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The Predator's Advantage

Successful predators are mentally flexible and resilient, even when caught.

Source: mimagephotography/Shutterstock

A woman was recently arrested for breaking into a home when the owner was away. She stated that she was jogging in the area and heard the alarm. Concerned, she went to check. The door was open, so she entered to offer her help. Since there was no evidence to contradict her unlikely story, and she was wearing jogging pants, this woman was released.

Successful predators prepare in advance. They consider all the angles of how they might get caught and how they can explain themselves, so it’s difficult to catch them red-handed. This takes ingenuity and resilience.

How do they do it?

1. They set a goal. They know what they want and what it will take to get it or achieve it. They have no inhibitions about causing damage or harm. They stay focused.

2. They make a plan. The plan doesn't just cover how to get what they want. It also includes escape routes: How can they get out if they need to? (For example, dressing for the part in their alternate narrative.)

3. They compartmentalize well. They lose emotional attachments that can signal embarrassment or annoyance about being caught. They train themselves to give off no such tells, so they can pivot easily into a different persona. Some suffer no remorse naturally; others acquire this skill.

By learning to pass as being like everyone else — honest, trustworthy — they know how to act both during their plan and during their escape. They recover in a split second and slip their cover story into place with ease. Serial killer Dennis Rader often carried a bag of groceries as he left a crime scene, in case police stopped him. He wanted them to believe he was innocently in the area to shop. (He often parked near a store.)

Predators' success depends in part on how well they study their prey. They have a different context for learning things. If they ask about your kids or dog, it’s not because they’re interested in you; they’re evaluating potential obstacles — or targets. They're looking for cues.

Because they study us, they know that most of us have a peculiar facility to block out things that we don’t quite believe occurred — we’re vulnerable to falsehoods that better match our perceptual frames. (I wrote more about this here.)

Predators use deflection, social miscues, and misinformation to provide cover. Often, they use a contrived persona of charm and success to falsely engender trust. They remain relaxed, because they have an exit plan in place. And they're confident it will work, so they don’t get flustered.

A couple of weeks ago, a man scammed a Brooklyn woman out of $9,500. He pretended to be someone she knew and said he needed bail money. He would send someone to pick it up. She handed the money over to a stranger. Only then did she call her actual friend and learn that she’d been scammed. How could she possibly have given so much money to someone she did not know? Believing the story was easier than accepting that she’d been targeted and so easily duped.

Predators create a frame in which to manage our attention. They know what it takes to fool the brain. We want to believe we aren’t vulnerable, so it’s easier to accept a deceptive explanation that aligns with what we hope is true. Being charming and funny, having a winning smile, dressing well, discussing their achievements, and lying with practiced smoothness all help to seduce us.

In social interactions, we assume that others mean what they say, are personally invested in their actions, and will show certain types of manners — and believe in the image those manners convey. We tend to give appearances the most benign spin. Partly, it’s a defense mechanism, but partly we want to think well of others.

Consider the story of Lt. Charles “GI Joe” Gliniewicz. A father of four, he had been a dedicated police officer for 30 years, giving much of his spare time to a kids' Explorer program. Yet he was approaching retirement, and so it seemed supremely unfair when, on September 1, 2015, he was shot dead while in pursuit of three men, a pursuit that he had called in, requesting back-up. A lot of money was spent pursuing his killers and honoring him.

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

But an investigation turned up a dark side. For seven years, Gliniewicz had presented the image of a clean-cut hero who cared about kids, while simultaneously embezzling thousands of dollars from the Explorers’ funds. He knew that a new administrator set to audit his books would discover his theft. Deleted texts suggested he'd considered having her killed. In fact, he had not been murdered by bad guys. He was a bad guy who killed himself and staged it as a homicide to protect his reputation. With charm and a facade of generosity, he had picked people's pockets. Even in death, he'd tried to deflect their attention.

Successful predators are prepared. They know how to dupe us, and they have no qualms about doing so if it gets them what they want.