Study Suggests Attackers Choose Victims Based on the Way They Walk

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
April 9 2013 4:41 PM

Study Suggests Attackers Choose Victims Based on the Way They Walk

Brooklyn Bridge Park
People walk through Brooklyn Bridge Park on April 3, 2013.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Crime is Slate’s crime blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatecrime.

“Don’t be a victim.” That’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot if you take a crime-prevention class, or if you befriend J.J. Bittenbinder. Basically, it means that there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood that you’ll be mugged, assaulted, or otherwise attacked. Don’t wave wads of cash around like you’re in Brewster’s Millions. Don’t space out on the subway. Walk with a purpose.

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That last one is particularly important, because according to a new study from the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, some criminals are very good at sensing weakness based on the way you walk. In the report titled “Psychopathy and Victim Selection: The Use of Gait as a Cue to Vulnerability,” the authors surveyed 47 inmates at a maximum-security prison in Ontario and found that social predators are very good at picking victims based on their gait—their posture and their stride.

The authors secretly filmed 12 people walking—eight women and four men, some of whom had been attacked before. Then, they showed the footage to a group of inmates, some of whom exhibited interpersonal traits commonly associated with psychopathy—manipulativeness, a lack of empathy, superficial friendliness—and asked them whether or not each person would make a good victim.

These “victim ratings” were then compared against each person’s actual history of victimization. Sure enough, the people whom the psychopaths picked as “likely victims” were usually the ones who had been victimized in the past. These people were often said to have “walked like an easy target”—slowly, asynchronously, with short strides.

The sample size here is really small, so I’d caution against giving this study’s findings too much weight. Nevertheless, it reinforces something that seems pretty intuitive. Criminals aren’t looking for a challenge. Rather, they want someone timid and inattentive. So bound down the street like you own it. Your new, aggressive gait may deter criminals. And even if this study turns out to be total BS, you’ll still get where you’re going a lot faster. Everyone’s a winner!

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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