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Rational Actors And Self Defense: The Four Types of Rational Actors

Rational Choice Theory assumes that criminals are rational actors who weigh perceived benefits with the costs and risks of committing a crime. It tries to see the world from the offenders point of view, so that we can learn how to protect ourselves from them. Most attacks and abductions include some level of rational analysis before and during the crime. This doesn't mean these calculations are always accurate, in fact they are often flawed and limited to what decisions can be made in a short window of opportunity. They are most often focused on what's most immediate and evident (e.g. considering if there is anyone around to catch them at the time), than the long term considerations (e.g. prison terms). There are different levels of rational thinking on the part of the offender, and this distinction helps inform our own strategies. While one attack could include years of planning, another could be completely impulsive without any apparent rational thinking at all.

First I will lay out the four types of rational actors, and then I will explain how this impacts our defensive and prevention strategies.

rational actor theory and self defense

1. Premeditated Attacks

The highest level of rational thinking can be seen in premeditated attacks. This occurs when an offender has a specific target, and can focus on planning the opportunity needed for the attack. An abductor might follow the target to identify vulnerable points in their every day routes, or observe when they are home alone. Rational calculations are most accurate because offenders have the most time and information available.

E.g. Elsa Segura lured real estate agent Monique Baugh to a phony house showing, where her boyfriend kidnapped and murdered her. The criminals worked together to plan the attack carefully.

2. Opportunistic Attacks

Most attacks are opportunistic, which means that they occur when a motivated offender happens to cross paths with a suitable target at the right opportunity. In this case, the offender has a short window of opportunity to make decisions, and these are based on what is most evident and immediate. Mostly they consider if anyone is around to stop the attack at the time. They have very little time to think about anything else, limiting their rational thinking.

E.g. Student Kaylee Sawyer was kidnapped and murdered by a campus security guard. Kaylee was walking home alone after a heated argument with her boyfriend at a party, when Edwin Lara violently attacked her.

3. Random Attacks

Some attacks are completely random and include little to no apparent rational thinking. There doesn't seem to be an obvious motive or a fear of getting caught. These types of attacks can be provoked by drug use or hallucinations.

E.g. An ex-convict randomly attacked a 70 year old man, stabbing him almost to death on his walk to work. "The victim has no relationship with Valdivia, this violent assault was entirely random and unprovoked."

4. Mass Attacks

The last type is the Mass Attacker, who aims to harm as many people as possible and does not fear getting caught or killed themselves. These can include significant levels of rational thinking and planning before the crime, or they can be more opportunistic. But once the attack is in motion, they do not consider risks or costs and cannot be reasoned with or scared off. Sometimes they want to be killed, and sometimes they want to go to jail.

E.g. 58 people were killed and over 500 injured at a Jason Aldean concert in 2017 when a sniper started firing into the crowd from a nearby hotel before shooting himself. This has been the worst mass shooting in US history.

With these groups we can categorize most attacks. The question is, what can we do about it? The more we understand the attackers thinking and priorities, the more informed our response can be.

jason aldean concert shooting
A depiction of the Jason Aldean concert in 2017 that left 58 people dead and over 500 injured, becoming the worst mass shooting in US history.

Our Defensive Strategy

If The Attacker Doesn't Want To Get Caught

If it is apparent that our attacker doesn't want to get caught (premeditated & opportunistic attacks), then we can use this against them. The three steps of attack response are:

1. Delay the Attack

Draw out the attack as long as possible by running, holding onto things, and resisting.

2. Draw Attention

Yell as loud as you can, without stopping to alert those around you.

3. Fight Back

Fight back as hard as you can, without ceasing.

All of these measures make the attack longer and more difficult, and increase the risk for the attacker. As the risk gets higher, many attackers begin to panic and give up on the attack altogether. The abduction itself is secondary to their first priority: don't get caught. All of these measures are designed to attract help from others, but also to make the attacker believe that they will get caught if they continue. The video below shows how little resistance it took for this attacker to give up and sprint back to his car. There are hundreds of videos demonstrating the same response to resistance on YouTube.

If The Attacker Doesn't Care About Getting Caught

Now if it is apparent that our attacker doesn't care about getting caught, than we may have to use greater force to stop them. Delay, Draw Attention, and Fight Back still help here, but only if you can either escape, defeat them physically, or get other people to come help you. You won't have the attackers fear of getting caught to assist your efforts, so they won't give up until they're physically forced to.

"If it is ever your misfortune to be attacked, alertness will have given you a little warning, decisiveness will have given you a proper course to pursue, and if that course is to counterattack, carry it out with everything you've got!" -Jeff Cooper

Where Do They Happen?

If Our Attacker Doesn't Want To Get Caught

For most abductions which include some level of rational thinking, the offender does not want to get caught. Because of this they are highly selective of the time and place of attack, and most often choose settings where there are no or few people around. This is why we teach people how to recognize High Risk Settings, so they can avoid the opportunity needed for an attack to occur. We also teach people how to become High Risk Targets, so they can take measures that will lower the likelihood of being targeted.


Prevention strategies include avoiding walking alone at night, maintaining situational awareness- especially on every day routes, walk as confidently as possible, never approaching people's cars, and staying with your group when going out or drinking.

If The Attacker Doesn't Care About Getting Caught

When attackers don't care about getting caught, a crowd is not a deterrent. In fact, this is where you're more likely to fall victim to a Random or Mass Attacker, than to a Premeditated or Opportunistic one. Mass attacks are often targeted at large crowds since the killer wants to do as much harm as possible. This is something we should be aware of at concerts, malls, and busy streets. Random attacks are more likely to happen when walking among strangers in public, especially in more dangerous areas.


Prevention strategies include avoiding massive crowds like concerts with over 15,000 people, always being aware of your surroundings, staying close to exits, and sticking with a group.

We truly never know when we might cross paths with a motivated attacker- rational or not. It's always best to practice good situational awareness and confident body language at a minimum, and to take more precautions in settings that present higher risks.

Thanks for reading! To learn more about the role that opportunity plays in violent attacks, click here. If you're interested in self defense and street safety, have a 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.


The Girls Who Fight Film, By Jennifer Roberts

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