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Don't Walk this Way - How Your Steps Tell Psychopaths who to Attack

22/01/2015 10:07 | Updated 22 March 2015

US Serial killer and rapist, Ted Bundy, who shortly before his execution confessed to 30 homicides committed in the 1970's, claimed 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 partly inspired a recent psychology study testing 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 body language, which they use to decide our submissiveness, 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 attack susceptibility.

Psychopathic offenders were found to be more likely to mention gait as a reason for their assessment of target vulnerability.

Psychologists Dr Angela Book, Dr Kimberly Costello and Dr Joseph Camilleri, who published their study in the 'Journal of Interpersonal Violence', found that these '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 they 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 clues of vulnerability in potential victims. Successful predation therefore is thought to hinge on signals of victim vulnerability/weakness. Victims are not picked at random, but are chosen for specific reasons - for example they may be less likely to fight back?

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 conversation. The female targets in that 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 behaviours, 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. A previous study found prison inmates who had been convicted of sexual assault identified targets as vulnerable because of certain motions within their walk.

These included long or short strides, weight shifts and feet lifting. Overall, targets who were judged to be vulnerable to mugging or 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 psychopathic features were much more likely to consciously attend to a target's gait when making their vulnerability judgments.

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.

Such 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 can be instructed on how to avoid displaying vulnerable body language, in turn therefore possibly reducing 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.

According to another theory, if our display of vulnerable body language is produced by a helpless self-identity, our bearing, posture and movements betray our inner insecurities more than we may realise.

To change the way your walk more permanently, making your pathway through life safer, you may need to not just change the outside manner, but how you feel about yourself on the inside as well.