The Gift of Fear (review)

The Gift of Fear
This is all about violence, evaluating risk, and how to keep yourself from being a victim. The Gift of Fear is one of the best things I’ve read this year.

The key idea here: trust your intuition. Early on in the book, Gavin de Becker won my interest when he appealed to my inner word-nerd. He points out that the root of the word intuition is “tueri”, meaning protection, defense, guardianship. As he says later, when it comes to violence,

Intuition is always right in at least two important ways: 1. It is always in response to something. 2. It always has your best interests at heart.

Whether we respond correctly, or even interpret those signals correctly, is another matter.

We’re born with a lot of relationship sensitivity (“all relationships start with predictions”), and by the time we’re adults, we’ve got pretty good wiring. Becker:

You can imagine every human feeling and it is that ability that makes you an expert at predicting what others will do.1

So he gets practical. Those ideas and impulses tip us off. Let’s look at De Becker’s Pre-Incident Indicators or PINS. Lazily copying and paraphrasing from the Wikipedia page on the book:

  • Forced Teaming. This is when a person tries to pretend that he has something in common with a person and that they are in the same predicament when that isn’t really true. Look out for “we” and “us” and “together”-type language.
  • Charm and Niceness. This is being polite and friendly to a person in order to manipulate him or her. “Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait”.
  • Too Many Details. If a person is lying they will add excessive details to make themselves sound more credible to the victim… and to themselves.
  • Typecasting. An insult to get a person who would otherwise ignore one to talk to one. Negging, anyone?
  • Loan Sharking. Giving unsolicited help and expecting favors in return. Give a little, collect a lot more.
  • The Unsolicited Promise. A promise to do (or not do) something when no such promise is asked for; this usually means that such a promise will be broken. For example: an unsolicited, “I promise I’ll leave you alone after this,” usually means you will not be left alone. Similarly, an unsolicited “I promise I won’t hurt you” usually means the person intends to hurt you. An unsolicited promise shows nothing more than that the person wants to convince you of something. There’s no collateral.
  • Discounting the Word “No”. Refusing to accept a clear rejection is a big signal.

What instantly struck me about this list? It made me think of salesmen and pick-up artists. Not all of whom are criminals, but winning confidence and power plays a big part. And thus, one of the best forms of protection is a healthy bullshit detector. After all:

The nicest guy, the guy with no self-serving agenda whatsoever, the one who wants nothing from you, won’t approach you at all.

It follows from those PINs that good strategies to avoid coercion or worse might include…

  • A single, crystal-clear, direct “NO”. Anything less as a first volley is open to negotiation. Backing down from it later just makes you weaker.
  • Communicating awareness. If you’re walking down the street, that might mean direct eye contact and sustained attention on an approaching stranger.
  • Don’t give threats credence. Threats don’t usually come from a position of power, anyway. It’s the listener who decides how credible it is. After all, who benefits if the victim acts like the threat will be carried out? Which relates to the idea of…
  • Forcing the person to be explicit. If extortion is the goal, “I don’t understand what you’re getting at” forces the asshole to be explicit. Many would rather back down rather than be clear about the evil they want to do.
  • Allow opportunities for retreat. Give alternatives to violence. Avoidance first, folks. Fighting is always a later option, but it’s really hard to reverse it.

I should mention here that the book is focused on predicting and avoiding pursuit/coercion/violence from men, as we are the source of most of it. And it won’t surprise you that women are much more likely to listen their instincts without second-guessing.

I thought the best parts of this book were on relationships and stalking, but there were other good sections on workplace violence and threats to celebrities/politicians, and plenty of great psych-factoids throughout, like:

  • Everything a person does is done twice: once in the mind, once in execution. Ideas and impulses are tip-offs. Someone who has bothered to smash a beer bottle is more likely to fight. Suicidal people who can describe their intended methods in greater detail are at a much higher risk.
  • Threats against random public figures are generally unreliable. More likely tip-offs are (perceived) connections like lovesickness, adoration, rejection, feelings of debt or being owed something.
  • Non-anonymous threats are more likely to be credible and dangerous, because they’re attention-seeking.
  • Restraining orders are common, but aren’t much of a solution. Shelters, on the other hand, are generally awesome at preventing murders.
  • Stalking/unwanted pursuit is a form of relationship addiction. The only way to make it better is to make yourself unavailable.2

And later there’s a good bit on anxiety and worrying, when he points out that “Most often, we worry because it provides some secondary reward”. Like what? Worry is a way to avoid change, avoid a feeling of powerlessness, avoid disappointment in the future by moderating expectations, and to connect or commiserate with others. I also like his notion that “anxiety is caused by low-confidence predictions”.

Read this book. Get other people to read it. It is so good.

1. Two tangents here: One, it makes me think of the power of fiction — how much we relate to fictional characters, how the fun of great storytelling is our participation and trying to guess what’s coming. And two, it reminds me of a part from the Philosophy Bites interview with Alex Neill talking about the paradox of tragedy: We love tragedy not only because it tugs our heartstrings but also because it offers insight. And that insight is what sets it apart from other blatant emotion-rousing genres like horror or porn.
2. Carolyn Hax connection here: Behavior is easier to change than expectations are. Never not loving Carolyn Hax.

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