Gershon Ben Keren started writing his self-defense and personal safety blog in 2012, since then he has published weekly (and sometimes more frequently), 344 articles on self-protection, crime prevention, target-hardening, and other areas of personal safety. Below are the last 5 articles of the blog. If you would like to read more, please visit his blog site by clicking here.
The elderly are a naturally vulnerable group; with age there comes a deterioration in physical abilities. Strength and movement start to decline, and because of this, the ability to physically defend yourself when attacked is reduced. It would be nice to think that through training we can delay these things – and to a certain extent we can – but for those of us with elderly parents and relatives, who have never trained, this isn’t an option (my parents are in their 80’s – and have never done any martial arts or self-defense training). There are those who would suggest firearms training, to help “level the playing field”, but this may not be appropriate, due to diminished mental faculties – a firearm in the home of somebody suffering from some degree of dementia may be more of a liability than an asset – and physical concerns, such as vision problems, tremors, etc, also come into play. Firearms ownership also isn’t legal in every country or locale. This means that in order to keep our elderly relatives safe, the focus (as it should be with all self-defense training), should be on prevention and target-hardening, to avoid victimization.
It is worth understanding some of the particular types of crime that target the elderly. Drug addicts, know that the bathroom cabinets of many elderly people, contain prescriptions for opioids – including Fentanyl - and other powerful pain killers. In many cases, there may be the remnants of courses of these drugs, that were over-prescribed, and never used. This makes the homes of the elderly an attractive target for criminals in pursuit of these drugs. It also makes the elderly vulnerable when they pick up/fill their prescription, and they should take the same precautions when in the pharmacy, as they would when getting cash from an ATM/cash machine i.e. being aware of who is around them, who seems interested in them, etc. If it is possible for them to use a delivery service for their prescriptions, this would be preferable to picking them up, in person. I would also advise that they not use ATM’s for cash withdrawals, but instead use the counter service at the bank, as there will be security cameras, and other people present (crime preventers), which are likely to deter most opportunistic predators.
As we get older, our memory does start to deteriorate – the degree to which it does will vary from person to person – and we will be more likely to forget to lock a door, or close a window, than we would have, when younger. One way to help mitigate this vulnerability, is not to rely on memory, but instead use checklists as reminders. If you have an elderly relative, you may want to help them create a checklist of windows and doors, etc. that they need to make certain are secured, before they go out, and/or when they return home. This list can be pinned to the front door, and it can also be used last thing at night, before they go to bed. The list can also include things such as checking that electrical items are turned off at the socket, etc. As long as the individual sticks to the list, and goes through it each time they leave the house (or go to bed), they will know that they will have limited these opportunities for criminals to exploit.
The elderly are often targeted as victims of fraudulent marketing campaigns, whether by phone or door-to-door. Unfortunately, many seniors, who would once have recognized a con with ease, are no longer so confident of their world as they once were, and may be susceptible to misinformation, especially if the consequences of not going along with the plan are presented in dire and extreme ways e.g. if you don’t switch over your electricity provider, you’ll be cut-off within 7 days, or if you don’t sign these forms, your pension will be frozen, and you’ll not be able to make a new claim for 30 days, etc. One role that you can play in the life of an elderly relative, is to be the person that they direct any cold-caller, or telemarketer to, with your role being presented as the final/actual decision maker. It is also worth reminding them that no legitimate organization is going to require an on the spot decision about anything, and that they will have the time to talk things over with yourself, and that you will be able to talk things over with whomever it is that has contacted them about services, etc. When a con-artist, has to involve another party, they are likely to back away, as there are unfortunately far easier victims to exploit.
If you are able to, get a security chain fitted to your relative’s front door, so that they never have to fully open it to someone. If a criminal has targeted an elderly relative’s home, because they believe that there are valuables/drugs inside, but there are no accessible windows and doors that would facilitate a break-in, they may attempt a simple home-invasion, via a “push in” e.g. when the door is opened they barge in, knocking whoever opened it out of the way. For many doors and frames, it will be difficult to screw the security chain unit, deep enough, for it to have much integrity on its own, and so it is worth backing this system up with a rubber door stop, that can be pushed under the door as it is opened. The two together should be enough to stop the door being pushed in – if not, standing on the door stop can strengthen it further. A high-pitched alarm, with a pull string release, can be placed by the door, and set off if/when somebody tries to get past the chain and door-stop. This is likely to make a would-be intruder question the potential costs of trying to continue the break-in i.e. there are probably easier properties to target.
