This is an incomplete thought experiment. It should go without saying that it isn't rigorous or backed up by anything except 'common sense', whatever that is. In this post I'll examine a scenario by changing variables individually in series. Is there an alternate interpretation of the scenario? Are there variables I haven't considered? 

Putting this complex idea into a succinct form has proven quite difficult. I hope the reader can see wherein I attempted to justify my reasoning.


  • The Person is walking east down an alley after sunset on a chilly evening.  The empty alley is shabby, with some trash and cardboard next to industrial dumpsters. No one else is in sight or can be heard. But then the Person hears a footfall behind them, looks over their shoulder and sees the Man in jeans and hooded sweater, hands concealed by the pockets and face hidden by the hood and the darkness. They both walk east. 

Let us first make an important distinction between what I will call real threat and felt threat. Real threat is when there is an objective reason to believe that some harm is immanent. Felt threat is the subjective emotion of fear, whether because of an objective reason or not. I will try to keep the delineation between the two clear.

Is the scenario threatening? I think that most people, myself included, would experience feelings of threat. The factors that make it threatening seem to be that it is dark, isolated, sudden appearance of a man who is unidentified. Taken together this seems like a classic mugging scenario. We can accept that given this amount of data there is real threat. But how does the assessment of real threat change as additional information is known?

Variable: Time. The longer that the two people walk together without any assault the less that there is reason to believe that there is a real threat. It was the sudden appearance of the man that indicated immanency. As time passes and no aggression occurs the real threat rapidly decreases. The felt threat may very well remain but without rational justification. 

Variable: Distance. There are unspoken (but highly studied) rules of personal space. The 'comfort zone' varies among different people based on diverse factors but the two most influential factors are the population density where the individual lives, and how many people are currently nearby. If the person first hears the sound when the man is 15 meters behind them there is significantly less threat potential than 5 meters. In this situation 1 meter seems to be quite threatening. Threat is more if the Man is overtaking the Person, less if he is falling behind. It is worth noting that if you don't notice someone overtaking you until they are quite close you may become startled and be quite justified in experiencing threat that goes away rapidly as they pass you without incident. 

Variable: Other People. The isolation is what makes it threatening. However, more people might increase threat, up to a point. A person walking opposite direction slightly decreases threat. A person walking same direction decreases threat by a moderate amount. A person walking same direction but behind increases threat additively due to danger of being outnumbered in the event of an assault.

Variable: Location. If the location is unfamiliar, threat would be at maximum. If the area was highly familiar then it would be lower due to higher likelihood of escape or assistance due to local knowledge. 

Variable: Sex. The Person's sex doesn't influence threat directly. Rather, traits that are prevalent to each sex change the level of real threat: primarily size and strength. On average women are smaller and have less upper body strength than men. However similarly proportioned men and women are subject to similar degrees of real threat. Worth noting is that there are martial arts disciplines where smaller size gives a large mechanical advantage.

Variable: Preparedness. Having choices drastically decreases threat. There is no evidence that the Man is armed, but in a threatening situation he must always be assumed to be so. If the Person is unarmed then that puts them at a significant disadvantage, increasing real threat. If the Person has some form of self defense training (even just athletic training), pepper spray, a firearm, or a combination of these things  real threat decreases because of the increased expectation of escape and/or reciprocation of force. 


Perhaps some day we can expect that there be no reason to be rationally threatened in a real sense. It may be that there that time will never come. Until then it is unreasonable to expect to go through life without situations where you experience threat. We are hardwired for fear, and the experience of fear still serves us well today. It makes sense that by reason we can relegate fear into a subservient position.

Of all the factors that influence real threat only preparedness is something that can be controlled by the Person. A responsible person takes the steps necessary to ensure their own safety, survival, and genetic increase. This is empowerment by action. To argue for, or desire a state wherein an individual no longer is responsible for themselves is to move toward more victimization and disenfranchisement.

Individuals should examine carefully the situation that makes them feel threatened. Is the situation objectively threatening? If not, then they should discard or suppress the emotion as the byproduct of the modern remnants of our ancient reptilian brain. 

If the situation is indeed objectively threatening then there are myriad actions that can be taken to reduce the real threat of that situation, about 30 have been illustrated above and these only scratch the surface. With so many options available it isn't reasonable to expect a rescue. Rescue is a pleasant surprise, not a right. 

A properly prepared individual reduces the real threat of the most common situations to zero. Any left over irrational fear is their own responsibility - not the fault of the person they perceive as being threatening. This is what personal responsibility is about.

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Comment by Luara on June 15, 2014 at 12:04pm

similarly proportioned men and women are subject to similar degrees of real threat.

This isn't true.  Women are generally perceived as more vulnerable, less likely to fight back and less likely to hurt the attacker.  They're seen as easy targets.  A lot of women don't fight back if they're raped. 

A woman might be a black belt in karate, or carry a gun, or be a self-defense expert.  But this is mostly not obvious - so even with those protections she is more vulnerable to attack.  Even if she is equipped to fight back, if she's more likely to be attacked, she's more likely to get injured. 

And of course there's rape.  Men are rarely raped outside of prisons.  Women do get raped if they're in such threatening situations as described above.

Comment by Luara on June 15, 2014 at 10:20am

Let's do the same thought experiment and the one who appears is a woman. Do you imagine that you would feel less real threat and felt threat?

Yes, I'm less likely to be attacked by a woman. 

I realize it can still happen - but it's not so likely. 

Comment by Michael Penn on June 15, 2014 at 8:22am

I talked to a man recently that has moved here from St. Louis. He used to be friendly with black people on a personal basis, but claims he is not now, and blacks taking over his area is why he felt threatened and had to move away. I pointed out that he has now arrived at the thinking of most American blacks that are surrounded by white people. I'm not sure if he understood.

The problems here are two fold. (1) Mistrust  (2) Gangs and dope

If you look at it properly these have nothing to do with race or color. It has more to do with a particular situation at a particular time and place. Compare the American situation here to people in other countries and you find a lot of different situations. People cause these. Not people of race or color.

I was in St. Louis yesterday in some of my old neighborhoods, all of which have changed, and a lot of which is not really considered "safe" any longer. I got along fine. The secret is be aware but be yourself. People are people. I no longer live there because I have chosen not to live there in order to have a more simple surrounding today.

Comment by Čenek Sekavec on June 11, 2014 at 9:24am

Exactly Joan. That is why I was careful to state that they were a man.

We have thousands of years of biological and social conditioning screaming at us that women are less threatening. Men generally see women that way because of size difference (if applicable) and social deference, aka the protection instinct. Women see women that way because of automatic own-group preference based on sex. Men don't have that, instead instinctively seeing other men as competitors, ie threats. I'm not sure to what extent we can overcome the sex-based brain wiring. 

So, I'd say that soon after the initial surprise due to the appearance, both real and felt threat would be lower for those and other reasons.

Comment by Joan Denoo on June 11, 2014 at 8:50am

Let's do the same thought experiment and the one who appears is a woman. Do you imagine that you would feel less real threat and felt threat?



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