blog 11 6 18

Inductive Observation – Watching & Understanding People

Posted November 6, 2018 by Ami Toben

How Inductive Observation can help you understand people better.

Back when I was living in Tokyo, I met a fellow Israeli named Danny who became my closest friend during my years in Japan. Before even reaching adulthood, Danny had become quite a successful entrepreneur. He was also very much in love with Asian art and culture, and this is what eventually brought him to Tokyo, where he had been living for a decade before I arrived.

A self-educated, self-made millionaire, Danny was a natural businessman, world traveler, art history expert, connoisseur of fine foods and high-end spirits, and fluent speaker of five or six languages. A fascinating jet-setter–Indiana Jones combination, he was and still is a real-life “Most Interesting Man in the World.”

Of the many things that Danny taught me, the most lasting and useful one was the art of people—how to read them, how to understand true intentions hiding behind nuanced expressions, how to read conscious and subconscious mannerisms, and how to use this type of knowledge to gain various advantages. This type of outward focus has to start with inward self-reflection. In other words, part of understanding other people is understanding and controlling your own weaknesses, body language, nuanced expressions, and emotional states.

We would go out and practice our people-reading and people-influencing skills, mostly in the arenas of Tokyo’s upscale neighborhoods—with their snazzy cafés, restaurants, and clubs. It was like a wide-open game of chess where you’d carefully position yourself and try to calculate a few steps ahead as you played along. We would then evaluate how things went, discussing what worked and what didn’t.

During my first visit back to Israel, after being away for over a year, the full effect of what I had learned in Japan started to hit me. People might be people no matter where they live, but culture does matter when it comes to how people express themselves. When it comes to Japanese culture, especially in high-end circles, people are very reserved and desires are conveyed very subtly, camouflaged behind layers of politeness.

Israelis, by contrast (and Americans, in a different way) are somewhere on the opposite end of this spectrum. Having toiled for months getting used to reading the subtleties of Japanese behavior made me feel almost clairvoyant when I arrived in Israel. People seemed so childishly obvious, even when they were trying not to be. Everyone’s emotional states, desires, motivations, and actions were just splayed out in plain sight. It felt voyeuristic just to look at someone.

Little did I know at the time that this developed skill would become very useful in my professional future. Being able to read people—to deduce and induce various things about them—is extremely useful for protective and field intelligence operations. So let me give you a crash-course and share some secrets of the trade.

What to Look For

One of the things that never really sat right with me as a young security operator (and that I try to avoid repeating as a trainer today) was being told that when it comes to reading people, you should “Trust your instincts.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a mistake to trust your instincts, but not everyone’s instincts are that sharply developed, and even among those with better instincts, there’s always room for improvement.

In many cases, “Trust your instincts” is not much more than a cop-out line to avoid having to explain how you can develop observation and assessment skills. Yes, always trust your instincts, but don’t stop there. There’s nothing magical or untouchable about instincts— they’re perceptions that are caused by a blend of intakes you sense on a subliminal level. It’s just that you’re more conscious of the perception than you are of its subliminal causes, which is why an instinct feels more like a cause than an effect.

But rather than treat instincts as some magical sixth sense, you can actually get to the bottom of what’s causing them. By bringing these subtle sensory intakes out of their subliminal realm, you can sharpen your detection skills and develop even better instincts. For example, did you see someone who looks completely normal and non-suspicious? Good, ask yourself what exactly about that person gave you that feeling. Did you see someone who struck you as oddly suspicious? Good, now ask yourself the same question.

Look for the underlying reasons behind those instincts because they’re there. Start raising your consciousness to how and why people look and behave the way they do. Try to detect, assess, and understand as many details as you can, and try to figure out the “why” factor behind those feelings you get about people. You’re not always going to get it right, but with practice, you’ll definitely get better and faster at it.


When it comes to gauging appearance, the factors we want to evaluate and profile are the ones people have chosen. The idea of profiling often gets a bad rap, but this is usually caused by profiling being applied to factors that were not chosen, like race, age, and gender.

The problem with racial profiling, for example, isn’t only an ethical one, it’s a logical one. It attempts to extrapolate conclusions about intent based on unchosen, unintentional features a person has no control over. This type of profiling is not only problematic when it leads to false-positive assumptions (usually against younger males and minority groups) but also—or especially—when it leads to false-negative assumptions (which can be very dangerous).