Security and personal safety are, at their core, largely about procedures and protocols, and as somebody gets older and their natural abilities start to diminish – so that they can’t see or hear as well as they once did, aren’t as strong/agile as they once were – these protocols become all the more important. Telling an elderly relative to simply be more aware, may be something that they forget to do, or are unable to do, etc. Having lists, that they follow to the letter, will hopefully ensure that from a basic personal safety perspective they are becoming a harder target than those around them. With unlimited funding and resourcing there are many things that can be done to make an elderly relative’s life/home more secure – such as installing surveillance cameras in their property, so that you can check if doors/windows have been left open etc. – however, this isn’t always possible or practical. Setting our elderly relatives up with simple manual processes and procedures requires little or no investment, and can in fact have a great effect on their overall safety.
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The motivations and reasons for violence are often many-layered. At the lowest – and deepest -layer/level, violence is borne out of shame. Shame, as a form of trauma, is a reaction/response, that comes out of being forced to deal with an emotionally challenging and demanding situation, in which the person involved wasn’t able to exert any control over it; it was disempowering and humiliating, even if nobody witnessed the individual going through it – it’s enough that they knew, and they weren’t able to do anything about it etc. A child who is sexually abused is likely to suffer shame, throughout their life, concerning their inability to prevent such abuse from happening, even if when older they “rationally” understand, that they couldn’t have been expected to have control or influence in such a situation. It would be wrong to assume that in every case, this shame, will result in acts of anger, aggression, and violence. However, when a victim of abuse does commit physically violent acts, it is likely that this sense of shame, is one of the underlying causes.
We can feel disempowered and humiliated, over trivial events also. If somebody cuts us off in traffic, and we become emotional because of it, this inability to exert control in the situation, whilst in an emotional state, may lead us to feel disrespected, which in turn may lead to feelings of inadequacy and shame. Most people are able to write off, and forget about these incidents quickly and easily, but some people are unable to do so, and see such examples of disrespect as reflecting a larger attitude towards them e.g. each new incident is added to the previous one, until society as a whole is seen as disrespecting them. Such individuals may use “random” acts of violence, as a means of demonstrating to society at large, that it can’t disrespect and take advantage of them, etc.
In this article, I want to go one layer up, and instead of looking at these root/base causes of violence (shame, and guilt – guilt being a “private” form of shame), look at some of the personality types of those who are predisposed towards engaging in violence. By understanding how such individuals think, behave, and operate, we may better be able to avoid having to physically deal with them (even if this means our ego taking a hit – and most avoidance strategies involve this in some capacity).
Survival/Fear/Panic/Pain – I once had the privilege of having a Norwegian Elkhound. He was a great dog, but he didn’t have a “soft” mouth like a Retriever or a Labrador. When he bit, he bit hard, that was just the way of his breed. Because of this, I was instructed that he had to learn bite control, because if he was surprised by getting his tail caught, or having his paw stepped on, he would probably react by biting (this is an instinctive response dogs have when reacting to pain), and if a small child was present/the target, you would want him to release pressure, once he felt he was biting into flesh. On several occasions he bit people, but never applied any pressure – I’m not going to say it wasn’t scary at times, because it was, but he never injured or left a mark on anyone.
Some people though, haven’t learnt to control their “bite reflex”, and when they experience pain, fear, or even physical discomfort – such as being too hot – lash out at those around them; whom they may perceive to be the cause of their pain. Next time you bump into somebody, step on their toes, or in some other way cause them discomfort, understand that they may react violently towards you – their bite control may not have been educated enough, and they may not know how to stop themselves.
Some people are genuinely excited by violence; they enjoy and receive pleasure from the emotional state they’re in when they are fighting, and/or the elevated state they experience post-conflict. There are those people who want it to kick-off, and they’re not always the people you would think. Many of those involved in football hooliganism in the UK, have families, and good solid jobs. In their roles as employees and fathers, you wouldn’t imagine that they would be capable of inflicting serious injuries upon another person, as well as deriving pleasure and satisfaction, from the act. As the criminologist, Lonnie Athens, would describe it, they are “actors”, who play different roles at different times, and one of their roles, is that of the hooligan – and just like an actor playing different parts, the parts/roles can be very, very different. The clean-cut, family man you’ve just spilt a drink over in a bar, may choose to act, and play a different role to the one that he looks dressed for.
