6 Things Predators Already Know About You

Being deeply empathic can have its downside, as many highly sensitive people have learned the hard way.  Along with our deep empathy we also typically seek to avoid confrontation and embrace connection to others.  This tendency can be used to manipulate us by those who would do us harm or seek to use us toward some end goal.  In the following article by Katherine Ramsland, we learn six key aspects of persuasion we should all be aware of so we can avoid the manipulators and persuaders of the world.  Make no mistake, they are out there and continually looking for “suckers” who are too soft or easily led to take advantage of.  Highly sensitive people may be quite astute at identifying these individuals, but some may not be as skilled and may benefit from this open discussion of the predators among us.  I will follow each point with additional comments (in italics) specific to HSPs.

“Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has examined hundreds of research studies about compliance and conformity to identify key items about human nature that will “move someone in your direction,” and he has delineated six core principles of how to persuade others.

He claims that good persuaders “strum strings that are inside all of us.” He says their goal to create attunement, a state of mind that is prepared for the moves that follow. For example, first ask people if they’re helpful, and then ask for their help. They will help because they want to be consistent with their self-assessment.

Although Cialdini urges us to use these principles ethically, i.e., to educate and improve, it’s not difficult to see how someone with less lofty goals might exploit them. In fact, these points of attunement echo psychologist Robert Hare’s warnings in Without Conscience about predatory psychopaths. (I just spent five years writing with BTK Killer Dennis Rader, which yielded quite a lot of scary insights about predatory vigilance.)

To protect yourself, you must understand how predators can use common human tendencies against you. The things that work to get us to agree or conform are the same things that make us targets.

Let’s look at the six principles and consider how a predator views them:

1. Authority. 

We tend to view someone in a position of authority as having expertise or power, so we obey. Predators know what we expect, and they offer false credentials spiked with a strong dose of confidence. If they’re verbally adept, so much the better, because we view people who speak slightly faster than normal as being confident; we’re more likely to accept what they say without seeking proof.

Authoritarian individuals are perhaps the easiest to identify as they brashly swagger and postulate being sure everyone knows they are there and “in charge.”  Many narcissistic people may fall into this mold as they seek to focus all the attention on themselves.  Rapid speech may make it seem as if they know what they’re talking about; as if their stream of consciousness thoughts must come from some deep well of superior knowledge.  The deep processing HSPs know as a core aspect of the sensory processing sensitivity construct should inform our skepticism with such people.  If we fall for the loud, fast talker who is solely focused on himself (herself) it is our fault for not drawing a mental line in the sand and pausing to think.  Slick talkers offer nothing but rash decision making typically geared toward their profit or achieving their goals. 

2. Reciprocity.

We feel obligated when someone gives us a gift or does us a favor: We want to give back. Hare states that psychopaths will give gifts or do favors to get a foot in the door. Gifts and favors not only obligate but also deflect your attention from the predator’s true intent.

Reciprocity is a very hard one for highly sensitive people because it is not in our nature to not feel it when someone has been “nice” to us.  This plays against us in this case where the foot in the door will lead to a wolf in the henhouse.  It is also difficult to know when someone has simply done something nice for us with no expectation of reciprocity and when there are ulterior motives.  The best policy is, again, skepticism.  Not that we should overthink every detail of every interaction but if we notice later that that same person now asks something of us that we may perhaps not wish to do that should be a red flag of potential manipulation.

3. Liking.

When we feel comfortable with, or positive about, someone, we tend to say yes to their requests. Perceived similarity makes us feel safer and more willing to give special treatment. Predators use compliments, common interests, and common identity to increase rapport. (Rader did this when he was stopped by a police officer just after a murder, by playing to their shared awareness of a Boy Scout camp, which also gave him the appearance of being a nice guy.)

