The (real) science behind cheating for self defense, and how it applies to 5 common cheats

The purple nurple. Long has it held its place as the bane of elementary school playgrounds, at times causing even the toughest bully to writhe, scream– even plead– in desperation. 

If ever there was a great equalizer in the realm of childhood antics, this was it.

And while it could well be seen as a rude ploy, not a single person ever exclailmed, “That’s cheating!” Well, nobody except the victim. The rest of the onlookers cheered with enthusiasm at the implementation of such an esteemed act of brilliance.

So why, as adults, do we focus our self defense training on fighting fair? Isn’t there a grown up version of the purple nurple? One that would wreak havoc to the confidence of anyone who dared confront us?

Perhaps there is.

Why you should cheat in a fight

In the adult world of violence, a criminal isn’t playing fair when he attacks another person

Think about a mugger, for instance. I can most assuredly tell you no would-be mugger scans the crowd, thinking, “Who could kick my ass with one hand tied behind their back? That’s my victim.”

Instead, the criminal looks for the least likely challenge, the easy target, the one who seems least likely to fight back and most likely to comply. And he uses whatever force or threat is necessary to achieve his goal. He, in other words, is cheating.

So should you.

Cheating gives you an advantage. After all, that’s why it’s called cheating. Cheating in our sense of the word– for self defense– causes certain reactions in the brain and body of the attacker. These reactions allow you time and chance to make your next, more impactful move.

So what are these desired effects of cheats?

Pause reflex: The human brain, upon sensing pain it deems a threat, takes a fraction of a second to decide how to respond. This causes a small delay in what an attacker does next. We refer to this as the pause reflex.

Flinch response: We all know what a flinch looks like, and this response gives you an advantage. In a flinch response against pain, the common motion is to withdraw from the source. Or, sometimes, the motion is to push the source away. Either way, the focus in the brief moment is stopping the pain, not hurting you.


Not all cheats are created equal

I should start off by saying, if you want to read all the nitty gritty, scientific details on how the brain reacts to pain, you can do that here:

In fact, I encourage you to at least click over and take a gander at it. 

But if you want the plain English version, keep reading below.

The human brain judges pain in part by its perceived threat level. The threat value the brain assigns to a pain determines how much attention is averted away from what they’re doing, and toward alleviating the pain.

That means pain deemed less threatening is more easily ignored. Pain interpreted as a higher threat gets more attention.

So what checklist does the brain run through in order to determine the threat level? 

Well, it looks something like this:

  • Nature of the pain: (hot, cold, sharp, stabbing, blunt force, stump your pinkie toe on the couch leg at 2:00 in the morning and then step on the ninja Lego while trying not to scream)
  • Novelty: Pain that has been experienced before and survived is deemed less threatening than a new type of pain (except stepping on the Lego). Also, pain in a new part of the body is deemed more threatening than pain in a familiar part of the body.
  • Uncertainty: If the brain in unsure how bad the pain will be, it is more likely to perceive the pain as worse. Yes, scientists actually lured unsuspecting people into this test. 
  • Anticipation: This basically means the more time the brain has to prepare for the pain, the less it deems the pain as a threat. Again, this explains a whole lot about the couch leg and Lego in the middle of the night.
  • Controllability: In other words, the more a person can do to the alleviate the pain, the less the pain is seen as a threat. If you can’t get away from it, your brain determines the threat is higher.

We can sum all that up this way:

The higher and more sudden the pain intensity, the higher the threat value. Certain types of pain are catalogued as more threatening than others. It all depends on the possibility for harm and tissue injury.

One other factor that increases the threat value of pain is timing. Studies show that  intermittent pain scores as a higher threat value than constant pain. 

So while stepping on one Lego is bad, sending you hopping around the living room floor like a deranged Easter Bunny, hopping onto another, and then another, Lego leaves you in a crumpled heap of blubbering goo until morning breaks.

Why cheats don’t always work

No two people respond to the same pain in the same manner. Pain is highly subjective. 

As the study linked above says…

“A sensation perceived as painful by one person may be perceived as uncomfortable, not painful or even pleasant to others. Within the same person, pain may also be modulated according to its threat value and the context in which it is presented.”

Don’t you love science speak? 🤓

Pain response is also affected by certain characteristics of the person experiencing the pain.

Some of these are:

  • pain catastrophizing: That’s a big word. I had to look it up. 

“Pain catastrophizing is characterized by the tendency to magnify the threat value of pain stimulus and to feel helpless in the context of pain, and by a relative inability to inhibit pain-related thoughts in anticipation of, during, or following a painful encounter.”

Did you get all that? In other words, some folks are more prone to playing up pain and letting it stop them. Others, not so much. Here are some other characteristics that change how one perceives pain:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety 
  • Hypervigilance
  • Pain-related fear

The pain rating is further affected by what’s going on when the pain occurs. In other words, in the middle of a fight, pain could be perceived as less threatening because violence is already in action (plus, adrenaline is high).

Pain is also better tolerated when the likelihood of benefit is high. In other words, the more benefit the mugger derives from getting your money, the more pain he’ll tolerate. 

