Predicting Behaviour

Gavin de Becker’s Book, The Gift of Fear, and Other Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence (1997), is a book I recommend to everyone. To women as a handbook, to men primarily as insight into most women’s experience, though I think we can all benefit from learning to recognise signals of violence, and from distinguishing between risks that our intuition warns us of, and unlikely risks, about which we worry fruitlessly.

A few bits that have spoken to me so far (1/3 through this time, my second reading of the book):

FIRST, that criminals are basically like us, not inhuman monsters, not other and therefore unknowable; and SECOND, that we successfully predict human behavior every day:

“People do things, we say, ‘out of the blue,’ ‘all of a sudden,’ ‘out of nowhere.’ These phrases support the popular myth that predicting human behavior isn’t possible.” Yet, de Becker says, we predict complex human behaviour every time we drive: “We expect all drivers to act just as we would, but we still alertly detect those few who might not.” We also successfully predict “how a child will react to a warning,” “how a consumer will react to a slogan,” “how a spouse will react to a comment,” and so on.

“Predicting violent behavior is easier than any of these, but since we fantasize that human violence is an aberration done by others unlike us, we say we can’t predict it. … The human violence we abhor and fear the most, that which we call ‘ random’ and ‘senseless,’ is neither. It always has purpose and meaning, to the perpetrator, at least. We may not choose to explore or understand that purpose, but it is there, and as long as we label is ‘senseless,’ we’ll not make sense of it.

“Sometimes a violent act is so frightening that we call the perpetrator a monster, but as you’ll see, it is by finding his humanness — his similarity to you and me — that such an act can be predicted. … [W]e want to believe that people are infinitely complex, with millions of motivations and varieties of behavior. It is not so. … We want to believe that human violence is somehow beyond ourunderstanding, because as long as it remains a mystery, we have no duty to avoid it, explore it, or anticipate it. We need feel no responsibility for failing to read signals if there are none to read. We can tell ourselves that violence just happens without warning, and usually to others, but in service of these comfortable myths, victims suffer and criminals prosper.”

He says that the behaviours of “violent people” will resonate with our own experience if we let ourselves make the connection. One example he later gives is of a person who seems to enjoy the fear he causes in other people: “Getting pleasure from the fear of others is something most of us cannot relate to — until we recall the glee of every teenager who startles a friend or sibling by jumping out of the dark.”

de Becker insists that someone who commits even the most heinous and gruesome crime is as human as the rest of us. He quotes Maya Angelou at the start of a chapter, who says “I am capable of what every other human is capable of. This is one of the great lessons of war and life.” But then, in other spots, he makes a repeated distinction between “decent men” and “violent men,” as if they are two different species, as if the “violent man” were not capable of being decent or the “decent man” of being violent.

THIRD, de Becker describes some signals of violence from strangers that can help us anticipate it. Strangers account, he says, for only 20% of homicides, while 80% of committed by someone known to the victim, and most of the book is about the 80%. Nevertheless, imo, these signals are useful to know about not only in the context of someone seeking to do you physical violence but also in the context of people seeking to pick you up, sell you something, get you to serve on a committee, do something for them, or otherwise control your actions. The signals are:

Forced teaming:  The would-be attacker implies that he shares something with the victim, that they’re in the same boat, so that boundaries between them blur and trust and rapport can be established. This is done by projecting a “shared purpose or experience where none exists: ‘Both of us;’ ‘We’re some team;’ ‘How are we going to handle this?;”Now we’ve done it.'” The defense is “a clear refusal to accept the concept of partnership.”

Charm and Niceness: A charming man is a man seeking to charm you. It’s an ability, not a character trait. “Charm is almost always a directed instrument, which, like rapport building, has motive.” Similarly, niceness. “We must learn and then teach our children that niceness does not equal goodness. Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait.” Remember that both are strategies and look for the motive.

