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The Seven-Second Rule: How to Avoid Being an Easy Target

A criminal decides in just seven seconds if you will be their next victim.
Image: A young woman is targeted by a thief
Basic movements we make when walking can either signal our strength or our vulnerability as a potential target.PeopleImages / Getty Images

It takes a criminal just seven seconds to select their next victim.

So how do you avoid being a target? Enter: Steve Kardian, a self-defense expert with 30 years experience in law enforcement as a police officer, detective, chief investigator and FBI defensive tactics instructor. Through his organization, Defend University, he has taught over 200,000 women practical self-defense techniques and strategies to help decrease the chances of being seen as an easy target.

For those of us who can't make it to his classes in person, his new book, The New Superpower for Women, outlines much of what he teaches and more: explaining how to create an actionable blueprint of what to do and reality-based self-defense techniques to react quickly to any scenario, from active shooters, to dangerous parking lots, to running alone in the park.

It can take a seasoned criminal less than seven seconds to size you up. To decide whether you would be easy to rob, assault, kidnap, or whatever else is on his mind. Count to seven now: One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.

In the time from when you started counting to when you finished, a predator would have given you the once-over and decided whether he was moving forward to attack or whether he would be looking at the person walking behind you as his potential target. Yup, that’s how quick it is.

His two biggest fears are getting hurt and getting caught. This knowledge empowers you in case you are picked. Fight back and cause a scene. The predator wants to commit the perfect crime and, in those few seconds, he assesses whether he runs an increased risk of getting hurt or caught by choosing you.

Criminals assess basic movements while walking — like stride length, speed, body weight distribution and arm swing — for signs of vulnerability.

In 1981, sociologists Betty Grayson and Morris I. Stein conducted a now-famous study that cast new light on how assailants picked would-be targets. The researchers set up a video camera on a busy New York sidewalk and taped people walking by for three days, between 10 a.m. and noon.

The tape was later shown to inmates in a large East Coast prison who were incarcerated for violent offenses (such as armed robbery, rape and murder) against people unknown to them. The inmates were instructed to rate the pedestrians on a scale of one to ten, from “a very easy rip-off” to “would avoid it, too big a situation. Too heavy.” This is the basis for the Seven-Second Rule.

Two striking facts stood out.

First, there was a consensus about who would be easy to overpower and control. Every inmate chose exactly the same person. Second, and unexpectedly, the choices were not solely based on gender, race or age, as you would expect. Older, petite females were not automatically singled out. What came as a surprise was that there were other criteria that influenced the decisions. The inmates read the pedestrians’ nonverbal signals and used those to make their choices. Basic movements made by the pedestrians, such as the length of their stride, how they moved their feet, the way they shifted their body weight, and whether their arms swung while walking, came into play and were interpreted for signs of vulnerability.

Since we know what movements and actions signal unease and uncertainty, you can take steps to protect yourself by changing your behavior, including modifying your walking patterns to project yourself as someone who would be difficult to subdue and who would likely cause a scene: in other words, a hard target.

Take the Right Steps to Be a Hard Target

The following illustrations show different styles of walking and I go over some of the key body language signals that are markers of strength or weakness. While you may not be able to consistently control the nonverbal signals you give off, the knowledge of what the criminal is looking for gives you an enormous advantage. You can try to incorporate that knowledge into your daily movements and influence how you are perceived.


The New Superpower for Women; Touchstone Trade Paperback Original

Stride length: Take forceful, dynamic steps that convey assertiveness and confidence. The pedestrians in the study who were categorized as difficult to assault had a medium stride length when compared to their body height. When they walked, it looked effortless and natural.

Foot movement: Swing your feet gracefully forward. The pedestrians who were not selected swung their feet in a fluid motion.

Arm swing: When you walk naturally, your arms are slightly bent at the elbows, and you let them swing back and forth. It’s natural for them to move to counterbalance your leg motion. When your left leg comes forward, the spine goes into a right rotation and the right arm moves forward. And then it repeats on the opposite side. The pedestrians who were not targeted walked with a swing to the arms.

Body weight shift: Walk smoothly, without jerking your body. Have an internal flow to your motion.

Posture: Your posture tells the world a lot about you and is an easy fix. Chin up, spine straight and shoulders back, looking around, taking in your surroundings.

Speed: Walk at the same pace as the foot traffic around you, or slightly faster. This way you won’t draw much attention to yourself or, at most, you will give off the signal that you are more energetic or athletic than everyone else.


