Vulnerability and hostile behavior

Last week auto journalist Jack Baruth wrote a piece for Road & Track that has made a bit of a splash in the online world. In it he describes a number of occasions where he has encountered hostile behavior from other motorists up to and including challenging him to a fight…only to see them back down when he takes off his flower-covered helmet and reveals the bearded face of a male.

I suppose it is inevitable these days for that kind of article to spawn a bunch of social-justice-warrioring nonsense, but I think that all of that politically correct conversation happening elsewhere misses what’s really going on…and I believe that the core reality of what Mr. Baruth wrote about has great implications for everyone interested in self defense. It’s not about misogyny, it’s about monkeys.

In the second article I wrote on the superb Unthinkable class put on by William Aprill and Greg Ellifritz, I mentioned William’s explanation of the data we stream into the world about ourselves and the way that criminal actors use that data to make a go/no-go assessment for attempting an attack. In this study researchers found that higher order criminals were able to use someone’s gait to effectively judge their vulnerability to attack. Here’s the catch, though: What we think of as hard core criminals are not unique in their ability to perceive vulnerability in other human beings. Nor are they unique in their willingness to attempt to exploit that perceived vulnerability. Have you ever seen a shady salesman in action? Or maybe you have a coworker who is a complete suckup to anyone he thinks can better his career but treats anyone not perceived as useful like dirt? In my experience, a sizable chunk of the human population will attempt anything they think they can get away with when they perceive vulnerability.

Mr. Baruth’s theory is that the road ragers he encountered saw his flowered helmet and long hair and assumed that he was a female, and therefore vulnerable. The typical male of the human species has a considerable strength and size advantage over the female of the human species. Even if a male and female are roughly the same size, the average female is not going to be as strong or as able to take hits without serious damage as a male of the same size. The female, ceteris paribus, is more vulnerable…so when they mistook Mr. Baruth for a female they exhibited much more aggressive behavior. Not, I would argue, primarily out of some sort of gender motivation, but out of an assessment of the relative weakness of the other person.

I would take it even further than that and posit that a significant chunk of the insult they took from Mr. Baruth’s behavior was a direct result of that perceived vulnerability. In other words, had the person splitting the lanes in traffic been a 6’6″ 350 pound, ‘roided up biker with a big knife on his hip and a swastika tattooed on his forehead, I doubt that the people who raged on Mr. Baruth would have been offended by the behavior. They may not have appreciated it, but the seething anger Mr. Baruth witnessed was unlikely to be present because the big biker I described does not look vulnerable. Quite the opposite: Anyone confronted with that sort of individual is likely feeling their own vulnerability exposed. This is basic level primate stuff you could expect to see in any zoo. The weakest member of the troupe has to walk on egg shells lest he/she be immediately savaged for challenging the established pecking order.

Greg Ellifritz wrote an extremely useful article about Insults and Challenges in the context of a criminal assault that I would encourage you to read very carefully. Of particular interest is this passage:

The researcher David Luckenbill studied all of the murderers in a California county over a 10-year period and asked them why they killed their victims. You would expect to see a variety of responses. You would be wrong. Every death row inmate interviewed listed one of only two reasons for killing….

34% said they killed because the victim challenged the killer’s authority

66% said they killed because the victim insulted them in some way.” 

The quote above is presented in an article covering a Dollar General clerk who was shot in the course of a robbery. In a bewildered state, she said “you’re not going to shoot me” to the robber, who promptly shot her. He took her statement as a challenge to his status in the situation. He, after all, had the gun. He had all the power. She was as vulnerable as any human being could be. I’m certain that the Dollar General clerk had no intention to insult the guy pointing a gun at her, but the power difference between them made just about anything she attempted to say an insult.

You can watch this dynamic in action:

The puncher felt insulted and challenged by the victim’s statement. The victim is older and weaker…vulnerable. There’s plenty of video of similar attacks out there being perpetrated against male victims that are also typically older and weaker. Similarly vulnerable.

What I’m getting at is that perceived vulnerability is at the core of what Mr. Baruth experienced…and what any of us could experience if the conditions are right. When you are perceived as vulnerable it invites attack. If someone perceives you as being vulnerable the perceived power difference between you can make even the most innocuous statement or behavior into a deliberate insult in the mind of the other party that actually justifies an act of criminal aggression against you. 

It’s not always possible to verbally deescalate a situation. In fact, the more vulnerable you are the more likely it is that anything you say or do is going to be interpreted as a challenge or an insult that justifies a violent response in the mind of your attacker. What could have started out as a simply dominance display (I believe what Mr. Baruth experienced were attempts at dominance display) could rapidly deteriorate into an act of violence if the perception of vulnerability is not immediately changed.

Since we can see that perceived vulnerability manufactures attack, it would be worth our while to do what we can to limit the possible perception of vulnerability about us. This is where deselection really comes into play. How we carry ourselves, how we pay attention to the world around us, and as Mr. Baruth demonstrates even seemingly insignificant fashion choices can be used to make us look less vulnerable…which, in turn, discourages attack.




  1. re: It’s not always possible to verbally deescalate a situation.

    Almost anything will be seen as either a challenge, as you point out, or an invitation (a confirmation of victim status).

    So Plan A needs to be managing initial perception.

    Reminds me of the classic Gary Larson Far Side cartoon:
    How nature says, “Do not touch.”

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