Updated: Dec 16, 2021
The relationship between body language and perceived vulnerability has been studied for decades. The results are highly useful in our understanding of how predators select victims, and what we can do about it. Serial killer Ted Bundy once stated 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 ..”. Research corroborates Bundy's claim that non-verbal cues from body language are used to assess the vulnerability of potential targets, and that psychopathic individuals are better at reading these cues than regular people.
Communication researchers estimate that 70-90% of communication is non-verbal. We communicate so much about ourselves through how we move, how we gesture, and the faces we make. These cues tell us if someone is uncomfortable, stressed, confident, sad, insecure, scared, or tired. We make judgments about people based on these cues every day without thinking about it, yet most people have not given any thought to what their own body language says about them.
Many studies suggest that predators, specifically those exhibiting high psychopathic traits (lack of empathy and remorse, superficial charm, and manipulation), are more adept than non-predators at reading these non-verbal cues. Psychopathic individuals, often called 'social predators' make up only 1% of the general population, yet make up between 15-25% of the male prison population, and 50% of violent crime.
A 2013 study included 47 inmates with a history of violent crimes who were shown short videos of women walking down the street. The participants gave each person a vulnerability rating of 1-10, and then explain their reasoning. The researchers compared the inmates predictions of vulnerability with the targets self-reported history of victimization. They discovered that accurate predictions of vulnerability was positively correlated with psychopathic traits (Book et al. 2013).
"Individuals scoring higher on aspects of psychopathy are more accurate at judging victim vulnerability simply from viewing targets walking. Attention to body language, which is indicative of vulnerability, give psychopathic perpetrators a definite advantage in selecting “easy” victims." (Book et al. 2013).
What Does This Mean For Us?
Body language plays a clear role in victim selection. Predators are attracted to 'external displays of vulnerability', and use body language to judge whether or not someone is an easy target for an attack. Unfortunately they're very accurate in their predictions. Responsibility for assault always lies with the perpetrator, but understanding how they make decisions can help us prevent future or repeated victimization. We can teach people how to avoid displaying vulnerable body language and in turn reduce their likelihood of being targeted for an attack.
"The height of strategy, is to attack your opponent's strategy" -Sun Tzu
What Non-Verbal Behaviours Indicate Vulnerability?
Several attributes can indicate vulnerability, but some more than others. These include posture, build, fitness level, age, gender, pace of walking, lateral vs. horizontal weight shifts, hand movements and even facial expressions.
The biggest indication of vulnerability is a person’s gait. Gait is a person’s manner of walking, and includes hip sway, stride length, speed, arm sway, and bounce. The 2013 study showed that inmates who scored higher on measures of psychopathic traits primarily used gait to make their assumptions, over all other indicators. Let's look at how we can walk to convey confidence, purpose, and coordination!
The most important thing we can do is convey confidence, and we do this through open body language. Open body language means opening up and taking space. Stand tall with shoulders back, head up, arms at your side (not in your pockets, fiddling with hair, or crossed in front of your body). Closed body language implies fear, discomfort, and vulnerability, and includes hunched posture, head down, legs crossed or tightly closed, and arms covering torso.
The use of open body language to express dominance, and closed body language to express fear can be seen all across the animal kingdom. We see this in potato bugs when they curl up if disturbed, lobsters who expand themselves according to their hierarchal position, and dogs who cower when scared. All of us can tell when an animal is displaying confident body language versus vulnerable body language, and humans are no different.
"Given the same amount of intelligence, timidity will do a thousand times more damage than audacity" -Carl Von Clausewitz
A powerful walk also conveys purpose. A purposeful walk is a slightly faster pace, while exhibiting open body language and with naturally swinging arms. Walk like you have a place to be and you're not putting up with any rubbish on the way.
"The research found that women exhibiting slower walking speed as well as shorter strides were judged by men to be more vulnerable to exploitation" (Book et al. 2013).
Students at a Girls Who Fight summer camp demonstrate confident walking.
People who shifted their weight in odd ways when walking, specifically shifting their weight laterally instead of forward, projected an internal lack of synchrony and ranked higher in their score of victimization. Short strides, constrained arm movement, decreased energy, lower body weight, and dragging feet also lead to higher scores. These things often indicate a person’s athletic ability and coordination. If a person appears to be well coordinated, strong, and fit, they are judged to be more likely to fight back and to be more successful in doing so, and thus not an easy target (Book et al. 2013).
Unless you can hit the gym to get in stronger shape, there is only so much we can do to be perceived as more fit. However, no matter your fitness level, we can all implement open body language and purposefulness when walking about. Walking with confidence and purpose is the most important step in decreasing your perceived vulnerability. It's also very important to keep in mind when travelling in foreign places. For our safety tips on solo female travel, click here.
"It is more important to out think your enemy, than to outfight him" -Sun Tzu
The 2013 study also found that facial expressions were used to indicate vulnerability. A 2009 study revealed that in men, neutral, angry, and happy emotions indicated higher dominance when compared to expressions of sadness or shame. In women, expressing anger or happiness were perceived as dominant compared to neutral expressions. In both men and women, expressions of sadness significantly decreased their perception of dominance. "Individuals with a sad or distracted expression may be perceived as having their defenses lowered or being exhausted or stressed, making them easier targets for physical assault" (Hareli et al. 2009).
