Today is May 26, 2021. I have some decisions to make. Scheduling classes for the summer. Usually it’s not a big deal, kind of like a jigsaw puzzle putting together dates with class types, but this year I have to choose between running live in-person classes or sticking with virtual Zoom sessions. Do I require in-person class attendees to be vaccinated for COVID-19? To show proof, or trust they are truthful?

Do you trust yourself?

I read this book years ago, “Yes” or “No”: The Guide to Better Decisions by Spencer Johnson. Johnson is known for writing business self-help books that rely on allegories to convey their points. In this one he goes through a tale about a young man needing to make a decision and the advice he’s given by a mentoring group while on an extended hiking trip. We never find out what the issue or choices were, the whole point was the process of arriving at a decision via a series of six questions. The first three questions were in the rational realm, but the second three were more in the domain of the heart. One of those key questions to ask oneself is “does this decision show that I trust my instincts?”

Do you trust yourself?

Sure, all of us on occasion have misjudged situations, misread body language, acted on our prejudice and assumptions. But what happened afterwards? What did you find out? Did you find feedback to learn more about yourself? Were you honest with yourself?

Do you trust yourself?

Or, did someone subsequently try to shame you, or insist that your assessments are always wrong? Always would be wrong? With constant picking on your choice of clothing, restaurants, or movies. Disparaging comments about your family and friends? Expressions of contempt for your opinions on matters cultural or political?

Over a decade ago one student told me about her self-development strategy. She sold cherries in Pike Place Market over the summer, One student learned to "read" people when she sold cherries at the market, and learned to trust herself.when she was home from college. Now, who’s in Pike Place Market in the summer? A whole lotta tourists, who really don’t need cherries. They may need a snowglobe with the Space Needle, or a chocolate salmon, or a T-shirt that says “my parents went to Seattle and all I got was this T shirt.” But not cherries. So she came out from behind the stand to interact more with visitors. From that experience she learned to assess body language and attitudes, and more quickly figure out who may be a customer and who may be a creep.  (BTW, I also talked about this in my blog post 2 weeks ago.)

As I’ve noted several times, the great American sage Yogi Berra is said to have said, you can observe a lot just by watching.

She honed her sense of trusting herself.  You can, too.

Stay safe, live life.

Today is Wednesday May 19, 2021, and it’s a bit rainy. This past weekend, though, was sunny, a virtual mini-summer, so I got to hang out in my backyard, in my hammock, reading. This is the book, The Psychopath Inside by James Fallon. He’s a neuroscientist (and not to be confused with The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon)The Psychopath Inside.

Dr. Fallon studies brains. What makes them tick, or fail to tick correctly. What he’s most well-known for — in the eye of the general public — is his research on the brains of psychopaths. And, frankly, this research would not likely have caught the public eye except for one detail. Turns out, Dr. Fallon himself has the brain of a psychopath.

He found this out by accident. He was going through brain scans of his family, done to check for for a totally unrelated medical issue, when he saw this scan that looked just like it belonged in one of his other projects, the psychopath studies. He first thought that somehow the scans got mixed up and had his assistant check on it. But no, that was his. It came to find its way in the public eye because he brought it up in public venues, in his TED Talk in 2009, and his Moth Radio Hour story (recorded 2011, aired end of 2013). These attracted media attention and his story was repeated and amplified by media looking for intriguing stories, and he became the psychopath inside.

First, a bit on what makes a psychopath. Seems there is not a standard clinical definition, at least not as of the writing of this book in 2013.  Characteristic traits include:

  • emotional flatness and lack of empathy, lack of remorse, and refusal to accept responsibility for their actions
  • superficiality, grandiosity, and deceitfulness
  • impulsiveness and unreliability
  • antisocial behavior such as hotheadedness, physical violence, pleasure in harming others, and sometimes a criminal record

There is a fair bit of science in the book, and I’m unlikely to remember most of the details. More interesting is what those details mean, such as activity detected in the dorsal part, or upper third, of the brain is associated more with rational thought, and activity in the ventral part, or lower third, of the brain is connected more with emotional intelligence. Seems that psychopath brains have far less activity, if any, in the ventral portion, and that manifests as a lack of emotional connection with others.

Still more interesting is Dr. Fallon’s reflection on the meaning of his brain’s state. He looks back on a warm upbringing and a loving family, wonderful childhood, teenage stuff, party years of college (and beyond), his fun-loving adventures and pranks that were all in jest and hurt nobody because his fellow participants wanted to let loose, and boys will be boys, right? Now, if you’ve been following me for a while, you probably know what I think of the phrase “boys will be boys” — a poor excuse to get away with poor behavior.  Boys will be the boys we let them be, and the young James seems to have gotten away with a fair bit.

