Book review: The risks of trusting others

Those who follow the teachings of religion by presuming the innate goodness of fellow human beings will quite likely find the book “Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us,” by Mary Ellen O’Toole and Alisa Bowman (Hudson Street Press, $25.95) shocking.

Mary Ellen O’Toole spent much of her career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, profiling psychopaths and sociopaths and other categories of evil human beings. Collaborating with professional writer Alisa Bowman, O’Toole offers an ersatz self-help book infused with darkness. The adage “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail” could be adapted for this book by stating “To an FBI profiler, every stranger looks like a criminal.”

Some readers are almost certain to silently scold O’Toole for being captive to an overly suspicious outlook. Other readers are almost certain to praise O’Toole for her well-reasoned caution, and perhaps became more vigilant in their daily lives when dealing with total strangers or casual acquaintances at the synagogue, in the neighborhood, workplace, restaurants, entertainment venues, social clubs and just about everywhere else imaginable.

O’Toole does not dwell on religious affiliation or religion in general as an indicator; the index to the book includes only three brief page references to religion. The most telling of the three is this: “Various biases may cause you to unfairly and incorrectly sort entire groups of people into ‘dangerous’ and ‘safe’ categories. For instance, many people have a bias that causes them to categorize all monks with shaved heads and brown robes as safe.

The same goes for most religious clergy and also for many people who attend religious services regularly. For instance, think about how often you’ve heard the line ‘He’s a good guy. He’s really active in the church.’ Yet this is a false bias. Little about someone’s religious affiliation offers any indication as to whether that person is dangerous or safe. Most important, dangerous individuals know about this bias and will mention that they are religious or fans of gospel music just to disarm you.”

It would be impossible for any thinking person to read “Dangerous Instincts” from first page to last page without ruminating from time to time about the nature and prevalence of good and evil. From the opening anecdote—about how much or how little to trust two carpenters replacing drywall in the O’Toole bathroom—the profiler forces readers to confront their assumptions about personal safety.

The chief carpenter, Paul, came as a referral from a close friend of O’Toole, someone who knew Paul more than casually over an extended period. As a result of the referral, O’Toole did not worry unduly about Paul’s physical appearance—hair in a ponytail, tattoos from head to foot. O’Toole did express concern, though, about information from her friend that Paul had been a gang member years earlier. So O’Toole asked Paul about it. Paul said he had changed, permanently.

Having interviewed Paul, O’Toole decided to hire him. She had become convinced that he was a conscientious laborer. She trusted her instincts “that he was really a gentle soul. I didn’t want to exclude him just because of something he might have been involved in 20 years ago. I based my decision to hire him on the behavior and personality of the man he is today. I gave him the benefit of the doubt.”

But when Paul arrived to begin the drywall job, he brought along his cousin Jack. O’Toole had heard nothing about Jack. Because of her profiler job, O’Toole had seen, numerous times, “what can happen when someone lets the wrong person through her front door.” What to do? O’Toole chatted briefly with Jack. He seemed “likable, polite and certainly non-threatening.” Furthermore, O’Toole understood that Paul wanted to mentor Jack in the carpentry realm, “a nice thing for Paul to want to do.” Furthermore, O’Toole assumed that Paul knew Jack well, given their relationship as cousins.

O’Toole agreed to let Jack into her home. The immediate result? “Paul supervised Jack the entire time. Neither one gave me any cause for concern. They replaced my drywall, and then they left.” O’Toole hired Paul multiple times after that. Sometimes Jack participated in the project.

Eventually, O’Toole learned that Jack had been arrested for attempting to hire a contract killer to murder his girlfriend. While imprisoned, Jack tried to negotiate other murderous contracts.

O’Toole concludes the anecdote by commenting, “And I’d opened my door and allowed him into my home, even though I had not checked him out, because my gut instinct had told me that he was safe…Of all people, I know not to trust gut feelings.”

The remainder of the book is composed of mini-sermons about never trusting gut instincts; methods to resist relying on gut instincts; pathways online, in libraries and elsewhere to learn well about potentially threatening individuals; and effective interview/conversation techniques meant to extract useful information.

The only things to lose by reading the book are naiveté and time. The major gain might be living a significantly less threatened life.

Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative reporter based in Columbia, Missouri.