Highly sensitive people likely encounter a number of issues with people who become “friends” only to later their true intentions.  In some cases, a person may befriend us while seeming to align with us as highly sensitive people.  What’s better than finding a kindred spirit right?  It is only later that the person reveals their actual goal.  In such cases, we may feel betrayed, angry at ourselves for trusting so much, or simply shocked that people would do such things to other people.  Let’s be real: humankind is full of manipulators and persuaders.  We all engage in these behaviors to some extent, though we usually do not rise to the level of a predator with ill-intent.  We do however befriend people to achieve goals, ie., we befriend a co-worker to make the daily grind easier, we befriend a new person to make them feel more at ease and able to focus on the task, or we align ourselves with others who we perceive are like us in search of actual friendships.  In these cases, recruiting others to like us in service to a larger goal is benign, but in the case of a predator, the goal is selfish, harmful to others, or exploitative.

Empathy is our best friend in such cases.  We should listen to our gut instincts when someone seems to be trying too hard to be our friend or align themselves with us.  There is a perceived vulnerability in all friendships.  We open ourselves to potential manipulation by any and all of our friends but the potential is not a certainty and most friends fulfill their roles without major exploitation.  We should learn to set boundaries with friends and recognize when we are being asked to do something we do not wish to.  When we find ourselves feeling manipulated we should pull back, even if it seems to offend the other person.  Far better to risk offending someone than to be manipulated and exploited.  We have to practice skills like saying “no.”  HSPs often avoid saying no because it implies confrontation which many of us feel very overstimulated by.  Learning to say no and sticking to our boundaries are key to not being exploited by others.

4. Scarcity.

We place value on items that we believe are in short supply, or available for only a limited time. Predators offer desirable items or services within this context, as a hook.

This aspect is far easier in many cases to refute.  The salesman who maintains the great price on the car is only good “today” is easy to walk out on because most people enter a car dealership knowledgeable of the fact that the place is full of predators.  At times, an opportunity may arise that we must choose to partake of or decline.  A predator will use this tactic to suck us in and continue their game.  Knowing how to say no is again invaluable.  Even if we need to rely on a second person to say no we should do so.  Very often it is, in fact, an easy out to say “let me talk this over with …,” or “I’ll think about and get back to you.”  You may obviously meet additional pressure but al least you have removed yourself from the immediate situation.  The best policy is: don’t rush into anything just because you think it’s a great deal!  It’s usually not…

5. Social proof.

When we don’t know quite what to do in a situation, we look to others to help us decide. Clear instructions can elicit our cooperation, especially if it is presented as a majority preference. Predators watch for this sense of uncertainty in us and step in to offer direction.

Highly sensitive people may feel hesitant right away under pressure from a predator or anyone who seeks to manipulate us.  Developing the skills to say no and the ability to pause and reframe may seem elementary but are essential to avoiding pressure from others.  Each of us, of course, has a unique history with varying experiences at decision-making.  For some people, it’s quite easy to say no and feel no particular emotion.  For others, it’s amazingly difficult to say no and feel like we have not offended the other person!  Sensory processing sensitivity evolved as a trait to enable us to better survive by being able to read the emotional affects of other people (are they a threat or non-threat?), notice subtleties others might overlook (body language cues that tip off ulterior motives), and strong, quick emotions that trigger deep processing of experience (reflection).  Sensory processing sensitivity likely has more to do with enabling us to effectively navigate the complex interpersonal landscape of human social interactions than meeting challenges in the natural world.  We must learn to prize our reflective natures and not be afraid to be our own persons.  Certainly, we are all influenced by others in our choices but when we are pressured to conform is exactly when we should step back the most and decide if that is what we wish to do.

6. Commitment and consistency.

When we commit to doing something, we tend to abide by it, especially if we make it publicly known. We want to show that our values define and direct us. Predators will elicit an initial small commitment to leverage us into a larger one. Once we’re in, the higher the stakes—and the more we’ll behave as they direct. According to Hare, predators hide their dark side until they get us past the point where it’s difficult to disengage.”

 public domain
Source: Mugshot: public domain

Psychopathic predators look for our triggers, so the better we understand our points of vulnerability, the easier it is for us to block malignant manipulation. Anyone can be duped—even during a brief interaction—so take the time to ensure that the persuader is genuine and offers authentic benefit. Do your research and get proof. Don’t just let someone strum your strings.