The New Superpower for Women by Steve Kardian

Stride length: The illustration above shows an abnormally long stride. Taking a long stride entails reaching out farther with your front foot, making you appear clumsy or ungainly. In a crowd, you will stand out as having a peculiar walk.

Foot movement: As mentioned, this type of stride makes you reach outawkwardly with your foot, almost as if you were making a small leap. All of the pedestrians selected as targets lifted their feet in a manner that was deemed odd.

Arm swing: When you take abnormally long steps, your arms will swing in a correspondingly uncoordinated fashion. They will fly up too high or appear to be flapping around your body. It can look comical and draw unwanted attention.

Body weight shift: With an extra-long stride, your arm swing may not be in sync with your legs, and you may look to be moving in a lumbering fashion as you shift from one leg to the other.

Posture: Be sure to indicate awareness of your surroundings. Don’t give off the appearance of taking long steps, wildly swinging your arms and being oblivious to who is around you.

Speed: Moving at an unnaturally rapid pace can make you stand out and appear nervous or fearful.


The New Superpower for Women by Steve Kardian

Stride length: The illustration above shows a shortened stride length, which can communicate caution or timidity. Almost like baby steps. Imagine a hiker with a twisted ankle, alone, trying to get back to camp before the sun sets. She may shorten her stride to avoid putting weight on the injured leg, sending off a signal of weakness and injury.

Foot movement: Every pedestrian who shuffled or dragged their feet was selected as a target. As were those who lifted their legs up and down and moved their feet in a vertical motion, like you may have done as a kid when you pretended to be marching, lifting your legs up with a bent knee and then down, rather than swinging them forward, feet first. It’s similar to the kind of walk you might have when you wear new heels out for the first time and get blisters. Or you get those areas that are rubbed raw and are on their way to becoming blisters. Ouch. You start taking smaller steps, lifting your feet deliberately, even dragging or shuffling them to avoid the pain. This sends a subtle message that you are vulnerable.

Arm swing: A smaller stride length frequently corresponds with limited arm swinging. If your arms are pressed to your sides, immovable, you look clumsy and awkward. A limited swing is like waving a red flag that you are injured or scared. When you are nervous and afraid, you tense up, limiting your range of motion. Or you might be in pain, again sending the signal that you are fragile or delicate. In general, the shorter your stride length, the less you swing your arms and feet, making you appear to be walking with low energy and sending a signal that you are easier to attack.

Body weight shift: Most of the pedestrians selected by the inmates walked in a jerking fashion, their body weight shifting from side to side or up and down, reflecting an internal lack of synchrony.

Posture: A slumped or hunched posture sends out a message of fear and timidity, of being less likely to fight back. Similarly, walking with your gaze lowered or looking down suggests a lack of awareness, all of which make you an inviting target.

Speed: Moving more slowly than the foot traffic around you sends a signal that you are possibly injured or weakened or simply distracted and not paying attention. Just as with zebras or gazelles on the wild plains, moving more slowly than the herd sends a signal to a predator that you are a soft target.

The New Superpower for Women by Steve Kardian

The Split-Second Glance

As you go about your day, you want to be casually looking around, seeing what types of people are in your vicinity and registering your surrounding environment. This gives your intuition a chance to chime in and takes away any opportunities for a surprise assault.

I suggest giving people a split-second glance so that you have put them on notice that you know they are there. You are talking with your body and telling them, “I see you. If you’re up to no good I know it, and I am not an easy target.” When a predator knows that you have seen him, he may look for another target because the element of surprise is lost.

Remember to Be a STAAR

As you go about your day, remember to:

  • Stride: Take forceful, confident steps with a gait that is neither too short nor too long.
  • Tall: Shoulders back, chin up.
  • Arms: Let them bend naturally at the elbow and swing them as you walk.
  • Awareness: Take a look around as you walk, noticing people and things that might seem out of place.
  • Relax: Above all, stay calm, cool and collected.

It may not be all that difficult to stand up straight, walk with determination and be alert to your surroundings. The challenge is to keep it up for extended periods of time. When your phone pings, signaling that you have a new text, it is very easy to get distracted and forget to monitor the environment. The moment your chin drops and your awareness focuses on your screen, you turn into an easy target.

Excerpted from The New Superpower for Women: Trust Your Intuition, Predict Dangerous Situations and Defend Yourself from the Unthinkable. Touchstone Trade Paperback Original.