Many people trust their instincts to keep them safe and to make decisions. Yet, time and time again during my law enforcement career, I saw instincts do the opposite. They can lead people directly into harm's way. It's our instincts that cause us to trust people we otherwise should not trust. Here are 5 ways instincts can lead you to do just that:

Dangerous Instinct: He looks clean cut and handsome. He must be okay to date.

The reality: Dangerous people do not look physically different from anyone else. They can be handsome or pretty. They can drive nice cars, and they can have impeccable style. None of that means they won't attempt to con you, hurt you or even kill you. You can't tell whether someone is dangerous just by looking at him. No one can, not even highly experienced profilers. Someone's appearance has no correlation with their being dangerous.

Dangerous Instinct: She seems nice enough. I'll let her watch my kids.

The reality: Just because a potential baby sitter is nice doesn't mean she'll be a good babysitter. A nice person might ignore your children all evening long. A nice person also might not know about basic safety. For instance, just because she's nice doesn't mean she knows how to help your child if he's choking. People who are addicted to painkillers and other drugs are capable of seeming nice. So are people who pose as baby sitters so they can access your home to steal things. And a nice babysitter is capable of having an abusive boyfriend who tends to visit her while she's babysitting.

Dangerous Instinct: It's okay to talk to dog lovers.

The reality: Serial killers and rapists own dogs, too. Dangerous people can use dogs and other pets as a ruse that allows them to gain access into someone's comfort zone. They know that dog owners tend to trust other dog owners, so they use the pet as a way to disarm their victims and gain their trust. And this commonly asked question can turn a dangerous stranger into a new friend for many young children, "Can you help me find my lost puppy?"

Dangerous Instinct: He can't be dangerous. He has either a child in the car or toys and photos of a child.

The reality: That's what any number of women thought just before agreeing to get in a car with Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer. He would cruise for his victims with his young son or his son's toys in plain sight because he knew these women-women who were keenly aware that a serial killer was hunting them. Gary knew a little bit about psychology. He knew these women would be more likely to trust him if they realized he was a father. It's also what Colleen Stan thought just before stepping into a car with Cameron Hooker. Then he handcuffed her, blindfolded her, gagged her, and kept her as a sex slave for 7 years.

Dangerous Instinct: Wow he's so charming and smart. We have to hire him.

The reality: A common trait of psychopaths and other dangerous people is this: They can be glib and charming, even charismatic. Who doesn't like that in a person. But it's important to be able to separate charm from a dangerous personality who uses their charm to disarm you and lull you into thinking they are the greatest thing in the world and you end up hiring them to work in your company, for example. Accidentally hiring a white-collar psychopath could be disastrous for a company. When a psychopath ends up at the office, he or she will charm people initially. He'll do this to win over fellow employees and bosses that he eventually manipulates to accomplish his objectives. These objectives could be anything from embezzlement to taking significant risks with company property (cars, money, investments) to sexual conquests. Their loyalty is to themselves and they will betray the corporation if it serves their needs. They can cheat, embezzle, lie, take extraordinary risks, sabotage projects, violate confidentiality issues while experiencing little if any remorse or feelings of guilt as they do so.

These are the views of Dr. O'Toole and do not represent the views of the FBI.

About the Author

Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D.

Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D. was one of the FBI's senior profilers at the Behavioral Analysis Unit and is the author of Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us. 

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