Fight Science, Media and Reviews

Why do non-fighters think they can fight?

The keyboard warrior. The eternal “expert”. Mr. Know-it-all. In martial arts we have all had our run ins with these types. From belt collectors who brag about their multiple month long training sessions with specific martial arts to the Armchair Quarterback explaining the game to you, as if they knew better, they are quite annoying. And for many reasons. The biggest being that we all, in some sense, are (or were) these people. The perils of knowing just enough to have a conversation but not quite enough to make any sense are ubiquitous.

Recently, MMA coach, YouTube personality, and missed voice over career man Ramsey Dewy posted a video about how he finds it amazing that there are so many non-fighters who this they can fight. And anyone that has been in martial arts for any length of time will instantly relate. We have all had that person, who, while sitting around in a friendly chat, hears that we do martial art and does something stupid like fake a punch to the face while saying “What would you do if I did this!?!”. Dewy states that this seems to be the only activity that people seem so willing to talk with out any knowledge of the topic. While Martial art definitely has an abundance of these types of commentaries, this particular phenomena is not limited to martial arts in the slightest. 

What is going on here? Why do non-fighters feel compelled and often entitled to their uninformed opinions? After all, fighting and martial arts is a very demanding and specific type of training and activity. It takes just as much time and effort to build the skill needed as it would to become a master potter or oil painter. And you don’t see people talking about how they can do that stuff (well you do, those wine and draw classes are gaining popularity). But generally, people seem to chime in less on certain things and more on things like martial arts. 

The armchair quarterback is a common feature on the landscape of athletics. The phrase originates with the advent of television and televised sporting events, in this case American Football. You now had people watching and feeling like they were invested in the same way as the players were. The image of a typical dad, sitting in his Lay-Z Boy, drinking beer and eating junk food while yelling at the refs, coaches, and players during the game is, a very relatable one. 

This is sort of paralleled in the martial arts realm on the internet. The “Keyboard warriors”, who spend endless time on the internet commenting on Youtube videos, Facebook posts, or what have you are a dime a dozen. And one thing they all seem to have in common is , as Ramsey points out, they do not seem to actually train in the systems they are commenting on or in any way. To people who actually do these types of activities, this the of commentary is very unwelcome and often a little strange. What would posses a person to pretend they can fight, when they do not? For actual fighters and martial artists, that sounds like a good way to get your skull caved in. 

However, it is not as strange as all that. Not only is this phenomena common in martial arts and athletics, but it has been identified by cognitive scientists as a fundamental human bias. This bias is our penchant for feeling more confident when the we have small amounts of information and less confident the more information we have in the topic. This almost inverse relationship between confidence and expertise is called the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” and it can illuminate so much of this topic. 

The Dunning -Kruger effect speaks to a particular quality of information and knowledge. When one has the basics and introductory information in any subject, that information seems very authoritative to us and since we can now comment with some sort of vocabulary and understanding and learn more about the topic. But as our information of that subject grows, we start becoming aware of gaps in our understanding that we never would have thought about before. Every question we answer will produce multiple new questions that can only be asked after the first question was answered. As we continue this road, often times we can loose our confidence in our expertise even though it is much greater than before. We start out knowing just a little but are extremely confident in our knowledge. As our knowledge grows are confidence drops off at a certain point. We usually end up in a state of cautious confidence, the hallmark of a true expert. 

This is a basic outline of the effect. There are plenty of nuances and nooks and crannies to the observation. The DK effect applies to everyone, and almost at all times, hence why I call it a cognitive bias. We are hard wired for this effect. But, not all things are created equal and several specific studies in different topics have led to showing that there are different curves for different topics. For example, a study into the DK effect among Anti-Vaccine advocates shows that a third of these individuals thought they knew as much or more than medical professionals even though their actual expertise was extremely low. This is the same process in the martial arts and fighting realm.

This is all well and good for the people who know a little bit and think they know it all. These individuals are also very common in the martial arts. A couple of years of Tae Kwon Do when they were a kid and they feel they have a good understanding of the arts. But what about the true side line, backseat driving, and armchair quarter backing individuals that have ZERO knowledge or experience with fighting or real martial arts? This effect will come in to it, although in a round about way. 

The internet and the proliferation of media and information dealing with fighting and the martial arts play a very big role. The popularity of MMA, videos on Youtube, and Facebook discussion groups all provide the necessary information that a complete novice can glean enough that they think they actually have some knowledge, when they in fact do not. Just like Sunday night Football on ABC contributes to our couch potato linebacker, so too, does the bits and pieces of information that are now so easily accessed about fighting. When we have contact with certain things, even when we are separated from that information in some way, it feels like we are involved. The internet commentator and the fight fan that doesn’t train have very much in common. The illusion of knowledge given by the extremely limited and fractured bits of actual information. Some or all of those pieces may be true, but those that adopt this posture have little understanding of how they relate to realities of fighting. 

And the is not reserved for the novices. Even those of us that are experienced will over estimate our knowledge and competence. The bias is common to all of us. We must all be conscious of the fact that we do not know everything all the time. Too often we can ourselves indulge in a little finger wagging that is less than warranted. Especially when dealing with things that we are not much a part. An open mind is necessary to help check the validity of our own interpretations. As we get more experienced, we should be very careful not to fall back into this way of thinking.

The fact is, everyone thinks they can fight. It is natural. We will still have to deal with the dabblers, the know it alls, the comments from the peanut gallery. But the best way to deal with that aspect of the martial arts is simple. Follow Ramsey Dewy’s advice: 

Get out there and train. 

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