A fun read that takes you into the world of violent crime and offers reasoning or causes behind events that are often reported as coming ‘out of the blue’ or the result of a person ‘just snapping.’ I like being challenged by different views regarding human nature and especially culture. The Gift of Fear did this for me but before I extol it’s insights and value I’ll share a bit of critique on a book I actually quite enjoyed reading.
It gets my gripes for a big reason. No data sources. He endlessly sites statistics about violent crimes and on top of that refers to other expert opinion but offers essentially no way to check his claims. There are a few appendices, but I think they are largely useless and just regurgitate some information shared in the body of the book as well describe the software his company developed to identify future suspects of violent crime. He does share some good resources in there but there are no endnotes! I don’t think any author should just be trusted with the statements they make, unless they are writing fiction ;-). If you are claiming hard data you better back it up so others can find the mistakes you have made and help you correct them (because we all make mistakes and are subject to narrative bias and other flawed thinking). Maybe it is hard to make a NYT bestselling book if you have 100 or so pages of sources and endnotes describing some of the more intricate details that the main body narrative glossed over. I would hope not but that may well be the case and if it is then this book, while valuable, is like many others and was primarily designed to make money. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but his claims drop a degree or two in credibility when sources are omitted and the book is viewed as something more than information for the ‘good of society.’
Now that that is out of the way I can say I enjoyed reading the book. The writing was a change of pace for me since I have been reading books written by academics for a while. The alluring stories and interesting points of view on how people think and intuit danger kept the pages turning. I think there are a few things in the book that as a culture we really need to address.
The biggest wake-up call to me was the expectations of women’s behavior in response to men’s advances. The anecdotes and general descriptions of women being kind to, deferring to, and eventually being taken advantage of by men was really disturbing. The fact that persistent romantic pursuers in real life and as portrayed in movies behave the same as sinister stalkers is alarming. Finally, the reality of a woman responding appropriately to unwanted romantic interests or strange men offering unwanted and likely un-needed ‘help’ being described as bitchy really raises my hackles. Our culture trains men, me included, to take a superior or dominant stance and women to subordinate themselves to that ‘default’ posture. This is a large reason why much violence occurs. We would all be better off if we all earned trust, respect, and relative dominance through actions and not simply via the genitals we were blessed with.
I also appreciated his analysis and strategies for avoiding workplace violence. The few questions and judgements of the responses to those questions Becker provided can prevent troubled individuals from being hired in the first place. Following the hiring advice was excellent firing strategies should an employee need to be removed from the workplace.
The advice on cutting off ties to a lover or any other unwanted pursuer made so much sense. I think most people will get distracted by something or someone else if we simply disengage with them completely and practice sufficient patience in this process. I think this is a non-intuitive insight. Most people feel the need to convince or persuade someone to change their behavior and I don’t’ think that works very often, especially when the person is emotionally connected with another. Logic is the master in the classroom but never ever when emotions are involved.
Lastly I appreciate but remain unconvinced of his characterization that intuition is always protecting us, if we just think about it right. All of his justifications for intuition protecting us were post-hoc. We humans can put together all kinds of stories if we want to, and a person that has been harmed by violence and especially a person like Becker who is invested in making sense of violence is going to want to and therefore will be influenced by narrative bias to put together a logical sequence of information justifying that the intuition was there to begin with and was initiated by a subconscious understanding of a dangerous situation. He may be right but I think our gut feelings often misfire and give us intuitions, even of fear, for no reason at all. Sometimes it is protecting us but I bet often it is not. Even if he is right, really being aware of our real intuitions and not self –manufactured worry is a hard thing to do, even after we have been trained by reading his book.