Trust Your Intuition

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

While in flight to Seattle I met a woman who told a compelling story. Several years ago, while she was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, she was approached by an attractive, well dressed, young man. He told her his car had broken down, he was new to the university, and asked “where is the nearest pay phone?” She hesitated for a moment. Something about him bothered her. She knew the nearest pay phone was at the end of a row of buildings which bordered the forest. Pointing to the location of the phone she said “it’s at the end of that row of buildings” and turned to leave. The young man appeared irritated and asked her to walk him to the phone , at which point she felt what she described as an “urgent need to get away from him”. She said “no”, then left. A few days later she saw him get on the bus she was riding. He tried to ask her for help again, but she got off at the nearest stop, blocks away from her home, again feeling unsafe in his presence. And once again, while eating in a local restaurant, the young man approached her, and she left abruptly. More than a year later she saw his face again, only this time he was on the news. The attractive, but overly insistent young man was serial killer Ted Bundy.

Many of us can remember times when we felt something strongly, but couldn’t consciously explain why we feared someone, or disliked a person. We now know that the amygdala region of our brain, the part of our brain which evaluated threat, processes information twice as fast as the neocortex region of the brain, which regulates conscious thought. Often we can find conscious reasons later for our first impression. In the case of my travel partner, she realized later that it was odd that Ted Bundy claimed to be a new student, yet he wasn’t carrying any books. She found it unusual that he insisted on her help, rather than asking any of the hundreds of other students there. His irritation that she would not accompany him was inappropriate. Often we find that the first impression we have of someone is the most accurate. We can get into trouble when we ignore our intuition and only rely on rational reasoning. I highly recommend the Gavin De Becker book The Gift of Fear. It is a book full of recommendations about hiring and firing people safely, and includes ways to analyze your first impression of someone. It will help you respect your intuition and stay safe.