Let's Not be Afraid to Use Them

I had one of those weird, chaotic dreams again last night—just a bunch of stuff going on, running around everywhere, not really sure where I'm going but sure I need to get there. This was probably because I spent most of my day yesterday rewriting 8 pages. Rewriting 8 pages might not seem like a big deal, but... when you are one-third of the way into a book that has a very specific path and you decide to deviate from that path, you must get back on track somehow. Oh, and the whole things needs to read smoothly. So yeah, it took a while.

On top of that, I'm not much of a notetaker when it comes to writing. Several weeks ago, I wrote out this extensive outline of the book I'm editing, thinking it would be better to have it all pinned on a bulletin board rather than catalogued in my brain. Well, that kind of backfired—the bulletin board eventually stressed me out so much that I ripped it from the wall and tore off all the notes. I still have them, stuffed in an envelope in a desk drawer. Outlines work for some people, but I'm just not that kind of writer. I'm at my best when I keep everything in my head. That's a lot for my brain to juggle, so the occasional crazy dream isn't all that unexpected.

This one, however, veered in a much different direction than is typical.

It was well after dark as I walked through the automatic doors of the strip mall to the semi-lit parking lot. My jacket was unzipped, and I pulled it tight around my waist to shield me from the cold. I couldn't remember where exactly I'd parked my car, but then again, I can never remember where exactly I've parked my car. I was but ten steps out the door when I became conscious of my keys woven through my fingers, my accelerated heartbeat. "You are nobody's victim," I told myself, squaring my shoulders as I stood up straight. I scanned the lot, and while there was no one there, I gripped my keys in my hand as I cautiously made my way to my car.

Perhaps my confidence was enough to satisfy my self-conscious, as that was the end of the dream. My reaction to the situation came from two sources:

  1. It's the way I'd actually act if put in that situation. ["You are nobody's victim" is a common mantra of mine, especially when traveling alone.]
  2. Research I did some time ago linking posture and body language to the likelihood of becoming the victim of a crime.

In attempt to locate the same information today, I stumbled across a number of other articles that struck me as quite interesting...

Posture can signal both the enduring characteristics of a person (character, temperament, etc.), and his or her current emotions and attitudes. Therefore, posture can be considered in the context of a given situation, and independently of it.

"Posture (psychology)" | Wikipedia

You can change the way you feel based on how you hold your body. You can change your brain chemistry, and the actions you take or don't take.

"Change Your Body Posture To Change Your Life" | by Susan Weinschenk Ph.D. | Psychology Today | October 17, 2012

"People assume their confidence is coming from their own thoughts. They don't realize their posture is affecting how much they believe in what they're thinking," [Petty] said. "If they did realize that, posture wouldn't have such an effect."

(I guess an apology is in order for making you self-aware?)


"Sitting up straight is something you can train yourself to do, and it has psychological benefits—as long as you generally have positive thoughts," [Petty] said.

For example, students are often told when taking a multiple-choice test that if they're not absolutely sure of the answer, their first best guess is more often correct.

"If a student is sitting up straight, he may be more likely to believe his first answer. But if he is slumped down, he may change it and end up not performing as well on the test."

"Body Posture Affects Confidence In Your Own Thoughts, Study Finds" | Science Daily | Ohio State University | October 5, 2009

When you take into account how much posture can enhance positive emotions, it's natural to conclude that there must be some equal but opposite impact if negative emotions are similarly reinforced through one's stance. While most people aren't conscious of these cues, they can and do impact someone's likelihood to be the victim of a crime.

Does that mean that simply standing up straight can make you less likely to be picked as a potential victim? Surprisingly, yes. Being aware not only of your posture, but your surroundings as a whole, goes a long way as far as being passed over by a criminal.

But first, it's important to note that "nowhere does victimology imply that people who stand out as easy targets are to blame for becoming victims. Predators bear sole responsibility for the crimes they commit—and should be held accountable and punished accordingly. Moreover, many attacks are random, and no amount of vigilance could deter them. Whether victims are selected randomly or targeted because of specific characteristics, they bear no responsibility for crimes against them. But by being aware of which cues criminals look for, we can reduce the risk of becoming targets ourselves."

"Marked for Mayhem" By Chuck Hustmyre & Jay Dixit | Psychology Today | January 1, 2009

Psychologists have long known that the more psychopathic a person is, the more easily they can identify potential victims. Indeed, they can do so just by watching the way a person moves. In one study, test subjects watched videos of twelve individuals walking, shot from behind, and rated how easily they could be mugged. As it happened, some of the people in the videotapes really had been mugged—and the most psychopathic of the subjects were able to tell which was which.