Narcissism and vanity, can cause an individual to act or respond violently towards you. The fact that a narcissist sees themselves as the undisputed king of the world, justifies them to act in any way they want towards you – societal rules and conventions don’t apply, because they see themselves as above them. If they feel you deserve to be punished or attacked, not even because you have done anything to them, then that’s a good enough reason (they don’t need to explain it to themselves or anyone else). Although for all intents and purposes, these types of violent outbursts, resemble those of psychopaths/sociopaths (or to use the correct term, as stated in the DSM, those individuals suffering from an anti-personality disorder), the difference is that with a narcissist, the assault is emotionally driven, rather than occurring with an absence of emotion. If you don’t “get” that a narcissist needs to be treated in a certain way, or that you are a “lesser” being than they are, you will be heading for conflict. If you aren’t sure if you are dealing with a narcissist, ask them if there might be a better way for them to handle/approach the conflict. If they tell that it couldn’t be handled better, and nobody could handle it better than they are, etc. you know who you’re dealing with.
Some individuals have a sense of Existential Honor; that if they fail to stick up for who they are, to settle for less respect than they feel they deserve, the sense of who they are dies. This idea of honor is clearly built on previous feelings of shame, however it is more aggressive and demanding, than simply seeking to avoid shame and humiliation – it is pre-emptive in nature, rather than responsive. The idea of honor is something that is presented, and any challenges to it searched for i.e. the individual is actively looking to be disrespected, and will fit/alter any interaction they have, to be one in which their honor is challenged e.g. an offhand look, the way something was said, can be shoe-horned in, to be a challenge/threat, and a matter of disrespect, that needs to be responded to.
Retaliation, for sexual abandonment. When I was a teenager, perhaps the most humiliating experience I could imagine, was to be publicly ridiculed – in some way, shape or form – by a woman. The ego is a fragile beast, and even at its strongest, is extremely sensitive to belittlement and abandonment. It should come as no surprise, that victims of domestic abuse, are most at risk, when their partner comes to understand that they are thinking of, and getting ready to leave. In fact, it isn’t just the partner who is at risk, it is usually everyone in the abuser’s life, including their children. Those fears, of humiliation and rejection, that we may have worried about as teenagers, can be rooted deeply in some people’s psyches. Most of us grew up, and as adults understand rejection, not as abandonment, but as a choice that another person is free to make, but in some instances this rejection is seen to represent something much deeper, and some people feel a need to respond to this sense of inadequacy, by proving their “manhood” through violence.
There are of course other motivations for violence, including practical gain e.g. a mugger is financially rewarded by acting violently, however even a mugger chooses their particular type of crime for a reason, and mixed in with these may be ideas around abandonment and honor, etc. Violence doesn’t have to make sense to us, in order to make sense to the person committing the crime.
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Crime, including violent crime, relies upon opportunity. Sometimes a criminal creates, orchestrates, or takes advantage of an opportunity, and sometimes our actions and behaviors can facilitate an opportunity e.g. we leave a window open, that a burglar uses to break in to our house, etc. There is a theory concerning crime and opportunity called Routine Activity Theory (Cohen & Felson, 1979). Its basic premise is that, where a predatory crime occurs, an offender, and a likely target come together in a time and place without the presence of a capable guardian. The idea of a “capable guardian”, is specific to the context of the crime that is taking place. If the violent interaction was to take place in a pub/bar, a “capable guardian” that could prevent the incident from occurring, might be the large number of friends that you have with you, versus the lone offender, or the presence of door security personnel, etc. Although the theory doesn’t elaborate on it, the capable guardian, is judged or viewed to be capable based on the offender’s perceptions; the lone offender in the pub/bar, might not believe that your friends are “capable” of preventing an act of violence (a crime) against you, so in the context of the theory, if that were the case, they wouldn’t count as the “capable guardian”. What the theory really stresses though, is the idea of relationship, that there is a relationship between the offender and the victim, a relationship between the offender and the location, and a relationship between the victim and the location. In short, violence is about relationships.
