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Do You Walk Like a Victim? For Criminals, Stride Matters

Research reveals how gait cues transmit vulnerability to assault.

We always advise each other to be careful when walking alone at night, in a dark parking lot, or anytime we are alone. How we walk may also play a role in predicting our vulnerability to victimization.

Researchers have studied what type of people commit stranger assaults, and what they look for in assessing victim vulnerability. There are some valuable answers to both questions that may help to improve public safety.

Mary B. Ritchie et al., in an article aptly entitled “'Evil’ Intentions,” (2019) examined whether Dark Tetrad personalities were able to accurately assess victim vulnerability based on nonverbal gait cues—the way people walk.[i] Their definition of victimization included susceptibility to sexual assault or physical abuse.

They were quick to point out that victimization is caused solely by perpetrators, who are the blameworthy parties. Notwithstanding this truth, they also recognize the importance of exploring whether there are vulnerability cues that can be manipulated to protect victims through reducing susceptibility to predatory behavior.

Image by Candid_Shots from Pixabay
Source: Image by Candid_Shots from Pixabay

For Criminals Looking for Victims, Gait Matters

Ritchie et al. note that prior research has demonstrated that criminals select victims in part, based on how they walk. When jailed offenders who had assaulted strangers were asked to watch video clips of people walking, and assess vulnerability to assault, they consistently distinguished between people they perceived as easy targets, and those they would not assault. The noted differences in gait included stride length (short or long, versus medium), weight shifting (up and down as opposed to lateral), lateral or contralateral movement, and placement of feet: lifted feet versus swung, resulting in a non-synchronous gait.

Perception and the Dark Tetrad

In terms of offenders, personality characteristics may predict criminality. Ritchie et al. recognize psychopathy as a personality disorder linked with increased victimization, also noting that people with more psychopathic traits appear to more accurately perceive victim vulnerability in both student and offender samples than those with less psychopathic traits. They sought to determine whether other dark personality traits might also increase accuracy in perceiving vulnerability to victimization.

In assessing respective ability to perceive victim venerability, Ritchie et al. examined four dark personality traits, the Dark Tetrad: psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and sadism. In addition to psychopathy, Ritchie et al. define Machiavellianism as including traits of manipulation and self-interest, narcissism as including grandiosity, egoism, and a sense of entitlement, and the fourth personality trait that broadens the Dark Triad to the Dark Tetrad, referred to as “everyday sadism,” as deriving pleasure from hurting others, often going out of their way to hurt people.

Dark Predictions of Victim Vulnerability

Ritchie et al. had an undergraduate sample of 126 individuals who had completed assessments measuring Dark Tetrad traits view eight videos showing female Canadian university students walking alone down a hallway for about five seconds. They were filmed unknowingly (but consensually) from behind, to capture their natural gait patterns, but not their facial expressions. They had also indicated via questionnaire whether or not they had been victimized—either sexually or non-sexually, in the past five years.

Ritchie et al. found that accuracy was positively linked with psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and everyday sadism. They noted a significant amount of overlap between the constructs they studied, observing that Machiavellianism and everyday sadism did not add incrementally to accuracy predictions over and above psychopathy.

Narcissism, however, was unrelated to accuracy. Ritchie et al. suggested that perhaps because narcissistic individuals are characterized by extreme grandiosity and self-centeredness, their self-interest might impair their capacity to perceive victim vulnerability.

Staying Safe Through Situational Awareness

Ritchie et al. note that their study suggests that the way people walk may provide socially relevant cues that are not displayed through other nonverbal behavior, such as would be visible when people are engaged in conversation. They also note that this type of research may assist in developing defense training to protect potential victims, particularly because prior research has demonstrated that women were more likely to display vulnerable walking cues when they were walking naturally, as opposed to when they were walking within what they imagined to be an unsafe environment.

Because knowledge is power, we are reminded of the importance of walking intentionally and looking out for one another, considering the possibility that we might always be in potential danger, because we never know who else is watching.


[i] Ritchie, Mary B., Julie Blais, and Adelle E. Forth. 2019. “‘Evil’ Intentions: Examining the Relationship between the Dark Tetrad and Victim Selection Based on Nonverbal Gait Cues.” Personality and Individual Differences 138 (February): 126–32. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2018.09.013.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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