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Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D.
Mary Ellen O'Toole Ph.D.

Dangerous Instincts

Should you trust your guts?

Over my career as an FBI Agent-Profiler, many people have told me their gut instincts have never led them astray. Usually right after telling me that, they follow up with a story of a disaster that they never saw coming and many of their stories ended tragically.

When I lecture to people from varied backgrounds and with different life experiences, I tell them that if they find themselves in a situation where the hair on the back of their neck goes up, there probably is no time for a full blown assessment. Err on the side of caution and just get the heck out of there. But understand this. That is a safety strategy and should not be confused with having a great physiological assessment tool. Gut instincts are not an analytical process. They are a reaction to a situation or a person that you encounter which provokes an immediate emotional reaction in you.

Consider this situation. You are waiting for an elevator and the door opens. Inside the elevator is a lone male whose appearance is off-putting to you. He is dressed in old wrinkled clothes with long unkempt hair and he won’t make eye contact with you. As you watch him, you think about being trapped inside that elevator with him, and your heart begins to pound hard and fast, and you can feel the hair on your arms stand up. What are you reacting to? Are you reacting to the man’s appearance or his odd behavior? Do you flashback to movies or TV shows like “The Silence of the Lambs” or “Criminal Minds” or books you’ve read about dangerous people? But what do you really know about this particular person on the elevator and his personality? Has he ever attacked someone in an elevator in the past? Does he have a weapon? Does he have anger management problems? Is he a dangerous psychopath? You probably can’t answer any of these questions. But nonetheless you need to make an immediate decision. Do you get on the elevator or wait for the next one? With such a visceral reaction to this stranger, most of us would not chance it and just wait for the next elevator.

However, by NOT getting on the elevator, you can’t know if your instincts were dead on accurate or completely wrong. The only way to verify your instincts about this situation is to get on the elevator with this man — and see what happens. If he attacks or threatens you, this confirms your instincts. He is dangerous. But why risk it — just don't get on the elevator. This is an easy decision. As we would say in the BAU. “This one is a grounder.” However, most life changing events are not this easy and obvious. They require a much more in depth assessment of factors that go well beyond the trappings of normalcy or what a person looks like.

If a decision you are about to make could change your life or the life of a loved one, isn’t it worth the time to learn about behavior, and how to recognize warning signs or indicators of dangerousness?

In my experiences, I have seen that many well-educated, well-read, conscientious people believe they are inherently blessed with wonderful instincts that will alert them if a dangerous person or situation confronts them. Unfortunately, this is magical thinking. I have seen so many times when people mistakenly relied on this inner barometer they believe they were born with — a barometer they think is consistently reliable, extremely well honed and full proof, and then are shocked when they — or someone they love — are victimized.

Here is an important point. We are all different in terms of our genetics (heredity), upbringing and experiences and we all have different strengths and weaknesses. For example, some of us have a family history of heart problems; others have very strong hearts and live till they’re 100 years old. Some people have very high IQ’s and others of us have average intelligence. Some people are very extraverted. They can walk into a social situation and light up the room. Others walk into the same room, and hurriedly find the safety of a chair in the corner and talk to one or two people the whole night. We are all different. Why then would we believe we all have an identical internal barometer that warns us one hundred percent of the time when a dangerous person or situation is confronting us?

Here are some interesting thoughts to keep in mind when thinking about gut instincts. There are no measurement scales to determine how accurate our gut instincts are. There are no college courses, or specialized training to help us better understand our gut instincts or learn ways to improve them, or figure out when our gut is having a bad day. There are also any number of factors that can blunt or compromise our “gut instincts.” These can include our individual backgrounds and life experiences; medications, drugs and alcohol; stress; religious upbringing; our values and belief systems. All of these variables can alter how we react to a person or situation and how we interpret behavior associated with them.

Some people believe the ability to read others and size up certain situations is merely an exercise in common sense. For example opening your front door to a stranger, giving your financial information to someone you have not thoroughly checked out or getting involved with an abusive partner are just obvious behaviors one should not engage in. “Its just common sense”. I respond this way. If we all had the same degree of common sense or gut instincts, well meaning and loving parents would never have allowed their children to go with Jerry Sandusky. Educated, professional and experienced people would not have put their life savings into Bernie Maddoff's hands, and influential school administrators and families would not have allowed FBI Top Ten Fugitive Eric Tooth to serve as their children's teacher and babysitter. If our gut instincts provided flawless measures with which to read people in order to stay safe, we would not have thousands of people currently living fearfully in abusive, potentially lethal domestic relationships — relationships that in the beginning appeared safe and loving - or at least not dangerous.

Reading people and situations is not a mystical or clairvoyant process and it is not based on luck, or on the fact that someone just looks creepy. Reading people and situations goes well beyond what I call looking at the trappings of normalcy, for example how well they dress, where they went to school, whether or not they like animals or do or don’t look you in the eye. But too often, we use these indicators to size up other people and we miss the real danger signs.

In the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), Agent Profilers look for patterns of behaviors in an individual’s life to determine if he or she poses a threat. These patterns include evidence of concerning, threatening and dangerous behaviors. Whether the individual is well dressed, drives a nice car, or owns a beautiful home do not tell us if he or she might pose a threat.

