The Gift of Fear (1997) is a guide to leveraging your inborn fear signals to assess and defend against criminals, manipulators, stalkers, abusers, and all different kinds of people that you generally want to avoid.
- Exec Summary
- FULL SUMMARY
- Human predators seek power
- You can predict attacks and spot predators
- Listen to your intuition more
- The signals of your intuition
- PINS (Pre-Incident Indicators)
- How to predict violence with JACA
- How to improve your intuition
- Traits and Predictors of Criminals
- Don’t over-sweat the threats: they’re not good indicators of violence
- Toxic personality profile: pursuer & “guy who won’t let go”
- Toxic personality profile: the scriptwriter
- REAL-LIFE APPLICATIONS
- PILLS OF WISDOM
- Your intuition alerts you of life’s danger, hence
- Listen to your intuition more, look for the causes of your distress, rather than dismissing it
- Inform your intuition with “relaxed attention”, paying attention and taking in the whole environment, but without over-worrying or over-focusing on “what ifs” catastrophic scenarios
About the Author:
Gavin de Becker is an American security specialist providing security services and consulting for governments, large corporations, and public figures.
He is the founder of the security firm Gavin de Becker and Associates.
Human predators seek power
Most human predators, however, seek power, not food. To destroy or damage something is to take its power.
You can predict attacks and spot predators
The central theme of the book is this:
- Every act of violence can be predicted, and that “that there is no mystery of human behavior that cannot be solved inside your head or your heart”
- Your subconscious intuition allows you to accurately predict violence, and you can use it for self-defense
De Becker didn’t convince of hte first, but he made a good, albeit unproven case, or the latter.
Listen to your intuition more
Says Gaving de Becker:
Trust that what causes alarm probably should, because when it comes to danger, intuition is always right in at least two important ways: 1. It is always in response to something. 2. It always has your best interest at heart.
The author says that by “always right” it doesn’t mean that something bad will always happen, but it means that it requires your attention.
It means that you should not “explain it away” or force yourself into situations that you’d rather avoid, but that you you better listen, and make an effort to identity a possible threat or danger.
The signals of your intuition
You intuition sends you signals of many different kinds, and of different “levels” that replace the level of danger.
In order, they are:
- Fear: always listen to fear
- Gut feelings
Then the author adds a few more, but not does nor order them:
- Nagging feelings
- Persistent thoughts
- Physical sensations
And then, he adds yet one more outside of the list, which is:
- Dark humor: this is a signal that can come either from, or from others. People sometimes use dark humor as a covert tool to avoid being attacked for what others might think is “silly”, “too out there”, “too fearful” or even paranoid.
The examples for dark humor are a guy who while others opened a mysterious packages said “I’m going back to work before the bomb sets off” and another guy that hearing shots in the distance commented it was their former colleague coming back to get revenge.
As you may imagine, both case proved to be right.
PINS (Pre-Incident Indicators)
Pre-incident indicators are those detectable factors that occur before the outcome being predicted.
- Forced Teaming: rapport building has a better reputation then it should have, says the author, since people almost always use it for self-serving reasons. Forced teaming is when someone implies they have something in common with you or speaking in “we” (i.e. “We don’t need to talk outside… Let’s go in.”)
- Charm and Niceness: same as rapport, it has an undeservingly good reputation while, in truth, it’s often not a personal trait, but a self-serving social strategy. It’s about being polite and friendly in order to manipulate or disarm their mistrust
- Too many details: a lier will add excessive details in an effort to sound more credible
- Typecasting: a slight insult to get you to comply to what the aggressor by trying to proving the insult wrong. For example: “Oh, I bet you’re too stuck-up to talk to a guy like me.” The way for you to prove him wrong is to talk to him, which is exactly what he wanted.
The defense is silence.
- Loan Sharking: unsolicited help to make you feel obliged to extend some reciprocal openness in return (Robert Cialdini calls it “reciprocity” and here on TPM we make loan sharking a part of the various types of manipulations of the social exchange).
The defense is to remind yourself that you didn’t ask for anything
- Unsolicited Promise: It’s a promise to do (or not do) something when no such promise is asked for. it’s almost always a negative sign as promises seek to convince you of an intention that is usually good for the aggressor.
For example: an unsolicited, “I promise I’ll leave you alone after this”, or “I promise I won’t hurt you”.
