How You Walk Can Increase Your Risk Of Being Mugged: A Confident Stride Makes A Big Difference

By Ben Wolford on November 7, 2013 5:39 PM EST

Research has shown that the way you walk can increase your chances of being mugged.
Research has shown that the way you walk can increase your chances of being mugged.

Believe it or not, there's a body of research out there about ways not to get mugged. If you want to avoid being mugged in the first place, self-defense classes won't help you; it's all about your swagger.

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The BBC took a look at the science of victim selection this week, so we decided to explore the research a little further. As you might expect, getting mugged by a stranger isn't completely random. The crooks look for signs of weakness — research shows, for example, that old ladies are the top targets. But ultimately, there are steps (literally) people can take to reduce their chances.

In the winter 1981 issue of Journal of Communication, two researchers from Hofstra and New York universities set out to determine whether there were movements or behaviors that scientifically increased a person's likelihood of being robbed. So they set up video cameras "in one of the highest assault areas in New York City" and filmed people walking over the course of three mornings.

Then they showed those tapes to violent prisoners and asked them to rate the people in the videos on a scale of "a very easy rip-off" to "would avoid it, too big a situation; too heavy." Not surprisingly, criminals said they'd go after old women, old men, young women and young men, in that order. The scientists concluded that the way they walked — their stride length, upper body movement, lean, weight shift, tempo — gave would-be attackers clues about how vulnerable they were. But there were just too many variables to prove it outright. Their dress, appearence and the context might have influenced the prisoners' choices.

So in the 2000s Lucy Johnston, a British social scientist, and some colleagues began examining the topic. They used new technology, the point light walker (go ahead, play with it for a while), to isolate the gait. Then they did the same thing: asking volunteers, not prisoners this time, who was more vulnerable. The results were similar.

Since then, there have been various other studies on walking and vulnerability. In 2006, two scientists wrote in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior that "slow walkers with a short stride length" were more likely targets for random sexual assault. "Fashionably groomed and physically attractive walkers" were also more often victims in the study.

Scientists writing in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence this year took the research a step further by asking whether psychopaths are better at identifying vulnerability than average criminals or non-criminals. After talking with 47 inmates, they determined that, yes, the people who were more psychopathic had a sharper eye for people who walked scientifically more vulnerably.

So what does it mean for you when you're walking home late at night? Well, not a whole lot. It turns out people can intuitively walk less vulnerably, and we do it when we're aware of a greater risk. But as Johnston points out in her chapter of Kerri Johnson and Maggie Shiffrar's book People Watching, that doesn't make you less vulnerable relative to others. In other words, the old lady is still an old lady. Moreover, it's really tough to act tough, convincingly.

Nonetheless, here's how the least vulnerable people walk, according to Johnston: They take long strides relative to their height, turn their pelvis with each step, move their whole body, swing not lift their feet, show a range of arm movement, have high energy and low constraint. Oh, and walk fast. Doesn't hurt to weigh a little more, either. Got it?

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