Ability to react

by Swimmer9634 min read18th Feb 201199 comments


Skill BuildingPractical

*Note: this post is based on my subjective observations of myself and a small, likely biased sample of people I know. It may not generalize to everyone.

A few days ago, during my nursing lab, my classmates and I were discussing the provincial exam that we’ll have to sit two years from now, when we’re done our degree, in order to work as registered nurses. The Quebec exam, according to our section prof, includes an entire day of simulations, basically acted-out situations where we’ll have to react as we would in real life. The Ontario exam is also a day long, but entirely written.

I made a comment that although the Quebec exam was no doubt a better test of our knowledge, the Ontario exam sounded a lot easier and I was glad I planned to work in Ontario.

“Are you kidding?” said one of the boys in my class. “Simulations are so much easier!”

I was taken aback, reminded myself that my friends and acquaintances are probably weirder than my models of them would predict (thank you AnnaSalamon for that quote), and started dissecting where exactly the weirdness lay. It boiled down to this:

Some people, not necessarily the same people who can ace tests without studying or learn math easily or even do well in sports, are still naturally good at responding to real-life, real-time events. They can manage their stress, make decision on the spot, communicate flexibly, and even have fun while doing it.

This is something I noticed years ago, when I first started taking my Bronze level lifesaving certifications. I am emphatically not good at this. I found doing “sits” (simulated situations) stressful, difficult, and unpleasant, and I dreaded my turn to practice being the rescuer. I had no problem with the skills we learned, as long as they were isolated, but applying them was harder than the hardest tests I’d had at school.

I went on to pass all my certifications, without any of my instructors specifically saying I had a problem. Occasionally I was accused of having “tunnel vision”; they meant that during a sit, treating my victim and simultaneously communicating with my teammates was more multitasking than my brain could handle.

Practice makes perfect, so I joined the competitive lifeguard team (yes, this exists, see https://picasaweb.google.com/lifeguardpete for photos of competitions). We compete in teams of four. In competition, we go into unknown situations and are scored on how we respond. Situations are timed, usually four minutes, and divided into different events; First Aid, Water Rescue, and Priority Assessment, with appropriate score sheets. It was basically my worst nightmare come true. And thanks to sample bias, instead of being slightly above average, I was blatantly worse than everyone else. It wasn’t just a matter of experience; even newcomers to the team scored higher than me. I stubbornly kept going to practice, and went to competitions, and improved somewhat. When I had my first nursing placement, something I had been stressing about all semester, it went effortlessly. There are advantages to setting your bar way, way higher than it needs to be.

There are various types of intelligence. The kind I have, the ability to soak up new information and make connections, is only one kind. But this ability-to-react must come from an actual difference in how my brain works compared to the brains of my teammates who perform well under stress, don’t get distracted, don’t suffer tunnel vision, and can communicate as a team and divide their labor on the spot. It’s another facet of the multi-sided phenomenon we call intelligence. As far as I’ve seen, it isn’t discussed much on lesswrong.

The following are my speculations. Hopefully some of them are testable.

1. Reacting in real time requires focus, but not the same kind of focus needed for, say, writing or programming. My evidence: I seem to be above average when it comes to the latter, but below average for the former, so they can’t be entirely the same thing.

2. The difference is related to the ability to silence your internal monologue, so that your thoughts are reactions to the outside world of the moment instead of reactions to, say, something you read a week ago. Based on the questions I’ve asked and the answers I’ve gotten, most people don’t notice specifically that they have to do this; it’s automatic.


3. People who are bad at reacting can be at either end of a spectrum; either they’re too open to stimuli and get distracted before they can plan their response, or they’re too closed and react in a stereotyped way based on their first impression, ignoring any new information. I’m in the second category. Watching other lifeguard teams compete in situations, I can pick out who leans which way. The first category people tend to be looking around constantly to the point that they can’t treat the victim in front of them. The second category people plant themselves, look at their victim, and don’t watch or listen to what’s happening around them. 

4. If someone is very bad at reacting, we call them shy. Even having a conversation challenges their ability to think in real-time, so that they find social interaction stressful. I’m basing this hypothesis on how I used to feel talking to people, although I wouldn’t consider myself shy now.

5. You can improve your actual performance by memorizing chunks of your responses, which you can then string together appropriately. The chunks can’t be too small, or stringing them together will be more work than it’s worth. They can’t be too big, or they become stereotyped and create tunnel-vision. In guard team, we memorize “speeches” that we recite to every victim. When my section prof for my nursing lab demonstrated a head-to-toe examination, I’m pretty sure she had a similar kind of speech memorized, although she probably never thought of it explicitly that way. This kind of practice is obviously non-transferable; I can’t use the same speech for guard team and my nursing lab.  

6. You can improve on your innate reaction times by practicing. With considerable effort, I’ve learned how to shut off my internal monologue, to a degree, and keep my ears and eyes open. I’m pretty sure this is transferable.

I don’t know how ability-to-react correlates with “school smarts,” the ability to absorb and integrate information. Most of my friends are better in one area than another, but the people I’ve known who are exceptionally good at reacting are usually quick learners as well. Is it a positive correlation? Negative correlation? No correlation? Can it even be measured reliably. 

I would assume that this affects people’s career choices, too. Fighters and paramedics need good reaction times; they need to be able to focus on external events. Programmers and scientists need to focus on internal events, on their own thought process. I have no real evidence to support this, though.

These are my questions.

1. Has anyone else noticed this? If so, which area do you think you’re better in? It would be interesting to gather some lesswrong community statistics. 

2. Is there anything in the literature? I’m hesitant to give ability-to-react a name, because it almost certainly has one already that I can’t find because I can’t think of the right keywords to put into Google.

3. Does anyone have short-cuts or practice tips that have improved their ability to react? I’ve read a lot about study methods, which apply to “school smarts,” but less about this.