Too Many Details: People who are lying give too many details, because even if you believe them, they don’t sound credible to themselves, so they keep talking. de Becker says that when confronted with the disorienting blur of too many details, designed to make the would-be attacker (or clunky Casanova, or pyramid-scheme salesman) appear to be familiar to you, a friend, someone you can trust, it’s most important to remember the context, that this is a stranger who has approached you.

Typecasting: Typecasting is when the potential perp labels the potential victim in “some slightly critical way, hoping she’ll feel compelled to prove that his opinion is not accurate.” Examples will be familiar to every woman and some men: “You’re probably too snobbish to talk to the likes of me.” “There’s such a thing as being too proud, you know.” “I bet you think I’m just no-good, like everyone else.” The defense is silence, acting as if the words aren’t spoken. Don’t engage, and don’t try to refute the words with actions (talking to him because you don’t want to seem snobbish, allowing him to help with the groceries because you don’t want to seem too proud), because that’s what he wants you to do, to increase the illusion of a bond between you. (Here, that Buddhist slogan of “nothing to protect, nothing to defend” comes in handy for me. So, I’m too proud. So, I’m snobbish. Let it be.)

Loan Sharking: This is when someone helps you in order to put you in debt to them, “and the fact that you owe a person something makes it hard to ask him to leave you alone. … The predatory criminal generously offers assistance but is always calculating the debt.” The defense is to remember that he approached you and that you didn’t ask for help; “then, though a person may turn out to be just a kindly stranger, watch for other signals.”

de Becker notes that many of these strategies are employed by “men who want little more than an opportunity to engage a woman in conversation. I don’t mean to cramp the style of some crude Casanova [he says], but times have changed, and we men can surely develop some approaches that are not steeped in deceit and manipulation.”

The Unsolicited Promise: Similar to Too Many Details, the unsolicited promise is given because the would-be attacker sees that you don’t trust him, that you aren’t convinced, so he hopes his “promise” will overcome your doubt. The defense is simply to recognise that the unsolicited promise comes because you are hesitant to trust this person, because there is reason to doubt and you know it.

Discounting the Word ‘No’: “Declining to hear ‘no’ is a signal that someone is either seeking control or refusing to relinquish it. With strangers, even those with the best intentions, never, ever relent on the issue of ‘no,’ because it sets the stage for more efforts to control.” Don’t negotiate from ‘no,’  because “negotiations are about possibilities, and providing access to someone who makes you apprehensive is not a possibility you want to keep on the agenda.”

FOURTH, de Becker talks about pre-incident indicators (PINs). These are the clues that occur before every violent act:

“Behavior is like a chain. Too often, we look at just the individual links. When we ask why a man committed suicide, someone might say, ‘He was despondent over major financial losses,’ as if this could possibly explain it. Many people are despondent over financial losses and don’t kill themselves. Though we want to believe that violence is a matter of cause and effect, it is actually a process, a chain in which the violent outcome is only one link. If you were predicting what a friend of yours might do if he lost his job, you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, he’ll commit suicide’ unless there were  many other PINs of suicide present. You’d see the loss of his job as a single link, not the whole chain. The process of suicide starts way before the act of suicide.

“The same is true for homicide. Though we might try to explain a murder using simple cause-and-effect logic (e.g., ‘He learned his wife was having an affair so he killed her’), it doesn’t aid prediction to think this way. Like the earthquake [whose initiation might start thousands of years before we are aware of it], violence is one outcome of a process that started way before this man got married.”

I think what resonates for me about his book is that though it is focused on predicting and intuiting the most violent human acts, which is in itself worthwhile, it is at the same time about predicting, intuiting and to some extent explaining (or at least seeing patterns in) the most minor, subtle and common acts of human violence, too — manipulation, control, power-mongering, some advertising and sales strategies, influence-peddling, coercion, etc.  All the ways we try to change people so that they do what we want them to do, so that we get what we (think we) want.


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