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Book Review - Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us

This book review is a special post for readers from Elise Cooper:

Dangerous Instincts, written by former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole, Ph.D., with Alisa Bowman, is about how gut instincts can be inaccurate. The reader will understand how to deal with potentially dangerous people more effectively.

O’Toole emphasizes how people should not rely on their instincts. She commented to, “Think about it.  You are depending on something you can’t identify, quantify, improve, and measure; yet, we say we are confident to rely on it.”  Instead, she encourages people to use the “SMART method.” O'Toole developed and used this at the FBI, to help people confidently respond to a threat in most situations.  SMART stands for sound method of assessing and recognizing trouble.

Most people know someone who has been attacked, deceived, or abused both emotionally and physically. Many times this happens because the warning signs were missed. Do you really know everything about your good friend or partner? Think about it, how well do you know someone since more than likely you have not been around them all their life. She noted, “We bring people into our lives and homes, trust them with our children; yet, base the decisions on whether they have a good job, wear nice clothes, are volunteers, or are from a good family.  We allow people to work their way into our life on an emotional level.”

In the book O’Toole teaches how to read people, make better life changing decisions, including making sure those decisions are good ones, and what possible behaviors might mean trouble: injustice collectors, those with anger management problems, and how someone reacts to criticism. She wants the reader to understand that “it’s not ‘I didn’t see it coming,’ but more that you didn’t know what to look for.  A human response is that most people will look the other way and not take action. Many times people will ignore it, explain it away, rationalize it, or normalize it.”  (Penn State Coach Jerry Sandusky comes to mind.)

She cites an example in the book where your child wants to go to a sleepover but you do not know much about the family.  Many parents would allow their child to go thinking what harm can be done.  O’Toole differs and explains in the book that you need to find out how the family feels about drugs, alcohol, and who they let come into their house. Get to know the behavior of the parents first.
One of the most interesting chapters in the book is where she devotes a whole chapter to psychopaths, giving anecdotes from her career.  She also explains the difference between the terms psychopath and sociopath, using chilling details from her own professional experiences.

How does O’Toole explain someone who is able to make successful and quick decisions about people? She cautions that “those decisions are based on past experiences, education, and training which enable someone to come to logical conclusions.”

Today, Mary Ellen O’Toole teaches at the FBI National Academy, lectures at the Smithsonian, and counsels those in law enforcement, school officials, and private corporations. 

Dangerous Instincts is a well-written book that allows the reader to gain insight in how to protect themselves from potentially dangerous situations. She challenges the notion that people can rely on their gut feelings, intuitions, or emotional reactions to effectively assess other people. If someone wants to learn how to protect himself, herself or loved ones from manipulators, those that bully, or worse, psychopaths, read this book.