Survival Signals That Indicate Danger: The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker

Updated: Apr 27

The ability to predict behaviour is what our society is built on. We are each constantly making predictions about the behaviour of the people around us, yet many people believe that it is impossible to predict violent behaviour. Gavin De Becker says that this is a myth perpetuated by the media, and I agree with him.

In his book 'The Gift of Fear', Becker details several specific times that an act of violence is described by reporters at 'senseless', 'unpredictable', and an act that 'no one could have seen coming'. Yet when you do a little digging into the criminals history, their actions were quite predictable indeed. No one likes to feel that they could have seen something coming because that would mean that they could have done something about it. Prediction means responsibility. But that doesn't change the truth about violence- it often comes with signals that precede it and that can be picked up on if you're paying attention.

De Becker uses his experience as a protection expert, as well as lots of data to help readers learn about the common danger signals that predators give. He advocates for women to listen to their intuition, especially when it's giving them a message of fear. These days, if we get a bad gut feeling about something, chances are that we're going to write it off. We don't want to be rude or paranoid, and our mind sets to work at once to debunk our own gut feeling so we can tell ourselves "it's probably nothing" and carry on with our day.

It is these gut feelings that De Becker says are the most important ally in your protection. I have to agree. Perhaps among all the courses, the books, and the training, the ability to listen to your own survival instincts (the advanced product of the struggles of your ancestors) may be the most important thing you can do for your own safety. To help inform your intuition, De Becker lists some of the most common signals that predators give to betray their intentions.

Forced Teaming

Forced Teaming is when someone tries to make you feel like you're in the 'same boat' as them, giving you the feeling that you should help each other. Sharing a predicament like waiting for the bus, being stuck in an elevator, or stuck in a line for example. These situations seem to be coincidences when they are actually intentional and designed to elicit trust.

The detectable signal of forced teaming is the projection of a shared purpose or experience where none really exists: saying things like "both of us"; "we're some team"; "how are we going to handle this?"; "now we're in trouble", etc.


A woman and a man are waiting for a bus that's late. It's cold, rainy, and dark. The man strikes up a conversation with the woman using phrases like "how are we going to get home now?" Eventually he calls a friend for a ride and offers to take the woman home too. But it was indeed planned out the entire time.

"The best cons make the victim want to participate" -Gavin De Becker

"Forced teaming is done in many contexts, but when applied by a stranger to a woman in a vulnerable situation (such as alone in a remote area), it is always inappropriate. It's not about partnership or coincidence, but establishing a rapport. Rapport building is seen as admirable when in fact is is almost always done for self serving reasons. Not everyone who seeks to establish rapport is sinister, but that doesn't mean that a woman must participate with every stranger who approaches her."

"The defense is to make a clear refusal to accept the concept of a partnership: "I didn't ask for your help and I don't want it". Like many of the best defenses, this one has the cost of appearing rude. But safety is the foremost concern of all beings, and it justifies a seemingly abrupt response from time to time."

Charm and Niceness

"Charm is almost always a direct instrument, which like rapport-building, has a motive. Charm is an ability, not an inherent character trait. Think of charm as a verb: instead of thinking "this person is so charming", think "this person is trying to charm me".

"He was so nice" is a comment I often hear from people describing the man who, moments or months after his niceness, attacked them. We must learn to teach our children that niceness does not equal goodness. Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait."

"People seeking to control others almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning. Nice is not a credential for good intent" -Gavin De Becker

De Becker encourages women to explicitly rebuff unwanted approaches.

Too Many Details

"When people are telling the truth, they don't feel doubted, so they don't feel the need for additional support in the form of details. Someone who is trying to build rapport or charm you may use an abundance of unnecessary details in his speech. The defense is to remain conscious of the context in which the details are offered."