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Strange encounters

Raj Persaud
BSc MSc MB BS MPhil FRCPsych
Consultant Psychiatrist  The Maudsley Hospital London
Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry

Complete strangers occasionally approach us to ask for directions or the time. Often the inquiry is entirely innocent, but on certain occasions there may be a covert motive - to engage us in conversation, or perhaps even to lure us into bed! Sometimes interactions with strangers may be much more sinister, a mugging or a sexual assault.
Given our crowded streets, any one of us could be picked at random. Is there something about us that invites sexual advances, friendly inquiries or even personal crime? Do some of us walk around with a "victim" stamp on our forehead, which attracts trouble from complete strangers?
New psychological research from Kikue Sakaguchi and Toshikazu Hasegawa at the Department of Life Sciences in the University of Tokyo, Japan, suggests exactly that. Whether we are aware of it or not, we send out messages which strangers then judge as "victimisable" or "approachable". Good evidence shows that complete strangers can form reasonably accurate impressions of each other from just a brief video clip - lasting less than one minute. It follows that signals, which "leak" our personality, predict how and whether others approach us for a particular purpose.
The latest research by the Japanese team focuses on the kinds of unexpected sexual advances that are experienced most frequently by young women. Sakaguchi and Hasegawa wondered whether women with more liberal and casual attitudes to sex might consciously or unconsciously send out signals to men who then approach them for sex. They theorised that if after brief observation, men could distinguish between women with restrained or liberal attitudes to sex, selecting a women to approach for "quick sexual access" (as the authors put it) should have evolutionary adaptive significance. These men would be more likely to pass on their genes to future generations.
Previous research has found that men can accurately evaluate an unacquainted woman's openness to casual sex by viewing a one-minute video clip of her being interviewed by an attractive male confederate.
"Extraversion" and "openness to experience" are said to be the personality traits that men use to judge openness to sex and predict how likely their approach is to be rebuffed. The Japanese scientists say that men can easily evaluate such personality traits after only brief observation. But they point out that such traits are very different from the personality traits better known to predict the likelihood of sexual assault. "Victim" traits consist of low self-esteem and low social dominance or sociability; in other words, what is described as a "troubled mentality" and poor "self-protection".
 Even more fascinating is that Sakaguchi and Hasegawaa say the very way you move or walk could reveal your social dominance or how troubled you are. Research has established that our natural gait lets others know how easy we would be to victimise. Characteristics such as awkwardness, poor coordination and a slow pace make us appear less confident and easier to attack.
 Sakaguchi and Hasegawaa confirm that young men, upon viewing a brief "point-light display" of gait, consisting of a series of lights representing joints and a pair of walking feet, can distinguish between neurotic and extraverted walkers. In other words, just a simple line illustration of your walk allows others to assess how neurotic and easily "victimisable" you are. Chances of being approached remain consistent throughout a person's lifespan, either for sexual advances or assault, says the team. Therefore it may be true that our personality "leaks" information that strangers then use to decide whether to target us for various intentions.
How you move when walking down a street or on entering a room appears to register with others in surprising ways. If you find yourself frequently at the wrong end of aggression from others, you may need to ask yourself some uncomfortable questions about the way you come across. Do you send out messages, albeit unconsciously, which lead others to victimise you? This may not be victimisation to the extent of assault, but perhaps pushiness from colleagues or clients. At no point is this theory an attempt to blame the victim at the receiving end of criminal activity - it's to question why some of us get selected over and over again for the same reasons.
Perhaps merely behaving in a more confident manner might begin to change the way others perceive you. But first you must consider what impression you want to give out. It could be that a lot of what you don't like about the way others treat you starts very close to home.

Sakaguchi K, Hasegawa T. Personality correlates with frequency of being targeted for unexpected advances by strangers.
J Appl Soc Psychol 2007;37:948-68.