One of the most over-looked areas of reality-based self-defense and self-protection is the relationship between the offender and the victim. Most women, when asked, understand that (statistically) they are most likely to be raped/sexually assaulted by someone they know, in their home or somebody else’s i.e. they will have a pre-defined relationship with their assailant, and both the offender and the victim will have a pre-defined relationship with the location. It is the “relationship” between the offender and the victim, which is key in such assaults, as it is this that the predatory individual uses to create the opportunity. However, often the “opportunities” that are taught in women’s self-defense classes don’t reflect this, with the attacker being presented as a stranger, who ambushes his victim, in an unfamiliar or irregular (based on the victim’s routine) location, such as a park, late at night. Neglecting to teach women how to manage the “relationship”, they have with a friend or acquaintance, who has adopted the role of a predator, in that situation (time and place), would be neglecting to address the most common types of sexual violence, that women are likely to face. Rather than focusing on physical solutions for dealing with predators who jump out from behind trees and ambush their victims, we should be directing our attention towards teaching social and verbal strategies, to deflect and disengage from the more likely situations, where a partner’s best friend, or a work acquaintance, turns up at the front door (place), at an unexpected time (time), with a story/reason why they need to be let in. Such predators work on our inability to manage our relationships with them in socially awkward situations and if we fail to address the “relationship” aspect of such violent assaults, we are not going to be effective in preventing these common attack scenarios.
We also know that women are more likely to be physically assaulted by their partners than by a stranger. How do we address these situations and scenarios? Or are they simply too complex for us to provide solutions for? What are the potential consequences for a victim who fights back, but doesn’t leave their partner (relationship), or their home (location), because they may have children, or not have the financial resources to do so? I’m not suggesting that we become councilors and mental health professionals, but as those involved in reality-based self-defense, we need to teach to reality. It may be that we limit ourselves to teaching the predictive elements of potentially abusive relationships, so that those who may be at risk can understand the situation they are in, and have the opportunity to exit and disengage from the relationship before all parties have become too invested in it.
Violent offenders, even if they don’t know their victim, have a relationship with the locations they use. They will probably have a degree of familiarity with the location, understanding its life-cycle e.g. when it’s busy, and when it’s not. The rapist who targets his best friend’s partner, at her home, will know or find out the times when she will be alone. Certain criminals will choose locations near to where they live, others may choose locations some distance away, and may even leave their car in another location, so that it isn’t tied to, or associated with the crime scene e.g. a sexual assailant, whose MO (modus operandi), is to target lone women, in areas which are sparsely populated, may park their car some way away, so that they are not linked to that area at the time(s) when they commit their assault(s). In such instances, locations have relationships with locations; where the car is parked, although far away, will be located on a route which is both discrete (for instance there may be a lack of CCTV, which may in this context act as a Capable Guardian), and easily accessible. Both the crime scene location and the location where the car is parked, will be linked by a “channel”.
The location may also actively “draw” both the offender and the victim. In June of 2015, there was an attempted abduction of a 15-year old girl, at a retail outlet in New Hampshire (I wrote about this at the time in a blog article called “Real Life Predator Process”). The media expressed surprise that the assault occurred at 4:15 pm when the outlet was relatively busy. The offender knew that there would likely be a large number of teenage girls at the mall, shopping after school was out. He knew that this location, would draw a certain population, as well as when this demographic was likely to be there. He understood the relationship that his potential victims had with this location, and this created opportunities for him. If his particular victim demographic was middle-aged women, he may have chosen a different time of day to visit the retail outlet, possibly choosing an earlier time in the day, when their children may have been more likely to be at school, giving them the opportunity to shop. If his demographic was women in their late teens and early twenties he may have chosen an entirely different location, and time, such as a city center, when the pubs and bars were closing. Predators go where their chosen prey are, and they have a good understanding of the relationship their victims have with certain locations.
From a predictive perspective, we should examine the relationships we have with certain locations, and understand the relationships that an offender might have with them, and at what times these may be. If we then find ourselves in this location, at this time, with someone – even if we have a prior relationship with them – we should at the very least be wary of their motive. Understanding the relationships we have with people, in certain locations, will allow us to understand the opportunities we may present for offenders, and we should develop tactics and strategies for dealing with them when this happens.
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Cognitive Biases are rules of thumb that we use to make quick decisions. In many ways, they can help us e.g. we know to hand over the wallet to a mugger, as 99% of the time, this is the quickest way to get them to leave us. Like all rules of thumb, or heuristics, they are there to guide and direct us, rather than to offer absolute solutions – situations determine solutions, rather than rules and preconceived notions of what we should and shouldn’t do; 1% of mugging incidents, will require a different resolution than handing over the wallet, so we also need to have a plan/tactic, for when the mugger doesn’t leave. Unfortunately, there are times when these cognitive biases lead us astray and misdirect us, and we should be aware of this, so that we don’t build or work with incorrect “models of violence”. A model of violence, is an understanding/replica of how we believe a certain type of violence will play out e.g. if we believe that the most likely rape/sexual assault scenario that we will face involves a stranger and a remote location, then we have built and constructed an incorrect/unlikely model of violence concerning this type of assault, as these types of assaults are more likely to occur in our home or somebody else’s, and involve somebody we know, etc.
