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Posture and Attack Prevention


Bernd (Bernie) Weiss, Ph.D.

The good news is that not everyone gets assaulted

But that leaves several questions. For example, how does an assailant choose who to pursue, pick on or physically attack? Another, even more important question is: how can you avoid being chosen? Unfortunately, there is no safety pill or perfect system for self-protection. But research shows that your body signals and the psychology behind them are a strong deterrent to attackers. According to Joan Nelson (Self Defense, Steps to Success, 1991), one of the best ways to resist being selected as a victim is to "project an un-victimlike, confident and vigilant demeanor." The Queen's Bench Foundation's 'Project Rape Response' (U.S. Dept. of Justice, 1976) found that "physical appearance or assertive body language" tended to exclude a woman from potential attack.

Criminals themselves tell us they look for people who are looking down. This is such a common attribute of mugging victims that psychologists have labeled it the "downcast demeanor". If a person acts distracted, with behavior such as brooding, staring at the sidewalk, searching through a purse or bag, or reading a map, Joel Kirsch (Los Angeles Police Department Consultant) found he/she were more likely to be attacked. Another cue that assailants seem to notice is head and eye movement. People with exaggerated or furtive eye movements or sweeping side-to-side head movements which may imply fear, preoccupation, or being off guard, are more likely to be assaulted.

In contrast to the downcast demeanor, people of royal heritage are described as holding their chins high. "A lady never bows," is the way one elderly woman described appropriate street behavior from her grandmother's era (about 1870) in Atlanta, Georgia. This is good self defense training for both men and women today.

Typically in upper middle class homes, children are taught to sit and stand up straight because that is correct and appropriate behavior. Slouching or slumping are habits associated with lower status or position in life. Indeed, we call someone a "slouch" when we want to imply that they are awkward, lazy or inept. Likewise, a slumping posture is associated with low energy, poor body coordination, and low self-esteem.

John T. Molloy, of "Dress for Success" fame, has found that "upper-middle-class people walk, stand, sit, and hold their heads at different angles than lower-middle-class people" (Molloy's Live for Success, 1981) They even use and hold their facial muscles differently. Furthermore, his research shows "if you avoid the mannerisms of lower-socioeconomic groups and emulate those of the upper-socioeconomic groups, you will receive better treatment in this world."

In his research, he had men and women in singles bars judge the other people in the bar, including an actor and actress playing different "posture" roles.

The women who judged the "actor" responded very differently depending on whether he stood and walked in a straight, upper-middle-class type posture or had his shoulders hunched in a more lower-middle-class posture. In reality, the young man was 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighed 143 pounds. When he slumped, he lost 7 pounds and 1 inch (to 5'9" and 136 pounds), and was described as "sheepish and ineffective".

When he stood up straight, the women guessed him to be 5 feet 11+ inches and 160 pounds. (He gained 17 pounds and more than an inch in height.) Better yet, the women described him as "virile and manly". On a rating scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest score, a slumped posture for the actor brought him a score of 4; while an erect posture brought a rating of 8. The actress, standing erect in an upper-middle-class posture scored a 9.

Additional support for a straight posture comes from research at the University of Helsinki, Finland, where taller women were found to convey more authority. Likewise research by Pauline Bart (Stopping Rape, 1988) showed that women who were able to avoid being raped by an attacker were more likely to be taller.

Although you can't increase your height, standing with a straight posture can give you a taller appearance. And, overall, Molloy points out that when you have an erect, upper-middle-class body posture, other people, regardless of their background, find you more beautiful, intelligent and competent - all of which are likely to deter an attacker.

In addition to an upright posture, you may want to practice projecting power in order to control a potentially threatening situation. Police officers, for example, are trained to exude an image of power and authority in order to control criminals. Molloy describes the basic authority stance as "almost military in nature: the shoulders squared, the head erect, the jaw muscles tight, the mouth closed and unsmiling, feet planted firmly on the floor and eyes steady."

It's important not to lose your power image when you open you mouth. In general the lower the pitch of your voice, the more power and authority your voice conveys. Molloy suggests that 95 percent of both men and women can increase their image of power and authority by dropping their voices a half to a full octave. This is particularly important in self defense. A fast, high-pitched voice makes you sound fearful, helpless. Using a firm, deep sounding voice on the other hand, brings you into control.

Molloy points out that the "order-giving voices of some of the best women power figures in business are steely, icy, precise and distinct." When you tell a potential attacker, "leave me alone", remember the sound of crisis success and use an order giving tone.

© 1997 Bernd Weiss

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