The defense is to never take someone’s words at face value, especially if you’ve just met them. And ask yourself “why does he need to convince me”? And the reason is often because they need to convince you because you have a doubt -an important signal of self-defense-. So you tell yourself “You’re right, I am hesitant about trusting you, and maybe with good reason. Thank you for pointing it out”
- Discounting the Word “No”: refusing to accept rejection. Declining to hear “no” is a strong signal that someone is either seeking control or refusing to relinquish it.
The defense, when with strangers, is to never relent on the issue of “no,” because it sets the stage for more efforts to control. If you let someone talk you out of the word “no,” you might as well wear a sign that reads, “You are in charge.”
How to predict violence with JACA
De Becker’s business uses these elements to predict the likelihood of violence:
- Justification: does the aggressor feel like his attack is “fair” and and he has good reasons to do it?
- Alternatives: does there attacker feels he has no other alternatives, or that you elft him with no other laternatives to reach his goal, keep his digniity, or save face?
- Consequences: does the attacker feel the consequences are favorable to him? For example, an assassin who wants attention and has little to lose
- Ability: does the attacker feel he can carry out the attack (and potentially get away with it)?
Example: before entering war
JACA elements can be observed in governments just as with individuals.
When America is preparing to go to war:
- Justification: evil empire; mad dictator; international outlaw; protect our interests; “cannot just stand by and watch”
- Alternatives to violence shrink as we move from negotiations to demands, warnings to boycotts, and finally blockades to attacks
- Consequences of going to war move from intolerable to tolerable as public opinion comes into alignment with government opinion
- Ability rises as ships and troops are moved into proximity of an enemy
How to improve your intuition
Gaving de Becker never actually puts it so directly, but I collected several pieces of information scattered across the book to list them all in a more “how-to ” section:
- Accept your intuitive signals: and avoid denying them
- Feed your intuition with as much accusation information as possible: the more information and the more you observe, the better your intuition can support you
- Avoid inaccurate information: “our intuition fails when it is loaded with inaccurate information. Since we are the editors of what gets in and what is invested with credibility, it is important to evaluate our sources of information”
- Pay “relaxed attention” (be alert, but not hyper-alert): we are more subconsciously aware and far more open to the full reality of every signal when we take in everything, rather than focusing on anything specific . So Alertly looking around while thinking hat “someone could jump out from behind that car” replaces perception of what actually is happening everywhere with imaginings of what could happen in that specific corner, leading to a loss of awareness
Experts may need to avoid overriding their intuition with their knowledge
De Becker says that experts may sometimes drown out the voice of their intuition with logic:
Many experts lose the creativity and imagination of the less informed. They are so intimately familiar with known patterns that they may fail to recognize or respect the importance of the new wrinkle. The process of applying expertise is, after all, the editing out of unimportant details in favor of those known to be relevant. Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki said, “The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities.” People enjoying so-called beginner’s luck prove this all the time.
The exzample if of a man who entered a shop and left right away because of a “bad feeling”.
Bad the police officer who entered right after walked in the middle of a robbery and was killed. De Becker says that the police officer may have been reassured by his logical brain telling him that most robberies happen at night time.
I see the point of Gavin’s argument, but I personally wasn’t too convinced.
It’s the opposite of what Malcolm Gladwell says in “Blink“, such as that expertise informs intuition. Gladwell’s arguments and examples seemed more convincing to me.
Traits and Predictors of Criminals
- Violence in childhood: the author says that Ressler’s research confirmed that 100 percent of the investigated serial kills had been abused as children, either with violence, neglect, or humiliation.
- Recklessness and bravado
- Calm under fearful or scary circumstances: just like a surgeon is not moved by gory sights, a violent criminal tends to have a higher threshold for scary or shocking situations
- Need to be in control:
Don’t over-sweat the threats: they’re not good indicators of violence
Threats are hurled to cause anxiety.
And while that may seem bad news, there is a major silver lining to it: the threat means that, at least for now, and often forever, he favors words over action.
Gavin de Becker also says that the “threat per excellence”, the death threat, is the least likely to be acted upon.
And especially so when they’re targeting public figures (less dangerous than love sickness, plans to meet or devotional messages), and when they’re anonymous (the person who signs with his name is seeking publicity, rather than avoiding detection).
Emotional threats are even less risky
Emotions are fleeting, so threats spoken from a heightened emotional state often lose their will with time.
Threats and promises alike, says the author, are easy to speak, harder to honor.
