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Frank Herbert said that fear is the mind-killer. Rainer Werner Fassbinder said that fear eats the soul alive. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that we only need fear fear itself. But Gavin de Becker went ahead and wrote the book on fear, and furthermore, said that fear is not a curse or a burden — it's a gift.

De Becker has spent his career studying the psychology of fear and its survival value. In his book, The Gift of Fear, he recounts several stories related to him over the years by his clients, tales of how they narrowly averted death by listening to their fear — or worse, encountered serious threats to their lives by not listening to their fear.

In one story that de Becker goes back to numerous times in his book, a lady was carrying a heavy load of groceries up her apartment steps, when a stranger offered to help her carry them up to her flat. Within the space of an hour (coupled with some masterful psychological manipulation), the stranger had managed to gain access to her apartment and proceed to rape her. He then promised not to kill her, and went to the kitchen — at that moment, she realized he was lying, and followed him to the kitchen, and managed to bolt out of the apartment. This story is particularly illustrative, because it shows both a failure and a success of the fear instinct; she was raped because she didn't listen to her fear, and allowed a complete stranger into her home. But she survived, because she listened to her fear and realized that her assailant fully intended to kill her.

But, unfortunately, not many people use their fear instincts for their benefit and continued survival. Indeed, most people are ruled by their fear and live their entire lives in its grip. This is especially bad, not because living in fear is particular unhealthy, but because living in constant and unfounded fear tends to drown out legitimate fear signals.

If you see the Devil behind every tree and under every rock, you'll miss that one time when he actually shows up. According to de Becker, human behavior is as predictable as animal behavior; animal trainers stroll into lion cages with confidence, because they know what conditions will predispose the lions to attack. Similarly, certain conditions and predispositions will induce a human being to violent behavior, and de Becker has spent his career studying and applying these principles to protect some of the highest-profile figures in the United States of America, and all over the world.

He spends an entire chapter on the possible warning signs of a violent interpersonal incident, including (but not limited to):

  • Unsolicited approach — in the case of the woman who was raped and narrowly escaped her own death, she was carrying a heavy load of groceries up her apartment stairs, when her assailant offered to help. Most people would not, despite what many a Good Samaritan would say, and most people would risk violent assault against their persons, rather than run the risk of brusqueness in refusing the kindness of a stranger.

  • Forced teaming — after the woman begrudgingly accepted the offer of help from her assailant, he proceeded to test the waters by referring to the two as a 'team' and using key words like 'we' and 'work together'. Whether conscious or unconscious on the part of the assailant, this serves as a gauge of compliance for a potential incident of this type, in that it surreptiously gives a degree of control and cooperation over to the assailant, and lets him know that his victim is an easy target. Most people would run the risk of violent assault against their persons rather than seem to be a little rude because they told a potential assailant to back off.

  • Excessive friendliness — if it feels creepy to you, it probably is. The assailant chatted with his soon-to-be victim on the way up, and inquired into her personal life in a way that a complete stranger without ulterior motives would normally never do. This also serves to give a degree of control over; it's hard to tell a person to fuck off if he's being so polite and open. Most people would risk violent assault against their persons, rather than face the danger of seeming a bit impolite.

  • Overly elaborate stories — the assailant had an entire story set up about why he was in that particular neighborhood at that particular hour, chock-full of convenient little details. In the mind of the assailant, there can never be too many details; he's afraid of his story seeming illegitimate or phony, so he keeps piling on layers and layers to add a veneer of legitimacy, in hopes that his victim will fall for it long enough for him to strike. Most people will risk violent assault against their persons, rather than run the risk of implying that someone is a liar.

  • Typecasting and slight insult — the woman actually did try to refuse the stranger's offer of help at first, but the assailant said words to the effect that she was stuck-up and would not associate with a guy like him, in order to force her guard down and make her try to prove to the assailant that she wasn't stuck-up. That was a big mistake, but most people would risk the threat of violent assault against their persons, rather than let an insult go unchallenged.

  • Loan sharking — basically, giving an unsolicited favor with the expectation that the favor be returned in the future. This serves to give the assailant a further degre of control over his potential victim; most people would risk violent assault against their person, rather than face the danger of not reciprocating a stranger's kindness.

  • Not taking 'no' for an answer — in a typical interaction between strangers, neither party has much to lose or gain. Chatting with the kindly old lady at the bus stop has a much different dynamic than chatting with the guy who's trying to maneuver you into a situation where he can take advantage of you. As a last-ditch effort to gain control over his victim, the assailant will often be persistent and not take 'no' for an answer, disguising it behind a mask of cordiality and good intentions. Most people without ulterior motive will simply accept the rejection and move on.

  • Unsolicited promises — this is a big one. Gavin de Becker does not believe in promises; at best, he sees a promise as a platitude, an indication that both parties are agreed that something should be done, but not necessarily that it would be done. When the assailant finally reached his victim's apartment and forced his way in, and proceeded to rape her, he then made the promise not to kill her. But as he went off to the kitchen to find a knife, the victim realized the falseness of his promise, and thankfully lived to tell her tale.

The whole point of this psychological fencing match is to force a potential victim's defenses down and disregard her danger instincts. These danger instincts have protected us hominids for millions of years against threats many times more cunning than your average street mugger, and just because we have air conditioning and pre-packaged food doesn't mean these instincts have become any less useful. People are awful to each other on a distressingly frequent basis, and human beings are very good at reading each other's unconscious signals — without that ability, we wouldn't have survived the Pleistocene. These instincts don't fail us; we fail ourselves in not reading them. Sure, they won't save us 100% of the time, but they can be of great assistance in avoiding potentially dangerous situations.

So, ladies (yes, ladies, since they receive a disproportionate percentage of all violent interpersonal crime), some words of advice: always have an escape route, listen to your instincts, and above all, don't be afraid to be a little bit of a bitch. Your loved ones will thank you for it.

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