas playing the old colored lights game, and they were shocked to discover that the champ performed poorly. Not just poorly but very poorly at these tasks. This was shocking to the world choir. Called the fastest man in history in one of the world's fastest sports, he did not do well at all selecting the Hick's pretty lights. His official reaction time ... was poor.

Let's Take a Quick Look at a Fast Man in Baseball!

     Fact: The time it takes for the ball to leave the pitcher's hand and pass home plate is just 400 milliseconds.

     Fact: Baseball-hitting coaches suggest there are four or even six fundamental choices of bat swings to make for a hitter. Swing high, swing medium, swing low. Swing tight to protect the inside of the strike zone. Swing extended and full power. Punch it right. Punch it left. At times, even bunt! Four to six decisions to make in 400 milliseconds.

     Fact: The window of time to hit a major league average fast-pitch baseball is a mere five milliseconds. If you are keeping score or times – again, that four to six decisions to make in 400 milliseconds and to react in five milliseconds! You might think these simple facts of a common baseball game alone blow Hick's Law right out of the water. The Hick's numbers don't add up.

     Fact: Albert Pujols. But it gets worse for the value of Hick's. There is one more layer to this. Player Albert Pujols is considered to be one of the best hitters in baseball for his generation, with a great lifetime batting average and great on-base and slugging percentages. He was capable of making these incredible millisecond decisions and choices with precision, maneuver his arms and the bat. Yet, when Pujols took the usual Hick's Law test by selecting colored lights? Albert scored poorly, in the 67th percentile! Nonathletic college students did better than him. It appears that selecting Hick's light bulbs is different than real tasks in real life under real pressure. His official reaction time ... was poor.

     Another Fact: Researcher Dr. Janet Starkes has become one of the most influential sports performance experts in the world. In the 1970s and 80s, she saw players of many teams in
many sports fielding by what she called "these caveman” reaction tests. In 1980 she said, “They were using simple reaction-time tests (like Hick's) for selection, and they thought it would be a good determinant of who would be best … I was astounded that they had no idea that reaction time might not be predictive of anything.”

     "Not predictive of anything." And that was 1980! After this and more research a decade before police training, "wonks" latched onto the idea of using Hick's Law as a seductive sales pitch; and then the mindless throng that further regurgitates it read more about what really counts by looking into her work. She also has proven that proper training and experience are the paths to fast performance.

     This is not shocking to me at all. The tasks in playing table tennis or fencing or baseball are different than the tasks of Hick's seated control-room lightboard. In fact, the tasks involved in almost anything in life are different than Hick's. Hick's test and task reaction times are directly proportionate to … taking Hick's test.

     The Douglas' and Pujols' situations are a grand example of the flawed essence of the Hick's test at its very core when comparing it to reaction times in other varied performances. There are other studies where some fast competitive fencers did poorly on the Hick's Tests (see Dr. Aladar Kogler's book called One Touch At A Time above). If you want to time someone? Time them doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, not matching colored lights. Reduce the abstract.

     The only real thing Hick's Law first told us is that it takes some time to decide. "Some time." Milliseconds. But these decisions can take just mere, mere milliseconds, faster than our natural and normal comprehension can grasp. And, yes, even with multiple choices. Milliseconds. The solution is to stop with all the extraneous Hick's babble and worship and just improve your speed with dedicated, goal-specific training. An athlete and a coach should maximize training. Push the envelope. Barring the intangibles, you'll get as fast as you can get.

     To juxtapose this ignorance - did you know, for example, that when your foot touches the ground, it (your brain) adjusts to an irregular surface in seven or so milliseconds? Nerves from the foot travel to the brain and a position decision returns back to the foot. Not too dumb or slow, huh! And pretty darn fast.

     People ignorantly or by a business plan have designed, sold, misrepresented, exaggerated, or confabulated what was the original small scope of Hick's Law. Usually, it's from flat-out ignorance. The Hick's Law process is quite worthless as some kind of a vital fight-training standard. It only makes for flighty discussion on various subjects. Subjects like the length of some web page menu list or like some racetrack banter about horses bolting off the starting line, all after the fact, after the race.

