Dangerous Body Language: A Thousand Words...None Spoken! "Gaze Avoidance"

A Thousand Words…None Spoken! is a quote from a law enforcement and security professional participating in one of the workshops I presented a few years back on dangerous body language. It was his way of grasping and understanding the concept of non-verbal communication as it relates to fine tuning his abilities of, pattern recognition and in understanding the subtle signs and signals of danger otherwise known as dangerous body language.

In the article Recognizing the Signs and Signals of Crime and Danger I wrote about these non-verbal signs and signals. This series on the web-site we will  take a deeper look at these signs and signals one by one and break them down in attempt to help all in getting a better picture, snapshot or what COL John Boyd called “orientation” of what's going on when we encounter people on the streets.

I am breaking these signs and signals down to explore, and discuss in detail their meaning. It is critical to remember when attempting to read people and make sense of the non-verbal sentences their body sends out while we interact with a potential adversary.  We must observe, orient, decide and act  in context with the unfolding circumstances.  A non-verbal gesture standing on its own may mean nothing in particular when it comes to assaultive behavior, unless of course its a spontaneous furtive gesture, so its also important to read the non-verbal signs and signals in clusters, more than one gesture at a time. Multiple gestures may mean more stress, anxiety and hence heighten your anticipation of a deception, disruption or pending attack. It is also important look for congruence when reading nonverbal signs and signals, “do the subjects words match his body language and the situation?”

Gaze Avoidance

Gaze avoidance, also known as cutoff, or eye blocking is a failure to make eye contact with someone we don’t like, do not wish to see or feel threatened by. As a law enforcement or security officer this is a tell tale sign that leads to suspicion on our part and is another form of deception.  Looking away or avoiding eye contact is a way of mentally hiding. Take for example while you are on patrol and pull up along side a motorist in traffic and all its occupants avoid looking at the patrol car beside them. This could be they are nervous over their previous rate of speed, the expired inspection sticker on their windshield, if a group of youths, it could be the alcohol they illegal possess, they think you might see in the trunk or back seat of of their car.  The occupants think you may go away or disappear somehow if they look away and avoid you.

In his book Crime Signals How to Spot a Criminal Before You Become a Victim, David Givens explains; “Among human beings, gaze avoidance begins early in childhood. Facing away from a strangers eyes reduces a baby’s blood pressure and slows its heartbeat rate. Babies handle the stress of visual encounters with potentially threatening adults by turning their eyes downward or away to the side. Older children playfully cover their eyes with their hands to disappear from view, as if to say, “you can’t see me now!”  Remember when, you were a child playing hide and seek? There you are hidden in the obvious spot, eyes closed hoping not to be discovered. 

More serious plots bring about the effect of gaze avoidance as well. For example David Givens discusses I his book, the September 11th 2001 hijackers; the three terrorists that by-passed security at the Dulles International Airport withheld eye contact from security officers as they passed by. This was found after reviewing and analyzing security tapes from Dulles International Airport. Givens states “In effect, the drilled and disciplined September 11th terrorists behaved like children. All three on the video bent their heads down and looked away. Without practice or rehearsal beforehand, the trio simultaneously displayed the identical crime signal.”

Another example of this is an officer approaching an individual and the subject responds with the proverbial turn and walk away as if you were not seen, again avoidance of eye contact, and hope you did not notice.

During an encounter on the street or in the interview room setting is yet another example; at the point of a critical questioning and a response is warranted, the subject looks down or away, covers or closes his eyes, again a sign something maybe amiss, or a possible sign of deception in an effort to stall, lie, confuse, deceive, disrupt your efforts to get at the truth or in a worse case scenario to gain the advantage and physically assault. 

In another great book written by former FBI agent Joe Navarro What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agents Guide to Speed Reading People termed this effect as Eye Blocking. “Our eyes, more remarkable than any camera, have evolved as the primary means by which humans receive information. In fact, we often attempt to censor incoming data through a limbic survival mechanism know as eye blocking, which evolved to protect the brain from “seeing” undesirable images. Any decrease in the size of the eyes, whether through squinting or pupilary constriction, is a form of unconscious blocking behavior.  And all blocking behaviors are indicative of concern, dislike, disagreement, or the perception of a potential threat.

The many forms of eye blocking are such a common and natural part of our nonverbal repertoire that most people either miss them completely or ignore their meaning.”

When you are up to no good, attempting to deceive or lying, you divert your eyes away or down from whom you are trying to deceive or avoid. When interpreted in context, gaze avoidance, eye blocking or cutoff can be a powerful indicator of a persons thoughts or feeling.  This according to research is a normal human response to deception, guilt, embarrassment, a perceived threat and shame.

To succeed in your abilities at assessing real-time threats and improving our effectiveness and safety on the street, nonverbal indicators are key to helping us process unfolding information when encountering people. We need to become craftsmen of conflict on the street! Knowing the basics and remaining and apprentice of conflict and violence is not good enough, these days where the threats are evolving to a much more serious and violent level. When I speak of the Boyd Cycle, observation, orientation, decision and action and getting inside the mind of an adversary understanding dangerous body language is part of this process. Gaze avoidance is another one of those signs we need to be looking for.

Conflict is a clash between two adaptive systems. Dealing with adapting adversaries you cannot predict exactly what’s going to happen next, because there are things going on that you cannot see, or hear. For example: the numerous thoughts going through an adversaries mind: “I will do what I am asked,” “I will not do what I am asked,” “I will escape,” “I will fight,” “I will assault,” “I will kill,” “I will play dumb until...,” “I will stab,” “I will shoot,” “he looks prepared I will comply,” “he looks complacent I will not comply,” etc. It is important to remember that the adversary has his own objectives; also, they have plans that conflict with the friendly side, therein creating further conflict and hence the need for adaptation. Understanding dangerous body language, (a thousand words…none spoken!) just may give you the edge you need. 

Stay Oriented!

Fred