The smell of fear: Science, senses, and officer safety
By Dave Smith
Street Survival Instructor
One of our most commented on points early in each Street Survival Seminar is the importance of trusting your instincts. When it doesn’t feel right, when things feel “hinky,” when it doesn’t smell like it should, it’s time to heighten your awareness and start attending to those important officer safety points like maintaining distance, awareness of the hands, subject movement, deception, etc.
We also remind folks that fear is a feeling given us to make us safer, quicker and more effective in high risk situations. This is well articulated in several popular books, most notably Gavin DeBecker’s The Gift of Fear and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. The problem is that “routine” — the constant contact with “yes people” — lulls us into ignoring the key indicators of deception or threat.
Following this training point in the seminar, officers, deputies, and troopers come up to us (one after the other after the next) and give us examples of how they “felt” something was wrong and made an arrest or ended up in a confrontation and their “instincts” gave them the edge.
Scientists continue to prove the importance of believing in what we call our instincts but in fact are simply the natural gifts of rapid cognition and unconscious (subconscious) sense recognition. In the seminar we talk about nonverbal cues given by deceptive or assaultive subjects, that we see lead to injury and death when ignored, and the tragic examples we have on video are sacrifices that should be honored by being remembered always and used to make us all safer.
A recent study of human sweat showed we are able to perceive fear in the sweat of others. While this has long been assumed, we now have hard evidence of the true power of one of the senses we tend to minimize in training and on the street. Smell is not a dominant sense but a very potent one, even though we tend to only think of K9s when considering it an asset.
This brings us to the issue of ignoring any one of our senses and how that can get us hurt. There is no doubt you have felt uneasy with a subject immediately after making contact and couldn’t give a specific reason for your “feeling.”
The truth is, a lot of our perceptions occur at the subconscious level and are hard to bring up to our consciousness. In other words, the cause of this uneasiness (that “hinkiness”) is hard to explain, even to ourselves. It is hard to articulate a component of our mind that is essentially emotional instead of rational. It is similar to explaining to another person why something tastes better than something else.
Vision is a sense we have tons of information about, but the other senses often trigger deep responses that don’t easily (or often) get talked about.
This difficulty makes it hard to explain how we act on these senses, yet your safety is often dependent on you not becoming immune to their effect on mental awareness.
If it doesn’t feel right find out why. Get backup if appropriate, delve deeper, and make sure you cover you rear!
Routine erodes our faith in our senses since most people transmitting fear or deception indicators are simply upset with having contact with the police, however, there is always the simple truth that you may have a truly bad actor and you need to attend to all the signals being sensed. Cops that do this we tend to call “lucky” since they are always digging up stuff for the rest of us to do like transport their prisoners or inventory their seizures.
Dr. Richard Wiseman believes we create luck and one of his main principles is to trust your intuition and gut feelings. He has scientifically proven that some people truly are “lucky” and it isn’t about chance — it’s about following up on hunches! These hunches often occur at the unconscious level and need to be trusted. For us, failing to listen to these hunches, these smells, these feelings, and these sensations can lead to injury and death and that is what makes the science of our senses even more important since it gives hard proof to the reality of the “hinky” and therefore makes us safer!
Now, in the comments area below, share your best example of when you “felt” or “sensed” something in a situation that paid off for you and later found you had a hard time putting that feeling into words.