US Serial killer, rapist and necrophiliac, Ted Bundy, who shortly before his execution confessed to 30 homicides committed in the 1970s, asserted 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, etc . . .”.
This quote is partly what inspired a recent psychology study to test whether psychopaths used the way people walk to decide who to target.
Perhaps predators such as rapists and muggers select their victims by first observing non-verbal behaviour, which they use to decide our dominance, submissiveness, powerfulness, self-confidence, and therefore
ultimately vulnerability to assault.
A new study by academic psychologists based at Brock University, Ontario, Canada and Westfield State University, Massachusetts, USA, has investigated whether psychopaths are skilled in decoding such body language, giving them an advantage in selecting ‘easy’ victims. This skill appears to be part of their adeptness at deceiving, manipulating, and exploiting others.
The study entitled Psychopathy and Victim Selection: The Use of Gait as a Cue to Vulnerability, used a sample of violent prison inmates and found that these offenders were indeed more practiced in paying attention to body language clues relating to susceptibility to attack.
Psychopathic offenders were found to be more likely to mention gait as a reason for their assessment of vulnerability.
Psychologists Dr Angela Book, Dr Kimberly Costello and Dr Joseph Camilleri, who published their study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, found that victims display characteristic body language,
specifically in their walking style.
Psychopaths are more accurate than the general population at judging victim vulnerability simply from viewing targets walking. This suggests that if you change the way your walk, and possibly other body language features, you could protect yourself more from attack, perhaps particularly if you are a woman.
Psychopaths were selected to be studied in this research because psychopathic individuals make up 15% to 25% of a typical prison population, and are responsible for 50% of violent crime. These “social predators” are characterized by manipulativeness, superficial charm, deception, lack of empathy and remorse, glibness, manipulation, impulsiveness and callousness, which all combine to produce the most dangerous people on the planet.
Psychopaths are particularly skilled in exploiting the weaknesses of others, and this requires that they become adept at recognizing cues of vulnerability in potential victims. Successful predation therefore is thought to be dependent on the availability of reliable cues to victim vulnerability/weakness. Victims are not picked at random, but are chosen for specific reasons.
Previous research has found that men were more likely to select “submissive” women as potential victims after viewing short videos of the woman in a conversational context. The women targets in this study who were perceived to be submissive tended to use “smaller” or more subtle gestures involving their hands and feet. Women who were seen to be dominant used more assertive or expansive gesturing involving their arms and legs.
Non-verbal behaviors, such as eye contact, body posture, and body gestures, appear related to actual and perceived ratings of targets’ dominance.
One specific type of body language that reliably distinguishes victims from non-victims is gait. One previous study found prison inmates who had been convicted of sexual assault identified targets as vulnerable when they displayed certain motions within their walk.
These motion cues to vulnerability included long or short strides, weight shifts and feet lifting. Overall, targets who were judged to be vulnerable to victimization (mugging/assault) exhibited less synchronous movement in their walk. Another previous study found that women who had less-synchronous walks were perceived to be less confident and more vulnerable to sexual assault.
In another study, women exhibiting slower walking speed as well as shorter strides were judged by men to be more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
In the current research prison inmates with higher psychopathy scores demonstrated greater accuracy in distinguishing people who had a prior (but undisclosed) history of being victims from non-victims.
Inmates scoring higher on particular aspects of psychopathic traits were much more likely to consciously attend to a target’s gait when making their vulnerability judgements.
The authors conclude that although responsibility for victimization always lies with the perpetrator, their findings have implications for the prevention of future and repeated attacks.
Targets who displayed vulnerable body language were more likely to report past histories of ill-treatment, and psychopaths identified these individuals as being more vulnerable to future victimization.
These findings may account for why some individuals become repeat victims; social predators are attracted to external displays of vulnerability.
The authors of the study argue that those at risk for victimization can be instructed on how to avoid displaying vulnerable body language and in turn reduce their likelihood of being chosen as a victim.
However, the effects of such training appear to be temporary, and the natural gait reasserts itself over time.
But, this in turn raises the issue of what is the essential nature of vulnerability itself?
Some psychologists suggest that the identification of oneself as a victim is more influential on body language than is actual experience of victimization. According to this theory past victimization, therefore, may only lead to an increased chance of future attack if victims perceive themselves as vulnerable.
If a target’s display of vulnerable body language is more produced by a vulnerable self-identity, then Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) addressing self-perceived defenselessness may be useful for reducing
vulnerability to victimization, and may outperform instruction on non-vulnerable walking characteristics.
Training victims in how to walk assertively works, but the effect seems to disappear with time.
If our vulnerability to attack is revealed by everyday body language, maybe our bearing betrays our insecurities.
Addressing perceptions of vulnerability through therapy, or maybe even self-defence classes, may therefore be a more effective way to prevent re-victimization.
To change the way you walk and make your pathway through life safer, you may need to not just change the outside stride, but the inside tread as well.
Follow Dr Raj Persaud on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@DrRajPersaud
Raj Persaud is joint podcast editor for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now has a free app on iTunes and google play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.
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