How To Read People Like an FBI Profiler
What do you make of a neighbor who’s married, has kids, dresses in a suit daily, rarely misses a day of work, has a well-groomed lawn and a tidy home, is friendly and polite, always asks about your day and your children, and even shovels your snow when you’re out of town? Most people would think this is the best neighbor on the block.
So you may be surprised to learn that this very neighbor “was a sexual sadist who was using a small trailer in this backyard as a torture chamber,” write Mary Ellen O’Toole and Alisa Bowman in their book Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Instincts Betray Us. O’Toole, a retired FBI profiler, worked the case and interviewed the 60-year-old park ranger David Parker Ray, who appeared charming and even seemed to admire women. As it turned out, he’d been torturing women in his backyard for years, and none of his neighbors ever suspected him to be anything but a “regular guy.”
When we try to determine whether someone is a good person or a potential threat, we tend to focus on superficial qualities that actually don’t tell us much about the individual. We assume that people who go to work every day, have a family and a well-kept home are normal—and we give them a lot of credibility, O’Toole said.
We also assume that our bodies will warn us when we’re around someone dangerous. We’ll experience the sensations of fear and know to stay away. But as O’Toole said, dangerous people have a way of making us feel very comfortable. For instance, they’re friendly and courteous and make good eye contact. When O’Toole first saw David Parker Ray, he took her hand and told her how nice it was to meet her. He also was polite and well-mannered. Even O’Toole, who’s worked on the most notorious criminal cases, had to keep reminding herself of his heinous crimes.
What also complicates our ability to read people accurately is that many of us aren’t good listeners. The best way to tell if someone is dangerous is by observing their behavior, O’Toole said. That’s what FBI profilers do. “In order to be a good reader of behavior, you have to watch and listen,” O’Toole said. But if you’re too busy talking the whole time, you may miss key pieces of information.
We also tend to admire and even get intimidated by people in certain professions and positions, which additionally hampers our judgment. O’Toole calls this “icon-intimidation.” We automatically give people a pass if they’re a religious figure, police officer or military person. We assign admirable qualities to them without much thought. We assume they’re intelligent, courageous, compassionate and thereby harmless.
O’Toole gave the example of a recent case in Washington D.C. The area offers a free carpooling service called Slugging, where people give strangers a ride into the city. Last year two commuters got into a pricey car with a retired high-ranking military officer. After they got in, he started driving 90 mph. The people were terrified and insisted on being let out of the car. Once out, one of the people tried to take a picture of his license plate. He tried to run them over.
When reading others, people also “are clouded by their own emotional state,” O’Toole said. Being depressed or just losing a loved one puts you in a vulnerable state when someone offers to do something nice for you, she said.