As Ramsland states “anyone can be duped.”  That includes highly sensitive people who appear more open, gentle, and kind.  Predators sniff us out like lambs to the slaughter.  This does not mean we have to appear cold and hard like so many do in our world but we do need to have the inner strength and social skills to effectively end manipulative situations and detach from predators without feeling remorse.  You might not wish to acknowledge this but predators may also be HSPs.  Not all HSPs are the kind, gentle, creative, altruistic individuals we might hope for.  People are bent and twisted by life events into sometimes grotesque caricatures of sensitive human beings.  HSPs do become predators and quite effective ones given their strong empathy which enables them to know just which “buttons” to push to inflict maximum damage.   As with any personality trait sensory processing sensitivity may be used for good or ill. 

Avoiding exploitation and manipulation by predators has no doubt always been a key attribute of sensory processing sensitivity.  Learning to identify predators and avoid becoming their prey may require a great deal of life experience (and some mistakes) but will help us in the long run to avoid the damage and destruction they seek to inflict on others.  Sensory processing sensitivity is not a superpower or connected to the supernatural, rather it is an evolved personality trait (or evolved psychological mechanism) that gives us a slight edge in survival and reproductive concerns that may or may not be different than when it was evolved.  I maintain that sensory processing sensitivity has great utility in our modern, complex world where we face increased connectivity and opportunities for predators to reach out and take things from us more easily than in the past. 

Tracy Cooper, Ph.D, is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and the new book Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., is a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and the author of 46 books.

Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person

Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person is a book that was written for the 30% of highly sensitive people who are also high sensation seekers.  I identify as a high sensation seeking highly sensitive person and have sought ways to learn more about my strong emotions, my need for new and novel stimulation, my susceptibility toward boredom, and my deep empathy.  Thrill cover

Discovering Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person, and her peer-reviewed research papers, was the start of a long journey that would involve coming to terms with the entirety of what it means to be “highly sensitive” and its effects on my life.  At first, I was put off quite strongly by the phrase “highly sensitive,” but, as I read and reread Elaine’s scientific papers I realized the construct was much more complex and meaningful than what at first glance appears to denote a person who is constantly overwhelmed, fragile, probably weak, and incapable of functioning in the world.  Moving beyond that impression to an understanding of the construct as including strong, quick emotions, more elaborate processing in the brain, high empathy and emotional responsiveness, a sensitivity to subtleties others may overlook, and the vaunted sensory overstimulation, became key to unravelling the true complexity and beauty of the trait.  The tendency for overstimulation I began to understand as highly individual with no two people experiencing a sense of overwhelm in quite the same circumstances.  What bothers you may not bother me at all (or I may choose to block it out for the sake of the experience) and vice versa.

Once I was able to get beyond “highly sensitive” as sensory overwhelm, which it does include, but is so much more (as outlined above) it opened a doorway through which I was able to begin reconciling the research findings against my lived experiences.  One aspect I especially connected with, in the research, was the inclusion of narratives from actual highly sensitive people.  Being able to read their words was very helpful in relating to their realities.  In some cases, I did not relate to their experiences at all and still wondered if I was on the right track.  I had already studied introversion quite a bit and read about the thick and thin boundaries of Ernest Hartmann but felt that big pieces were still missing for me.  The highly sensitive person construct tentatively brought me closer to a fuller explanation.  Still, I was not convinced.

I had always been someone who needed new and novel stimulation, seemed to thrive on new activities and challenges, but burned out on them more quickly than others, and, consequently felt bored and ready to move on to the next thing before others.  That sense of boredom had been palpable and painful to experience in work situations where the road ahead was simply “more of the same.”  I had been forced to leave several positions due to this boredom, lack of challenge, and static nature of the work.  There were costs to be sure and suffering aplenty.  These may seem like objective explanations rooted in cold science, but, for me, and many HSPs making our way through life is quite a difficult task that is isolating, lonely, stressful, depressing, and exasperating at times.  Why couldn’t I just be “normal?”