Or, if you want that in science speak:

“Analgesia may be the result of averting a bigger threat than pain or the anticipation of obtaining a reward. In the face of a menace, such as the threat of a predator, attending to the dangerous situation takes precedence over attending to the pain, resulting in analgesia.

Likewise, in situations in which reward is to be gained, the motivation for reward obviates the sensation of pain, resulting in analgesia.”


Pros and cons of 5 common self defense cheats

Having said all that stuff above, what does it mean for cheats in self defense? 

We discuss five common cheats in class. Let’s take a look at them through the eyes of science. Without more science speak.

  1. Hair pull

A hair pull is a great way to control someone’s head. And where the head goes, the body goes. But as far as creating pain, it’s the lowest on the list.

For one, it’s really not a big threat. There isn’t much chance of tissue damage to your head, and some heads are less sensitive to pain than others. Plus, if you grew up with siblings, you know a hair pull merely warrants retaliation.

  1. Horse bite

The horse bite, close cousin to the infamous Purple Nurple, is a great attention getter. It causes an intense flinch response in an effort to pull away. Unless…

This is pure pain compliance, and someone who doesn’t feel pain– whether due to drugs, a high pain tolerance, or determination– won’t react strongly. One thing to keep in mind, one big horse bite isn’t as effective as multiple horse bites (according to the study results, intermittent pain was perceived as more threatening than constant pain). 

And in case you’re unsure what a horse bite is, do this.

Get your spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend. Put your open hand on the inside of their thigh (not THAT way, pervert!).

Next, make a fist while grabbing their skin in the clutch of your entire hand. Like you’re kneading a handful of Play-Doh. Now twist.

Afterwards, ask them if you can do it again. This is a great way to practice blocking a punch.

Horse bites are best used on the inside of the thigh, back of the arm, or “love handle” area.

  1. Groin hit

Do I really need to explain this one? 

But while it seems like a game changer, it’s often not. While it can certainly cause intense pain, and severe tissue damage, there is one problem.


No, your attacker isn’t looking forward to getting kicked in the nuts. But he is most likely expecting it. In fact, there is a good chance it’s the first thing he expects, and so guards against it instinctively.

But if you can pull it off, the correct motion is from down to up, so everything gets crushed into the floor of the pelvis. And by the way, yes, this works on women, too. Just ask one who’s been on the receiving end.

  1. Bite

Now we’re getting to the really good stuff. 

See, the three cheats before this have likely been experienced by many people throughout their childhood (yes, even the groin hit). That means the brain knows the threat, and rates the pain as less threatening.

But most people have never been bitten violently. I ain’t talking no love nip here. I mean full on, Walking Dead, take your pound of flesh type of bite. 

This one checks a lot of boxes. 

✔︎ Nature of the pain: sharp, intense, causing lots of tissue damage.

✔︎ Novelty: I can almost guarantee this one is new to anyone on the receiving end, meaning,

✔︎ Uncertainty: the uncertainty level is high, because their brain is frantically wondering what the hell is going on.

✔︎ Anticipation: Unless you’re yelling “I’m gonna eat your f****ing face off!” they aren’t ready for this.

✔︎ Controllability: Once you latch on, there isn’t much chance of getting away without sacrificing a hunk of skin. 

And remember intermittent versus constant? Chew, baby, chew…

  1. Eye gouge

They eye gouge. It’s a Purple Nurple that’s been in and out of prison it’s whole life and has come out meaner and with a bigger axe to grind. 

The eye gouge is the Holy Grail of cheats. 

This isn’t a claw or quick poke to the eyes. This is a dig-your-fingers-in-to-the-bone-while-they-writhe-and-gurgly-scream-in-terrified-pain type of attack.

Tissue damage? By the truckload.

Novelty? Oh my, yes… when is the last time you think someone dug an eyeball out of their head?

Uncertainty? Trust me, the brain is just sitting there sucking its thumb and holding a blanket.

Anticipation? Don’t tell them. Like Nike says, just do it.

Controllability? Ever had a vision of bowling and your fingers get stuck in the ball, dragging you down the lane?

OK, maybe that’s just me.

Anyhow, grab their face like that. They can’t get away.


Cheating. Everyone knows you shouldn’t do it, until you should. 

When violence is concerned, a criminal isn’t playing fair. If he was, he’d challenge you to an abduction, set fair rules, and say go. But since that doesn’t happen, why should you play by any rules?

However, science shows us not all cheats are created equal. At least not when it comes to inducing pain. Pain is an individual experience with variable factors.  These factors determine how an attacker’s brain rates the level of threat.

Sometimes cheats don’t work. The more determined an attacker is, the more they tolerate pain. Or, toleration goes up if they’re drugged up.

But you can increase your odds of cheats working in your favor. Just play by your own rules:

  1. Nature
  2. Novelty
  3. Uncertainty
  4. Anticipation
  5. Controllability

In self defense, cheating is winning. It’s survival. Remember, in the words of self defense instructor Hock Hochheim…

“Cheat first, cheat last, cheat in the middle.”

Want to find out more about fighting off a bigger, stronger attacker? Try a free class of C.O.R.E. Krav Maga or Integrated Martial Arts. No contracts, no gimmicky “black belt club” upgrades. Click here to get in touch and claim a spot in our next class.

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