Don’t confuse intimidation with threats
Intimidations are requests, which happen to be backed by a threat.
For example “I will burn this building down if I don’t get to keep my job” is an intimidation, not a threat, because there’s a condition to avoid the threat.
With intimidations, as per JACA model, the aggressor sees a possibility and an alternative to violence.
And he prefers that possibility, rather than having to resort to acting the threat out.
Rather than threats, they are high-stakes manipulation, trying to influence your behavior with an element of fear.
TIP: Late threats are more credible
Threats late in controversy are more serious “last moves” than those used early. That’s because early threats represent an immediate emotional response as opposed to a decision to use violence.
Threats often signal weakness
Threats rarely come from a position of power.
Instead, they often come from a position of weakness, frustration, or even desperation at failing to influence events.
Says the author in one of his many genius insights:
Both promises and threats are made to convince us of an intention, but threats actually convince us of an emotion: frustration. Threats betray the speaker by proving that he has failed to influence events in any other way. Most often they represent desperation, not intention. Neither threats nor promises
The true currency of the threatener is fear.
The threatener is often not so much hoping to change reality, he seeks either revenge or to save face nad keep some dignity for having lost and having proven so powerless.
His revenge serves to sub-communicate that he does have agency. And he tries to do so by instilling fear and getting some revenge for feeling frustrated and slighted.
It’s you as the receiver who decides how powerful threats are
It’s the response to a threat that determines whether it’s a valuable instrument that reaches its goal, or mere words that do nothing.
Says Gavin de Becker:
Thus, it is the listener and not the speaker who decides how powerful a threat will be. If the listener turns pale, starts shaking, and begs for forgiveness, he has turned the threat or intimidation into gold.
Conversely, if he seems unaffected, it is tin
The author hence recommends to never seeming to take threats seriously or being scared and shaken
My Note: I don’t fully agree
As the author himself says, strategies are contextual.
Sometimes, if you make the threatened feel like he “won” by showing some fear, he may feel like he saved face and re-empowered himself. That may end the interaction on more positive terms for him, and give him no reason to do anything else.
Conversely, if you seek to show yourself higher power and tough, he feels even more disempowered because his last-ditch attempt failed. Then he may have a reason to go even further, and see no other alternative to escalation.
To disempower threats for extortion, show they have no leverage and that you don’t fear the threat
For example, if someone threatens to “tell your wife you cheated’, their power is in your fear that someone might do that.
But if you don’t fear that, or at least show that you do not fear that outcome, the threat loses much or of all of its power.
For example, the author suggests you say “wait a minute, let me put my wife on the line so you can tell them that”. At that point, the threat is neutralized.
Surfacing or carrying out the threat yourself might also be a good option.
It may be an opportunity to come clean, take a load off your shoulders… And you get to control the narrative.
Toxic personality profile: pursuer & “guy who won’t let go”
People who don’t let go:
- Project onto others commitment that were never done: for example, they take a “maybe” for “for sure”
- Make small, reasonable-sounding requests to keep interacting: you think it’s “easy enough to do” and they will stop, but it only gives them a stepping stone to keep on harassing you
From other resources, we also know:
- Misread feedback and neutral communication for personal attacks, including mistaking your boundaries for personal insults
The pursued often think that straight talk or assertiveness will stop the pursuer. But it never really works with people who won’t let go.
What they want is an exchange with you, and any exchange, including an angry reaction, will feed the chasing monster.
Getting angry and assertive often also make things worse -it makes an enemy-.
When that happens, a funny twist in the dynamics also happens: you also get emotionally invested in the interaction and neither of you wants to let go. You also become a sort of pursuer.
Says the author:
The pursuer and the victim begin to actually have something in common: neither wants to let go. The pursuer is obsessed with getting a response and the victim becomes obsessed with making the harassment stop.
I’d also add, that the victim seeks revenge for being harassed, annoyed, and having to waste time on an idiot.
I’m well aware of this dynamic because, as a super minor public figure, I also experienced it -and I did not handle it as well as I could have, including failing to follow my strong intuition and plenty of red flag in order to get feedback from others who didn’t see those red flags-.
To answer and escalate only makes an annoying situation worse.
Says the author:
What the pursuer is really saying is “I will not allow you to ignore me.” He’ll push buttons until one provokes a reaction, and then as long as it works, he’ll keep pushing it. Guilt is usually first, then harassment, then insult. Each works for a while, and then doesn’t. When victims participate in this process, threats are not far behind.
