The Least of the Herd: More Thoughts on Target Hardening


I recently read an interesting article in the January/February issue of Psychology Today, entitled “Marked for Mayhem”.  It discusses the soft target, as I have discussed before in previous posts, from the perspective of the criminal mind.  A study was conducted wherein violent criminals were asked to view a video of pedestrians on the street and pick out the individuals they would most likely target.  What was particularly compelling to me was that the criminals consistently picked out the same targets, many did not have a conscious reason for doing so (their intuition?), and they did not just pick on frail women.  They selected people whom they felt were “easy to overcome” for various reasons.  In profiling a victim, researchers found several subtle cues that made people more desirable targets to criminals, which determine their “exploitability.”


The exploiter zeroes in on the non-verbal information.  I’ve heard many times that what we don’t say speaks louder than what we do say, i.e. our actions and body language say the most about us from an outsider’s perspective.  For instance, the exploiter will take note of a person’s gait and the way she carries her whole body.  If she lacks “organized movement and flowing motion”, she might appear less athletic or fit, or even less confident.  The article states: “people who drag their feet, shuffle along, or exhibit other unusual gaits are targeted more often than people who walk fast and fluidly.”  This makes me glad my mother always harped on me to pick up my feet when I walk.  The exploiter, or the predatory wolf, as we sometimes call him, scans the herd for the slow sheep.  It reminds me of the BBC series Planet Earth, and seeing a pack of wolves in action.  They are patient and calculating, and surreptitiously circle to locate the least of the herd.  Body language is all they have to work with to find a suitable target, and they seek to gather this information without spooking the entire herd.  Wolves, just like human predators, are looking to increase their odds of success before engaging prey, and to expend the least amount of energy in taking it down.  This makes good common sense.  Hard targets, unless the wolf is completely desperate, are not generally regarded as worthy of his time and effort.


Besides walking style, other subtle cues included distraction and clothing choice.  If a person is busy on a cell phone, fumbling with keys, listening to an MP3 player, or otherwise engrossed in something apart from his or her surroundings, he or she is a softer target.  Interestingly enough, a woman who wears a lot of “body-concealing clothing, such as high necklines, long pants and sleeves, and multiple layers” is likely to appear as having a submissive personality to a would-be rapist. 


There was such good information in this article, and I encourage you to read it (get your local librarian to help you find it through a library database) if you can.  It had other interesting insights, but I want to pull out the essence that can be applied to target hardening.  Let’s focus not on the what-not-to-do’s and focus on the to-do’s:


  • Carry yourself with good posture and with purpose.


  • Be alert.  Condition Yellow–360° awareness at all times.


  • Engage yourself in electronic devices, reading materials, or even the task of finding your keys, while you are in more secure locations.


  • Minimize your risk by developing a pack mentality.  Move with the herd whenever you can.  Avoid isolation in unlit or deserted areas.  If you cannot avoid these areas, move quickly and purposefully to your destination.


  • Avoid flashing cash or expensive items around in public.  Some criminals with a chip on their shoulder will try to knock you down a few notches in order to, in their minds, even the playing field.


  • Make it a habit, if you can, to expand your understanding of body language and subtle facial cues.  I don’t think this is emphasized enough when people are learning self-defense/self-protection.  I’ve read that some people have a very hard time properly processing non-verbal information in their brains, while others have an innate sense about it from early childhood.  I truly believe most of us can gain some proficiency with practice and attention.


  • Avoid conversation with strangers on the street, especially if you are alone.  I was accosted the other night while leaving Wal-Mart.  The guy was persistent, but I was more persistent in my stride and my verbal language.  He yelled out as I climbed into my car, “You must be from New York!”  I don’t know what his intentions were, and I did not hang around to find out.


At times, the wolf will be desperate and pick the harder target.  As people who take full responsibility for our lives, our mental and physical training will come into play here.  Keep in mind this is not the predator’s natural tendency.  More importantly, if he picks you, you are not at fault in some way; despite his constricted view of the world, he is fully responsible for his criminal actions against you.  I have to mention here that I found a disturbing recommendation at the end of the article: cooperate if you are targeted because “they’re not going to hurt you unless they need to.”  This is a dangerous blanket statement that I cannot endorse.  The article details the dangers of being submissive, then it encourages people to be submissive.  I was left thinking, “Huh?”  While it might possibly be in someone’s best interest to give up a wallet or jewelry during an armed robbery, it would not be in a woman’s best interest to comply with an armed adversary in moving to another remote location.  Context will dictate the appropriate response.  In addition, we cannot know his full exploitive intentions.  It may be in my best interest to run.  Let him try to shoot a moving target.  Better yet, let him try to tangle with an angry wolverine.  I don’t believe in being a hard target to a point.  I will let intuition be my guide on my response, but I am determined to win that confrontation.  I make that decision NOW.  I encourage you to make your own decisions in advance to influence the outcome in YOUR favor.




Hustmyre, Chuck, & Dixit, Jay.  (2009, January/February).  Marked for Mayhem.  Psychology Today, 42(1), 80.


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