security concept Inductive Observation - PWA.edu

Inductive Observation

Posted April 20, 2018 by Ami Toben

One of the things that makes the security field so interesting is that it’s mostly about people. Security efforts (even if assisted by security systems) are usually directed at people, and largely executed by people for the protection of people. The most important assets are usually people, most of the highest risks we try to mitigate have to do with people and most screening and assessment efforts are attempts to distinguish between people who pose a security risk and those who do not.

If you can’t understand people, you can’t fully understand security.

Personally, one of the things that never really helped 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 distinguishing between suspicious and unsuspicious 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. “Trust your instincts” is in many cases 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. You’re just 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. Rather than treat instincts as some untouchable, 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.

Did you see someone who looks completely normal and unsuspicious? Good, ask yourself what exactly about that person gave you that feeling. Did you see someone who struck you as oddly suspicious? Good, ask yourself what it was about them that gave you that feeling. Look for the underlying reasons – 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 the 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.

What To Look For


The general appearance factors we want to evaluate and profile are ones people have chosen. The idea of profiling often gets a bad rap, but this is usually caused by profiling being collectively 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. Profiling unchosen features of appearance is also logically problematic, since 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 vast majority of a person’s appearance is chosen – from your hair down to your shoes, and anything else you 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 enough attention to the details, and think about these details correctly. Nothing a person has on them is there randomly for no reason. And 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 have to do with prior choices – and choices are what we’re screening and profiling here.
  2. Where the person is going – why did they choose to wear, carry or apply the thing you just noticed, before deciding to come 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 (which, by the way, is only a cliche because they actually keep doing it)? It’s interesting to think where the person carrying the gym bag is coming from, but what’s even more important is why he/she is now trying to bring it with them to this place at this time. What might their future intent be?

Are there any guarantees you’ll be able to figure out people’s backgrounds and future intent based 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 see, the more you think about what you’re seeing and the more questions you ask about things, the better chances you’ll have to figure things out. This might sound like a drawn out narrative, but most capable security operators can, with a bit of practice, 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 real possibility that a person might be trying to hide a weapon or explosives – but more often than not, there’s a perfectly non-hostile reason behind this choice. I, for example, have noticed that when you secure a high threat evening event in San Francisco, you’re almost always going to encounter at least one guest 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 – and it almost always turns out that the person is actually 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 have a car). It’s a perfectly harmless reason (except for your having to go through the person’s sweaty gym bag…), but a reason nonetheless – a chosen reason that can tell you where the person is coming from, and why they brought the thing in question to this place at this time.

An important side note to appearance, in cases where you’re close enough to the person in question, is scent. What might you be able to assume about the person with the gym bag if he smells a bit sweaty? What can you assume if his hair is a bit wet, and he smells 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 above mentioned 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 in this article we’re not necessarily looking for micro-expressions or psychological evaluations. We are, however, 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 it’s also not going to be that difficult, considering the fact that 99.9% 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 and time, and when they notice the presence of a security officer. 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 access control situations, 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 what they’re going there for (work, business meeting, attending an event, etc.), rather than about having to go through a security check; and this will show in how they conduct themselves. On the other hand, someone with hostile intent will probably exhibit different kinds of behavior. Exactly what kind of behavior indicates a person has hostile intent is a bit tricky to pin down, since different people exhibit different behavioral patterns. You might, for example, see a person walking quickly, ‘tunnel-visioned’ on their target as they head straight towards you. Conversely, it’s not uncommon to see people walking very slowly, looking around nervously, stopping and starting their movement towards you, etc. 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, and 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 adrenalin in their bloodstream, which tends to produce some predictable traits. Adrenalin raises a person’s blood pressure, which tends to make people hot, sometimes sweaty. People will often be red in the face and ears, but sometimes pale (either case can be bad news). High blood pressure makes people breath faster, which dries up their mouths and make it harder for them to speak clearly; people will often swallow saliva awkwardly. 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.

And by the way, just because a person needs more attention, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re hostile. A good amount of security writing tends to paint dramatic, clear-cut pictures of suspicious indicators necessarily leading to hostile activity. But anyone who’s spent enough time in the field knows this is not the case. Having spent over a decade working in the security industry in the San Francisco Bay Area, how many suspicious and abnormal, yet completely non-hostile people do you think I’ve come across? More than I can count. Having said that, it’s important not to fall into complacency by simply ignoring all the inevitable strangeness you’ll encounter (and boy have I encountered some strange stuff over the years).

Practicing Observation:

One of the neat things about developing your observational skills is that you can practice observation and assessment anywhere and anytime. It doesn’t just have to be something you only do on the job. Do it on your free time too – on the street, in a coffee shop, on the train and 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 (you might notice I keep looking at shoes, because they can tell you a lot about the person)? Do you have a wedding ring on your finger? Is your cell-phone tucked in a pocket or sitting next to you, or in your hand? What do your hands and fingernails look like, and why? What kind of watch, cell-phone cover or glasses do you have? All of these things, and many more, result from prior choices you’ve made before you came to wherever you are right now (wherever or whenever you happen to be reading this). 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 get at it.

Keep pushing and testing yourself to see how quickly you can detect things, how many things 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, and get to find out if your inductive hypotheses about them were correct. I recommend you keep this to yourself during most social or professional settings, since some people can get a bit freaked 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 this also applies to other people in other situations. If your assessment was incorrect, good – it means you’re trying things out and learning. Keep going.

One situation I always do this in is while training new recruits into the company. Besides teaching them how to do this, it’s useful to demonstrate how this can also be done to them by other people. For example, it’s usually pretty easy to spot young, ex-military guys who are getting into the security field (they’re the ones with the crewcuts who look somewhat uncomfortable in their new suit and tie, often have some kind of G-Shock watch on their wrist, and sometimes still wear their over shiny service uniform shoes). You can also usually spot officers with more prior experience by how comfortably they carry themselves, and how comfortable their shoes look. Officers with a bit of redness in their eyes, and a thermal undershirt that pokes out from their suit sleeves are usually the ones coming off of a graveyard shift. CCWs will usually have a little bulge coming out of the right (sometimes left) lower side of their back when they move or bend, which will slightly affect the way they carry themselves or sit down. They often don’t notice how their favorite jacket will be slightly worn out in that lower back corner. And so on. Never forget to apply your Inductive Observation skills to yourself before applying them to anyone else. Officers should therefore be conscious of their own appearance and body language, and knowingly utilize these to project control and command presence.

Ami Toben

Author, consultant, operator, security director.

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