"How Psychopaths Choose Their Victims" | By Jeff Wise | Psychology Today | Oct. 17, 2010

Women who are the victims of rape tend to be less able than average to interpret nonverbal facial cues—which may render them oblivious to the warning signs of hostile intent and more likely to enter or stay in dangerous situations.

Rapists tend to be more able than average to interpret facial cues, such as a downward gaze or a fearful expression. It's possible this skill makes rapists especially able to spot passive, submissive women. One study even showed that rapists are more empathetic toward women than other criminals—although they have a distinct empathy gap when it comes to their own victims. A highly attuned rapist and a woman who's oblivious to hostile body language make a dangerous combination.

Even personality plays a role. Conventional wisdom holds that women who dress provocatively draw attention and put themselves at risk of sexual assault. But studies show that it is women with passive, submissive personalities who are most likely to be raped—and that they tend to wear body-concealing clothing, such as high necklines, long pants and sleeves, and multiple layers. Predatory men can accurately identify submissive women just by their style of dress and other aspects of appearance. The hallmarks of submissive body language, such as downward gaze and slumped posture, may even be misinterpreted by rapists as flirtation.

— "Marked for Mayhem" By Chuck Hustmyre & Jay Dixit | Psychology Today | January 1, 2009

Victims of rape are often questioned about their appearance at the time of the incident, as if that somehow brought it on. Listen, if some dude can't handle the fact that I'm wearing a skirt, that's not my problem. You're able to control you sex drive, buddy, so don't pretend otherwise. However, if you'd like to know what it feels like to have a Honda Civic key shoved into your eye socket while a bony knee simultaneously mutilates your pelvis, bring it on. I'd be more than happy to oblige.

Grayson, co-author of the classic study on body language and exploitability, believes people can be taught how to walk in a confident way that reduces their risk of assault. To reduce the chances of becoming a victim, you can't look like a victim. "Walk in an alert fashion, walk with purpose, with your shoulders held back," advises Topalli.

Even better, avoid placing yourself in dangerous situations and stay aware of your surroundings at all times. Location is a key factor in street crime, particularly in cases of sexual assault. Criminals prefer sites that are likely to serve up few witnesses and little chance of being caught. Plan routes that avoid such locations.

And while you're at it, don't even talk to strangers on the street in isolated locations. One warning sign that you may be about to be robbed or attacked is the approach of a stranger on the street. The person may try to engage you in conversation. He may ask for the time, directions, bus fare, or try to tell you about a nice club or restaurant just around the corner.

— "Marked for Mayhem" | By Chuck Hustmyre & Jay Dixit | Psychology Today | January 1, 2009

There is school of thought that the brain only exists to control movement. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that how we move can give a lot away. It’s also not surprising that other people are able to read our movements, whether it is in judging whether we will win a music competition, or whether we are bluffing at poker. You see how someone moves before you can see their expression, hear what they are saying or smell them. Movements are the first signs of others’ thoughts, so we’ve evolved to be good (and quick) at reading them.

"How muggers size up your walk" | "Mind Hacks"

I can only write what I know, which means I've trained myself to pay attention to pretty much everything. (Or do I write because I pay attention to everything?) Constant awareness of myself and my environment has its advantages. I read people better than most, and always have a keen understanding of the safety level of any given situation.

But this intense level of awareness can be both overwhelming and exhausting. I can only sustain paying attention to every single little detail of everything that's happening around me for so long before I need a mental break. Sometimes it takes a few days of being alone, writing or painting or whatever, for all the clattering in my thoughts to finally settle down. While some of you might interpret that as duh, obviously, Michelle is crazy, one or two of you might get it. Might get it to the point that I feel sorry for you in a way generally reserved only for myself.

Sometimes I long to be a different person, much more conventional, much less creative. Writing is a sickness that I can't seem to shake, creativity a curse that's mapped its way across my bones. I'd love to live in the black and white of math, the right and wrong of numbers as unforgiving as ignorant loudmouths. I'd love to have this unending churn of thoughts satisfied by an episode of Real House Wives and two generous pours of Moscato. But I'm just not wired that way.

I'm continually amazed by what we as human beings are capable of. Our brains are really strange things when you stop to think about it. We can convince ourselves of anything or nothing given enough evidence. We're not programmed to question, but to believe what other people have told us is truth.

Maybe we have instincts for a reason. Let's not be afraid to use them.