Trying to think what these people think is not the best approach because they’re not rational:
Mike had predicted that Tommy would only stop if someone “made him stop,” but in fact, the opposite was true. He would only stop if nobody tried to make him stop.
So only solution for people who won’t let go is to cut out contact.
Nothing else will fix it.
If You’re Already At Threats Stage
First off, avoid escalating even further.
Remember that words have a big silver lining: it means that the pursuer or weirdo sees other options than attacking.
Confronting or attacking the pursuer instead often make things worse.
Says the author:
I cannot recall how many times I have seen some private detective apply confrontational interventions and then feel these actions were justified by the fact that the pursuer’s behavior ultimately got worse. Having guided the pursuer into a warlike stance, the detective will say, “Whew, it’s a good thing we did all that stuff to him, because just look how serious a case this is. I told you something had to be done.” Do they never wonder what might have happened if they had just left him alone?
The author says to avoid wars as they rarely end well. By definition someone will have to lose. And those who lost, sometimes seek revenge -remember some of these folks have no real life to go back to and keep them busy-.
Worse yet might be to deny the pursuer the ability to even write or contact you.
For example, by involving police and making it costly for him to contact you.
In that case, if he feels like he lost everything, including his dignity, he may have his life ruined -remember that he’s a strange character who can’t let go- and have no other option but to attack.
Watching and waiting is a far superior option.
You can always engage if a pursues never ever stops or escalates, but you can never undo an engagement or, worse, an “engage and enrage”.
Says the author:
There is an almost irresistible urge to do something dramatic in response to threats and harassment, but often, appearing to do nothing is the best plan. Of course, that isn’t really doing nothing; it is a reasoned management plan and a communication to the pursuer every bit as clear as direct contact. This approach is a real test of patience and character for victims, but that is often the fastest way to end harassment.
The author says that “time will take care of most people who won’t let go”.
Toxic personality profile: the scriptwriter
De Becker says that the “scriptwriter” is the most common profile of problem employee.
The traits and red flags include:
- SAD: sullen, angry, or depressed
- Inflexible: resist change and doesn’t want to entertain ideas different from his own
- Weapons: he likes, owns, or recently bought weapons. Or jokes or comments about weapons as instruments of power, revenge, or tools for settling issues
- Police encounters:
- Hopelessness and nihilism:
- Identification with known criminals: identifies with or even praises other perpetrators of workplace violence
- Coworkers’ fear or apprehension: coworkers avoid him, fear him, or are worried about him
- TIME: he threatened, intimidaed, manipulated, or escalated against management or coworkers
- Paranoia: people are out to get him, unconnected events are part of a bigger strategy against him, and other conspire against him
- Crusades: undertakes or joins crusades missions (particularly significant if it’s “one-man wars”)
- Unreasonable Expectations including elevation, long-term retention, an apology, being named “the winner” in some dispute, etc.
- Grievances, with several different people and a history for filing complaints
- Stalking behavior: towards other employees or bosses
To which we add:
- Can’t take feedback, not even if you try to put it mildly
- Thin skin, sees attack everywhere: he is not receptive to suggestions because he takes them as affronts or criticisms of his way of doing things (the author calls it “inflexibility”, but it didn’t seem descriptive to me)
- Sees malice in others: he invests others with the bad motives and character. Discussing a discrepancy on his paycheck, for example, he says or thinks, “You’d better not try to screw me over.” It’s as if he expects people to attack him, slight him, or harm him
- Warped reality where he’s reasonable and nobody else is: in his script, he is a reasonable and good worker who must be constantly on guard against the ambushes of coworkers and supervisors
- Warped reality where others are out to get him: and the company and bosses do nothing to protect him
- Company and bosses don’t appreciate his good contributions
- Never takes blame, it’s always others’ fault: the things that go wrong are never his fault, and even accidental, unintended events are the work of others who will try to blame him
- Builds scripts in his mind and reacts to those, rather than reality: he does not react to reality or to what you tell him, but to his own warped interpretations (the “scripts” he writes)
Says the author:
The Scriptwriter is the type of person who asks you a question, answers it himself, then walks away angry at what you said. In this regard, he writes the script for his interaction with coworkers and management (…) he is reacting to his script
The author also says that this personality has successfully manipulated in the past, and when you fire him, he is shocked that this time it didn’t work out, and may be angry.
