Predators go for the easy target, not the fortified one. This is as true on the prarie with the lions and antelopes as it is in the human world, be it on the subway, the street, or the boardroom.
They come in many forms, and not all are violent (though the violent ones get all the attention). There are even some helpful diagnostic labels that can be used to describe human victimizers, but we’ll come back to that.
Before we talk about how predators choose their prey, it’s helpful to define these terms. In this context, we’re talking about people who are predisposed to antisocial, manipulative, and socially harmful behavior. The “predisposed” term is important. There are plenty of psychologically normal people who do bad things, even god-awful things, who aren’t necessarily predisposed to doing those things. But we all know that people aren’t really blank slates. Some of us are hard-wired to be confident, or anxious, or prone to depression, or gregarious. Others are hard-wired toward societal harm.
How do they choose their prey? Weakness. This weakness is expressed in the body language of the potential victim, primarily. Even the way a potential mark is walking is relevant.
One hypothesis I’ve had for some time revolves around children who have been victimized, esp in the case of sexual molestation. Not a scientific statement, but I’ve noticed they tend to be meek and prone to depression. One conclusion is that, surely, they became this way due to their previous life experience. That’s certainly plausible in some cases, esp where there is repeated victimization by a parent/guardian. But what about single instances or intermittent cases? My hunch is that the predators are simply choosing the meek as their victims, as opposed to being victimized causing meekness. They’re easy targets of adult predators. (Note: this is not at all to excuse the vile behavior of the predators, only to state facts and offer opinions on how we can protect ourselves and our loved ones.)
Not all victims are depressed, meek people. Con artists exploit the trust that most people have of others, or the empathy that normal people have for someone in need. But there are some people who, for whatever reason, are chosen by con artists. The victims are “weak” in some respect, and are victimized for it.
Perhaps the most vicious of the predators are those with clinical psychopathy. The psychopath certainly has a reputation, described by the media and Hollywood as the kind of person who would stab you in the shower, or kill you and eat your organs. Of course, this is the usual Hollywood crap. Here’s a good intro into what psychopaths are really like. The not-obviously-violent ones might be professional con artists who frequently attend night clubs, trick people into buying them drinks or giving them money, move in with them, take most of their savings, and then disappear. Or, the smart psychopaths might become senior managers at big companies. Read “Snakes in Suits” (by Hare, Bakiak) for more on corporate psychopaths (btw, Hare invented the precursor to the modern day checklist used by clinicians to diagnose psychopathy).
Whereas lions in the wild are predators of the antelope for survival, the need to eat and feed the cubs, human predators prey on others unnecessarily. For the thrill of it, to gain something from someone else, because they were bored, just because they could.
Not all “predators” are psychopaths, of course. That’s because predator isn’t a technical term with a strict definition, whereas psychopath is. But a commonality in the habitual predator is, I suspect, the following: lack of empathy. If there is a single characteristic that distinguishes the normal from the pure evil, it’s empathy. We all have situations where we suspend our empathy, but these are situations rather than dispositional characteristics. Imagine if you didn’t care for anyone, and had no emotional reaction to the pain of others, including caused by yourself. Further, imagine if you generally didn’t feel fear of consequence. You could do, well, just about anything.
Of course, some propose that there’s wisdom we can glean from studying those with psychopathic characteristics. There might be some point to this (read the article). But my thought is that the greatest wisdom we can ever get from studying the most vile people on the planet is how to avoid become victimized. If we could easily and quickly identify them, that would be great. Having said that, anyone who says he can quickly/easily identify psychopaths is wrong. It’s notoriously hard to diagnose, even for trained clinicians.
So is there no hope at all? Don’t be silly. Here are some suggestions, or at least some thoughts, on what the average person can do.
* Be skeptical if something seems “off” with someone. I don’t mean you should never trust anyone. We can’t live our lives like that. But be reasonably wary. A new person should earn your trust first.
* Look for behavioral patterns that seem awry.
* If you have a child or family member who is shy, meek, gullible, or otherwise an easy target, take steps to empower and protect that person. This involves building confidence and education. On that second point, you can point out that some people in the world are evil and will try to swindle you, and you shouldn’t let that happen. How you do this or approach the situation will depend. Give it some thought.
* First and foremost, protect yourself. If you have a bully boss (not necessarily a psychopathic one, though those do exist), take steps to protect yourself, including documenting evidence of the individual’s behavior. Remember: do not ever simply accuse the person of being a psychopath or using any diagnostic label. Doing so will put the burden of proof on you and will probably make you look very unprofessional. Instead, go with the facts, the behavior you’ve noticed, specific incidents, etc. May I also point out that, if you’re on a psychopath witch hunt, you’ll soon suffer confirmation bias (meaning everyone you meet will suddenly have the very traits you happen to be looking for); you don’t have anything to gain by assuming all people are evil, though you have much to lose.
* Protect yourself from the more physical violations by projecting natural confidence. The bad people go for the easy targets, not the ones who will fight back and potentially slice a vein or poke out an eye.