Criminals Don’t Think Like You

I was listening to the latest of Ben Branam’s Modern Self-Protection podcast today, and wanted to underline something Ben talks about that’s important to understanding how to respond to a violent attack: The criminals don’t think the way you do.

When we try to imagine what a criminal will do, and how we can respond to it, it’s only natural to think about what we would do in a similar situation. People tell us “talk about yourself to make the criminal empathize with you”, or “give him what we wants and he won’t hurt you.” I’ve heard some people tell rape victims to urinate or vomit on their attackers. These seem like natural suggestions on the surface. After all, we don’t deliberately hurt people we care about. We don’t deliberately hurt people who give us what we want. We find throwing up a turn-off. If that’s how we would feel, that’s how the criminal would feel too. Right?

Wrong. What would work on us if we were criminals doesn’t work on actual criminals, because actual criminals don’t think the way we do. This is the gap between “the reality of violence” and “the fantasy of violence” that Rory Miller talks about, and wrapping our heads around it is hugely important if we want to stay safe.

Here’s the problem: If someone is prepared to commit a violent crime against you, he’s ALREADY made the leap from seeing you as a person to seeing you as a thing.

If he’s a garden-variety thief, the kind of person whose livelihood comes from stealing, all you are to him is the obstacle standing between him and the $500 in your wallet, or between you and the car, or between you and the flat screen TV. Just as we all overcome challenges at work, you are a challenge to HIS successful completion of his day’s work. For this type of criminal, compliance might be good enough. After all, if all he wants is your truck and cash, and you give him the truck and cash, there’s little incentive for him to turn an armed robbery into an assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder, or murder. In fact, there is an incentive for him not to – but more about that later.

The trouble is that many property crimes are not committed by this kind of rational, calculating thief. The Department of Justice estimates that as many as 80% of arrested criminals are drug abusers, and almost 20% of crimes are committed specifically to get money to buy drugs. The problem is, drug abusers are profoundly fear-motivated. They literally believe that they will die without that next fix of whatever they’re addicted to. So what happens when you are all that they think stands between them and death? The fact that they (probably) won’t actually die without that fix isn’t material. They believe that they will, and that belief gives rise to profound desperation.

Trying to foster empathy, or offering submission, aren’t going to work with the “process predators” of the world. These are the people who are committing crimes because they thrive on submission and helplessness. They’re the rapists, the murderers, the serial killers. For them, dehumanizing you is part of the game, and the likeliest outcome of telling them about yourself in an attempt to “make them see you as a person” is to give them ammunition for further psychological abuse.

So, if these pieces of conventional wisdom don’t work to keep you safe, what does work? What do these criminals fear? As Ben points out, they fear being killed and they fear going to jail. And, really, they don’t even fear jail so much, because most of them figure they’ll be long gone by the time police arrive and the odds of apprehension are low. Criminals don’t fear having guns pointed at them – in their world, cops and other criminals do that all the time, and besides, they figure you won’t have the guts to pull the trigger. But they do fear harm to themselves. THEY don’t want to become the helpless victims.

What should you do when confronted with a violent predator, then? Ben urges his listeners to remember two key things: The criminal is a cornered animal with nothing to lose, and it’s up to you to make him see that he has something to lose. There’s no way you’ll ever do that with passive submission.

Photo credit: saavem | stock.xchng


  1. Very true and very good advice.

    Just a few things to add…

    The average aggressive criminal is also not that bright… not a rational thinker, not usually able to think in abstract terms at all. The here and now is their whole world. You can’t appeal to their better nature because, at least right then, they don’t have one and couldn’t connect with it if they did.

    All but the most demented, psychotic or drugged criminals will, however, respond to a real and immediate threat to their own lives. They don’t want to be hurt or risk death, and will break off an attack to go find an easier victim if given a chance to do so. Often that happens BEFORE the initiation of the attack, and we’ve discussed this a lot earlier… situational awareness, self confidence, not appearing to be an easy victim.

    The really dangerous ones are those who have lost this fear, or even are courting death. Suicide by cop is not uncommon, but suicide by self defender isn’t out of the question either.

    Bottom line is that you must be prepared to do whatever you need to do to prevent the attacker from success. If that means two rounds to center mass and one to the head… so be it. Bad as that would be for US, the alternative doesn’t bear much consideration.

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