Being overly avoidant of eye contact makes one appear timid. It shows a desire to avoid confrontation. The rule of thumb is to make split second eye contact with people you pass. This tells people that you've seen them, you're paying attention to your surroundings, and indicates you're not afraid of standing up for yourself.
Does Power-Posing Actually Make You Feel More Powerful?
Many studies show a positive correlation between power posing and smiling with internal improvements on confidence, happiness, and even competence in various domains. Some research shows that assuming dominant body language (shoulders back, head up, smile, take space) actually raises levels of testosterone (the dominance hormone) and decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) which has the effect of making people truly feel more powerful and happy, and even improves chances of success (Cuddy, 2012). Social psychologist Amy Cuddy has a viral Ted Talk on this subject. There is some debate in the science community about the link between power posing and physiological changes in the body. For a list of the latest scientific research on this topic, click here.
“Non-verbals govern how others think about us, but they also impact how we think about ourselves” - Amy Cuddy.
According to the present research, not only will confident body language make you appear like a high risk target to predators, but it might actually make you feel better about yourself and help you succeed across social and professional domains. Win win.
Vulnerability As a Self-Concept
Another interesting topic of study is repeat victimization. Some research suggests that the identification of oneself as a victim is more influential on body language than ones actual history of victimization. Therefore, past victimization may only lead to increased chances of future victimization if one perceives themselves as vulnerable. In other words, they way you see yourself plays a bigger role in victimization than your actual experiences.
"If one’s display of vulnerable body language is not due to actual victimization but rather a vulnerable self-concept, then Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) addressing self-perceived vulnerability may be useful for reducing vulnerability to victimization and may outperform instruction on non-vulnerable walking characteristics. Indeed, training victims in how to walk assertively works, but the effect seems to disappear with time. Addressing perceptions of vulnerability through CBT may therefore be a more effective way to prevent re-victimization" (Book et al. 2013).
How we see ourselves has great power and influence over us. We should strive to see ourselves at the victor of our lives, rather than the victim of our circumstances or experiences. Not only for a better mental health and self-image, but for better safety outcomes. At Girls Who Fight we aim to help girls and women become their own hero. To unlock the power of full belief in their ability to accomplish and overcome anything, and not let anyone or anything take that belief away from them.
To summarize, let's review our body language tips.
Do: Open and assertive body language
Shoulders back and head up
Look forward not down, stay aware of your surroundings
Let your arms swing naturally when you walk
Walk with purpose
Make eye contact with those that cross your path
Walk with a forward motion instead of lateral shifts
Don't: Closed and submissive body language
Cover up by crossing your arms in front of your chest
Fidget with your hands or keep your hands in your pockets
Drag your feet when walking
Take short steps
Look sad or scared when walking about
Data on victim selection present a powerful tool for individuals who want to improve their own safety. Walking confidently, making eye contact, being aware of your surroundings, moving with purpose; these are all vulnerability-quenchers that everyone can do and they're all absolutely free. The fault of victimization lies with the predator, always. But if we learn what predators look for, we can avoid fitting that description. The fact of the matter is that there will always be people out there willing to do harm to others. We have no control over potential attackers, but we do have control over the other two necessary elements of an attack: ourselves and our surroundings. Learning how to make ourselves a High Risk Target through confidence and awareness is only one part of the prevention equation. We also need to learn how to recognize and avoid the High Risk Settings that enable violent offenders into action.
"If violent crime is to be curbed, it is only the intended victim who can do it. The felon does not fear the police, and he fears neither judge nor jury. Therefore what he must be taught to fear is his victim." -Jeff Cooper
I strongly believe that learning how to present yourself more confidently improves one’s life beyond safety. The world is a social place, and our interpersonal relationships are incredibly important to our happiness and success. Whether for career, romantic relationships or other domains, it is hugely beneficial to present yourself as a person who demands respect, is willing to speak up for yourself, negotiate, ask for what you want, and say no when you need to. In this way, assertiveness and confidence training pays off well beyond improving your safety.
Thanks for reading! If you're interested in self defense and street safety, look around our blog and website, and don't forget to follow our instagram for great tips!
Author: Gemma Sheehan, Founder of Girls Who Fight Inc.
Gemma is an ex-MMA fighter who started Girls Who Fight Inc to bring the value of martial arts and self defense training to the female audience.
Book, A., Costello, K,. & Camillary, J. (2013). Psychopathy and Victim Selection. The Use of Gait as a Que to Victim Selection. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.875.4891&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Cuddy, A. (2012). “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ks-_Mh1QhMc
Hareli, S., Shomrat N., & Hess, U. (2009). Emotional vs. Neutral Expressions and Perceptions of Social Dominance and Submissiveness. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19485615
Hoffman, M., Kiehl, K. (2011). The Criminal Psychopath: History, Neuroscience, Treatment, Economics. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4059069/
Richards, L., Rollerson, B., & Phillips, J. (1991). Perceptions of submissiveness: Implications for victimization. Journal of Psychology, 125, 407-411.