He didn’t identify himself as a psychopath for a while after his revealing brain scan, because according to him, he was missing some of the essential components of what he considered a true psychopath. He’s not physically violent. He doesn’t have a criminal record (which he mentions several times in the book), he doesn’t take pleasure in causing pain, and doesn’t try to cause pain (unless he’s out for revenge, which he notes briefly, towards the end, and gave no details). His writing oscillates between he’s just having fun and nobody got hurt, with thinking that maybe he hurt others and simply didn’t notice because it’s out of the realm of his personal experience due to his brain, or maybe at times he did hurt others but just didn’t care. That darned lack of empathy. Dr. Fallon goes back and forth, back and forth, about the impact of his actions. I don’t think he’s the right person to make that assessment, but as for others’ opinions, he probably does not care, as he states over and over and over again in this book.  Which is what makes him the “psychopath inside.”

So how did family, friends, and colleagues relate to him after the publicity of his brain state? Well, he said a couple of “close” friends chose to limit or eliminate contact with him. Most already had him figured out, so nothing changed. And a small crowd actually wanted to spend more time with him. So next time you hear about those targeted and victimized by good boys (who went a little too far) get shoved to the side, especially if the perpetrator is relatively well-liked by others (even if they know what he’s about), wonder why no more.  That’s the psychopath inside.

The book is an interesting read, even though Dr. Fallon is not a particularly artful writer, and his final chapter about why psychopaths are essential to a healthy society is verging on self-serving, in my opinion. If you personally have ever been in a relationship with a psychopath, sociopath, narcissist, or someone of that ilk, this book may bring back memories you may not relish reviewing, and in some cases could be triggering. Read at your own risk. Or read a book by Dr. Robert Hare instead.

Stay safe, live life.

I’ve been teaching safety and self-defense for over 25 years, and if I had a dime for every student who in some way labeled themselves “paranoid,” even in a semi-joking sort of way, I’d now be retired. In luxury.

What is being paranoid? I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not going to give a technical definition. In colloquial terms, when people say they’re “just being paranoid,” generally they mean they feel something is amiss but can’t think of a good rational reason why. So they must be paranoid, right?

It’s always been intriguing to me that when people think about taking precautions when interacting with others they don’t know all that well, it feels off. Odd. Uncomfortable. Un-natural. Unreasonable. Even pathological. Like we SHOULD just trust other people, and there’s something wrong with us if we don’t.

In fact, most of the time we do just that, we trust others. We pass people on the street all the time, and rarely does anything odd, let along bad, happen. We go into stores, cafes, and offices, and the vast majority of the time it’s just another routine day. Maybe we say hi to the cashier at the grocery store, or we chat with our neighbors when we get home. Another familiar typical day.

Familiarity does lead us to a sort of complacency, a set of expectations that it’s the same as it ever was.

Think back to a time when you sensed something amiss, and did nothing. What happened? Were you OK with the outcome?

Think back to a time when you sensed something amiss, and did something to change that interaction’s trajectory. What happened? Were you OK with the outcome?

Gavin De Becker’s whole premise in his book The Gift of Fear, is that we should listen to these feelings! They are telling us something important. De Becker lists several “feelings” that he calls messengers of intuition:  nagging feelings, persistent thoughts, humor, wonder, anxiety, curiosity, hunches, gut feelings, doubt, hesitation, suspicion, apprehension, and fear (p. 74 of the NY:  Dell Publishing, 1997 edition).

Interpreting those messages can be a challenge: are we facing someone who is looking to exploit us, are we misunderstanding someone else’s sense of appropriate, are we caving in to stereotypes and prejudice?  De Becker also lists seven “survival signals,” specific behaviors that should cause concern:  1) forced teaming, 2) charm and niceness, 3) too many details, 4) typecasting, 5) emotional loansharking, 6) unsolicited promises, and 7) ignoring your NO.  This is Chapter 4.

Several of my students talked about their processes in tackling that challenge.

One was just finishing college and about to travel.  Over the summers she’d return home to Seattle, and to earn money she worked at Pike Place Market selling cherries.  Most people wandering through the market that time of year were tourists, who may not have NEEDED cherries but could be persuaded.  She found herself on the front side of the counter, and quickly learned by peoples’ body language and tone of voice which might be interested in cherries and which might be more interested in just chatting, or getting free cherries, or hooking up.

Another’s job was literally online, she created the backend of user interfaces. She could work from anywhere in the world, as long as there was a high speed internet connection. So she lived in various European countries for months at a time, in Bali, in eastern Africa, India, Malaysia, all over. First, though, she laid groundwork. She spent a lot of time on mass transit, cafes, and in public venues. She eavesdropped and people-watched. She looked for body language in interactions, tones of voice, distances between bodies in different situations, and the trajectory of the interactions. As the great American sage Yogi Berra is said to have saidDispel those nagging fears of being "paranoid" by making your commute into a practicum for reading body language!, you can observe a lot just by watching. And she got good at identifying “red flags” and feeling confident in choosing appropriate actions.

