“I live in a safe neighborhood,” “I don’t play stupid games,” “it’s just so unlikely,” and other gambles.

pascal's wagerIf you’re not familiar with Pascal’s Wager, you can read all about the man and idea here. It’s a pragmatic cost/benefit analysis for belief in God. You can argue there are two possibilities for God’s existence: he either exists or he doesn’t. Then there are two possibilities for our belief: we either believe in God, or we do not. There are various consequences for the convergences of those possibilities.

Regardless of the theological merits (or not, in my opinion) of Pascal’s pragmatism, it can certainly be a useful tool for evaluating other things in life, like where to spend our wasted time.

I think that wasted time could be used to learn how to defend yourself. One common viewpoint, though, is that training self-defense is also a waste of time given the statistical unlikelihood of a person ever needing it.

It’s true; you’re not very likely to be attacked, and even less likely to need to fight for your life. But that’s not the whole picture; not even close.

Going through life without having to ever worry about violence would be great. We could relax and just enjoy the world, its people and all the good things in life: laughter, love, comfort, health, and joy. And we’d never have to deal with discomfort, inconvenience, pain violence and death. Man, that sounds fantastic.

We want that life and we’re willing to gamble, to some degree, in order to get it.

Losing the Lottery

According to FBI UCR data for 2020, in Rapid City there were 3864 violent crime and simple assault offenses per 100,000. This gives us about a 3.8% chance of being the victim of a violent crime or simple assault. In other words, we have a 96.2% chance of losing that violence lottery.

Using the same data sets, the state of South Dakota saw 11,197 total offenses in these categories, making a per-capita figure of 1373 in 100,000 or a 1.37% chance of being a victim of violent crime or simple assault. National data shows just over a 1% chance of being a victim of violent crime or simple assault.

It’s important to note that none of this is scientific, I probably bungled the math somewhere, and there’s probably more or better data out there (not to mention victimization is universally under-reported). But based on these ballpark numbers, we can see two things are probably true: 1) we in Rapid City are more likely than most in SD and the nation (outside of major cities) to have to deal with violent crime, and 2) overall, that likelihood is still pretty low.

Playing the Odds

We gamble with our lives every day just getting out of bed. I might choke on breakfast, or slip and fall in the tub. I might get in a car wreck or just die suddenly.

We all have our own ways of calculating risk probabilities, and we can probably agree that these are all so low risk as to be no factor; we’re still going to get out of bed, shower, eat, and go to work.

We do the same thing with personal protection. Every day we’re looking around and thinking, “I just don’t think it’s very likely I’m going to die from some dirtbag attacking me.” But we still take steps to mitigate that risk, don’t we? We’re careful who we trust, where we go, and what activities we engage in. We modify our decisions based our perception of other people’s appearance and behaviors. We might even throw a knife or pepper spray in our pocket or purse, just in case.

These are all risk calculations. How much effort am I willing to expend, how much inconvenience am I willing to endure, in order to keep myself safe from potential violence? The variables in these calculations rely on my personal perception of my own levels of comfort, capability, liability, and the actual risk from others in my daily life context.

Knowing the Stakes

Something we might not take into consideration when thinking about the risks are the stakes involved. When it comes to violent crime and self-defense, this can be life or death.

Think about how much time you spent learning to drive a car, and how often you do it in order to maintain that skill (aside from the real reason you do it). Consider how much time, money and effort is put into automotive R&D, design and testing in order to improve your safety; to mitigate the risk of you dying in an auto accident. Between air bags, seat belts and all the new computer-driven safeguards, we all seem really concerned with auto safety. Why? Is it because of your chances of dying in an auto accident?

In 2020, as a national statistic, your chances of being in an auto accident was 1.9%. Not too different form our violent crime figures. So why are so many resources spent on vehicle safety? Because of the stakes. You can easily die in a car accident if any number of things don’t go right. And since we’re all out there driving everywhere all the time, there’s plenty of opportunity!

The stakes are the same with violence. Most car accidents are non-fatal, just like most violent crime is non-fatal. But it’s still life or death out there! One slip, one bad decision, wrong place, wrong time, unprepared and you get killed because someone brought violence to you.

Care to make a wager?

According to the UCR data, there were 23,111 deaths reported in the United States in 2020 that were due to homicide and manslaughter. According to NHTSA, there were 38,680 fatalities in motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2020. So you’re certainly more likely to die in a car accident than in some kind of violent crime, at least in certain circumstances (if you rarely drive, those chances change, right?).

That might explain the disparity in resources allocated toward personal protection in each context. But does it explain everything? 23k is still a big number! And yet so few people put any personal resources into their readiness in the personal protection context.

Granted there are many reasons for this, which I’ll probably write about another time. But just considering the odds and the stakes here, maybe we can borrow from philosophy and see if Pascal’s Wager is any help.

Pascal the Self-Defense Coach

  1. I don’t train self-defense, and I never needed it.
    In this outcome we relied on luck and hope; we gambled and won. There’s no obvious cost. But I’d argue we’ve also not gained much, since in my view it’s our wasted time that should be utilized to train. Even so, maybe you gain the benefit of another activity instead. You might consider that a win, and many people do.
  2. I do train self-defense, and I never needed it.
    In this outcome we also gambled and won! We don’t train in order to get into situations. In fact, we do it to avoid situations in most cases, and data shows this is actually a benefit of training. So we still gain in this way, and many other ways like confidence, personal development, discipline, fitness, overall capability and competence, as well as spreading these things to our loved ones and social circles.pascal's defense
  3. I don’t train self-defense, and I needed it.
    Still gambling, but I’d argue this one is a loss. Yes, there’s a good chance we survived without death or serious injury, but there’s also that possibility we lost it all. There’s also a chance we lost property or a loved one, or had to watch someone else be injured or killed. We relied on luck and hope, and we lost.
  4. I do train self defense, and I needed it.
    One could argue this is the same outcome as #2, since even without a direct violent encounter, people who train in self-defense are constantly using it. Further, we also got all of the same indirect benefits from training. But this outcome means we were physically attacked despite all our best efforts at awareness, avoidance and deterrence. We still handled things with a greater degree of competence, and a much greater probability of survival than we otherwise would have.

To be fair, the 4th outcome has the same possibility of failure and death as the 3rd. But probabilities being what they are, can we agree you’re more likely to avoid, deter and survive a violent encounter if you are training in those skills?

It seems obvious, as a simple cost/benefit analysis, that doing some self-defense training is better than doing nothing.

Light the forge.