The more I learned about “normal” the more I realized how very arbitrary the notion is and the very different nature of people.  Culture creates neat predefined boxes of expected behaviors, beliefs, and norms that we are supposed to fit ourselves into and live our lives based on the contents therein.  In some regard, culture is a useful invention in that it allows us to pass on ways of being that are uniquely suited to a region, but culture also becomes dysfunctional and limiting in many cases serving to effectively suppress individual potential.  For those of who feel marginalized by our cultures, the answers will not be found within them.  We must go in search of deeper answers that are derived not through arbitrary means, but through deep self-reflection, logic, creativity, and with the help of others who are also on this journey.

When I discovered the construct of sensation seeking it was a moment of easy realization that I was a sensation seeker.  Unlike high sensitivity I could relate easily to the explanations of boredom susceptibility, disinhibition, novelty and experience seeking, and thrill and adventure seeking.  Each aspect seemed to manifest throughout my life intertwined with aspects of sensitivity.  Unraveling that spider’s web of associations and influences would take far longer.

After writing Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career I was convinced that I needed to write a book just for high sensation seeking HSPs.  I had encountered a number of sensation seekers during my study for Thrive and felt an immediate kinship with them that demanded further exploration.  I dove in and conducted a qualitative study where I interviewed people who identified as high sensation seeking highly sensitive people (I had them take short versions of the sensitivity and sensation seeking tests as a verifying step), followed by a lengthy analysis phase where I identified common themes.  In writing Thrill I wanted to avoid repeating myself and, instead, approach aspects like self-care and childhood experiences from a different perspective.  I also wanted to find a way to contextualize our often difficult, chaotic lives.

I found a way to do just that in a theory of personality development by the Polish psychiatrist/psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski and his Theory of Positive Disintegration.  Tackling something as broad as the theory of positive disintegration, in one chapter, is quite an undertaking as entire books have been written on it and there are conferences that meet to discuss the numerous ways positive disintegration applies to human life.  In the end, I ended up presenting a strong introduction to positive disintegration that I think many high sensation seeking highly sensitive people will identify with.  The context it provides for our lives moves beyond the limitations of psychological research.  One of the major strengths of positive disintegration is in its conceptualization of inner struggles such as depressions and anxieties as something other than disorders to be medicated away.  Psychotropic medications may be of utility to some people who are on the extreme edge of balance but otherwise are an abdication of other forms of therapy as ineffectual.  In effect, what we are saying is “here, take this, we can’t help you.This pill will not fix your problems, but you won’t care anymore.”  Going through life with half our brains numbed or otherwise shut off from normal stimulation is in many ways fast-forwarding through life without ever experiencing what it means to be alive.  Certainly, some people benefit from medications (and from being extremely carefully medicated along with therapies), but I sensed that many of us don’t subscribe to the western cultural notion of an approved range of normalcy as a fitting or adequate explanation.  Positive disintegration contextualizes our chaotic inner lives, often accompanied with strong emotions, curiosity, and creativity as necessary components in loosening inferior structures within ourselves to make way for higher and better structures (called levels in positive disintegration).

If you would like to better understand yourself as a high sensation seeking highly sensitive person Thrill is a great, broad-based survey of life book that will do just that.  Thrill is the only book  of its kind and the first to explore those of us who are highly sensitive and high sensation seekers.  Even if you are not a high sensation seeker I am confident you will find Thrill to be of great value in illuminating your experience of life because our experiences are not so very different in the end.  I intentionally avoid the tendency to homogenize what it means to be highly sensitive or high sensation seeking because to do so would be to create the same neat, predefined boxes our societies already have prepared for us.  Instead, I advocate for each person becoming the fullest realization possible of inner instincts and drives guided by a personal set of ethics and morality.