If you’re worried about a potential attack, also consider “media”, such as if there have been other episodes of similar violence as episodes tend to come in clusters.
Don’t deny the danger (but don’t exaggerate it either)
Some people deny the risks as a way of “feeling better”.
However, that’s dangerous says the author:
For all the peace of mind deniers think they get by saying it isn’t so, the fall they take when victimized is far, far greater than that of those who accept the possibility. Denial is a save-now-pay-later scheme, a contract written entirely in small print
However, De Becker is biased towards wanting people to think about dangers and risk -he and his business gain when you do-.
In truth, it’s not written anywhere that deniars WILL take the fall. Furthermore, for every person in denial, there may be one who is obsessed with risk to the point of living a sub-par existence (and in my experience, as well as per evolutionary psychology logic, those may be more than the deniers).
That’s why we added in the title “don’t exaggerate it either”.
One thing we strongly agree on.
Both the author and I agree there is no real “list of laws” that apply all the time, no matter what.
Instead, the best course of action is contextual.
Says the author:
Do not listen to the TV news checklist of what to do, or the magazine article’s checklist of what to do.
I cannot offer a checklist of what to do for each type of hazard you could encounter, because cookie-cutter approaches are dangerous.
Some people say about rape, for example, do not resist, while others say always resist.
Neither strategy is right for all situations, but one strategy is: Listen to your intuition.
I don’t know what might be best for you in some hazardous situation because I don’t have all the information, but you will have all the information.
My Note: Disagree that “intuition is always right”
I’m not convinced though that your intuition is “always right”, and I’m afraid it isn’t.
To stay with the rape example, David Buss says that the strategy of pleading and begging not to be raped doesn’t really work well -and it’s very possible that more submissive women’s intuition tells them exactly that: to plead and beg-.
Oh, by the way, David Buss writes that based on research and data, not opinions.
Be warm with extortionists, lest you give them a reason to proceed
The author says that many extortionists are amateurs who are uncomfortable to even asking for money.
So when they make covert threats, they hope you will jump in and offer money. The author instead says you want to use a technique we call “surfacing” here and ask “what they really mean”.
What I liked even more is de Becker promoting this website’s high-level strategies of “don’t make more enemies than necessary” and “be high-power and warmth”.
Though sometimes very difficult, it is important to be polite to the extortionist, because he may be looking for justification to do the hurtful thing he threatens. With the amateur, sinking so low is difficult, and believe it or not, it’s a very vulnerable time for him. Don’t misread this as sympathy on my part—it’s just wise not to kick this guy around emotionally because if he gets angry that empowers him.
Generally speaking, extortionists motivated by malice, which I interpreted to also include envy or jeaoulsy, are more likely to carry out the threat, while those motivated by greed are less likely to do so.
Those motivated by malice are hard to negotiate with anyway and the author suggests to not even try.
And those who are very explicitly are also more likely to carry out the threat than those who seem insecure and uncomfortable with the extortion.
Public figures killers seek the American dream of recognition
In the last part of the book, the author focuses on the stalkers and killers of known public figures.
These type of assassings, says the author, is a narcissist seeking fame and recognition… In a very warped fashion.
The assassin might be weird or unusual, but we cannot say we don’t understand his motives, his goal. He wants what Americans want: recognition, and he wants what all people want: significance.
Jack Henry Abbott for example describes the “involuntary pride and exhilaration all convicts feel when they are chained up like dangerous animals. The world has focused on us for a moment. We are somebody capable of threatening the world.”
This is why the author proposes to fix the issue by either never talking about these idiots, or by talking about them.. For the iditos they are.
Assassins of female pulic figures also add an element of “made up romance” or romance dreams, and they often never had any real relationships in life.
PILLS OF WISDOM
Rapport has an undeservingly good reputation since it’s almost always done for self-serving reasons
I must say that when I read this I immediately thought of Tony Robbins and all of his sales courses.
Often he focused on building rapport, and it always felt fake and manipulative.
To find out the identity of anonymous threatener, ask yourself who gains if you acted out on the threat
This is a tip Robert Greene also shares in a law he calls “cui bono”, such as, ask yourself “who gains”.
Many women don’t know end abusive relationships because they don’t even see ending the abusive relationship as an option and possibility.
Some others yet are completely under the spell and power of the abuser.
The author says the abuser holds power over their spouses because he delivers powerful feelings of overwhelming relief when an incident ends.
