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Psychology for Survival: Learning Behavioral Cues and Threat Assessment

Before a fight might even start, there are cues, signs and warnings you can spot to stay safe.

Psychology for Survival: Learning Behavioral Cues and Threat Assessment

The ability to identify and assess body language and behavioral cues can give you a much needed edge when facing a violent predator. (Shutterstock) 

What should have been a mundane daily run took a dark turn and culminated in an encounter with a serial killer. I was knocking out the last mile when the stranger approached on foot. There was absolutely nothing “out of place” or remarkable about him. He was tall, but in every other regard, an average white male. What wasn’t average were his gait and the way he looked at me. His stride was purposeful with a hint of aggression. That, in combination with the manner in which he studied me, my state of readiness shifted. His gaze was clinical and predatory. I witnessed this behavioral cue countless times before as a DEA Special Agent and street-­cop. He was sizing me up as a possible threat or a potential victim. I smiled and said, “good afternoon.” He nodded impassively and with no change in facial expression, watched me carefully out of the sides of his eyes as we passed. This behavior further bolstered my instincts that he was up to no good and potentially dangerous. I followed my instincts and did something I have only done twice in over eighteen years of Alaskan running: I turned and ran backwards, facing him, until he was out of sight.

Be wary of panhandlers ... the “old days” of passive, chronically inebriated ‘hobos’ ended with the proliferation of methamphetamine and other ‘hard’ drugs. (Shutterstock)

The stranger’s size, his behavioral cues and the isolated location reinforced my practice of always running armed. As I continued I came upon a college-­aged female. I slowed and calmly told her who I was, what had transpired and recommended she head in the opposite direction. She thanked me and asked if I could accompany her to her vehicle. It was a happy ending, for us. I say “us” because several years later, I learned the malevolent stranger was serial killer Israel Keyes. After his arrest I confirmed Keyes confessed to stalking the Coastal Trail in an effort to identify potential victims. He is believed to have ultimately raped and/or murdered at least eleven people in several states. He committed suicide in his jail cell in December of 2012, and his full résumé of evil went to the grave with him.

Lessons Learned … Courtesy of a Serial Murderer

There are monsters that walk among us in human clothing. A positive outcome like the one above reinforces these ‘heart-­attack serious’ situational awareness and self-­defense rules:

  • Always be aware of your surroundings and those who occupy them
  • Recognize behavioral anomalies and suspicious or inappropriate body language
  • Use the time afforded to you after observing behavioral warning signs to prepare mentally, physically, and tactically for the necessary actions you may be forced to take if confronted by a violent assailant
  • Remember that potentially violent antagonists may be extremely intelligent and fully capable of assessing your behavioral cues and potential vulnerabilities.
  • Never let kindness and civility create a rift between your instincts and ability to assess threats when encountering a potentially dangerous person
  • Never allow routine or familiarity to breed ill-­preparedness

Early Warning System: Tools for Predicting and Preparing for a Dangerous Encounter

Shooting skills and defensive tactics are invaluable components in our survival toolkits, but to utilize them to their optimum efficacy, we must be afforded an adequate amount of time to ready and employ them. The gift of sufficient reaction time, in nearly every instance, is co-­dependent on raw instinct, situational awareness, and the ability to identify and assess body language and behavioral cues. Human behavior, specifically abnormal behavior, is a complex science. In the next few pages, we will provide you with some of the key ‘red flags’ to be aware of when it comes to identifying potentially nefarious antagonists. Let’s start with the ‘easy ones.’

High Visibility Cues

Abnormal, erratic, or overtly aggressive behavior in public venues has become commonplace during the last two decades in the U.S. What used to be a predominantly “big-­city” problem has spilled out into smaller cities and towns throughout our nation. What this means for you and your loved ones is that there is a very real possibility of encountering potentially violent or unhinged antagonists in public places that previously would have been considered safe. Antagonistic individuals who are under the influence of controlled substances, alcohol, or suffer from mental illness are usually not difficult to identify. They may walk with an unsteady or overly flamboyant gait, talk to themselves, gesticulate oddly with their hands or arms, scratch or pick at their bodies, and have difficulty maintaining focus or keeping their heads stable.