At its beating heart Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person is a guide to the start of a spiritual journey of self-discovery and exploration that, at best, can lead us to greater altruism, less egoism, and greater well-functioning in the world in ways that acknowledge and privilege our need for reinvention, greater complexity, and fulfillment through service to others.  At worst, we simply know ourselves better with greater clarity moving forward in life.  I offer no quick fixes, no “8 steps to happiness,” or other superficial platitudes.  What I do offer is solid research that is well-grounded in the best traditions of scientific research and aimed at providing you with good information you can read, reflect on, and decide how to act on in your life.  My mission is consciousness-raising in others at a time when humanity seems to be devolving into anti-intellectual, anti-creative, deeply anti-social and militaristic ways of being and thinking.

It is through knowing ourselves and being at peace with who we are that we can stop projecting our insecurities, fears, and self-loathing out onto an innocent world.  Self-knowledge, combined with altruistic action in the world that enhances connection to community and connection to ourselves is the goal of my research.  I invite you to join me on the journey.

Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and the new book Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.  He provides consulting on a one-to-one basis from his website at drtracycooper.com.

10 Toxic People You Should Avoid At All Costs

Have you ever been in difficult conversation with someone you thought you could manage?  Has that person demonstrated that they always have ulterior motives for every conversation?  Have you often felt completely drained, frustrated, and/or angry by the interaction?  You have probably encountered a toxic person in the above scenario and vowed to never deal with that person again.  What happens when that person is a co-worker or family member?  The level of difficulty rises depending on the context in which we interact with toxic people.  In the article below, by Travis Bradberry, he identifies 10 types of toxic people we should be aware of and develop strategies for how we will handle them. 

In my new book Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person I include a chapter on self-care in which I discuss setting boundaries as a necessary tool to enable our sustainable sense of well-being.  Toxic people are an unavoidable fact of life.  Knowing who they are and developing strategies for dealing with them is key to managing their toxic effects in our lives.


Toxic people defy logic. Some are blissfully unaware of the negative impact that they have on those around them, and others seem to derive satisfaction from creating chaos and pushing other people’s buttons.

As important as it is to learn how to deal with different kinds of people, truly toxic people will never be worth your time and energy—and they take a lot of each. Toxic people create unnecessary complexity, strife, and, worst of all, stress.

“People inspire you, or they drain you—pick them wisely.” – Hans F. Hansen

Recent research from Friedrich Schiller University in Germany shows just how serious toxic people are. They found that exposure to stimuli that cause strong negative emotions—the same kind of exposure you get when dealing with toxic people—caused subjects’ brains to have a massive stress response. Whether it’s negativity, cruelty, the victim syndrome, or just plain craziness, toxic people drive your brain into a stressed-out state that should be avoided at all costs.

Studies have long shown that stress can have a lasting, negative impact on the brain. Exposure to even a few days of stress compromises the effectiveness of neurons in the hippocampus, an important brain area responsible for reasoning and memory. Weeks of stress cause reversible damage to brain cells, and months of stress can permanently destroy them. Toxic people don’t just make you miserable—they’re really hard on your brain.

The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people, and we’ve found that 90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control. One of their greatest gifts is the ability to identify toxic people and keep them at bay.

It’s often said that you’re the product of the five people you spend the most time with. If you allow even one of those five people to be toxic, you’ll soon find out how capable he or she is of holding you back.

You can’t hope to distance yourself from toxic people until you first know who they are. The trick is to separate those who are annoying or simply difficult from those who are truly toxic. What follows are ten types of toxic drainers that you should stay away from at all costs so that you don’t become one yourself.

10. The Arrogant

Arrogant people are a waste of your time because they see everything you do as a personal challenge. Arrogance is false confidence, and it always masks major insecurities. A University of Akron study found that arrogance is correlated with a slew of problems in the workplace. Arrogant people tend to be lower performers, more disagreeable, and have more cognitive problems than the average person..

9. The Judgmental

Judgmental people are quick to tell you exactly what is and isn’t cool. They have a way of taking the thing you’re most passionate about and making you feel terrible about it. Instead of appreciating and learning from people who are different from them, judgmental people look down on others. Judgmental people stifle your desire to be a passionate, expressive person, so you’re best off cutting them out and being yourself.

