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When sizing up others, we often look for signs of 'normalcy' to determine threat level.
When sizing up others, we often look for signs of 'normalcy' to determine threat level. / George Clerk/Getty Images

During her 30 years as an FBI profiler, Mary Ellen O’Toole discovered something about using gut instinct to judge character: It doesn’t work.

When sizing up others, we often look for signs of “normalcy” to determine threat level. A well-kept lawn, a nice car and a friendly demeanor may look safe, but as O’Toole explains, it’s often the ability to blend in that allows criminals to fly under the radar.

Here, the author of Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us shares how to navigate three potentially risky situations.

Your kid’s coach is too nice. Intuition may tell us school officials are safe, but this isn’t always the case. “A lot of people who go on to become child molesters, they’ll go into jobs that get them contact with children,” O’Toole says. If interest in your child extends beyond school (gifts or other special attention), be cautious.

You’re hiring a new employee. Don’t automatically reject candidates because of past behavior. Instead, ask them about it. “We all have problems in our work history, but you should find out how the prospective employee views these problems,” she says. “If you never take any responsibility or blame other people constantly, do I want to hire you?”

You’re on a first date. Meeting an online match for the first time? Watch how your date interacts with the server. “If they’re nice to you but talk down to the staff ... that’s a red flag,” O’Toole says. “Do you really want to ignore that?”

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