She becomes addicted to that feeling.
The abuser is the only person who can deliver moments of peace, by being his better self for a while. And the worse the bad times get, the better the good times are in contrast.
Women better not get a restraining order without knowing the strategic considerations
If you walk into a police office they’re likely going to propose a restraining order.
Restraining orders with violent men with a history of violent and abusive behavior and who are emotionally invested may only make matters worst. Many of these abusive personalities cannot accept rejection, especially not when they feel that their victim is now controlling them.
The restraining order only makes them feel even more motivated to get revenge for the slight.
Restraining orders are most effective on the reasonable person who has a limited emotional investment. In other words, they work best on the person least likely to be violent anyway.
If you give in too easily when men push, you will tend to attract abusers
Many abusers naturally end up with some who cannot say no.
If this is you, you have to learn to say no:
On the arms’ race of Machiavellianism and power intelligence for deception:
Leslie Brothers says, “If I am trying to deceive someone, that person has to be just a bit smarter than I am in order to see through my deceit. That means you have sort of an arms race.”
The analogy on using time to handle “people who won’t let go”:
“I have two drawers in my desk. One is for the things I must do something about, and the other is for the things time will take care of.” Time will take care of most people who refuse to let go.
On weird letters not hurting anyone, but enemies and wars potentially hurting many:
Johnny Carson and his staff knew that letters, no matter how frequent, can’t hurt anyone, while starting a war can hurt everyone involved
On being clear about your rejections:
Conditional rejections are not rejections—they are discussions.
On abusers and abused finding each other:
An axiom of the stalking dynamic: MEN WHO CANNOT LET GO CHOOSE WOMEN WHO CANNOT SAY NO.
The usual reminder here:
We don’t waste time with poor books, and we criticize the great books much harder here.
A lengthy “criticism” session doesn’t mean a book is poor, it means it deserves a much deeper look.
1. There’s no data to back up the central claim that intuition works best
The most damning issue with the whole book is that there is no data or evidence to back up the idea that intuition works great.
It’s a few stories and circumstantial evidence.
The author also seems to make excuses for the lack of data, in this case saying that he wanted to “simplify”:
Certainly there are hundreds of other variables that my office considers in predicting violence, and I could present them here with charts and graphs and templates and computer print-outs. I could use psychiatric terms that would require a psychiatrist to interpret, but my purpose here is to simplify
But we didn’t need printouts, templates, or “psychiatric terms”.
We just needed some data that provided some evidence for big claims such as that “intuition is always right”, or even that “listening to intuition beats going ahead with something in spite of the fear”.
Instead, what we’re left with is the author’s opinion, circumstantial evidence… And many lingering doubts.
1.2. No Evidence of “Intuition Always Being Right” (And Not Very Logical, Either)
I tend to agree that intuition can work great…
But in many cases and for many people. Not all.
The author instead either implies or directly claims that intuition “is always right”.
Not only there is no evidence, but to me, it seems patently false.
In my own life I’ve personally had some intuition proved wrong, as well as met people having the wrong intuition about me, so that already is enough to prove that “intuition is not always right”.
Dogmatic Pontification, Rather Than Explanation
The author focuses on pontifying intuition, rather than explaining when it doesn’t work as great, or for whom it doesn’t work as great.
2. Misapplies basic scientific principles as well as logic
We may consider our prediction that a presidential candidate might be shot to be more accurate than that a mayor might be shot, but it isn’t necessarily so. In fact, mayors have been shot more often and more lethally than presidential candidates.
“Mayors” is plural.
But there are countless more mayors than presidents.
To make such a claim, one should measure the shooting attempts at presidents, then at mayors… And divide the shooting attempts at mayors by all mayors.
Then and only then you can compare.
2.2. Confuses back-rationalization for foresight, correlation for evidence
but if I am quiet, if I wait a moment, here comes the information: “I felt uneasy when I first met that guy…” or “Now that I think of it, I was suspicious when he approached me,” or “I realize now I had seen that car earlier in the day.” Of course, if they realize it now, they knew it then.
To begin with, it seems like Becker wanted to hear that they “knew it”.
Also, to me that sounds like conflating back-rationalization for foresight.
A little later in the book, he says:
How many times have you said after following one course, knew I shouldn’t have done that?” That means you got the signal and then didn’t follow it.
