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  • Writer's pictureWSDC

How Predators Pick Their Prey & How We Can Spoil Their Plan

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

photo of serial killer Ted Bundy
Serial killer Ted Bundy confessed to over 30 murders and was executed in 1989. Photo: Donn Dughi/Bride Lane Library/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Just like their counterparts in the wild, human predators search for the weakest members of the herd as potential prey. If we can learn how they select victims, we can work to spoil their plan.

Important Note: Predators are solely responsible for selecting their target and carrying out their attack. You are not at fault in any regards here. You should have the right to travel anywhere, anytime, wearing whatever you like. Having said that, we can all agree there are some decisions that are probably not the smartest we could make. We are responsible for our own protection, so let’s keep an eye out for choices that could improve our safety vs. threaten our safety.

Criminals are constantly looking for:

  • Vulnerabilities

  • Opportunities

They are looking to avoid:

  • Getting caught

  • Getting hurt

Our mission is to not give them what they want and to give them more of what they don’t want.

Turns out there is research showing the cues bad guys use to determine which of us might make a good victim.

There is famous study by Grayson and Stein that is often noted when talking about how predators select their prey. (Journal of Communication, Volume 31, Issue 1, March 1981, Pages 68–75, 07 February 2006).

The title of the study, Attracting Assault: Victims’ Nonverbal Cues, pretty much sums up the findings of their study:

Potential victims may be signaling their vulnerability to would be assailants through gestures, posture, and exaggerated movements.

Betty Grayson, a marketing professor at Hofstra University, and Morris Stein, a professor of psychology at New York University, wondered if there were any specific movements or behaviors that identified a potential victim. They showed a small sample of prisoners convicted of assaulting strangers some videotape of random people (men and women) to get information about which behaviors and nonverbal cues tipped off the prisoners as to whom they would see as a good target.

They found criminals would take a pass when a target exhibits normal, coordinated movements and walking gait. The study called it having “an organized quality” about their body movements. Some might call this “confident” or “athletic” movements. In other words, potential trouble for the predator because this type of victim could fight back.

Not surprisingly, the prisoners did hit on potential targets that exhibited some sort of deviation from the norm. The way the target moved. The way the target walked. The posture of the target. We can skip the study’s academic language: victims had movements which communicate “inconsistency and dissonance” or “non-synchronous or anti-synchronous within themselves”.

In other words, JDLR (“Just Don’t Look Right” h/t Brian Hartman).

Wendy L. Patrick, JD., Ph.D., notes that research shows how we walk can show our vulnerability to criminals (Do You Walk Like a Victim? For Criminals, Stride Matters).

Ritchie et al. note that prior research has demonstrated that criminals select victims in part, based on how they walk. When jailed offenders who had assaulted strangers were asked to watch video clips of people walking, and assess vulnerability to assault, they consistently distinguished between people they perceived as easy targets, and those they would not assault. The noted differences in gait included stride length (short or long, versus medium), weight shifting (up and down as opposed to lateral), lateral or contralateral movement, and placement of feet: lifted feet versus swung, resulting in a non-synchronous gait.

Serial killer Ted Bundy is said to have admitted in a personal interview in 1985 that “he could tell a victim by the way she walked down the street, the tilt of her head, the manner in which she carried herself.”

Are You Vulnerable and Available?

Criminals are looking for vulnerability and opportunity.

This is a truism that we will repeat throughout all our modules to remind us of our two greatest risks:

  1. Do we seem weak (vulnerable)?

  2. Can they get to us (opportunity)?

The research that we’ve cited above really is just a deep dive into how predators evaluate our vulnerability. For all the discussion about our coordinated movements and our gait while walking comes down to signaling:

  • Our infirmities

  • Our weakness

  • Our mental state and level of awareness

  • Our level of intoxication on alcohol or drugs

  • Our lack of ability to fight back

To ruin the predator’s victim selection plan we can:

  1. Get self-defense training.

  2. Get fit: Start a strength program. Run, row, or ride with brief and intense sprinting sections

  3. Project strength and confidence by increasing coordination: Take a kickboxing class. Start with a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school. Take dance classes.

  4. Signal that we are aware and willing to resist: Look up and around when we are walking or on public transport. Noticing the people who are looking at us signals we are aware.

Prevention through Attention

The research above reinforces the value of staying alert and paying attention while we are out in public swimming with the predatory sharks who are stalking us.

Perhaps the best self-defense techniques are the ones that we don’t have to use because we have avoided or dissuaded criminal activity.

Like Mark Twain said, it’s always easier to stay out of trouble, than to get out of trouble.

We hear all the time through so-called safety experts, the need to have “situational awareness”. This is such an overly broad term that it’s almost unusable. What we should be doing is actively scanning for any signs of danger:

  • Head up, eyes up.

  • Pay attention to anyone looking at you.

  • Who is moving when you move?

  • Is someone looking around for witnesses?

  • Is he trying too hard to look inconspicuous?

  • Not exhibiting the behaviors that fit the venue?

  • Approaching you to “interview” you.

It’s this active scanning of our situation that gives our intuition time to work and provide us with an early warning of potential danger.

But, noticing signs of danger is not enough. We need to have the strategies and techniques necessary for us to do something about that impending danger.

That’s what we cover in the Never Defenseless program.


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