Luckily, the majority of what comprises a person’s appearance is chosen—from their hair down to their shoes, and anything else they might be wearing, carrying, applying, or growing. Whoever coined the phrase “You can’t judge a book by its cover” must have been talking about books because there’s a hell of a lot we can tell about people if we pay attention to the details, and analyze them correctly. Nothing a person has on them is there randomly. What a person has chosen to wear, carry, or apply can tell you two important things in regards to the situation at hand:

1. Where the person is coming from — their background, tastes, and resources. What kind of person owns, say, tactical boots? What kind of person carries an expensive Gucci handbag? Why would a person be carrying a large gym bag? There are reasons for these things, and they all have to do with prior choices.

2. Where the person is going — why did they choose to wear, carry, or apply the thing you just noticed before coming to this place at this time? What might that mean about their motivations? What, for instance, might be the difference in motivation between a person wearing military-style boots and a person wearing flip-flops? What might be the future intent of the person wearing the quintessential heavy jacket on a warm day? It’s interesting to think where the person carrying the gym bag is coming from, but what’s even more important is why they’re now trying to bring it with them to this place at this time. What might their intentions for the future be?

Are there any guarantees you’ll be able to figure out people’s backgrounds and future intentions based solely on their chosen appearance? Of course not, and many suspicious-looking indicators turn out to be perfectly harmless (if somewhat weird). But the more you notice, the more you’ll think about what you’re seeing. And the more questions you ask about things, the better your chances of figuring things out.

This might sound like a drawn out narrative, but, with a bit of practice, most people can notice, think, ask, and conclude very quickly—almost as if it were, well, instinct.

By the way, the gym bag scenario might sound ominous—as in the possibility that a person might be trying to conceal a weapon or explosives. But more often than not there’s a perfectly non-hostile reason behind it. I’ve noticed that in high-threat evening events in San Francisco, you’re almost always going to encounter at least one person with a large gym bag (even if it’s a dressy event). The bag obviously gets checked very well—which also means the person gets checked and questioned—but it almost always turns out that the person is simply coming from (surprise, surprise) the gym. People in San Francisco like going to the gym after work, and then, when they go to evening events, don’t want to leave their bag in the car (if they even own a car). It’s a perfectly harmless reason (except for the fact that I have to go through their sweaty gym bag…), but a chosen reason nonetheless; one that can tell you where the person is coming from and why they brought the thing in question to this place at this time.

Just because something is harmless doesn’t mean your observational skills and choice profiling don’t apply. An important side note to appearance in cases where you’re close enough to the person in question, is scent. Now this might sound funny, or even a bit creepy, but what might you be able to induce about people with gym bags if they smell a bit sweaty? What can you assume if a person’s hair is a bit wet and they smell of soap or shampoo? Try not to be overtly weird about this, but notice how people smell when they go to work in the morning and how they smell after they’ve had a long day. Who’s got poor hygiene, who’s been drinking or smoking, and who’s using too much aftershave or perfume (possibly to mask some other odor)? Smell is one of the sensory intakes that often sits on a subliminal level. Bring it out of there and start consciously noticing it. The idea that something just doesn’t smell right is oftentimes quite literal. The more you notice, the better your chances of detecting where people are coming from and what kind of choices they made before arriving.

Body Language

Behavioral profiling is a pretty deep subject, but for our purposes, we’re not necessarily looking for micro-expressions or psychological evaluations. Instead, we’re interested in the context of the situation—where we are, what’s going on, and how people are behaving in relation to these factors.

First of all, you won’t be in a very good position to evaluate body language until you are somewhat acquainted with the way people ordinarily behave. Every environment is different in this regard, and even times of day make a difference, so it’s important to establish a baseline for what “normal” or non-hostile behavior might look like. This isn’t always that clear-cut, and you’re going to have to accept a pretty wide range of behaviors. But keep in mind that 99.999% of the people you see are non-hostile and can therefore provide you with that baseline.

Remember, we’re not just looking at people in general; we’re looking at how people behave at a specific place, time, and context—especially if there’s security presence in the area. How are people acting? Do their behaviors fall in line with those of most people at this place and time? Did one person nervously show up alone while most people seem cheerful as they show up in couples or groups? Were there people who showed up together and then split up? What might be the reasons for their behaving like that? Ask these questions because the reasons are always there.

