Body language is also not universal. For example, the use of hand gestures in one
culture may be quite different in others. The same for eye contact. In Western cultures,
maintaining eye contact shows increased engagement and interest while in others it is
seen as discourteous (e.g., in many Asian cultures avoiding prolonged eye contact is often seen as more respectful). For a deeper look into understanding body language,
check out Body Language: What It Is and How to Read It.
Understanding the physical environment, other people, and yourself to respond to dangerous situations.
How does body language relate to perpetrators
of violence and their victims? It’s useful to
compare how apex predators and human predators choose their prey or victims. In
Africa, lions and cheetahs usually attack the
injured, the young, or the old in a herd - never
the fastest and strongest.
Some predators hunt
in packs (like wolves) while others hunt solo
(like male lions). Interviews of prison inmates
showed a similar approach to selecting
potential victims based largely on body
language cues (i.e., they looked & acted like an easy victim).
For example, serial killer Ted Bundy 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, etc.” (Holmes and Holmes, 20090). Read W.
Patrick’s blog How Criminals Find Their Most Likely Victims | Psychology Today for more details.
Patrick states that “research suggests the value of situational awareness,
and remaining alert and attentive while in public. Proactively taking steps to enhance
safety and dissuade criminal activity is an unfortunate but important part of personal
safety. Taking the headphones out of our ears and averting our eyes from our phone
screens, we will be better able to perceive potential danger, and avoid attracting the
attention of opportunistic criminals.”
Body language, like communication in general, is not a one-way street. Both parties
involved in an interaction interpret body language cues. The focus of the discussion
above was from the perspective of the predator, who was looking for an easy victim.
Let’s examine the situation from the victim’s perspective.
He or she may interact with a
dangerous predator who is good looking, professionally dressed, affable, or who has a
pretend injury. The latter method was in fact used by Bundy on several occasions as he
journeyed across the country in his car from Washington State to Florida.
instance, his arm was in a sling, and he asked for help loading some groceries in his
vehicle. The female victim felt sympathy and agreed to help him. While loading the
groceries he knocked her out and drove her to a remote area to be sexually assaulted
and killed. Buffalo Bill, the fictional character in Silence of the Lambs, used a similar
approach to gain the trust of his victims.
Who would not want to help someone in
distress? Killers also impersonate authority figures such as police officers or medical
doctors to gain the trust of their victims. One must always be on guard. That’s why
situational awareness is such a vital skill to learn.
The following material explores the connections between pre-violent behaviors and
body language cues. It is based upon the work of David Landers, a retired police
detective from Illinois.
other deep emotions lead people to lose
control” or “go off". And with that loss of
dependence on rational thought, reactive, subconscious behaviors take over. Some of
these behaviors are well known and easily recognized, but others are more subtle and
can be much more difficult to detect.
Shaking fists and clenched teeth are examples of the kind of behaviors easily
recognized as indicators of agitation or anger. However, they are not good indicators of
imminent attack. The very reason that they are familiar to most people is that they are
common to individuals who exhibit anger and aggression but not necessarily take that
emotion to the level of physical attack. It is not uncommon for people to see this
Behaviors exhibited by attackers prior to physical contact are less well known. There is
some evidence that, just as these behaviors are unconscious and genetically
programmed pre-attack patterns, so it may be that we have inherited the ability to
recognize them on some level. It is common to interview victims that state that
suddenly, with no real reason that they can articulate, they felt uneasy about their
attackers just prior to being assaulted. It may be that we have an inherited precognitive
reaction to these patterns in others.
The following is a list of some of the more common of these pre-attack patterns of
behavior. It is not a complete list and is not intended to be a foolproof checklist for
predicting violent behavior. Many people approach the threshold of aggression,
including the exhibition of these behaviors, and do not carry out an assault. Additionally,
some individuals will carry out an attack without any of these precursors being present.
This list can help gage someone’s level of aggression and to give an early warning of an
encounter that might turn violent. The explanations for these types of behaviors vary but
they can cast some light on violent human behavior patterns.