False Positives

20121129-214128.jpgBy the time my eyes and brain consciously registered his presence, my “Spidey sense” was already on red alert. He’d stepped out from the shadows between two parked cars and headed directly toward where I was standing, in the parking lot next to a grocery store I frequent. He was scruffy-looking, wearing long and slightly dirty khaki shorts, a white T-shirt, and a battered leather jacket with sleeves much too long for his arms.

I turned when I saw him approach, mentally calculating whether I had room to return to my car before he reached me. I didn’t, and so I made a snap decision to stand my ground and let him know, with my body language, that I’d seen him and his approach. Had this proved ineffective, I’d have retreated into the store, but as it turned out that wasn’t necessary. He stared at me as he drew closer, his gaze laser-focused. I met his look with mine, my hands automatically dropping my keys and cell phone into my shoulder bag. I would, I knew, have more options to respond to him if my hands were empty.

I’m not sure which of these actions made the difference, but I could see in his eyes the moment of decision. Muttering a curse under his breath (I couldn’t hear what he said, but have enough deaf friends that I can read lips a little) he veered sharply away from me and back across the parking lot.

Was he intent upon robbing me? Perhaps. A local program for the homeless houses their workforce resource center in the same strip mall, and lately I’ve noticed more people there who show the physiological signs of addiction and mental illness. Or maybe he was after something else. Or maybe it was nothing. I’ll never know, and in my mind that’s a successful outcome too.

When you’re developing diagnostic tests, two statistical numbers are important: The false positive rate measures how many times the test reacts to a condition that’s not present, and the false negative rate measures how often the test misses whatever it’s supposed to be looking for. In a pregnancy test, a false positive is a blue line for a woman who’s not pregnant; a false negative would be a pregnancy that the test fails to detect.

Here’s the thing about safety and awareness, though: False negatives are a whole lot more harmful than false positives. Considering my recent grocery shopping trip, there was little negative impact on anyone from my responding the way I did. Maybe the man was mentally ill or intoxicated, and had no ill will toward me or anyone else. Maybe he even thinks I’m rude or pushy for my non-verbal response. That’s well and good. He can think what he likes, and no harm done.

But suppose he’d really been a predator, and I ignored his approach? If I’d ignored the warning bells my intuition was sounding? Something very bad could have happened.

People often talk about erring on the side of caution, and that’s really what they mean. There’s little to no harm from incorrectly believing a threat is present, but there’s huge potential consequences for incorrectly believing that one isn’t present. When your intuition raises the alarm, you should always take it seriously and respond appropriately. Worst case scenario, you’ll get a chance to practice your responses and some stranger might look askance at you. And that’s okay.

After all, a little embarrassment is a whole lot better than the spectrum of things that could happen if you miss a real predator.

Photo credit: stock.xchng (by jimmi)


  1. Absolutely, but don’t be embarrassed either! The opinion of a stranger is immaterial next to my safety. Always “err on the side of caution.”

    Yes indeed… I am “rude,” pushy and downright inhospitable to anyone who might be any kind of a threat. If it turns out I’m wrong, and it really matters later, I can always change my mind. I might even apologize.

    • You bet. We should never be embarrassed about staying safe. And in any event, a little embarrassment is much lower cost than some of the things that could happen to us if we ignore a threat because we worried about offending someone.

  2. I think part of our goal and philosophy with me and the gals is to have self-defense and prepping be a continual part of our mindset and lifestyle… and your post does a terrific job of illustrating why…

    Apathy… ignorance… willful denial of reality… they cause folks to get lax with their safety and well-being… and you don’t have to be paranoid… just alert and prepared… which you were… even if nothing occurred… it’s like having a spare tire in your vehicle… not because you plan to have a blow-out or flat every day… but for that day when it does happen…

    Dann in Ohio

    • You make an excellent point. If you’re prepared for trouble and nothing happens, you haven’t really lost anything. If something happens and you aren’t prepared, though, the consequences can be enormous.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Yolanda says:

    When my kids were babies this friend of my husband there was some thing about him I did,nt like, he try to tell me what to do with my kids ,i look in his eyes & I told him don,n ever tell me what about my kids agin some thing about this person made me mad ,he would come over & knowing that my husband was not home ,when he would knock on my door I would open it & there he was agin I would slam the door ,he was trying to scare me that made me mad more ,i know being a mom u don,n mess with moms ,later on he did,nt come around I found out he was raping women & he got caught ,i really got piss ” now he is in jail ,he did,nt like me because I held my ground..

    • Yolanda, that “something just doesn’t feel right” sense is one of the best safety tools we have, so kudos to you for trusting and paying attention to it! Gavin de Becker writes that our intuition always has our best interests at heart and when it responds, it’s never responding to nothing. So learning to trust that feeling of unease is hugely important.

      Thanks for reading, and for your comment!

  4. I had a similar experience very early in the morning at a card-lock gas station off the beaten path. It is down by the river where a lot of homeless stay. I was pumping gas when this guy came out of one of the out-houses. He was about 30 yards away. Instead of going back down towards the river, he walked toward the gas pumps. It was the way he walked towards me . . . he “squared” me off. Walking directly toward me. I am a CCW Permit Holder, NRA Shooting Instructor, Hunter Education Instructor and big game hunting guide and outfitter. When my heart rate quickly increased, I stopped what I was doing and squared “him” off. He was now about 15 yards from me. I stood very erect and gave him direct eye contact. I was very close to revealing my firearm. He stopped and said do you know where the paper towels are? I did not respond then he turned to his right and walked back toward where he came from. He knew where the paper was, it was right on the post right by him. Was he going to rob me . . . rape me . . . steel my truck . . . who knows but it didn’t happen. I believe I was code orange at that moment. I am a mentor to many women and young girls and can’t stress enough the importance of being mentally prepared for anything. They need to premeditate situations like this so that when it does happen, they don’t have to “think” about it. Thank you for your awareness and sharing it!

    • I totally agree with you, and I think women’s social conditioning to be “nice” and “helpful” sometimes gets in the way of reacting decisively when we find ourselves in these kinds of situations. Whatever crime that guy was intending, it sounds like you correctly spotted the interview phase, recognized it for what it was, and responded decisively to communicate to the would-be criminal that you weren’t going to be a suitable prey.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Mary Gats and Tats says:

    Living in condition yellow provides you the opportunity to avoid, deter, and de-escalate most situations. Predators pray upon the weak hoping for that one moment he can strike. Being aware of your conditions, your space, your surroundings eliminates his element of surprise. You dont have to be a CCW to be in condition yellow and pre-empt strikes. You only need to have the mindset. Great blog!!

    • You are absolutely correct that you don’t have to have a CCW to be safe. Situational awareness is always my first and best defense, and my firearm is my last resort.

      Thank you so much for reading, and for your comment!


  1. […] to do. And if your actions cause a stranger to think you are rude, so be it. It is better to have a false positive and be alive than be polite and dead. Don’t let social rules and fear stop you from obeying that […]

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