Body Language, Victim Selection, and Presenting a Powerful Self
Updated: Apr 5
Self defense requires physical techniques, of course. In any attack, one needs to know how to escape common positions and grabs, to create space between themselves and the attacker, and run when they can. Although learning how to fight is extremely useful, it is a reactive measure. What many people don’t know is that there are simple preventative measures we can take to decrease our chances of being targeted. These break down into three categories:
1. Situational awareness: how to be better aware of your surroundings, and how to navigate the world smartly and safety.
2. Assertiveness: how to speak up for yourself with authority.
3. Body language: how to move, stand, and walk in a way that projects confidence, assertiveness, and power- and not insecurity or submissiveness.
In this article I am going to focus on body language and how we can use it to improve our safety.
Communication researchers say about 70% of communication is non-verbal. We communicate so much about ourselves through how we move, how we stand, and the faces we make. Non-verbal cues tell us if someone is uncomfortable, stressed, confident, sad, insecure, or tired. We make judgments about people we meet based on these cues every day without thinking about it, yet most people have not given any thought to what their body language says about them.
Unfortunately, studies suggest that predators, specifically those that exhibit high psychopathic traits like lack of empathy and remorse, superficial charm, and manipulation, are actually better than the average person at reading these cues accurately.
Psychopathic individuals make up 1% of the general population, and between 15-25% of the male prison population. That may seem like a very small number, but psychopathy is quite common compared to most mental disorders. It is twice as common as schizophrenia, anorexia, and bipolar disorder, and roughly as common as bulimia, OCD, and narcissism (Hoffman, Kiehl, 2011). Although they may be an insignificant group relative to non-psychopaths, they are responsible for a disproportionate amount of violent crime (up to 50% according to this study), and thus when thinking about the types of people we want to ward off, they are indeed relevant.
A 2013 study in Ontario had 47 inmates watch videos of various women walking and asked them to give 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 (a event that was equal to or greater than bullying). They discovered that accurate predictions of vulnerability was positively correlated with psychopathic traits (Book et al. 2013).
What this all means is that people pick up on your body language and use it to judge whether or not you will be an easy target for an attack- and that dangerous predators are often very good at doing this accurately. The study also suggests that it may help explain why certain individuals become repeat victims, citing that "social predators are attracted to external displays of vulnerability". These findings help us learn about what we could do to not be seen as an easy target when walking about and living our lives.
What non-verbal behaviors indicate vulnerability?
According to these studies, several attributes can indicate vulnerability. These include posture, build, fitness level, age, gender, pace of walking, lateral vs. horizontal weight shifts, hand movements and even facial expressions. These are a lot of things to be aware of, and probably an impossible number of things to consciously control on command. So, let’s break it down into helpful chunks. The overall goal is to teach you how to present yourself in a way that conveys confidence, assertiveness, and dominance.
The biggest giveaway 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.
What is a good walk and a bad walk?
A good walk conveys confidence, coordination, and purpose.
Principle 1: keep what is called open body language when walking about, as opposed to closed body language.
Principle 2: walk like you have a place to be, with slightly faster strides and coordinated movement.
Open body language means opening up and taking space. Stand tall with shoulders back, head up, arms at your side and not in your pockets, not fiddling with hair, or crossed in front of your body, and legs uncrossed. Closed body language implies fear, discomfort, and vulnerability, and includes hunched posture, head down, legs crossed or tightly closed, and arms crossed or covering torso, or hands in pockets.
When standing still, open body language looks like a person standing straight with arms at their side, looking forward, and with legs at a comfortable length apart with feet turned slightly outwards.
When walking, this includes pace and coordinated weight shifts. A confident person usually walks at a slightly faster pace, while exhibiting open body language and with naturally swinging arms. 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).
Students at a Girls Who Fight summer camp demonstrate confident walking (great performance Sophie!)
Now unless you are willing or able to 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 how fit you are, we can all implement general open body language when walking about, improving our posture and arm positioning. This is the biggest and m ost important step in decreasing your perceived vulnerability. It is also very important to keep in mind when travelling in foreign places. For our safety tips on solo female travel, click here.
The 2013 study mentioned above indicated that inmates with higher psychopathic traits were better at judging the dominance or submissiveness of others by their facial expression.
What’s a good or bad facial expression?
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, being exhausted or stressed, making them easier targets for physical assault (Hareli et al. 2009).
In terms of eye contact, being overly avoidant makes one look timid. It shows a need to avoid confrontation. The rule of thumb is to make split second eye contact with people you pass. This tells them that you know they are there, and that you are paying attention to your surroundings. Doing so will also give you the opportunity to practice using body language to detect the dominance or submissiveness of others, as well as practice good situational awareness (double score!)
The implications of this research come as a contradiction to many who are used to hearing the line “don’t tell me to smile!”. But, if smiling could have the effect of making you appear more dominant in risky situations, decreasing your perceived vulnerability to bad guys, then there might be an even bigger feminist case to make in favor of smiling that prioritizes safety. This is especially important since research has found that seemingly submissive women are more likely to be sexually attacked in comparison to dominant women (Richards et al., 1991) . Or you could just go the complete other way and rock the angry expression, as that seems to express dominance too. We have some room to make this dominance perception our own ladies! Woo-hoo!
It is also worth noting the numerous studies that show a positive correlation between power posing and smiling with actual internal improvements on confidence, happiness, and even competence in various domains. Some scientific 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.
If these assumptions are correct, one could make the case that the ultimate feminist argument should be for women to take dominant positions and smile more. Not only will it make them appear like a horrible victim to predators, but it might actually make them feel better about themselves and help them succeed across social and professional domains. However you feel about all that, it is worth knowing from a purely self-defense perspective.
To conclude, let’s have a refresher of the most important tips:
Do: “Open and assertive body language”
Keep your shoulders back and head up
Look forward not down, stay aware of your surroundings
Let your arms swing naturally when you walk
Walk with a slightly faster pace and big strides, look like you have a place to be
Make eye contact with those that cross your path
Don't: “Closed and submissive body language”
Cross your arms in front of your chest and cover up
Fidget with your hands or keep your hands in your pockets
Drag your feet when walking or take short steps
Look sad or scared when walking about
That’s a review of some of the studies on body language and how it affects victim selection among predators. Of course it is true that the fault for victimization lies with the predator, but these findings help us understand what they are looking for and how we can avoid fitting that description as a preventative measure. 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.
“Non-verbals govern how others think about us, but they also impact how we think about ourselves” - Amy Cuddy. I hope you learned something that will help you present your most confident, powerful self!
Thank you for reading! In my next article I am going to discuss assertiveness, focusing more on voice, and the implications of being more assertive and how women can accomplish this. Check out our instagram @girlswhofight_to and if you’re in Toronto, check out our girls and women’s self defense and MMA courses!
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.