Encounters with unhinged, drug-addled antagonists are increasingly frequent in today’s urban landscape. (Shutterstock)

These readily observable mannerisms warn you to take steps to avoid them. If avoidance is not an option, a good course of action is to ignore them, with a significant caveat. Avoid eye contact or verbal engagement, but never discount them. While drug-­addled assailants and those suffering from mental illness are often the most visible and easy to identify, they are also the most unpredictable. In a mentally ill or drug-­addled person’s mind, maintaining a direct gaze or frequent eye contact may be considered as aggressive or antagonistic behavior and acted upon. Remain vigilant and use your peripheral vision to track and maintain sight of a potentially threatening antagonist until they are no longer close enough to present a threat.

In many instances, an encounter with these types of antagonists will be during an aggressive panhandling incident. If you are unable to completely avoid mentally ill or drug/alcohol fueled antagonists, it is often best to be firm, direct, self-­assured, yet not aggressive or overly abrasive. A solid standard response to aggressive panhandlers is a polite but firm “Sorry, I don’t have any money … I’m a credit card guy/gal,” after which you exit stage left, remaining vigilant and alert.

During these encounters, remember:

  • THREAT AVOIDANCE is your #1 priority
  • Maintain a reasonable degree of situational awareness at all times using behavioral cue and body language recognition as a force multiplier
  • Never stare or maintain eye contact with a potentially mentally ill or drug/alcohol impaired person … use your peripheral vision
  • Remain firm, yet not overly aggressive or abrasive during any initial dialogue with a mentally ill or drug/alcohol impaired antagonist
  • If you find that kindness or a well-­mannered response is failing and likely perceived as weakness, a more tempered, no-­nonsense response and the initiation of a measured retreat should be considered
  • Watch their hands: HANDS (and what is grasped in them) KILL.
  • Remain vigilant and alert for additional associates/henchmen of your adversary
  • Maintain a safe distance from your antagonist to allow adequate reaction time should “things go south”
  • Never turn your back on a potential threat until you are a safe distance away and completely clear of a potential follow-­up confrontation.
  • Obey your instincts and use common sense and lessons learned from previous defensive training sense to guide you (relative to continuum of force protocols) should you believe the threat of serious bodily injury or death to yourself or loved ones is immediate and unavoidable
  • Contact law enforcement as soon as it is safe to do so without losing focus of potential threats. A police response may preclude someone else from being victimized by the same perpetrators.

Wolves in Wolves’ Clothing: Baddies with Malicious Intent, a Goal, and a PLAN

Whether you use the identifier “mugger,” “robber,” or “assailant,” the antagonists behind these monikers belong in a classification of foes who are more capable and cunning than the adversaries in the previous segment. Unlike the previously discussed foes, this classification of potential aggressor does not generally include profoundly mentally ill or drug-­addled crazies. While drug abuse (and the need to maintain a drug habit), as well as underlying abnormal psychological traits may be a component of their villainy, this category of antagonists have more control of their faculties and present a more sophisticated threat.

The single most common behavioral cues associated with this brand of bad guy is predatory wariness and behavioral cues that would suggest they are surveilling you or a business you are patronizing. Veiled body language, especially when an antagonist is involved in surveillance (observing an intended target) or counter-­surveillance (looking for potential threats such as law enforcement), can be very nuanced. The comical 1940s gangster movie cliche of cutting out two eyeholes in a newspaper to peep through in order to observe a potential victim is not that far off from today’s modern version of pretending to stare at a mobile device.

Assailants realize they have to blend in, if even for a short period of time, to get the “lay of the land.” Another common “blending” behavior for assailants operating in concert is the act of engaging in small talk to provide legitimacy for occupying a space in which they don’t belong. The ‘small talk’ ploy is common, and it is employed for criminal behavior ranging from aggravated assault to robbery and drug trafficking. Depending on the baddies’ level of sophistication, their “frivolous banter before the storm” may range from coherent to “not even trying.” In many instances, exaggerated body language is also a common behavioral cue for non-­boss-­level criminals. This includes yawning (sometimes exaggerated or relatively continuous) and stretching. Unlike the ‘small talk’ ruse, this type of behavior cue serves two purposes for assailants with malicious intent: It provides a physical/behavioral outlet for nervousness and anxiety while simultaneously mimicking a common human behavior that they believe will belay suspicion and mitigate scrutiny.


