Gavin de Becker The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence


FOTCM Member
I did a search and didn't find this title in our books discussion and thought it would be a good one to have here and discuss. de Becker has been mentioned in a number of threads but there isn't one devoted to this book exclusively.

Wikipedia has an entry on the book that can introduce it:

The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence is a nonfiction self-help book (1997) written by Gavin de Becker. The book provides strategies to help readers avoid trauma and violence by teaching them various warning signs and precursors to violence.

By finding patterns in stories of violence and abuse, de Becker seeks to highlight the inherent predictability of violence. The book explores various settings where violence may be found—the workplace, the home, the school, dating—and describes what de Becker calls pre-incident indicators (PINS). When properly identified, these PINS can help violence be avoided; when violence is unavoidable, de Becker claims it can usually be predicted and better understood. The Gift of Fear also describes de Becker’s MOSAIC Threat Assessment Systems, which have been employed by various celebrities and government agencies to predict and prevent violence.

PINS (Pre-Incident Indicators)

  • Forced Teaming. This is when a person implies that he has something in common with his chosen victim, acting as if they have a shared predicament when that isn't really true. Speaking in "we" terms is a mark of this, i.e. "We don't need to talk outside... Let's go in."
  • Charm and Niceness. This is being polite and friendly to a chosen victim in order to manipulate him or her by disarming their mistrust.
  • Too many details. If a person is lying they will add excessive details to make themselves sound more credible to their chosen victim.
  • Typecasting. An insult is used to get a chosen victim who would otherwise ignore one to engage in conversation to counteract the insult. For example: "Oh, I bet you're too stuck-up to talk to a guy like me." The tendency is for the chosen victim to want to prove the insult untrue.
  • Loan Sharking. Giving unsolicited help to the chosen victim and anticipating they'll feel obliged to extend some reciprocal openness in return.
  • The Unsolicited Promise. A promise to do (or not do) something when no such promise is asked for; this usually means that such a promise will be broken. For example: an unsolicited, "I promise I'll leave you alone after this," usually means the chosen victim will not be left alone. Similarly, an unsolicited "I promise I won't hurt you" usually means the person intends to hurt their chosen victim.
  • Discounting the Word "No". Refusing to accept rejection.


FOTCM Member
A helpline website has a similar account of the book but with some extras:


Survival Signals

Gavin DeBecker’s goal in writing “The Gift of Fear” was to help readers identify the very real signs of danger their “intuition” is picking up on. De Becker’s argument is that “intuition” is really logic, but processed much faster than conscious reason. He argues that intuition is based on background information we regularly tune out. For example, on an airplane, you will likely notice if the person sitting next to you begins reading over your shoulder. Why is that, de Becker asks? Because we are constantly noticing our environments on a quasi-conscious level, and when something changes we notice that too. Just as we learn to sleep through passing trains and old houses’ creaks but wake up when we hear “a strange noise”, our “intuition” or gut instincts about people is really an amalgamation of what we’ve learned to discern as consistent or “strange” behavior.

De Becker says that intuition:

1) is always in response to something and

2) always has your best interests at heart.

He also acknowledges that trauma can teach people to override it. Many survivors often ask how to recognize warning signs of potentially abusive people. Below is a list of signs inspired by lists from de Becker’s chapter “Survival Signals”.

People seeking to control others almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning… we live in an age of anonymous encounters, and many people have become experts at the art of fast persuasion. Trust, formerly earned through actions, is now purchased with sleight of hand, and sleight of words. ~ Gavin De Becker

Here are several signs someone is trying to con you into trusting them:

1. Forced teaming: An effective way to establish premature trust because a “we’re in the same boat” attitude is hard to rebuff without feeling rude. [Forced teaming] is not about coincidence; it is intentional and directed, and it is one of the most sophisticated manipulations. The detectable signal of forced teaming is the projection of a shared purpose or experience where none exists: “Both of us”; “We’re some team”; “How are we going to handle this?”; “Now we’ve done it,” etc…

2. Charm and niceness: Think of charm as a verb, not a trait… [It] is almost always a directed instrument, which, like rapport building, has motive. To charm is to compel, to control by allure or attraction. If you tell yourself “this person is trying to charm me”, as opposed to “this person is charming,” you’ll be able to see around it. Most often, when you see what’s behind charm, it won’t be sinister, but other times you’ll be glad you looked.

Remember “niceness” is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait.

3. Typecasting: Someone labels you in a slightly critical way, hoping you’ll feel compelled to prove their opinion inaccurate. “You’re probably too good to talk to the likes of me,” a man might say to a woman, and the woman will cast off the mantle of “snob” by talking to him. Typecasting always involves a slight insult, and usually one that is easy to refute. But since it is the response itself the typecaster seeks, the defense is silence, acting as if the words weren’t even spoken.