     Or like you buying a hamburger with a trillion-dollar bill. Theoretically, you can, but....

     Just some of the "new books" that choose to completely ignore Hick's Law or inadvertently discredit its value.

     And perhaps the most important book to read is this one. It, too, is recent and CHOCK full of response time info.

     Vickers, in quick summary, barely mentions Hick's Law but for a few paragraphs in this amazing and comprehensive textbook. She adds that Hick's selection times can easily be increased by training. For more on this must-read book, Click here:

Some Social Media Conversation on This Essay and Subject
     Scott Fague says: "OK, I buy it that Hick's Law is false. Is the idea of training hard on a limited skillset instead of training on 1,001 techniques also not valid?"

     Hock replies: "Oh, no. No. Hick's Law is not utterly false. It truly exists. It really does take time to see and time to decide. It's just that it takes mere milliseconds. Again, there are 1,000 milliseconds in a second. Other simple rules of common sense will dictate how many things (or techniques) are needed to do something. Like being ambushed and dealing with simple freezing. Like Dr. Vickers says, training reduces Hick's timetable.

     "In training, at what point does it become just plain stupid to bother with 45 things when 20 things will do the job? These types of common sense are not and should not be so based on Hick's Law. That common sense is based on ... well, common sense. And what karate system actually has 1,001 moves, I wonder? Are there really 24 completely different blocks to a punch? These are thoughts and terms embedded in our minds from charismatic salesmen using the "straw-man" sales pitch/argument. These guys will make you pay thousands of dollars and sit listening for hours for something that can be easily explained in just a few minutes. Explained and/or sometimes explained away, that is.

     "But Hick's Law, Hick's idea certainly exists. It's just not that important to preach and bang a drum constantly about, as so many police and other trainers do."

* * * * * *

     Michael Patrick says: "Mr. Hochheim, can you point me toward the source of this information? I would be very interested in reading it in its entirety. Thank you!"

     Hock replies: "Michael, the very books shown above! I would start with two newer and great books. The Sports Gene by David Epstein and Bounce. In many ways, these two books are entirely about this very subject. The ENTIRE BOOKS are like a reference, full of references. The books are about people learning to naturally excel and perform well. Well beyond the suggested restrictions that uneducated and unenlightened trainers have imposed upon us since about the mid-1980s (especially police trainers and next, martial artists trainers who have looked to police trainers as a source) with Hick's Law. These are not the only new books.

     "A must-read classic is Thinking Fast and Slow. A regular critic of mine, whose blood pressure seems to burst every time I dare talk about Hick's and its applications to fighting, was quick to point out that Thinking Fast and Slow is 'not about Hick's Law.' Not in his close-minded world, maybe, but it is very much. First off, its scholarly, Nobel-winning author Daniel Kahneman's book is all about the subject of the mind and thinking. One would think such a comprehensive book would at least mention the term Hick's Law once? But it does not. Not once. This point alone minimizes the importance of Hick's. Further, the book explains the many reasons for lagging response times other than the Hick's and the "Spinning Rolodex" selection concept. Not all slow responses are about the Hick's selection process. There are other reasons for slow selection.  

     "In fact, if you look at any newer, progressive, modern training and sports psychology textbook, you will not find the term 'Hick's Law' even so much as mentioned; that is how unimportant it is, except maybe once in a while to discredit the overall concept (The Sports Gene merely mentions a bad 'reaction test with lights'). Read these entire books. These books were not written just to debase and debate Hick's Law. The books were written to advance thinking and performance. They ignore Hick's Law.

     "Then there is this article that has dozens of references in it. It is odd, though, that when many, well, ... brainwashed believers ... read this article? They still somehow ask for …."references." What? About 70% of the article is made up of references of doctors' names and study names, paragraph by paragraph. Click here for the article:

     "Also, check out the work of Dr. Janice Starkes, whom I mentioned in the essay. She has pioneered something called 'Occlusion Training' (not the weight-lifting version, but about vision). Everyone who knows this gets this and uses this in some way. It is about how the brain REALLY works to perform as quickly as possible and reinforces the need for experience and repetition training. The subliminal reinforcement of seeing what the opponent does and how to respond.

