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An FBI profiler's guide to avoiding threatening situations. Readable but sometimes dull.

Book Review: Dangerous Instincts by Mary Ellen O’Toole and Alisa Bowman

You have just discovered that the father of one of your child’s friends who has offered to drive the children home from soccer practice is a registered sex offender. A man at your upscale gym is paying you unwanted attentions. A stranger appears at your doorstep asking to use your phone. What should you do? These are just a few of the possibly threatening scenarios used to explain how unsafe situations can be avoided described in retired FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole’s Dangerous Instincts.

Instincts are dangerous, because too often our instincts will point us in the wrong direction. For example, O’Toole points out that most people are too instinctually quick to put their trust in people who are close to them as opposed to strangers when statistics indicate that it is precisely those that are closest to you — spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends — who are most likely to give you problems.

We tend to over-value what we consider normal behavior. So we are surprised when the neighbor with a wife and two kids who keeps his lawn manicured and his SUV sparkling turns out to be a serial killer. We are apt to grab a knife to fight off suspected intruders when it is likely that those intruders may be better equipped to take away that knife and use it against us than we are to use it to defend ourselves.

Instead of reacting instinctively, O’Toole suggests that we follow a process she developed to analyze and evaluate threat levels from people and situations over her years with the FBI. She calls the process “SMART:” an acronym for “sound method of assessing and recognizing trouble.” As acronyms go it is perhaps more clever than useful, since it does little to help us remember the precise steps involved in doing the necessary assessing and recognizing. As acronyms go it’s no HOMES.

In fact what the process seems to involve is recognizing that almost any situation can be threatening on some level, and what you need to do is evaluate the level of that threat and act accordingly. Take notice of low risk situations just in case. Pay more attention to situations you consider medium risk; avoid those you feel are high risk — what some cynics might call common sense.

Now she does give advice about how to decide risk level, but a good deal of that advice that goes beyond basic common sense is probably best left to professionals. Determining if your next door neighbor is a serial killer isn’t work for an amateur, and deciding whether your significant other is lying about cheating on you may not be as easy as it sounds. There are bad liars and there are good liars, and it’s not the bad liars you have to worry about. As O’Toole herself points out, if it was easy to catch liars, how did someone like Bernie Madoff manage to amass his fortune?

Still the fact that evaluating people and situations may be difficult shouldn’t stop us from trying our best. It should, however, make us very careful about how we act based on those evaluations. It should make us seriously consider the possible consequences of our behavior.

As O’Toole points out the stranger at the door may be a threat or it may be someone from down the street trying to warn us that our dog is loose or our house is on fire. The trouble is that while the SMART process can suggest some precautions, it cannot offer absolute protection, and to her credit, O’Toole recognizes this and makes it clear.

In many respects the book reads like an instructional text. Chapters follow the classic textbook structure: I am going to tell you this. I am telling you this. I told you this. It is classic because it works, but it doesn’t always make for sparkling reading. Indeed, the most interesting parts of the book, at least for this reader, were the examples given from her FBI career — her interviews with killers on death row, her critiques of the depiction of profiling on TV shows like Criminal Minds, her discussion of the Green River Killer. Her anecdotes were often compelling, but they were too few and far between.

The book, aiming at a popular audience, never gets overly technical and avoids psychobabble and jargon. I would imagine co-author Alisa Bowman deserves some of the credit for that. It is eminently readable. However, more anecdotes and examples would have made this reader a happier camper.

About Jack Goodstein

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