Intuition on the street: Harnessing the power of the sixth sense

By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)


Part I of a 4-part series
Read Part 2:
Rationalizing the irrational

Do you believe there is such a thing as a sixth sense? How about a woman’s intuition? When I ask these questions to law enforcement attendees at the Street Survival Seminars, I always receive a resounding “yes” — especially from the female contingency. But the truth is, most people, not just cops, believe that they do have the ability to sense things about others, even if they don’t know a thing about them. And more often than not, those senses tend to be correct.

One of my field training officers referred to this phenomenon in a very politically incorrect way. He called it the “asshole alarm.” I recall him explaining it to me this way: “Let me tell you something boy, not everybody has the gift. But, if you got it, you can spot an asshole a mile away. Don’t have to talk to them don’t have to know anything about them. You can just spot ‘em. And you’d better hope you got the gift son, cuz if you don’t, yer screwed.”

I found it difficult to argue logic waxed so poetically.

But what is this intangible thing in our collective psyche that allows us to size up situations and people in the mere blink of an eye? Are humans actually hard-wired with innate intuition about other people? Does intuition, defined as “direct perception of truth, independent of any reasoning process; immediate apprehensioneven exist?

It’s the notion that intuition is independent of any reasoning process that I question, because there definitely is a reasoning process involved.

There is no such a thing as an “intuition gene”or a special chromosome on the DNA strand that assigns intuition as a human trait, like blue eyes, hammer toes and hairy backs. But we do possess the ability to read others. Think about it: Don’t you usually get an impression about another — whether it be a sensation of fear, dread, or caution — within the first few seconds of interaction, even before words are exchanged?

Why is it that we can glance across a room at someone and feel an instant connection? Why at other times do we get a sensation of fear, dread, or caution almost instantaneously when in the presence of. . .well, assholes?

The theories are many, but they are just that — theories — which means no one knows exactly how any of this works. But who cares? What we need to examine and understand is that this instinctive communication is constant, and unquestionably involves the brain processing unconscious thought at lightening speed.

In his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking the author Malcolm Gladwell explains his theory of rapid cognition as the type of thinking that happens in the “blink of an eye.” 

Consider meeting someone for the first time. Within milliseconds of the encounter, our senses begin observing and evaluating stimuli. Within two seconds, if not quicker, our mind jumps to a series of deductions about the other person: good, bad, dangerous, safe, someone to avoid, or someone to trust. And studies show, those evaluations tend to be incredibly accurate.

Law enforcement officers absolutely need to understand and learn to focus on those two seconds because those seconds can literally mean the difference between life and death, success and failure. Gut feelings come from the unconscious part of our minds. It is our unconscious that processes observations (via sight, sound, what is there, what is missing) and thus evaluates the surrounding world.

This happens so fast, our gut feelings confuse us. They don’t compute at the level that controls our conscious awareness and therefore those feelings at times, just don’t feel quite right. So we tend to ignore them. Partly because the words used by other people, being processed and evaluated at the conscious level, battle with the processes going on at the unconscious level. Often, if we can’t rationally explain why we feel what we feel we respond to the evaluations processed in the conscious mind instead of reacting to the “gut” feelings processed by the unconscious.

I teach communication classes for law enforcement and for private industry. I used to say in those classes that the unconscious is in control of 90% or our everyday activities, but I was wrong. Upon further study and reflection I have to acknowledge that orchestration of actions, done consciously, is no where near the figure of 10%.

While it is the conscious mind that houses our subjectivity, morality, judgment, our ability to be self-aware and make rational decisions, it is our unconscious that is actually the controlling force in both dealing with our existence and in navigating our way through life. And the unconscious does more than feel and react, it actually does think and that thought process is quite rational. But, it is a thought process that moves so fast that it is mysterious and perplexing to the more logical, deliberate thinking, conscious mind.

From a law enforcement perspective this phenomenon is in constant play on many levels:  evaluating witnesses, sizing up a given situation, and rooting out lying suspects. But it is never more important than when it processes the communication cues of potential assailants.

People are in a constant state of communication. We are unconsciously “leaking out” our moods, attitude, and even intentions. Whether it be through a look, a posture of avoidance, tone of voice, inflection, stance, gesture, movement, lack of speech or by talking too much, we are in constant communication with others.

It is important to understand this concept. For what we call a “hunch” is, in reality, an assessment of another and/or the immediate environment. Something that was done, not done, or what may be missing is processed by the unconscious. That process evaluates the stimuli in relation to the immediate situation and the data base of past experiences. If something doesn’t make sense to the unconscious, the alarms go off.

Over the next several months through a series of articles, this concept will be explored in practical terms that come into play on the street. We will examine certain behaviors and pre-attack indicators that are often displayed by those intending to do police officers harm.

Behaviors such as scanning and flanking, the timing of gestures, postures and eye contact will be discussed. I look forward to sharing the information but I am also asking for assistance. Veteran officers especially are experts at spotting body language signals and verbal cues that are precursors to nefarious intent. Email me, Jim Glennon, and share your thoughts and experiences so we, in-turn, can share them with the wider law enforcement community.

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