These two did not feel in the least paranoid. Because they prepared for being more active participants in living on their own terms.

Stay safe, live life.

Today is Wednesday, May 5, the year is 2021. And I’m gonna geek out on safety stats today.

I began training in Karate in November 1992 — which is a long time ago, 28.5 years in fact — and that also began my education in self-defense. I began training at the Feminist Karate Union, which was founded in 1971 — an even longer time ago, 50 years — by an intrepid and driven feminist named Py Bateman. It began not as a Karate school, but as a self-defense class at the University of Washington. At that time, rates of assault were really quite high. Py Bateman not only teased out physical techniques from traditional Karate that just about anyone could learn quickly, but also worked with UW faculty on what we’d now call assault dynamics. You know, all that gooey and squishy psychological and social stuff that impacts how we react to threats. Sometimes it convinces us that we really can’t fight back, sometimes it kicks us into high gear to kick butt.  But I’m digressing . . .

So in the 1990s, and beyond, I read quite a few books about self-defense. One thing I noticed is how many of them somewhere towards the beginning stated “the rate of violent crime is increasing.” And there was nothing, no footnote or citation, given to back that up! Even today, a lot of blogs or social media or so-called e-news lists still make that blanket claim. A couple of decades ago I wondered if the rate of violence really was going up that much year after year after year. So I decided to do a little checking. And I found that the rate of violence in the US has been in decline. Since 1993.

In my longer classes I do discuss a couple of relevant statistics. My main source is the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Each year they survey a representative sampling of the American population, asking if specific violent crime happened to them.  (The one area they don’t speak to is homicide, as the deceased don’t respond to surveys.)  The main benefit of the BJS is that they also ask if victims reported the crime to police. So we also get some idea on rates of crime, whether reported or not, as well as better numbers on overall violence.

Now I didn’t want to be THAT self-defense teacher who got stuck in a time warp and never updated my figures and just relied on what most others repeated over and over.   Hence geeking out on safety stats.  Every couple of years I go back and look at the current numbers. Because they change over time, and I owe students the most accurate information available to me.  So, as I said, I’m gonna geek out a bit on the stats.

Geeking out on safety statistics: graph of rate of violent crime in USA, 1993-2019

Percent of US residents age 12 or older who were victims of violent crime excluding simple assault

The overall rate of violence in the US of A has indeed been in decline since 1993. Most of that decline happened over the 1990s into the early 2000s. Since then it’s mostly been comparatively flat-ish, a mild downward slope with some variation year by year. However, there seems to have been a bump upward in homicides the last year or two, and there may be the beginnings of an uptick in overall violence. Is it another variation, or a trend? We won’t know for several years.

Other relevant stats:

  • Who’s assaulted more often, men or women?
  • Are men more likely to be assaulted by strangers or by people they know? and
  • Are women more likely to be assaulted by strangers or by people they know?

For just about all of the years since 1993, the answer to Q1 is MEN. However, the difference had been narrowing over time. And it may just be that in 2015, 2017 and 2018, women had been more often victims of assault than had men. By a very small margin, and I don’t know if that difference is considered statistically significant, but they are getting even.

Are men more likely to be assaulted by strangers or people they know? Earlier on the answer would have been strangers. But those two figures also have not only been declining but have been getting closer. And some years, such as 2015 and 2017, they are VERY close. Apparently a number of statisticians are currently saying it’s about even, that the difference is statistically insignificant.

In case you haven’t heard the phrase “statistically insignificant,” it means that because we are not counting each and every individual in the US there’s some room for error.  Statisticians calculate what they expect the error may be, and the difference between two numbers, if small, may reflect not a real difference but just that expected margin of error.

Finally, are women assaulted more often by strangers or by people they know? This is the one super-consistent finding. Women are far more likely to be assaulted by people they know. Way back in the 1990s, through the 2000s, and 2010s.

The BJS has a nifty web tool, the National Crime Victimization Survey Victimization Analysis Tool.  Using this, you can quickly sort through their database of statistics to look at specific figures.  I used it to sort through the data to find numbers of all assaults committed against men and against women by categories of assailants (intimate partner, other family, friend or acquaintance, stranger, unknown).  I then repeated the process three more times, narrowing down the assault types to sexual assault, then aggravated assault, and robbery.  You too can do this.

And of course I’m providing a link or two for your own review. I’m not expecting you to just take my word for it. I encourage students to develop a basic understanding of how scientists interpret numbers taken from real lives and apply them back. Please do take a look, at least at some summary pages.

Stay safe, and live life.