In truth, many people feel uneasy a lot more often than it’s warranted. So it’s simply a number’s game that people who often feel uneasy will also be able to look back at those few times that something bad happened and think “I was right” (while in truth more than “I was right”, it was “I took all the shots, missed many, and a few hit the mark”).
2.3. Overweighs the importance of a dream while dismissing actual data
Says the author author critizing a sergeant for not taking a police officer’s dream of being shot too seriously:
Remember that sergeant who accused Cantrell of overreacting?
He had decided there was a low level of risk based on just two factors: that he had never drawn his gun during his career, and that none of the department’s officers had been shot in recent memory.
The sergeant was actually assessing risk based on some data -not the best data, since it’s based on his personal experience only, but it’s still some data that spans many years, across many people-.
The author instead says that a random dream should take precedence over several careers’ worth of data.
And attention: by this I’m not saying that the dream, or what informed that dream, should be useless.
There may be important concerns there that can help improve police officers’ safety.
However, you can’t discount the sergeant data either and you can’t automatically place a dream above many people’s decades of experience and data.
3. Some naive empiricism
The author says:
We will tolerate familiar risks over strange ones. The hijacking of an American jet in Athens looms larger in our concern than the parent who kills a child, even though one happens rarely, and the other happens daily.
There are far more parents than American jets.
And for an adult hijacking or general terrorism might as well be -and probably is- a greater risk than their parents killing them -provided their parents are even still alive-.
As for my personal experience, terrorism struck near me, a few hours after I was physically present that that exact place. Even though terrorism might not be a major death hazard, every day I walk there I’m reminded of the events by the increased police and security and humongous, ugly iron pillars.
Also read more on naive empiricism:
Some self horn-touting
When the U.S. Attorney General and the Director of the FBI (<- name-dropping to make it sound impressive)
gave me an award for designing MOSAIC™, the assessment system now used for screening threats to justices of the U.S. Supreme Court (<- name-dropping to make it sound impressive x2), I am certain neither realized it was actually invented by a ten year-old boy, but it was (<- the frames suggests he’s a one-of-a-kind genius). The way I broke down the individual elements of violence as a child became the way the most sophisticated artificial intuition systems predict violence today (<-I smell “exaggeration” on this one)
Some “covert-selling” of the “Gavin de Becker” agency
Clients of Gavin de Becker & Associates are a wide-ranging group: federal government agencies (including the U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Central Intelligence Agency), prosecutors, battered women’s shelters, giant corporations, universities, television stars, television stations, police departments, cities, states, movie studios, cultural figures, religious leaders, champion athletes, politicians, recording artists, movie stars, and college students. Clients include the world’s most famous and the world’s most anonymous. People from my office attend Presidential Inaugurations on one coast, the Oscars and the Emmys on the other
OK, OK, we got it that the author has a successful business.
Would have been better if he had let the readers find out, though.
Or, at least, just bragging once.
But it’s several times across the book:
We have toured Africa, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, South America, and the South Pacific learning about violence in those places.
We have flown in Gulfstream jets and hot-air balloons, paddled down the Amazon, been driven in armored limousines, ridden on elephants and rickshaws, been smothered by hostile crowds, and smothered by adoring crowds.
We have testified before Senate committees and toured secret government installations. We’ve had staff meetings while floating down a jungle river in the dead of night. We’ve ridden in presidential motorcades one week and in busses used to transport prisoners the next.
We have advised…
… I guess you get the point.
I can’t help but think: if he had put all that effort into actually collecting, analyzing, and disclosing data…
Contextually Good Techniques Pitched As “Always Good Approaches”
When pursued, turn around to look at him and let him know you know about him
The author says that if you believe you’re being followed, you should always turn around to look squarely at the person following you.
This may be good sometimes, but not always.
When you know you may be followed, but they don’t know you know, you have information advantage.
You can use that advantage strategically.
But when you turn around and make it obvious you know, you lose that advantage.
And you make your would-be assailant more careful going forward, and far less likely to fall for some trap you may have wanted to set.
When rejecting a man, always be assertive and direct
The author says that “if the culture taught and then allowed women to explicitly reject and to say no, or if more women took that power early in every relationship, stalking cases would decline dramatically”.
The author is ignorant of evolutionary psychology logic, including that if an approach or behavior is common and widesperad among so many, it’s probably because it worked.
Indeed, evolutionary psychologist David Buss says letting men down easy is widespread among so many women because it serves to avoid angering idiotic men who could take strong rejections as personal affronts (Buss, 2021).
