Safety & Security

Pattern Matching

Train and empower people to trust their intuition for improved campus safety.

I knew things were not right when saw the couple approaching. I had been dispatched to the law school in the first call of the year for our university police department — someone discharging fireworks at midnight. While responding, I spotted an open door on a house the university was renovating and got out of my patrol car to investigate. As I did, a couple having an argument walked towards me. He was wearing no shoes, no shirt, was intoxicated and incoherent. She was following about 10 feet behind, was not saying anything and looked very angry.

I sidestepped to keep clear of both of them and drew my aluminum baton, shoving it directly in her face while commanding her to step back. Realizing that her right hand was tucked slightly behind one leg, I drew my service revolver and ordered her to show me her hand. She complied by revealing an army bayonet and stepping towards me. I prepared to shoot while telling her to drop the bayonet — and she thankfully did.

Later, I wondered why I had been so quick to thrust a nightstick into a woman’s face. After all, she had not done anything overtly dangerous at that point. My actions had been driven be a gut feeling rather than anything tangible — or had it?

I realized that it had seemed odd to me that the woman was not talking when most people in her situation would be. Perhaps even more telling, she had been looking directly at me while walking towards me instead of looking at the man she was mad at. The man also appeared to be afraid.

In just a few seconds, my brain had picked up on the fact that her actions were not normal and I acted intuitively. I realized that she posed a threat before I could consciously recognize that she had a weapon by spotting the telltale sign of her hand tucked behind her leg.

At that time, I had been trained to look for suspects palming a knife. I had not been formally trained in what we now call pattern matching and recognition. Recognizing the warning signs before I was able to see that she was palming something is what allowed me to avoid shooting the woman — while being attacked with a bayonet.

While working on a new book — Staying Alive — How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters, I have been reading the works of Dr. Gary Klein. I wanted to see more of what this brilliant researcher has to say about this important topic. I had read his excellent book, “Sources of Power – How People Make Decisions,” and wanted to learn more about Klein’s groundbreaking research on the power of intuitive decision making.

Reading his other books, I have gained an even better understanding of how we can improve our decision making processes by using intuition with combined thoughtful analysis for routine decisions. Klein also makes an excellent case for why we can make better high-stakes decisions intuitively under fast-breaking, life-and-death situations.

Klein’s work shows how our intuition can be remarkably accurate not by some mystical power, but through a form of detailed analysis rapidly performed by our brains. Our brains absorb an endless array of minor details as we proceed through life. Many of these details help us to spot things that are not safe because we pick up on subtle cues, such as a woman looking at a police officer rather than the man she just caught cheating on her.

Traditional thoughtful analysis would not likely have allowed me to figure out that she was looking at me because she was about to kill a police officer armed with a gun, so she could then proceed to kill her husband. Had I tried to sort this out by trying to wait to obtain more information, I would have been dead before I got enough information to realize the danger.

The works of Gary Klein, Gavin de Becker and a number of other brilliant people have provided us with ample evidence that people can detect and react to danger incredibly well if we train and empower them to look for patterns of behavior that don’t quite fit the context. I feel fortunate that I learned about what we now call pattern matching and recognition when I was a police cadet. Though it was a brief lesson, it probably saved my life that night.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management October 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at

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