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Victim Selection And What To Do About It

stalkingThe more prepared you are to deal with a violent situation, the less likely you will have to.

Preparation Equals Prevention

People are drawn to self-defense training for a variety reasons.

Sometimes, it’s because they’ve been bullied, harassed or victimized in the past.

Sometimes they haven’t been but are concerned about the possibility.  They live in a state of angst from a lack of security and confidence in their ability to control the real and perceived dangers in the world.

We are all “wired” with the need for safety in security in life.  It’s as fundamental as our need for food and shelter.

In this post, I’ll be discussing the dynamics of what human predators look for when selecting their intended victims and what you can do to reduce the probability of being selected yourself.

In Search Of Safety

Many people turn to self-defense and the martial arts to address their safety and security concerns.  It is well know that proper self-defense training builds skill, fitness and self-confidence.

People who train soon become more comfortable with the idea of standing up to harassment, whether from a school yard or workplace bully, a drunk at the bar or a panhandler demanding money.

They become more aware of themselves, their surrounds and their options to deal with volatile situations. They become more indignant that someone would consider them an easy target.

They begin to prepare themselves for the “next time” they are harassed or confronted.   Armed with their new-found knowledge and skills, they’ll know what to do and be ready, willing and able to do it.

The irony is however, in the vast majority of situations the incidents that formerly plagued them either stop or never happen.  Why is this?

Victim Selection Criteria

Human predators select their victims based on non-verbal and behavioral signals that they give off.  They will observe their targets from a distance and often approach and then “test or interview” them to further assess their level of confidence or submissiveness.

In a matter of seconds, the predator acquires a sense of who is and isn’t a suitable target.   For every victim that is attacked, many “fail” the test and are passed over.

What are the criteria that predators use to select their victims?

What Does A Predator Look For?

assaultLike a wild animal, the human predator wants an easy conquest.  He does not want his job to be any more difficult or hazardous than it has to be.

He will seek out those he perceives as weak, submissive and unlikely to fight back.

He doesn’t want resistance and he certainly doesn’t want to be injured himself.  Signs of strength or defiance, whether blatant or implied, are often sufficient to cause him to abandon the selection process and look for a more “suitable” victim.

Bullies don’t pick on people who won’t put up with their shit.  Muggers and rapist won’t attack someone who will pound them into the pavement!  Criminals don’t intentionally select people who will confront and challenge their behavior.  Rapists, muggers, abusers and bullies look for someone they can dominate and control.

The Grayson/Stein Study (1981)

In 1981 researchers ,Betty Grayson and Morris I. Stein, conducted a study to determine the selection criteria applied by predators when selecting their victims. They made a black-and-white video tape of 60 pedestrians on a busy New York City sidewalk going on about their day.

They later showed that tape to inmates who were incarcerated for violent offenses (rape, murder, robbery, etc.)  They instructed them to rate the pedestrians on the basis of who they thought would make easy or desirable victims?  The results were interesting.

Within seconds, the participants made their selections. What baffled researchers was the consistency of the people who were and were not selected.  The criteria were not readily apparent.  Some small, slightly built women were passed over.  Some large men were selected.  The selection was not dependant on race, age, size or gender.

Many of the convicts didn’t even know why they selected as they did.  Some people just looked like easy targets.  It appears that much of the predator/prey selection process is unconscious from the perspective of both predator and the potential victim.

Body Language Analysis

Still at a loss of specific selection criteria, the researchers did a more thorough analysis of the movement and body language of the people on the videotape.  Here is an overview of their results:

1.      Stride:

People selected as victims had an exaggerated stride: either abnormally short or long. They dragged, shuffled or lifted their feet unnaturally as they walked.  Non-victims, on the other hand, tended to have a smooth, natural gate.

2.      Rate:

Victims tend to walk at a different rate than non-victims.  Usually, they walk slower than the flow of other pedestrians. Their movement lacks a sense of deliberateness or purpose.  However, an unnaturally rapid pace can project nervousness or fear.

3.      Fluidity:

Researchers noted awkwardness in a victim’s body movement.  Jerkiness, raising and lowering one’s center of gravity or wavering from side to side as they moved became apparent in the victims analyzed. This was contrasted with smoother, more coordinated movement of the non-victims.

4.      Wholeness:

Victims lacked “wholeness” in their body movement.  They swung their arms as if they were detached and independent from the rest of their body.  Non-victims moved their body from their “center” as a coordinated whole implying strength, balance and confidence.

5.      Posture and Gaze:

A slumped posture is indicative of weakness or submissiveness.  A downward gaze implies preoccupation and being unaware of one’s surroundings.  Also, someone reluctant to establish eye contact can be perceived as submissive.  These traits imply an ideal target for a predator.

The Impact of Body Language

If you read between the lines of this research, the whole “Preparation Equals Prevention Theory” makes more sense.  The non-victim traits described above are indicators of attitude, athleticism and awareness.  They imply a person’s vigilance, confidence or submissiveness and the potential that they can and will fight back.