4. Loan Sharking: The more traditional loan shark gladly lends one amount but cruelly collects much more. Likewise, the predatory criminal generously offers assistance but is always calculating the debt. The defense is to bring two rarely remembered facts into consciousness: [they] approached me, and I didn’t ask for help. (Another example of this is “I paid for dinner/ gave you an expensive or thoughtful gift, so you owe me sex.” Remember, there are certain things you never owe anyone, and your body is included among those. Likewise, your time and attention are yours to share when you want, where you want. You have a right to set boundaries.)

5. The Unsolicited Promise: Always be suspicious of the unsolicited promise. Promises are used to convince us of an intention, but they are not guarantees. Aside from meeting all unsolicited promises with skepticism (whether or not they are about safety), it’s useful to ask yourself: Why does this person need to convince me? Usually you’ll find it’s because they see you doubt them. For example, when someone says “I’m a nice guy! I promise,” say to yourself, “You’re right, I am hesitant about trusting you, and maybe with good reason. Thank you for pointing it out.”

6. Discounting the word “no”: the most universally significant signal of all is someone’s discounting of the word “no”… “No” is a word that must never be negotiated, because the person who chooses not to hear it is trying to control you. (Do not offer justifications or excuses in order to appease your listener, as these offer leeway for them to begin “negotiating” with you/ pressuring you to change your answer. You can’t argue with a simple “no”.) Declining to hear “no” is a signal that someone is either seeking control or refusing to relinquish it. When someone ignores that word, ask yourself: Why is this person seeking to control me? What do they want? It is best to get away from the person altogether, but if that’s not possible you can a) try the “broken record” technique of repeating your “no” until it is accepted or b) dramatically raise your insistence, skipping several levels of politeness. If a male listener reacts badly to your “no”, it is possibly because of what de Becker argues is a (possibly willful) ignorance of the reality of rape culture and disparities of safety: “at core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.”

And a list of de Becker’s “messengers of intuition”:

  • Nagging feelings
  • Persistent thoughts
  • Humor
  • Wonder
  • Anxiety
  • Curiosity
  • Hunches
  • Gut Feelings
  • Doubt
  • Hesitation
  • Doubt
  • Suspicion
  • Apprehension
  • Fear


FOTCM Member
Excerpts from a review:

The Gift of Fear is a brilliantly orchestrated breakdown of violent situations. It is a step-by-step guide from both an outside perspective and often also the surviving victim’s perspective, taking the reading through horrific human experiences as well as the mind and actions of the perpetrators responsible for them.

Gavin lists and gives real examples of the similarities in action, thought, and belief of most criminals as well as the reasons why their ruses are so successful. From victim selection, to manipulation, coercion and downright brute force, patterns exist before violent situations take place and this book highlights them clearly.

Forced Teaming, giving too many details about a situation, using charm and niceness, type casting, loan sharking and making unsolicited promises – all tools of manipulation, become easy to recognize once they have been explained with a clear example. “I know what you’re trying to do to me right now,” is a thought readers of this book will experience far more than those who haven’t gotten their hands on it.

Underlying all of the stories, the statistics, the testimonials, and the expertise is the simple idea we have a far more sophisticated trouble and violence detection system than anyone realizes and the goal of the book is to bring that intuition into the forefront of our minds. Have you ever had a nagging feeling something just wasn’t right as you reached for your front door? You know the knot you get in your stomach every time you’re alone with your boss in the office? These are the feelings The Gift of Fear is imploring you to act upon. These are the true survival signals we are ignoring.

With chapters on stalking, work place violence, attacks on public figures, domestic violence, and many more, the readers are given insight into an expert analysis of each subject – a behind the scenes look, if you will, into areas of life we hope to never have to deal with but will be grateful for truthful information if we do.

The Gift of Fear is more than a page turner, more than a standard guide to self-defense, it is a journey into the world of threat assessment and analysis through the eyes of someone who has lived and breathed nothing but for over 30 years. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, it has been given to every woman of significance in my life and I continue to give copies out regularly. Read it and pass it on, doing so is bound to save somebody’s life.


FOTCM Member
An interesting blog entitled: The Singular Scientist

Which is described as:

This blog discusses some of the challenges scientists and students of science face every day. Although some of the content is focused on women in science and our particular experiences, much of it is relevant to anyone seeking to achieve their full potential in life and work.

At the above link, there is the beginning of a discussion about de Becker's book and experiences with predators within academia/scientific community. Just highlights the fact that predators are everywhere.