It’s a bit surprising that the author, who in other occasions correctly understood the logic of not making unnecessary enemies and power protecting, fails to apply it here.
Some fear-mongering twisted into “helping you” (potentially manipulative tactic)
This is a persuasion (or social manipulation) tactic:
To present something that is good for you, as good for them.
Becker for example lists crime stats that to me felt not very neutral, but presented in a way that makes people even more worried than they should, and the adds:
I’ve presented these facts about the frequency of violence for a reason: to increase the likelihood that you will believe it is at least possible that you or someone you care for will be a victim at some
Oh, is that the reason? Thank you… But was also convenient for you, so now your job seems even more needed, people will listen to you even more (more power to you), and people are even more likely to seek your help (more money for you).
Please note: this is not necessarily a critique of the author. Many people use this format, and I do it too.
But it is to make you aware of these manipulative dynamic, so that you can assess people, risks, and situations more correctly.
“Bad Humans” / “Good nature” fallacy
Says the author:
If we studied any other creature in nature and found the record of intra-species violence that human beings have, we would be repulsed by it. We’d view it as a great perversion of natural law
Yeah, sure, because other animals are so nice to each other… Not:
Plus of course the fact that humans excelled almost any other species in using cooperating to advance the quality of life of every other human and that has no parallel in nature.
Strawman technique to make a bigger case
To make his support of intuition seem more revolutionary and “needed”, it seems to me the author adopts a strawman approach.
In fact, Americans worship logic, even when it’s wrong, and deny intuition, even when it’s right.
I haven’t noticed any strong, systemic bias against intuition even when it right.
Plus, logic I don’t see why logic should stand against intuition, since if one makes a good case for intuition, logic would support it.
Confuses inborn psychology for learned socialization
There are several passages that take the angle of “we are taught” and “our society inculcates”, while in truth they were at least in good part inborn human tendencies.
It wouldn’t be not a huge con and it’s also very common for books written in the past decades of Blank Slate cultural myth.
However, when you don’t understand normal human inborn tendencies, you go for solutions that do not really work, and the author often falls for cultural solutions to non-cultural problems.
- Enlightening wisdom on “people who won’t let go”: this was a new “toxic type” for me, a type that you don’t experience very often and with which I had little experience.
- Understands and stresses the strategic importance of not making unnecessary enemies: including not aggravating situation are not ideal, but can still get worse. This is something that’s simple and foundational, yet way too many communication “experts” and self-help gurus fail to grasp
- Top power-aware and strategic overview of spousal abuse and counter-measures
- Sparkles of genius insights, as for example the one on seeking rapport as having undeservingly positive reputation while it’s almost always self-serving
Bel from the TPM’s community recommended this book.
And I’m glad he did, I’m glad I did read it, and it’s been in many ways an enlightening book.
I learned a lot with it.
Overall “The Gift of Fear” is indeed a great and remarkable book.
But there are important limitations as well.
It’s one of those tough books to review because while it provides a potentially invaluable central message that we wholeheartedly support plus plenty of truly great wisdom, it also provides poor evidence for that same central message which leaves several important question marks open.
The failure of applying basic logic to various examples and claims also don’t help to lend authority to the book’s claims, while the various covert bragging doesn’t help to lend credibility to the author.
The issue is not just that the evidence isn’t there, but that the author does not own up to it, instead preferring to present -or actually believing- that all of his claims are well-proven.
Either out of ignorance or malice -or out of self-interest blinding the author-, that’s an issue.
Keep in mind that an author who’s interested in sounding more credible and selling his firm’s services also has a covert interest in presenting his approach and method as far more solid, helpful, and needed than they might really be.
We wish it weren’t so because “The Gift of Fear” might have otherwise become a staple of this website, a reliable source to cite, and even enter our “highly recommended” lists.
So while we loved the idea of trusting your intuition more and we believe indeed that many people, especially the ones who are not yes as power-aware can gain hugely by listening to their “body reaction”, we also cannot go the full distance and endourse all of the author’s claims.
“The Gift of Fear” is a book that we will recommend, but that we will always have to cite with an asterisk for lacking evidence, sometimes lacking logic, and for jumping to conclusions.
In the end, with all due reservation for “The Gift of Fear” the book, we do however strongly encourage our readers to listen more attentively to their intuition.
Check the best books collection or get the book on Amazon.