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Marked for Mayhem

Street criminals are selective about their victims. Unfortunately, many of us unwittingly give off signals that mark us as easy targets.

Midnight in New Orleans. Lisa Z. was walking home from the French Quarter hotel where she works when three men stepped around a corner and stopped in front of her. When she tried to cross the street to get away, the men charged after her. "One guy clotheslined me," she recalls, "then choked me, threw me on the sidewalk, and jammed a chrome, snub-nosed .38 revolver against my cheekbone." Lisa was kicked, robbed, and then told not to move or she'd be shot in the face.

The men who robbed her likely chose Lisa because she unknowingly sent out signals that marked her as a "soft" target. Alone and encumbered by a backpack, she appeared to be a vulnerable person who could be easily controlled. "Some of these guys concentrate on people who are easy to overcome," says Volkan Topalli, a psychologist and criminologist at Georgia State University. "They'll target females, they'll target older people, but they're also looking for cues of weakness or fear."

Criminals, like their victims, come in all varieties, but researchers have found that they don't choose their victims randomly. There's a reason FBI agents begin crime investigations by creating profiles of victims. It's because the identity of victims—particularly if there are several victims with differing characteristics—helps investigators determine whether a criminal is targeting a specific kind of person or choosing victims opportunistically.

In the field of victimology, one of the central concepts is that of the "risk continuum"—there are degrees of risk for a type of crime based on your career, lifestyle, relationships, movements, and even personality, aspects of which are manifest in your behavior and demeanor. Some factors that make people potential victims are obvious—flashing wads of cash, wearing expensive jewelry, walking alone on back streets. Others are subtler, including posture, walking style, even the ability to read facial expressions.

The cues add up to what David Buss terms "exploitability." An evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas, Buss is examining a catalogue of traits that seem to invite some people to exploit others. There's cheatability (cues you can be duped in social exchange), sexual-exploitability (cues you can be sexually manipulated), as well as mugability, robability, killability, stalkability, and even sexual-assaultability. "As adaptations for exploitation evolved, so did defenses to prevent being exploited—wariness toward strangers, cheater-detection sensitivities, and possibly anti-rape defenses," explains Buss. "These defenses, in turn, created selection pressure for additional adaptations for exploitation designed to circumvent victim defenses. This co-evolutionary arms race can continue indefinitely."

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.

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