In the last post, I described a situation in which a postdoctoral scientist fabricated data, lied about his degree (didn't have one), jeopardized a major research project, and disappeared leaving the PI in a pickle. Although this event actually happened in a lab where I once worked, it is not common. Nonetheless, it's worth examining because it reveals something about how vulnerable we are to people who are unscrupulous.

I suggested that this postdoc was a con artist. He fooled everyone into thinking that he was trustworthy, hardworking, and qualified for the job he was hired to do. How do you spot someone who is skilled at social manipulation? It's not easy, as victims will probably attest. According to Gavin De Becker, a security consultant and author of the book The Gift of Fear, con artists and social manipulators use similar tactics and therefore exhibit similar behavior in their interactions with others.

I think con-artists in science are a lot more common that this lady might think and some disciplines are more vulnerable and/or infiltrated than others.


The Living Force
FOTCM Member
I definitely know a few women who could benefit from this book. Or at least I think they can. I know one who keeps getting taken advantage of on what seems like a weekly basis. When you first hear about it, you feel terrible, and you try to find out what happened and make sure they're ok and give advice and listen. Then you realize sometimes this is a pattern, and while I definitely don't think that anything justifies sexual/psychological/physical violence towards a person, somehow some people have it happen to them like clockwork, while others somehow avoid it.

This is a tricky thing to discuss with people because as soon as you start talking about how someone could be "inviting abuse" people scream that you are trying to rationalize the abusive act itself and blaming the victim. In fact, this whole "rape education" and "empowerment" movement seems to create this mindset - and I think it's a dis-empowering mindset ironically. I see the merits of saying "the abuse/rape/etc is NOT your fault" - but it also makes it so the victim doesn't need to change anything about their patterns of behavior, which doesn't empower or protect or make future incidents any less likely! I think a more effective thing to say is "you did NOT deserve what happened to you" - I think it accomplishes the psychological intention behind the other remark but does not remove the separate need to address what the victim could do differently next time. In other words, it prevents throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Saying "it's not your fault" can play right into the hands of abusers. The abusers don't want their victims do learn to protect themselves and avoid the situations entirely. Instead they want them to go to group therapy and share stories and agree how awful and unfair life can be. Sure, this might get you psychological help, but then you go back and do the SAME THING next time and simply repeat the whole process ad nauseam. Who benefits then?

The woman I have in mind did just that - she got really upset when I tried to suggest that she could do some things differently, or that her actions were increasing the likelihood of abuse. It can be so hard to bypass that mental block, and often no matter how gentle and careful you are to suggest it, it flies back in your face. At some point you just have to give up, as sad as it sounds. You care about a person, you don't want bad things to happen to them, but they won't allow you to suggest that they share the responsibility in any way - so the only thing you have left to offer is sympathy, but how can you be eternally sympathetic towards someone who won't DO something about it? So of course when you stop feeling sympathetic (it becomes more of a frustration), you are accused of being heartless and not caring.

So first I'm blaming the victim and "rationalizing" the abusive act, then I'm also heartless and uncaring because I grow tired of constant "oh another terrible thing happened to me, feel bad for me! Why do people do this to me!" events. That "why" question there is rhetorical, it doesn't really want an answer except "people are bad to you because they're bad people". Which is stupid!

Bringing attention to abusive behavior, psychopathy, etc is important. But it won't FIX anything. You kinda have to take responsibility and do something too. The abusers won't stop abusing just cuz you ask them nicely or talk about them. The only way it stops if you stop letting it happen to you. So maybe this book would help her, if it can bypass her filter of "you can't blame the victim!". I mean if I walk around the jungle with a piece of steak and no weapons can I really say it's not my fault the lion ate me?


The Living Force
FOTCM Member
Sounds like a good one to read. Up until the last couple of years, I've always doubted my intuition regarding people, thinking that I'm jus uber suspicious about everyone for no reason. However, as more and more of these people I know/met have proven to be just what my intuition implied, e.g. manipulative, con artists etc., I've started to trust and listen more closely to my intuition.

Perhaps we don't listen too much to our intuition regarding people, because the truth is too ugly! ;)


The Force is Strong With This One
I read this excellent book years ago & have recommended it to others. As a teen, I babysat for a young mother who told me she had answered her door one day to a man selling apples. When she went to close the door, he stuck his foot out & meant to push his way in. She called loudly for her husband & the man left. She said her husband was not home, but to never let someone know you are alone. I thought that clever til I read this book.

She made the mistake of opening her side door- hidden from the road. She should have asked herself why he did not use the front door. Then, she should have gone out the front door & dealt with him outside where she had options!

It is imperative to listen to our intuition, even if sometimes it proves to have been wrong, no harm done.


Jedi Council Member
Thanks for sharing this, Laura. It sounds like an important book. It almost sounds like a "how to spot a psychopath" manual. Just added it to my Amazon wish list.
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