8. The Twisted

There are certain toxic people who have bad intentions, deriving deep satisfaction from the pain and misery of others. They are either out to hurt you, to make you feel bad, or to get something from you; otherwise, they have no interest in you. The only good thing about this type is that you can spot their intentions quickly, which makes it that much faster to get them out of your life.

7. The Dementor

In J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, Dementors are evil creatures that suck people’s souls out of their bodies, leaving them merely as shells of humans. Whenever a Dementor enters the room, it goes dark, people get cold, and they begin to recall their worst memories. Rowling said that she developed the concept for Dementors based on highly negative people—the kind of people who have the ability to walk into a room and instantly suck the life out of it.

Dementors suck the life out of the room by imposing their negativity and pessimism upon everyone they encounter. Their viewpoints are always glass half empty, and they can inject fear and concern into even the most benign situations. A Notre Dame University study found that students assigned to roommates who thought negatively were far more likely to develop negative thinking and even depression themselves.

6. The Manipulator

Manipulators suck time and energy out of your life under the façade of friendship. They can be tricky to deal with because they treat you like a friend. They know what you like, what makes you happy, and what you think is funny, but the difference is that they use this information as part of a hidden agenda. Manipulators always want something from you, and if you look back on your relationships with them, it’s all take, take, take, with little or no giving. They’ll do anything to win you over just so they can work you over.

5. The Envious

To envious people, the grass is always greener somewhere else. Even when something great happens to envious people, they don’t derive any satisfaction from it. This is because they measure their fortune against the world’s when they should be deriving their satisfaction from within. And let’s face it, there’s always someone out there who’s doing better if you look hard enough. Spending too much time around envious people is dangerous because they teach you to trivialize your own accomplishments.

4. The Self-Absorbed

Self-absorbed people bring you down through the impassionate distance they maintain from other people. You can usually tell when you’re hanging around self-absorbed people because you start to feel completely alone. This happens because as far as they’re concerned, there’s no point in having a real connection between them and anyone else. You’re merely a tool used to build their self-esteem.

3. The Victim

Victims are tough to identify because you initially empathize with their problems. But as time passes, you begin to realize that their “time of need” is all the time. Victims actively push away any personal responsibility by making every speed bump they encounter into an uncrossable mountain. They don’t see tough times as opportunities to learn and grow from; instead, they see them as an out. There’s an old saying: “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” It perfectly captures the toxicity of the victim, who chooses to suffer every time.

2. The Temperamental

Some people have absolutely no control over their emotions. They will lash out at you and project their feelings onto you, all the while thinking that you’re the one causing their malaise. Temperamental people are tough to dump from your life because their lack of control over their emotions makes you feel bad for them. When push comes to shove though, temperamental people will use you as their emotional toilet and should be avoided at all costs.

1. The Gossip

“Great minds discuss ideas, average ones discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Gossipers derive pleasure from other people’s misfortunes. It might be fun to peer into somebody else’s personal or professional faux pas at first, but over time, it gets tiring, makes you feel gross, and hurts other people. There are too many positives out there and too much to learn from interesting people to waste your time talking about the misfortune of others.

Interactions with toxic people are draining beyond belief.  They cause misery and mayhem sometimes without either being aware of it or simply not caring how they affect other people.  In the worst cases, they are very aware of their effects on others and take delight in causing pain, suffering, or trouble between family members/co-workers.  Unfortunately, we highly sensitive people are more deeply affected by toxic people and must avoid them at all costs.  Barring avoidance as an option we can minimize their effects on us by being aware of how they operate and maintaining our objectivity.  With toxic people, we must set firm boundaries and not be afraid to let them know they have reached a boundary or crossed it.  Sometimes we may be able to end the interaction with a toxic person or use a go-between to communicate (if one must have dealings), but, in all cases, the harm being done is to us and we should not hesitate to take care of our needs before the individual is able to damage our lives.  

Tracy Cooper, PhD is the author of Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person and Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career.