One type of cognitive bias we use is “anchoring”. An anchor, is an experience, rule, or piece of knowledge that we adopted early on, find ourselves referring to on a regular basis, and continue to compare new information against. One of the first pieces of safety advice that we were probably given as children, was not to get into cars with strangers, etc. Our parents/guardians, would have painted a picture, and/or described a situation, in which we would be playing in our front yard, and a stranger in a car (or possibly the infamous white van), would pull up, and ask us if we wanted to go and see some puppies, etc. As children, this may have been a likely approach for a predatory individual who doesn’t know us to use to get us into their car, but as adults it is a highly unlikely one. A predatory stranger is much more likely to use other methods, to get us into their car e.g. they may crash into our car, in a remote location and offer to give us a ride to the nearest town, etc. Unfortunately, our anchor, may cause us to not recognize what is happening, because the situation we are in doesn’t reflect the model it was built around. Whilst the anchor of not getting into a car with strangers, was constructed around an adult predator targeting a child, it doesn’t reflect the methods that such predators would use when targeting adult victims.
Anchoring biases are often supported by confirmation biases e.g. we may have been educated early on, that one of the biggest threats to our safety comes from the mentally ill. Using this as our anchor, we may focus on information that confirms this viewpoint, and ignore the larger body of information and evidence that disproves this, or sets it in the appropriate context. For someone who believes that the mentally ill are dangerous, the fact that the killer involved in the recent Texas active shooter incident had been diagnosed with a mental illness, will confirm their viewpoint, and may lead them to conclude that this is the primary motivation and reason behind all active shooter/killer incidents, even though when looking at past incidents, anger and isolation issues, appear to be more common driving forces. We all have confirmation biases. It’s one of the reasons why we watch certain news channels, and read certain news sources – we want our views and ideas to be confirmed. The danger is that when we apply this to personal safety, we may find ourselves building incorrect models of violence, that put us in danger when we try to apply them.
Often, when trying to understand something, we will settle on the first alternative/option that makes sense to us, and not investigate any further. If we are told that the best way to de-escalate a confrontation is to talk calmly and apologize for whatever indiscretion we’ve committed, or if dealing with a mugger, to throw our wallet away from us and them so they leave us and go to the wallet, etc., we are likely to accept these rules, and not consider that these solutions may in fact increase the danger we are in. Our natural desire to settle on the first solution we are presented with often leads to tunnel vision and incremental thinking, where we are only able to move in one direction, rather than operate laterally, recognizing that different solutions may be more effective, and not lead us into danger. Although settling on the first solution someone tells us, may quickly give us a tactic and strategy to adopt, it doesn’t mean we’ll be equipped with the right one.
Another cognitive bias that we use, is that when facing a certain situation, it is likely that we will try to compare it to another similar one we’ve seen, in order to replicate and copy the solution that we used to deal with it. Certain training methods can reinforce this. If, when you practice gun and knife disarms, you simply practice the technique, without putting a context around it, it is likely that your solution to every situation you are involved in where a gun is involved will be to perform a disarm, etc., even when a mugger demands your wallet, and the incident can likely be ended without violence, by handing it over. This simple heuristic of acquiescing to a predator’s demand, can also get us into trouble, if they are demanding that we move from our primary location to another; as this is something we shouldn’t agree to, and would be an appropriate time to perform a disarm, etc. Understanding that not every situation where a person threatens us with a weapon is the same, will help us avoid replicating inappropriate tactics.
Studies have shown that vivid information, and personal accounts, affect our thinking and understanding to a greater extent than statistics and studies. An individual’s personal recollection of an experience will color our thinking far more than the results of a study, that contains the experiences of many individuals, but is presented as a set of numbers, or displayed in a chart, rather than as an anecdote/story, etc. This also means that we are more likely to be influenced by a dramatic movie scene, that is fictional, than by less graphic depictions of violence that are reality-based. It is far easier for us to imagine and fixate on a sexual assault committed by a stranger, late at night in a deserted location, than by a work colleague in our home or theirs – even though statistically this is much more likely.
Whilst cognitive biases are rules of thumb, that can help us quickly reach decisions, we need to know their potential adverse effects as well, so that we don’t build incorrect models of violence that can misdirect our understanding of how to effectively act and behave in dangerous situations.
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