In situations where access to a certain area is regulated, most people simply walk right up as if security isn’t really a deterring factor to them because, guess what, it isn’t. A non-hostile individual is probably thinking about why they’re going to the secured location, rather than about having to go through a security check. And this will show in how they conduct themselves.

People with hostile intent usually exhibit different kinds of behavior. Exactly what kind of behavior indicates a person has hostile intent, or is otherwise trying to hide something, is a bit tricky to pin down since different people exhibit different behavioral patterns. For example, you might see a person walking quickly, “tunnel-visioned” on their target as they head straight towards it. Conversely, it’s not uncommon to see people walking very slowly, looking around nervously, while stopping and starting their movement towards their target. The fact that nervousness and hostile intent can manifest themselves in different ways might seem a bit confusing but remember, you’re not looking for a positive psychological profile here. All you need to determine is that something in the person’s behavior is abnormal—that it’s different from the non-hostile baseline you’ve established.

Be it too fast or too slow, tunnel-visioned, head on a swivel, or what have you, as soon as you realize this isn’t the way most people move and behave in this environment, you’ve spotted something that needs a bit more attention.

As complex and varied as human behavior might be, there are a number of traits that are quite universal. People under stress will almost always have higher levels of adrenaline in their bloodstream, which produces some predictable results. Adrenalin raises a person’s blood pressure, which tends to make people hot and sometimes sweaty. Some people might get red in the face and ears, while others might become pale—either case can be bad news. High blood pressure makes people breathe faster, which dries up their mouths, causing them to swallow saliva awkwardly and generally making it harder for them to speak clearly. Try to notice if they keep shifting their weight uncomfortably and notice what they’re doing with their hands. Are they fidgeting their fingers, white-knuckling, or clasping? What about their eyes? Are they completely avoiding eye contact or overcompensating by maintaining too much of it? Once again, as soon as you realize something doesn’t quite fall in line with how most people behave in this situation, you’ve spotted something that needs a bit more attention.

Practicing Observation

One of the neat things about developing your observational skills is that you can practice observation and assessment anywhere and anytime—on the street, in a coffee shop, on the train, or during a ballgame.

You can even do it right now if you want. Stop reading for a moment and look at what’s on you. What kind of shoes are you wearing? (Shoes, from my experience, can tell you quite a bit about a person.) Do you have a wedding ring on your finger? Is your cell phone tucked in a pocket or purse, or is it somewhere else right now? What do your hands and fingernails look like, and why? What kind of clothes are you wearing at the moment, and what kind of watch, cell phone cover, or glasses do you have?

All of these things, and many more, result from choices you made before arriving to wherever you are right now. Even if you didn’t give it much conscious thought at the time, these prior choices reflect certain things about you. And even if you received some items as gifts, your decision to have them on you in this place and at this time says something about you.

It’s basically a Sherlock Holmes-type game of observation and inductive reasoning—or what I like to call “inductive observation.” The more you play it, the faster and better you’ll get at it. Keep pushing and testing yourself to see how quickly you can detect things, how many details you can detect in as short a time as possible, and whether your assessments about people’s backgrounds and motivations were correct.

Try playing the inductive observation game in situations where you actually get to talk to the individuals you’ve observed so you can find out if your hypotheses about them were correct. However, I recommend keeping this observational game to yourself during most social or professional settings since some people can get a bit creeped out by it. Slowly but surely, you’ll get better, faster, and more subtle at it.

If your assessment about a person ends up being correct, good—file it in your memory and try to see if it also applies to other people in other situations. If your assessment was incorrect, that’s also good—it means you’re trying things out and learning. Keep going.

Finally, never forget to use your inductive observation skills on yourself before applying them to anyone else. Be conscious of your own appearance and body language, and knowingly utilize these to outwardly project an image that’s appropriate for your situation. This is your chance to make an impression and shape what you want people to think about you, so use it wisely.

Everything about people’s appearance and body language—everything they have on them, everything they do, everywhere they’ve been, and anywhere they’re going—can tell you something about them. And the same principle applies to you as well. In the coming blogs, as we delve deeper into surveillance, surveillance detection, and special protective operations, I’m going to show you how these factors can help you detect the intentions of others—particularly those with hostile intent—while masking your own intentions from them.

The article is taken from Chapter 3 of Ami Toben’s book Surveillance Zone.

Ami Toben

Author, consultant, operator, security director.

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