     "Modern sports training experts, books, and professional performance programs “in the know” do not remotely mention Hick's Law anymore. And I also suggest it be dropped from the training vernacular to avoid the general confusion and misconceptions it has generated. Hick's Law is specifically a test about timing the selection of colored lights, and that makes it exactly and only what it is, just a test about selecting colored lights. It is what it is. Some of the proven fastest people on the planet do poorly on this test, which ought to tell us something right there!

     "And you must read the Vickers' book I listed just above."


     Michael Patrick continues"Thank you, sir, for the references. These will surely be great resources. I am always trying to provide the best material to those I train as I can. I also always remain quite open-minded and understand that science is always evolving its understanding, especially in the field of combatives. I always try to consider both sides of every argument. I have been an adherent of Hick's Law in the past due to my training. Now I tend to go with the less is more concept of not trying to master two dozen ways to defend a punch. In that regard, I often reference Hick's Law only to minimize decisions that have to be made. Too many trainers make ridiculous statements on its application, especially on timings of the decision process. Perhaps it is time to find new terminology. So I am looking forward to reading these materials. Again, I thank you, sir!"

     Hock continues: "Michael, I've been doing several martial arts since the 1970s, and I would be hard pressed to list two dozen defenses against a punch. Whereas with a tweak or two in preparation and presentation, 'defenses against a punch' can be just one single, overall, big concept (like a very popular and accepted learning method called 'Chunking'). It still takes 'time-and-grade' training to get good at something. How much time depends on individual people. There is nothing wrong with 'less is more.' Nothing.

     "Words mean something, and we have been tricked by the terminology through time and salesmen. Great sales phrases like -

     - 'It takes greater time to decide.' (Oh, there's that word 'greater'!)
     - Or the dissing - 'My karate system has 1,001 moves.'
     - Or even 'two dozen ways to block' mentioned above, really.

     "What karate system really has 1,001 moves, I wonder? Are there really 24 completely different blocks to a punch? Fifty-two? These are thoughts and terms embedded in our minds from charismatic salesmen using the "straw-man/scarecrow" sales pitch/argument. These guys will make you pay thousands of dollars and sit listening for hours for something that can be easily explained in just a few minutes. Explained and/or sometimes explained away, that is.

    "You learn a lot of things - workout and experiment with them to pick your favorites. You also learn a lot of things to mentor your students into picking their favorites. Somehow this very old idea has been lost through time.

     "As you might read elsewhere when I write, 'Einstein said - 'keep it simple, but not too simple'! And what was simple to Einstein would make our brains explode. It is all so damn relative."

* * * * * * *

     Tony Torrez, former SPEAR instructor and now of Functional Edge Mixed Martial Arts in AZ, USA, comments: "I've said it before, and here it is again, Hick's Law does not apply to combat. It only applies to desk jobs and computer interfaces.

     "Combat is not a decision-making process. It's athletic performance. Too many moving parts to fall into 'making decisions.'

     "And I leave you with this to ponder as a bit of a side issue, but it still relates:

     "Unconscious thought theory (UTT) was first presented by Dijksterhuis[ and Loran Nordgren in 2006. UTT posits that the unconscious mind is capable of performing tasks outside of one’s awareness and that unconscious thought (UT) is better at solving complex tasks, where many variables are considered than conscious thought (CT), but is outperformed by conscious thought in tasks with fewer variables. The theory is based primarily on findings from comparing subjects presented with a complex decision (for instance, which of several apartments is the best?) and allowed either:

     "(1) very little time;

     "(2) ample time, or;

     "(3) ample time but are distracted and thereby prevented from devoting conscious attentional resources to it. It is claimed that subjects unable to devote conscious processing to the task outperform both those who can spend time deliberating and those who must respond immediately.[3] Dijksterhuis and Nordgren interpreted these findings as strong support for the idea of UT being superior to CT and used them in part to justify six principles distinguishing UT from CT. This position runs counter to most research on unconscious processing conducted over the last 40 years, which has found unconscious processes to be characterized by simple responses and to be incapable of complex operations.[4] Unconscious Thought Theory has come under stiff criticism from researchers unable to replicate the original effect."