Gavin de Becker says human beings are the only species who can be overcome by an instinct – to not get in that car, to not step foot in that lift, or to not speak to that stranger – and choose to ignore it.
A rabbit would run. A dog would bark. But human cognition means we are inclined to challenge and often dismiss our intuition, despite it being one of our most important survival signals protecting us from danger.
In de Becker’s bestselling book, The Gift of Fear, he argues that we have to retrain ourselves to listen to our gut instincts. This is particularly important, de Becker says, for women. Our gut has as many brain cells as a dog, and when we sense unease or panic, we are picking up on signals that our brain might not have consciously registered yet. A glance. An unsolicited promise. Heavy breathing. We are the product of thousands of years of evolution – and we’re hardwired to know when we’re encountering a predator.
Sam Harris recently interviewed de Becker on his podcast, Waking Up With Sam Harris, and asked what tangible advice he had for someone who found themselves in danger. His advice was simple: “Whatever the person orders you to do,” he said, “do the opposite.”
“If somebody says ‘don’t scream’, scream. If somebody says ‘don’t move’, move.
“He’s telling you,” de Becker explained, “that screaming will help you and disadvantage me.”
His theory is backed by extensive research which posits that compliance is often the most dangerous thing you can do.
If someone is armed, de Becker reasons, “a lot of people are afraid that armed person will shoot them. But that doesn’t advance the intention of the predator. If he just wanted to shoot you, he’d have shot you already.”
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The best-selling author, who is also a leading specialist in security issues for governments and public figures, told the story of a woman who got into her car, and felt fear in the pit of her stomach.
“She put the car in gear to drive away,” de Becker told Harris, “and somebody opens the car door next to her and gets in. And what she was reacting to, was seeing a tiny image in the side view mirror on the passenger side of Levi’s. Of jeans. Of denim. Somebody was standing that close to the mirror.”
The man ordered her to drive, and without thinking she obeyed his orders. De Becker says the best thing she could have done – was stop the car. Or roll out. Or crash into the car in front.
Women are socialised to be obedient and cooperative, and de Becker’s point is that when it comes to the violence women encounter, ‘niceness’ is not serving us well.
When we are in the midst of an attack, our minds default to fight, flight or freeze. Our thoughts become muddled and confused. It doesn’t matter how many people have told you to kick, or fight back – you likely won’t remember it.
But de Becker’s rule is simple.
The predator is telling you exactly what you need to do.
All you need to do is listen. And do the opposite.