Sophisticated and semi-­sophisticated street criminals also use scouts for businesses or individuals they intend to target. If you observe someone standing near an entrance or exit with no glaring purpose and exhibiting hyper-­vigilance or some other worrisome behavior cues, it is likely time to evacuate as calmly and expeditiously as possible.

Not every criminal scowls: Watch for cues on both ends of the behavioral spectrum. (Shutterstock)

The most difficult type of onslaught to counter in this brand of adversary’s playbook is the ‘ambush-­style’ assault. Since these types of encounters are often executed spontaneously from cover or concealment, the observation of abnormal behavioral clues and body language are largely a non-­issue. There is, however, a more insidious ‘ambush-­style’ assault that is one of the most dangerous and difficult to defend against. Because the lead-­up to this type of assault exhibits more sophistication than what your average ‘mope’ or street-­thug is capable of, we are going to include it in the next segment: Serial killers.

Born to Kill and Able to Blend: Monsters in Human Clothing

The human predators we will focus on in this segment are not adherents to the ‘pack-­hunting’ mentality of the previously discussed brand of felon. Their creed is almost always of a solitary and predatory nature. Serial murderers are considered rare, unusual, and sophisticated in their target selection and victimization processes. These traits, combined with their penchant for committing what initially appear to be random acts of depravity across multiple geographical regions means local law enforcement agencies are logistically ill-­equipped to solve their crimes in an expeditious manner.

Serial murders nearly universally involve victims who are strangers to the assailant. They are often well-­planned, and statistically, the lion’s share is sexually motivated. There are different types of serial murderers with varying degrees of behavior, intelligence, and organization. We will discuss the most dangerous of the bunch, the one who blends into his environment, avoids raising immediate ‘red flags,’ and is often pleasant, engaging, and even charming. This is the classic psychopath (i.e., Ted Bundy, Dennis Rader/BTK, and John Wayne Gacy).

This type of serial murderer stands head and shoulders “above the pack” in relation to his deliberation, advanced level of planning, sexual predatory behavior, lack of provocation, and lack of relationship with the victim. The act of sexually assaulting and killing a victim are just two components of the pleasure they experience from their acts. They also derive a significant amount of sexual pleasure and excitement during the planning stages of their crimes. The monster with a human face currently under discussion is commonly well dressed and maintains a neat appearance. He comes across as a bright man who is intelligent and able to converse comfortably with a large audience. He is usually married or in a long-­term relationship and financially stable.

Don’t find yourself here. Once a threat makes itself known, do what it takes to survive. (Shutterstock)

The locations in which these predators prefer to ‘hunt’ are filled with a plentiful supply of potential victims: parks, shopping centers, parking lots, rural areas with trailheads or greenways, streets with heavy foot or bicycle traffic, and bars. He commonly preys on those he identifies as ‘good Samaritans’ or lone individuals. Women (especially between 20–­30 years of age) are their prime victims. He commonly exploits an attribute shared by many women: The desire to be helpful, especially to someone they perceive as injured or disabled. An admirable trait malignantly capitalized upon with terrible intent. Men aren’t off the menu either, as illustrated by victimization patterns engaged in by John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Our brand of serial murderer primarily kills for enjoyment (i.e., thrill, lust, power). Anyone exhibiting a lack of wariness can be at risk. These tier-­one killers are often suave, charismatic, attractive, and doctorate-­level sadists. Their monstrous enthusiasm for killing is largely driven by the pleasure derived from their victims’ pain.

