Fear is a natural human feeling, and how we interpret—and use—it is somewhat dependent on one’s culture. In the west, for instance, fear is often seen as a negative emotion, something we must “overcome.”
But there are other ways to look at fear, and in his book, “The Gift of Fear,” author Gavin De Becker describes fear as an emotion that could actually save your life. “Like every creature, you can know when you are in the presence of danger,” De Becker writes. “You have the gift of a brilliant internal guarding that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.”
On a personal note, I had seen De Becker’s book many times on bookstore shelves, but I had ignored it. I recently, however, heard De Becker on a podcast, and I found his arguments about fear and violence to be very persuasive. First, De Becker argues, fear is the outcome of millions of years of natural selection. It remains a psychological phenomenon that is fine-tuned to help us survive. Second, listening to your inner sensations/intuition is a smart thing to do, as we’ll see in more detail below.
One key idea that De Becker discusses is “pre-incident indicators.” According to the author, “Pre-incident indicators are those detectable factors that occur before the outcome being predicted.” De Becker goes on to say: “Stepping on the first rung of a ladder is a significant pre-incident indicator to reaching the top; stepping on the sixth even more so.”
When it comes to predicting and avoiding violence, using one’s intuition to recognize the pre-incident indicators to violence and save a person’s life. Of course, human behavior varies widely, but—according to De Becker—we can predict another person’s behavior. “Though anthropologists have long focused on the distinctions between people.” De Becker writes, “it is recognizing the sameness that allows us to most accurately predict violence.”
Another important point the author makes: Although violence takes on many forms such as workplace violence, political violence, and interpersonal violence, despite the different landscapes and environments (and motivations) that these ferocious acts take place, it may be possible to predict violence, because the pre-incident indicators remain strikingly similar for most acts of violence.
Ultimately, De Becker wants his audience to use their intuition about people and places that may make them feel uneasy. Of course, we may use statistics, “This is a one in a million chance that ____ will happen,” but De Becker says that that statistic is useless when we are confronted with a violent act. He thinks that it is far better to listen to our intuition about a person or a situation to get out of a potentially harmful situation—and analyze it later—than stay put and risk becoming a victim. Finally, De Becker’s book, though it is more than 20 years old, remains a modern classic on the subject. The advice he provides is applied in nature, and it challenges us to think differently about safety and violence.
De Becker, G. (1997). The Gift of Fear. Dell Publishing, New York, NY.