Flashing $20 bills in a crowd and wearing an expensive watch are well-known beacons to muggers, but a recent study points to a subtler signal: a person’s gait. According to Betty Grayson, a professor of marketing and communication at New York’s Hofstra University, walkers unconsciously telegraph their weakness through their strides.
The study, published in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Communication, explores nonverbal interchange between victim and assailant. Working with 65 convicted assaulters, Grayson showed her subjects videotapes of 60 people she had filmed walking in a crime-ridden area of New York City. The prisoners then rated the pedestrians’ attack potential on a 10point scale, from “easy rip-off” to “would avoid it.”
The most likely targets—women over 40—usually had a stride too long or too short for their over-all build, swung the left arm with the left leg or vice versa (Joe Clark fashion), lifted instead of swung their legs or moved their upper bodies independently of their legs. Nonvictims, predominantly under 40 and male, “had an organized [co-ordinated] quality about their body movements,” notes Grayson.
She offers small comfort to the elderly and handicapped, who can’t change their movements (her prescription for assault-attracting walks is behavior modification). But Esther Greenglass, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, sees no need to panic and suggests that Grayson broaden her research to examine the personality factors that underlie the movement patterns. The older woman, says Greenglass, appears weak and disorganized because “she has lost her sex-object status, has a 50-50 chance of being alone and is among the poorest people in the country.”
Currently looking for funds to expand her research, Grayson makes no farreaching claims for her study. Already, however, she offers police departments a practical application for her findings. If it’s not where people venture but how they walk that determines their fate, decoys in search of muggers need only alter their gaits and wait for the pounce.
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