Self-defense training develops the qualities of movement that discourage victim selection and projects a “don’t mess with me” demeanor.

This explains why a person who had formerly been bullied or victimized takes up the study of self-defense and the incidents that originally plagued him or her stop.

Contrary to what many self-defense instructors advise, I doubt that the solution to reducing one’s victim potential is as simple as taking “body language lessons.”   You can’t simply “pretend or fake” confidence and expect to ward off predatory selection.

I doubt that a deliberate attempt to modify the way you walk, move and carry yourself (even if you could do so) would bring about the desired results.

Imagine an awkward, out-of-shape person trying to consciously correct flawed body movements associated to being awkward and out-of-shape.  You can’t fake coordination.  You can’t fake balance.  You can’t fake strength or endurance.

That being said, each of these qualities can be developed through the self-defense TRAINING and can dramatically reduce your risk of assault.

How To Apply This Information?

Much of the predator/prey selection process is subconscious.  I believe that it is an evolutionary quality of the subconscious mind that we inherited from our ancestors.  In the days of cavemen and dinosaurs, it would have been necessary for survival to select prey that would not turn around and bite your head off!  Those who lacked this quality would have soon been eliminated from the gene pool.

It is unlikely that you can consciously and consistently control the non-verbal signals that you project. However, this is not to say that you cannot impact those signals in a powerful and positive way.  Here is how to do it.

Develop Your Awareness Skills

The predator is looking for a victim who is unaware, preoccupied and easy to ambush. By becoming more aware of your surroundings, you not only increase the odds of detecting a potential predator, but you project an image of vigilance.  This, in itself, can terminate the selection process.

Get Into Shape

Your level of fitness impacts your ability to defend yourself.  If you are attacked, your ability to run away or fight off an attacker is dramatically impacted by your physical condition.

Secondly, a strong, coordinated body will automatically project the quality of movement of a non-victim.

Finally, fitness impacts your personality in a positive way.  The increased self-esteem, confidence and emotional toughness that results from being in good shape are non-victim qualities that predators want to avoid.

Take a Self-defense Course

Obviously, I’m a strong advocate of self-defense and martial arts training (either at a club or through self-study) to reduce your risk of assault.

For reasons I’ve mentioned, self-defense training reduces the likelihood of having to defend yourself. Learn all you can about confrontational situations and develop skills to deal with them.  In addition to strength and conditioning activities, incorporate regular practice of combative skills such as kickboxing drills or punching and kicking a heavy bag.

Knowledge is Power:

Knowledge reduces fear and builds confidence.  Confidence is a non-victim quality.  Read books, blogs and articles about self-defense. Do what you can to clarify your “mental maps” of how confrontations happen, how to avoid them, and how to respond if they do happen.

The most dangerous attitude to your personal safety is the, “It will never happen to me Syndrome.”  The fact that you are reading this post already puts you well ahead in the “non-victim game.”


Your potential of becoming a victim is influenced, in large part,  by the unconscious signals you project to a potential assailant.

Predators, whether deliberately or intuitively, form an opinion about how easy you will be to dominate and control.  They are looking for a weak, submissive and unaware target that won’t or can’t fight back.

You can control the non-verbal signals you project by investing time in the study and practice of self-defense.  Your projected body language will take care of itself.

You can’t fake it.  You must earn it.  This is not as difficult as you might think. If you really want to prevent or dramatically reduce the probability of becoming a victim, prepare yourself.  Preparation equals prevention!


About Randy LaHaie

I’m the founder of “Protective Strategies,” a training and consulting company providing self-defense and combative fitness solutions to law enforcement, high-risk professionals and private citizens since 1994. I am a retired police officer, court-declared expert in use-of-force and critical incident performance, and a life-long student of self-defense and combative fitness. “My Thing” is to help people incorporate functional and minimalist workout strategies to improve their health, fitness and personal safety.

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  • This is so right on as is usual from You Randy! I often think to Myself, po0r bastard that mistakes This little old Man as an easy target. Bad mistake fool. And that’s My mind set with enough on going training to make it happen! Thanks Randy, keep up the good work!

    • Sounds like you and I are on the same page Robert! Some how I’m think’n you don’t have to worry about being selected as an easy target! Just an “edu-ma-cated” guess. 😉 Thanks for the feedback…

  • Bill Rush

    Another fascinating article Randy and so true. The recreational bullies and opportunist predators are perceptive and wily. They can see if you’ve done your 10 rounds on the bag and had your breakfast every day that week. You know and so do they. A police officer friend once advised me to put a light outside my back yard. “Will it stop them coming in?” I asked him, “No, it will make it easier for them to select next door” he replied. There’s a bit of zen mastery in there somewhere!

    • Having been a police officer for 28 years, I know exactly what you’re saying Bill. Good points and thanks for your input. Keep it coming…

  • William

    Great post! So little is spoken about this subject, but thanks for writing about it, Randy. The “bad guys” are very good at picking out the people with the projected weaknesses you describe above. Have a great weekend!

    • Thanks for your feedback William… I’m glad you like the post.

  • Cole Summers

    Great work Randy!

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