Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How Criminals Find Their Most Likely Victims

The science of victim selection may help avoid being targeted.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay
Source: Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

We have all heard the unfortunate phrase sometimes used in sexual assault cases, describing a victim as “asking for it.” Having prosecuted sex crimes for over 20 years, I am well aware that even some jurors subscribe to this type of wrong thinking. While no one is asking to be victimized by the way they walk, dress, or behave—criminals reveal they are attuned to all of the above in selecting victims.

What Does a Crime Victim Look Like? Criminals Tell Us What They Look For

Serial killer Ted Bundy admitted in a personal interview in 1985 that “he could tell a victim by the way she walked down the street, the tilt of her head, the manner in which she carried herself, etc . . .” [i] Unfortunately, research corroborates the reality that criminals do in fact look for, or at least notice certain traits when selecting potential victims. While nothing excuses crime, knowledge is power in the sense that there are things we can do to protect ourselves when we are out alone.

In a previous post, I wrote about how some criminals choose victims based upon the way they walk.[ii] Because this is one of the ways criminals perceive vulnerability, we are well-advised to remain alert when we are walking alone, whether during the day or at night. Other research reveals additional personal characteristics and mannerisms that contribute to vulnerability to victimization.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time, Wrong Movements

Some nonverbal cues play into perceived vulnerability. Betty Grayson and Morris I. Stein examined some of them in a study aptly entitled “Attracting Assault.”[iii] They noted that people might be exuding vulnerability to criminals through their posture, gestures, and exaggerated movements.

They discussed videotapes of randomly selected people, both men and women, walking in a high assault area of New York City with a sample of 12 prison inmates convicted of stranger assault, to evaluate victim potential. They then had a separate sample of 53 prison inmates who had been convicted of assaultive-types crimes against strangers, from simple assault to murder, rate the videotaped persons in terms of assault potential.

They found that apparently, non-victims “have an organized quality” about their body movements, appearing to function comfortably. In contrast, the way victims exhibit gestural movements apparently communicates “inconsistency and dissonance.” Regarding synchrony, they describe perceived victims as “non-synchronous or anti-synchronous within themselves.” They explain that as opposed to a scenario where parts of the body are working together in a complementary fashion, such as a in a contralateral walk, potential victims exhibit movement where their body parts seem to “move against each other, as in the non-fluidity of a unilateral body movement or the lifting rather than graceful swinging of the feet.”

Grayson and Stein note that although their prison inmate sample did not consciously base victim selection on specified behaviors, they believe they may have nonetheless perceived such behaviors in identifying potential victims. Related to constructs identified by prior research, they describe victim behavior as actions that are “exaggerations of the norm,” such as “extra-long or short strides, unilateral body movements, and gestural (or outward) arm and leg movements.” They note that such movements constitute unusual, even inappropriate public behaviors.

They suggest that some potential victims might unconsciously transmit vulnerability through what prior researchers have termed “gestural hinting,” which criminals pick up on—likely on an unconscious level. They note this is supported by their own sample, who admitted that “any dude who looked different” was likely to be targeted for assault. Apparently “looking different” referred to a different physical appearance in terms of accessories and clothing. Grayson and Stein explain that this indicates that in addition to potential unconscious awareness of differences in behavior, observable characteristics and methods of “dress and display” may serve as consciously recognizable signs of vulnerability.

Attention Is Prevention

This research suggests the value of situational awareness, and remaining alert and attentive while in public. Proactively taking steps to enhance safety and dissuade criminal activity is an unfortunate but important part of personal safety. Taking the headphones out of our ears and averting our eyes from our phone screens, we will be better able to perceive potential danger, and avoid attracting the attention of opportunistic criminals.

Facebook image: Rommel Canlas/Shutterstock


[i] Ronald M. Holmes and Stephen T. Holmes, Serial Murder (SAGE, 2009), p. 221.


[iii] Grayson, Betty, and Stein, Morris I. 1981. “Attracting Assault: Victim's Nonverbal Cues.” Journal of Communication 31 (1): 68–75.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today