The Nicest International Drug-­Trafficking Killer Ever! (Dr. Jo Anna Williamson)

While on assignment with the DEA, I was involved in an operation that took me up close and personal with an investigative target involved in international drug trafficking and the brutal execution of his previous criminal associate. Surveillance agents tracked the trafficker to a public place, and I was recruited to serve as the ‘decoy’ subject of an impromptu photo shoot in which the real spokesmodel was the bad guy. My erstwhile paparazzi/DEA Agent buddy and I entered the business and I positioned myself at an angle that would allow good photographs of the target to be taken.

I previously worked this case for months and as the lead intelligence analyst, was armed with intimate knowledge of the man’s personal life criminal shenanigans. In essence, I likely knew as much about him as he did about himself. As I positioned myself for the camera, he noticed me, smiled, and approached. Our target was attractive, articulate, flirty, and charming … and he topped off his shtick with a sweet Southern accent. Even with my profound knowledge of this man’s capacity for ruthlessness and violence, I found myself briefly forgetting what an incredibly horrible psychopath he was. It was at that definitive moment I understood why predators of his ilk could so easily convince others to do their bidding.

Identifying a Fiend: Difficult but Not Impossible

The serial killer’s true-self may be malevolent, but his outward appearance and mannerisms may be deceptively charming. (Shutterstock)

An encounter with a serial murder may be rare, but it is not an impossibility. Be on your game and remember these countermeasures:

  • When alone, increase your vigilance as appropriate
  • Using behavioral cues will not be so easy with this type, especially when they are well-­practiced at their tradecraft (the use of guile, charm and wit). NEVER ignore your instincts and intuition.
  • Be a difficult target. The goal for any offender is to get away with the crime. Be more difficult than it’s worth!
  • Take steps to ensure this brand of offender knows you are aware of his presence and proactively make it clear you have no interest in engaging him.
  • If the potential offender plays the role of an injured/stranded ‘victim,’ tell him you will go get help for him and keep moving.
  • If he remains persistent, loudly raise your voice and ask, “What do you want? Why are you bothering me?”
  • Maintain a safe distance and evacuate the area as rapidly (and if necessary, vocally) as possible.

The level of sophistication for most serial predators make identifying behavioral cues a daunting task. What you can be alert for, however, is a common method of operation used by both serial killers and other sophisticated predators we refer to as “Nicing their way into you.” This method involves a scheme that is exactly what it sounds like. The predator’s approach starts off amicably and friendly. Your assailant/s may approach you and ask for assistance with a broken-­down vehicle or some other type of ‘sympathy bait,’ or they may just simply engage in friendly small talk as they approach to convince you to “lower your shields,” allowing them to physically engage you before you can mount an effective defense.

This type of passively aggressive predatory behavior is sometimes difficult to interpret, but if you are unlucky enough to be subject to it, you absolutely cannot be a shrinking violet. You must affirmatively tell anyone approaching you that you do not know them and to stay back. If they continue their approach or engage in behavior inappropriate to the situation, you have your answer, relative to their intent, and should prepare to defend or extricate yourself from the situation.

The Recipe for a Happy Ending: The Application of Instinct, Intuition, and Observational Skills

Evil exists, but it is not lurking behind every street corner or crouching in the darkness of every shadow in your path. You do not have to maintain a “wildebeest at a watering hole” level of wariness at all times. A reasonable degree of situational awareness, in partnership with the force multipliers of instinct, intuition, and observational skills will serve you and your loved ones well. In combination with adequate tactical and self-­defense training, they are strong medicine for your readiness kits and can allow you to thrive and survive in the upside-­down world in which we currently navigate.

About the Authors

Dr. Jo Anna Williamson, PhD, is a US Navy and Air Force vet and served with the DEA as an Intelligence Analyst. She holds two Master’s degrees and a Doctorate in Psychology. A certified physical trainer she admins

Special Agent Rikk Rambo (DEA/Retired) is a 25 year veteran of the DEA and US Marshals Service. He served as a Pittsburgh Police Officer, sexual assault/crimes against children investigator, and Combat Engineer in the US Army. He previously served in Central America, the Caribbean, and DEA’s Philadelphia and Seattle Field Divisions.

The article was originally posted in Be Ready! magazine. You can purchase an original copy at If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at

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