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
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 http://www.maryellenotoole.com you can find links to her interviews as well as more information about her book and her FBI career as a behavioral analyst.