Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Dangerous Instincts

by Sandra Parshall

So you think you’re a pretty good judge of character. You think you’d recognize a scam artist or somebody with a violent streak if you met them. And you believe strangers are the biggest threat, not the people you allow into your everyday life.

You’re probably wrong, especially on the last count, according to longtime FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole. I met Dr. O’Toole last winter when we appeared together on a panel arranged by Kathy Harig of Mystery Loves Company for mystery-reading members of the Washington (DC) Academy of Sciences. She was delightful to chat with (we talked about our cats, among other things), and I was fascinated by what she said about the average person’s inability to accurately judge others. I brought home a copy of her book, Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us, written with Alisa Bowman.

After decades of working on some of the most notorious criminal cases of our time – major abductions, serial killings, mass murders, school shootings – O’Toole knows how easily we can find ourselves at the mercy of dangerous people. Maybe you’ll never encounter a serial killer, but you might hire household helpers who will steal from you or a nanny who will abuse your children when you’re not around. You might put your child in the care of a respected coach or camp counselor who is a secret pedophile. You might hire an investment broker who will rob you of every cent you’ve got. And you might let love blind you to the truth about The Perfect Man or The Ideal Woman.
O’Toole warns against making decisions based on emotion – your gut feelings about other people. Instead, she advises using your brain, in an analytical process she calls SMART: Sound Method of Assessing and Recognizing Trouble.

The book is rich with advice that I don’t have space to repeat here, but what it boils down to is this: practice reading people, observe patterns of behavior while also recognizing that an “out of character” negative action probably warns of a buried trait, and give up the fantasy that you’ll be able to change someone else’s bad tendencies. Be careful not to put too much emphasis on superficial indicators of normalcy – he dresses well, he has good manners and a nice smile (a description that fits Ted Bundy perfectly) – while ignoring other telling details that warn of hidden flaws.

O’Toole lists the behaviors (below) that profilers look for and that the rest of us can learn to spot in the people we deal with. Some are more obvious and dangerous than others, but they should all make you think twice about getting involved with someone. (Note to writers: This list is also useful in creating fictional characters.)

Impulsivity with little regard for consequences

Inappropriate or out-of-control anger

Narcissism – self-centered, arrogant, grandiose behavior with no concern for others

Lack of empathy or compassion for the feelings and misfortunes of others

Injustice collecting and responding to perceived injustices in a disproportionate way

Objectification of others – treating them as nonhuman or as possessions

Blaming others for failures and problems


Rule breaking

Violent behavior

Thoughts and fantasies of violence

Drug and/or alcohol abuse

Hatred of others because of their beliefs


O’Toole analyzes all these tendencies to help you recognize them and assess the relative danger they pose to you. She also looks at some common myths: people can be normal one second and “snap” the next, turning violent; psychopaths don’t know right from wrong; psychopaths look and act dangerous, and you can identify one on first sight; all psychopaths were abused as children and enjoyed torturing animals; most psychopaths are violent; all mothers have the instinct to protect their children. None of these beliefs is true.

My favorite part of the book is the section on secret profiler tricks. She describes six different situations that might be used in a TV show to allow a fictional profiler to form a quick opinion about a person – then points out all the reasons why that hasty assessment would be wrong. Scenario number five: A man doesn’t make eye contact when speaking. The TV profiler might see this as a “tell” and conclude that the man is lying. O’Toole wouldn’t be so hasty. “We assume that people who look down, away, or who seem shifty-eyed are either lying or hiding something. This might be the case. But it could also be true that the person is just shy and his or her interpersonal skills are lacking.” Psychopaths, on the other hand, will have no trouble looking you in the eye and lying.

Mary Ellen O’Toole often appears on TV news shows, discussing crimes in the news, such as the recent mass murder in a Colorado movie theater. On her website you can find links to her interviews as well as more information about her book and her FBI career as a behavioral analyst.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

In some cultures, looking people in the eye is considered rude, so avoidance of eye contact can't be considered a lack of candor or sensitivity to others. I learned that working as a social worker in New York's East Harlem.

Gayle said...

This sounds like a terrific resource! I'm off to look for it now. :)

Rhonda Lane said...

I added the book to my Nook, too. I also went over to Mary Ellen's website and found the link to her article about Injustice Collectors o the PSYCHOLOGY TODAY blog.

Thank you for stopping by PDD, Mary Ellen. And thank you, Sandy, for bringing her work to our attention.

Sandra Parshall said...

It's a great book for the advice it offers for our everyday dealings with difficult people, but it's also a terrific resource for crime fiction writers. I love the way she debunks the myths that TV crime shows perpetuate. I also love her hair! :-) She pointed out during the panel we did together that people might take one look at her multi-colored hair and make all sorts of assumptions about her, none of which would include her Ph.D. and her decades as an FBI agent.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Sandy. I plan to read this, as I write about psychopaths in my spy novels. Thelma Straw, MWA-NY

Elise M Stone said...

How timely! I plan on using a psychopath in my next book. Lots of this I knew, but I was surprised to discover that some of what I thought I knew was wrong. I'll definitely be using this book as a resource as I write.

Kaye George said...

Thanks for bringing this woman and her book to our attention, Sandy. Great resource, as you said!