The gift of fear

Sonnie Bailey

18 January 2019

(To a large extent, this blog is oriented towards money. But when I talk about “wealth” and “risk” it’s important to think in much broader terms. Wealth is not just about money. And managing risk isn’t just about managing financial risks. It’s about embracing and addressing uncertainty and managing the many different types of risks to which we’re exposed – rather than sticking our heads in the sand. In this article, I talk about the risk of physical violence.)

I read a lot of books, and it’s rare for a book to stick with me for a really long time.

The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker is one of those books.

I first came across The Gift of Fear after listening to de Becker speak with Sam Harris on The Waking Up podcast. After listening to the conversation, I bought the book right away.

The book is about how to protect yourself from violence (not to mention how to educate your loved ones about avoiding violence). But more broadly, it’s about human nature. It can open your eyes to techniques of social engineering that people use in all sorts of contexts. It’s also one of the more thoughtful books about prediction that I’ve come across.

In this article, I’ll quote the book extensively. But it’s only a snapshot of what the book is about. I encourage you to buy it and read it.

Some tips on safety

I’m a fairly athletic, 189cm tall, white male. I’ve had a few scary moments in my life, but it’s a rare experience for me. De Becker opened my eyes to how other people – especially women – can experience the world in a completely different way.

The world is, objectively, a more dangerous place for some people than others.

The number one theme of this book is that, regardless of who you are, you need to take control of your own safety. De Becker explains that “your safety is yours. It is not the responsibility of the police, the government, industry, the apartment building manager, or the security company”.

(Having said this, the book has a section explaining why employers need to reference check their employees. The role of a reference check isn’t to qualify good applicants. The goal is to disqualify bad applicants – and especially people who might cause other employees harm. He says that “Checking references and checking with former employers is an absolutely critical duty of every employer”. In New Zealand, where health and safety obligations are increasingly important, this should be at the forefront of employer’s minds.)

Where possible, De Becker exhorts you to “[a]void being in the presence of someone who might do you harm”.

As the title of the book suggests, he also says fear is a gift. You should learn to distinguish between worry or anxiety (which is often based on uncertainty) and fear (which relates to specific danger), and learn to listen and trust your intuition. “The intuitive signal of the highest order, the one with the greatest urgency, is fear”.

Predicting the future

I’m generally sceptical of people who say they can predict the future. And De Becker doesn’t go as far as saying he can tell what will happen or who will be a threat to someone in 10 years’ time.

But as a security professional who works with celebrities and Government agencies, he has to be able to work out who poses a serious and immediate risk to his clients.

De Becker addresses “the popular myth that predicting human behaviour isn’t possible”. He notes that “randomness and lack of warning are the attributes of human violence we fear most, but you now know that human violence is rarely random and rarely without warning“.

In this context, he talks about “pre-incident indicators”, or “detectable factors that occur before the outcome being predicted”. He goes further, by saying that “[p]rediction moves from a science to an art when you realise that pre-incident indicators are actually part of the incident“.

In short, “people don’t just ‘snap.’ There is a process as observable, and often as predictable, as water coming to a boil.”

Don’t be a victim of social engineering techniques

The book talks a lot about techniques that violent people sometimes use to gain the trust of their victims. Learning about these techniques might make you less vulnerable to them.

De Becker makes some interesting observations. For example, he states that “Generally speaking, rapport-building has a far better reputation than it deserves. It is perceived as admirable when in fact it is almost always done for self-serving reasons.”

He says charm “is another overrated ability. Note that I called it an ability, not an inherent feature of one’s personality. Charm is almost always a directed instrument”. Instead of thinking of “charm” as a trait, we should think of it as a verb: “If you consciously tell yourself, ‘This person is trying to charm me’ as opposed to, ‘This person is charming’, you’ll be able to see around it.”

One of the phrases in the book that has burnt itself into my brain is that “niceness does not equal goodness“. De Becker says that “‘He was so nice’ is a comment I often hear from people describing them an who, moments or months after his niceness, attacked them.”

Specific techniques to be aware of

The book lists a number of specific social engineering techniques that dangerous people often use.

(Interestingly, I’ve read about many of these things in other contexts – as persuasive techniques for the reader to apply. In this sense, reading the book was a funny experience. It reminds me of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, which was both an exposé of how certain businesses operated, but also gave a pretty good overview of how other businesses could operate in that same way.)

Some of these social engineering techniques include:

  • Forced teaming – establishing a “we’re-in-the-same-boat attitude”.
  • Using too many details. When people want to deceive you, they’ll often use too many details. When they’re telling the truth, “they don’t feel the need for additional support in the form of details”.
  • Typecasting – labelling someone “in some slightly critical way, hoping the other person will feel compelled to prove that [the] opinion is not accurate”.
  • Loan-sharking – doing something uninvited, so you feel like you owe them something.
  • Unsolicited promises. “The unsolicited promise is one of the most reliable signals because it is nearly always of questionable motive”. “Always, in every context, be suspicious of the unsolicited promise.” De Becker explains that promises “are not guarantees”.

Don’t be selected as a victim

As much as anything, don’t be selected as a victim. This goes back to my initial comment, that we should “[a]void being in the presence of someone who might do you harm”.

Criminals go through a “process of victim selection, which [de Becker calls] ‘the interview'”.

One practical way of not being selected as a victim is by selecting who helps you in an ambiguous situation. Instead of waiting for someone to volunteer to help, you should proactively ask someone for assistance.

Although most people who volunteer to help are good people, there is a subset of people who will volunteer to help because they may want to exploit your vulnerability. It’s more likely you’ll get someone like this if you wait for people to help you.

Preventing (or dealing with) stalking

De Becker provides some sound advice for women who are being stalked or want to avoid being stalked.

Noting that “At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them”, he stresses:

  • “‘No’ is a word that must never be negotiated”.
  • “Conditional rejections are not rejections – they are a discussion.”
  • “Once a woman has made the decision that she doesn’t want a relationship with a particular man, it needs to be said one time, explicitly. Almost any contact after that rejection will be seen as negotiation.”
  • “Men who cannot let go / Choose women who cannot say no.”

He also notes that women who are being stalked shouldn’t change their phone number. Instead, they should get a second phone number, so that the stalker doesn’t seek out their new number.


The Gift of Fear is a fascinating book. Gavin de Becker distils a lot of the wisdom he has earned in his years as a top-tier security professional. It’s a meditation on human nature and predicting the future, among other things.

But it’s not just interesting. It has valuable information.

When I talk about “wealth and risk”, I don’t speak in narrow terms. Risks aren’t just financial. The world is pretty safe, but the risk of being subject to violence is real, and it’s a risk that we can manage with the help of excellent resources like this book.

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