Left of Bang

A review of the book Left of Bang

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Left of Bang is the single best book on understanding body language and non-verbal cues that I have ever read. This is why I keep it on my annual reading list.

Left of Bang by Jason A. Riley and Patrick Van Horne

Left of Bang is a manual for building and using situational awareness, an understanding of human behaviour, critical thinking and decision making. The primary goal of the book is to teach these skills to detect and respond to violent threats before they occur. It's based on the Combat Hunter Program that is offered to the US Marine Corps to help warriors more easily read the social situations on the ground when on deployment, with the goal of preventing attacks on soldiers and civillians in unfamiliar territories.

As I write this post amongst the growing civil unrest of the United States in late 2020, I realize that my chance of being exposed to an extreme scenario very much like those described in the book is not as remote as I would like. However, the main reason I keep coming back to this book annually is not the hope that it may one day save my life, but the very real benefits that I've derived from it already.

The book is a crash course on human psychology and behaviour, and it provides a concrete framework for reading people that goes beyond combat and uncertain environments where violent threat is a factor. For instance, they break non-verbal cues into six domains to make explicit and memorizable the process of reading a situation. I can practice using these six domains by rote in low-stakes situations such as a cafe, a supermarket or a bar. By repeatedly applying this skill, I also improve at unconsciously reading situations.

The core thesis of the book is that a large proportion of the behaviour of humans is instictual, and driven by the limbic system. Human universals are dictated by the realities that we are habit-forming, effort-saving beings, who are bad at multi-tasking. By consciously practicing the habits of observing the instinctual behaviours of other people we can increase our awareness of what is happening. This can be used to prevent attacks, and help us identify bad actors before they act.

The book also provides a framework for decision-making in stressful scenarios with imperfect information. To be absolutely, and gratefully, honest, this section of the book has yet to be of use to me. However, prompted by my current read through this book, I am going to experiment with applying their framework for creating decisions more abstractly, to my professional life.

The authors, former Marine Captain Patrick Van Horne and Lietenant Colonel Jason A. Riley, do an excellent job of organizing the subject matter in a way that is easy to read, understand and apply. At times, they are repetitive. This first time I read this book, that felt distracting, because the flow of new information didn't seem to be constant. On my sixth or seventh re-read now, however, I realize that when they reiterate a point, they not only mean to emphasize it, but often they intend to present it in relation to another one, thereby deepening your understanding of both.

Left of Bang provides both the theory and the practical framework to begin becoming acute at reading people and situations. Even in times of complete stability and prosperity, that is a good skill to have. Given the events of the recent year, the benefits of this book may well be critical.

If you do decide to check it out, let me know your thoughts.

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Reading List Human Behaviour