Blame the victim fallacies

Victims have a certain way of walking, and psychopaths can spot it. That’s the conclusion two bloggers for Psychology Today reached, based on a scientific study released last year.

The study, Psychopathic traits and perceptions of victim vulnerability, was authored by Sarah Wheeler, Angela Book and Kimberly Costello of Brock University. The abstract states:

The purpose of this study was to determine whether individuals scoring higher on psychopathic traits would be better able to judge vulnerability to victimization after viewing short clips of targets walking. Participants provided a vulnerability estimate for each target and completed the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale: Version III (SRP-III). Higher SRP-III scores were associated with greater accuracy in assessing targets’ vulnerability to victimization.

Psychology Today blogger Marisa Mauro, Psy.D., explained the study further. A group of male university students were asked to watch video clips of 12 people walking. The videos were shot from behind, and the students were asked to rate the ease at which each could be mugged. Several of the individuals had, in fact, been victimized. The students who scored high in psychopathic traits were better at picking out the people who had already been mugged.

Mauro works as a prison psychologist. Based on her experience and this study, she wrote:

Certain personal characteristics are associated with tendency to be on the receiving end of bullying such as harassment and manipulation. I have found that the demonstration of confidence through body language, speech and affective expression, for example, provides some protection.


Another Psychology Today blogger, Jeff Wise, also commented on the study and what it says about victims. Wise wrote that he recently came across a guy who seemed to have the traits of a psychopath. The man was charming, good-looking, athletic, financially successful—and he left a trail of destruction in his wake. His victims sounded like wallflowers. Wise wrote:

The women who wound up on the receiving end of his attentions were individuals who, in their own description, were not very worldly, experienced, or outgoing. They were psychologically vulnerable and hence ill-equipped to either resist this fellow’s predations or to deal with them emotionally after they had occurred.

Wise concluded that, “people who are on the receiving end of crime often do mark themselves out, if only subliminally.” Mauro suggested that people can decrease perceived vulnerability by projecting dominance—more eye contact, less movement of the hands and feet.

If only it were that easy.

Traits of targeted women

The research both bloggers quoted described a particular situation—people walking down the street, and how vulnerable they might be to being mugged. It should not be generalized to describe all victims of psychopaths. After all, how many of us were involved with muggers?

Consider the research by Dr. Liane Leedom on women who were targeted by psychopaths. She found that they have three traits in common:

  • Extraverts. The women are outgoing, competitive, strong-willed and liked excitement. Sometimes they are free-spirited.
  • Cooperative. They are high in empathy, tolerance and compassion. They value getting along with others, and are willing to compromise their own interests for the larger picture.
  • Invested in relationships. They like being around people. They are sentimental and focus on special moments.

Dr. Leedom’s research relates to women. But I’ve heard from many Lovefraud readers, both men and women, who were successful, take-charge individuals—until they met the psychopath.

Personally, I don’t think anyone who watched me walk down the street would tag me as timid or vulnerable. I’m an athlete, and my stride is confident. But I was victimized by a psychopath, who took $227,000 from me, and cheated on me incessantly. And the guy started setting his hooks via e-mail, before he ever saw me walk.

Maybe projecting dominance would work to avoid muggers. But it’s not going to stop victimization by a card-carrying psychopath intent on finding a resourceful new supply.

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