May 14th, 2013

Research: Victim selection criteria by criminals

Workplace bullying in the U.S. is not yet illegal by civil or criminal law. Mugging another person is criminal. In a new study, convicted criminals in prison (not your typical workplace bully by any measure) demonstrated their ability to recognize who in a group was a prior victim and who they would most likely pick to mug and steal from and why they selected that person. The analogy to bullying incidents would apply only to the most violent predator-type bullies (bordering on psychopaths who number 1 in 100 executives) who victimize their targets in ways that approach criminality. However, the general premise that perpetrators rely on physical nonverbal cues to select their targets/victims certainly must play a part, however slight, in workplace bullying incidents.

Angela Book, at Brock University, and colleagues had 12 video clips of college students (8 men, 4 women) walking between classrooms from a previous study. The recorded students reported their history of victimization — from being bullied to criminal or sexual assaults. Each target’s gait, their style of walking, was coded by two independent judges. The premise was that body language cues indicate vulnerability. Targets coded as displaying vulnerable body language were more likely to have self-identified as a victim,

Study participants were 47 male prisoners in a Canadian maximum security facility, many with multiple offenses. Researchers used the prisoners’ scores on Robert Hare’s scale of psychopathy — the Psychopathy Check List (PCL). Special attention was paid to the part of the PCL score (Factor 1) associated with interpersonal traits such as manipulativeness, superficial charm, and lack of empathy can facilitate the exploitation of others.

The prisoners watched all 12 videos. They rated each target’s vulnerability to being victimized on a 10-point rating scale. Victimization was defined as “assault with the intent to rob or steal from the victim.” Prisoners were accurate in their judgments if they gave “nonvictims” a vulnerability score between 1 and 5 and if they gave “victims a vulnerability score between 6 and 10. In other words, past victims made the best future victims. Inmates with higher Factor 1 psychopathy scores demonstrated the greatest accuracy in detecting who had been victimized previously.

Prisoners also told how they identified those most vulnerable to being robbed. The answers were coded and distilled into categories. The cues used by prisoners were: gait, body posture (body movements not related to gait), age, sex, attractiveness, build, clothing, attention, fitness, environment (e.g., lack of lighting), and whether target was alone.

The top cues to vulnerability and the correlation with accuracy of victim identification for prisoners with the highest Factor 1 PCL (psychopathy) scores were:

Walk/gait Walks with confidence; walks like an easy target .26

Sex Because she’s a woman; wouldn’t mug a woman .19

Body type In good physical shape; heavy set & slow .17

Fitness Greater probability of fighting back; Able to defend self .18

Attention Not paying attention; Appears to be cautious .03

Only psychopaths among the prisoners group used gait as the key indicator of vulnerability. Targets who displayed vulnerable body language were more likely to report past histories of victimization, and psychopaths identified these individuals as being more vulnerable to future victimization.

Social predators are attracted to external, physical signs of vulnerability.

The study authors believe the walking/gait cue may account for why victimization repeats itself. They conclude that people can be trained to change their gait, but the effects seem temporary and over time the natural gait returns, complete with the residual effect of victimization.


A. Book, K. Costello, & J.A. Camilleri (2013)Psychopathy and victim selection: The use of gait as a cue to vulnerability. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Feb. 19, 2013, DOI: 10.1177/0886260512475315. To purchase the article.


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 14th, 2013 at 8:28 am and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Social/Mgmt/Epid Sciences, Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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