The premise of Dangerous Instincts is that when we are facing a situation which requires us to make a decision about a person we intend to bring into our comfort zone, or make a decision that could significantly change our lives or our families lives, isn’t a more in-depth assessment a good idea?

Would you consider these important decisions?

Scenario #1

You and Tom have been dating for a few months and it seems to be going well. He was unemployed for awhile and just started a new job with the potential for moving up in the organization. After his first paycheck he started buying himself several expensive toys, and you ended up loaning him money to cover some of his monthly expenses. He is attentive to you and talks about a long-term commitment and tells you how different you are from his other girlfriends who were just out to get married. You describe him to your friends as extremely charming with a great sense of humor.

Your schedule is hectic with young children so you are constantly on the go. Tom has offered to help you in driving your children to appointments and sporting events that lessen the load for you. However, you’ve seen him driving too fast at times, even a little aggressively, but he becomes angry with you when you mention it to him. He loves to eat out and you have noticed that at times he seems to talk down to service people even embarrassing them for no reason. However, at other times he is quite nice. Tom seems to get along well you're your kids, but tires of them quickly. You tell friends “he has pluses and minuses” but he is basically a good person.” And frankly you are tired of being alone and having to do everything yourself. Tom has started to talk about moving in together to make sure as a couple you are compatible before considering marriage.

Scenario #3

After months of looking you and your family found your dream house in the perfect location. But you have to act fast because there are others interested in buying the house. You know little about the neighbors or the neighborhood other than it appears to be a beautiful area to raise your family.


Each of these scenarios can involve high-risk consequences, if there are danger signs you missed or didn’t even consider. The fallout of a faulty assessment in either of these situations could last a very long time. Isn’t it worth knowing how to assess each of these situations so if there are serious problems or danger signs you will be able to spot them beforehand and save yourself and your family a lot of heartache and problems down the road?

Let’s briefly go through each scenario.

In scenario #1 Tom, may be a great guy – until he isn’t. There are already some red flags in his behavior, you should be concerned about. While Tom impresses you and overall you think he is a great guy, do you really know him well enough to have him move in with you and your children. For example, a pattern of aggressive driving could be indicative of anger management problems in other areas of his life. You will want to know more about his financial behavior. Could he have parasitic tendencies and eventually live off of you as he continues to spend his money on himself. Talking down to others he feels are beneath him may be the tip of the iceberg in how he views others and the level of respect he has for others. You could be on the receiving end of his derisive remarks someday. Tom could be very good at impression management during the early part of your relationship allowing you to see what he wants you to see. If these are in fact red flags of problem behavior down the road, imagine what his behavior will be like 5, 10, 20 years in the future, when he no longer has to impress you or your friends or family. You don’t want to wake up at 45 or 50 years old, and try and convince yourself Tom just snapped and turned into this serious jerk. He is not the man I married. No, he didn’t just snap, you missed the warning behaviors – at a time when you could have gotten out of the relationship.

In Scenarios #2, all that needs to be said is this. What if you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a home where you and your family intend to live for years, and other than looking on line for registered sex offenders living near by or whether there have been burglaries in the neighborhood, you really don’t check out your neighbors or the neighborhood. It’s a great neighborhood, houses are hard to find here, and you love it. If you rely on superficial indicators that this is a great neighborhood, you may end up being one of those families we read about in the paper all the time, whose neighbor is from hell, and living next to them becomes a nightmare. This is the neighbor who complains, threatens, intimidates and frankly scares others around him or her. When the police are called, the neighbor denies everything and couldn’t be nicer but his behavior becomes even more belligerent. People in the neighborhood “sorta” know about the situation, but ignore overlook the problem. You might tell yourself this could never happen, because a good realtor would disclose a situation like this to potential buyers, and anyway this is a beautiful neighborhood with professional people and things like this simply don’t happen in places like this. If you think this way, this is magical thinking. Problems like this do happen in beautiful neighborhoods around the country and that neighbor from hell can be a banker, a teacher, or a law enforcement officer.

With hundreds of dollars at stake if you don’t know what you are buying into, finding out the “culture” of the neighborhood should be a priority. Talking to perspective neighbors, the Home Owners Association, other realtors who service the area, the head of the neighborhood watch program, etc. can alert you to serious problems or issues that are ongoing and/or have existed in that neighborhood for awhile, and gone unaddressed or simply ignored. If you knew your prospective neighbor has engaged in threatening, complaining, and litigious behavior with others in the past, the chances of him eventually engaging in this type of behavior with you are pretty likely. That dream home might seem a lot less dreamy.

I hope I have helped you to see the difference between a reactionary approach to making what could be a life changing decision vs. using a sound method of identifying and assessing behavior patterns that could tell you that you are about to enter the danger zone. Read more in Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us or Dangerous Instincts: Use An FBI Profiler's Tactics To Avoid Unsafe Situations

*This article reflects the views and opinions of Mary Ellen O’Toole and do not reflect views and opinions 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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