Saturday, June 23 , 2018, 2:09 am | Fog/Mist 60º


Russell Collins: Alleged ‘Excessive Force’ Incident a Case Study in Cognitive Bias

Regardless of what the Santa Barbara police video shows, people will see what they expect to see

Picture this in your mind:

On a cool evening in late October, a man driving a crew-cab pickup with roll bars in the bed pulls into the parking lot of an upscale grocery store in Santa Barbara. The man exits his pickup and locks it, then walks quickly toward the sliding glass doorway of the store. From a few yards away, a policeman yells out, ordering the man to step back into the car. The cop is young and relatively new on the force.

He will report later that he had been trailing the pickup for some miles. It had been swerving erratically, he will claim, and he had tried to initiate a stop on the street near the entrance to the grocery store lot. Court and police records — which may have been available to the officer on his laptop at the time — show that the truck’s owner has a history of DUI-related charges, and is driving on a suspended license.

The man does not return to his car, but continues walking away. The officer steps forward and grabs his arm. According to reports issued the next day by police, the driver at this point breaks free, forcing the officer to grab, trip, strike and knee him several times around the face and body. A Taser is also used against the man.

Bystanders in the parking lot are startled enough to stop and watch. According to one of them interviewed later by a reporter, at some point in the struggle, the man shouts, “Why are you doing this?” The officer shouts several times, “Stop resisting arrest.” Other officers arrive, and the pickup owner is arrested.

Several hours later he is photographed with bruises and contusions on his face, several broken ribs and a broken nose. The man will make a statement after his release denying he resisted arrest. “I laid down like a lamb,” he said. The police have taken blood to test alcohol levels, though the man says he had consumed exactly one drink on the day of the encounter.

Now answer this: Are we looking at the use of excessive force here, or simply an unruly citizen being arrested with forceful but legal methods?

Since many Santa Barbarans are following the media accounts of the police vs. citizen dust-up in the Gelson’s Market parking lot last week, you may recognize the scenario as more or less what’s been in the media, including Noozhawk, about that incident. There are calls for an investigation, and the outcome is still very much up in the air.

It’s a pretty good story. It’s got a good guy, a bad guy and a cliffhanger ending. Depending on your view of these things, the bad guy is either the policeman or the pickup driver, and true justice hangs on the fate of an unreleased police video.

And in fact, the video has already been viewed by our police chief, who reports that the arrest was entirely legal and proper. Whew! Right? It depends on your views about this type of thing. One camp might think that the chief would never make those claims if the video didn’t support them. The other might imagine this is the first phase of a whitewash, which will probably include suppressing, destroying, doctoring or editing the video so the truth never comes to light. Or maybe you’re reserving judgment and still haven’t made up your mind.

You Want the Truth?

But here’s my bet. It won’t matter what the video shows. “Facts that challenge basic assumptions — and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem — are simply not absorbed.”  This is the overarching conclusion drawn by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman in his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. While Kahneman is looking mainly at investing mistakes people make, his larger point is that our cognitive biases are far more likely to change our interpretations of events than events are to change our habitual way of seeing things. We see what we expect to see, in other words.

In fact, this is one of the big discoveries of the relatively new science of cognitive psychology. Your preconceptions about the arrest at Gelson’s will most likely dictate your understanding of the video (if you ever get to see it) rather than the reverse. You will view the video through the lens of your apriori opinion of the case, and guess what? It will be obvious that you were right all along! And even if (like me) you weren’t quite ready to make up your mind, well, after watching the film, you still won’t be able to.

The Just World Hypothesis, The Sinister Attribution Error and the Illusion of Unbounded Rationality

So, let’s do an experiment. Reflect back for a second on your own responses when you first heard about the Tony Denunzio case in the media, or read the little vignette at the top of this column. Notice how quickly you formed an opinion, at least a preliminary one, about what happened based on the limited information you were given. Why you did this is because human beings are compulsively opinionated, even though we almost never have enough information to make a completely rational decision. How you did this is a different story.

You did this with heuristic thinking, which just basically means that we have very good mental tricks for coming to good-enough decisions about things without spending too much time. That’s the good news: Heuristics allow us to evaluate situations quickly with minimal effort. The bad news is that they rely on all kinds of quick and dirty rules, or cognitive biases. These include our knee-jerk opinions about minorities, people with arrest records or authority figures like the police.

Psychologists have identified cognitive biases for just about everything, including cognitive biases (we adjust for the biases and rigidity in other people’s thinking, but fail to account for it in our own). Since all of our most damaging stereotypes are part of this collection of biases, it would be nice if we could erase them periodically and start from scratch. Unfortunately, most of them are kind of baked in by the time we reach adulthood. Plus, without a healthy set of heuristics and biases to get us through the day, we might be frozen with indecision, unable to even get out of bed.

Here are three fairly common cognitive biases that could affect your judgments about the pickup driver and the police officer.

People Get What They Deserve in Life — Right?

If you were a student at the University of Kentucky in 1965, you might have been invited to participate as an observer in a strange experiment conducted by a young professor named Melvin J. Lerner. If you accepted, you would have been asked to watch a film about a female student who, you were told, was the subject of a behavioral learning experiment. In the film, the girl repeatedly cries out as severe shocks are delivered each time she fails at the learning task. You would have then been queried about your attitudes toward the girl.

The experiment wasn’t about behavioral learning at all, of course (the girl was an actress). Lerner was attempting to uncover something about how the students evaluated the girl. Knowing only that she was being so unfairly tortured, what were their opinions about her as a person? What Lerner found back in 1965 became the foundation for a pivotal idea in social psychology. The students watching the film revealed an irrationally low opinion of the girl, which moved even lower when they discovered there was more pain in store for her later.

Lerner’s hypothesis, called the just-world hypothesis, has been experimentally demonstrated time and again. And because it has important implications for psychology, politics, philosophy and other social sciences, the just-world hypothesis has been explored by legions of psychologists trying to understand it more fully.

Here’s the gist: Because we so powerfully want to believe that the world is a fair place, we unconsciously and irrationally devalue the people who seem to be getting a raw deal. “Blaming the victim” is a more recent phrase used for this bias.

You can test this out in yourself. Unless you have inside knowledge of the parking lot incident at Gelson’s — if you just read the news or read the little vignette above, in other words — you may have come quickly to the opinion that the police officer was acting pretty reasonably. If this is the case, you might notice, by looking closely, that you were tugged by a desire to believe that the police are usually on the right side of the law. That the world is basically a fair place, in other words. If you notice this tendency in your thinking, don’t worry. You’ve got company. According to Lerner’s theory, the tendency to see the world as overall just and fair is basic to human personality.

The Little Guy Always Gets Screwed — Right?

There is countervailing tendency in some people. They look through just the opposite mental filter. There are many names for this tendency. I like “Sinister Attribution Error.” It’s catchy. Of course, it is not actually true that the little guy always gets screwed, anymore than that people tend to get what they deserve. These are both biases that people lay on top of the world unfolding before them.

Did you (like many of the bystanders) quickly conclude that the cop was operating out of abusive motivations? Then your thinking may be skewed toward seeing powerful others and institutions as sinister. Given the information contained in the press reports — the ones I saw, at least — there really wasn’t a sufficiently filled out picture to determine whether police acted illegally, or if the pickup driver acted in a way that brought on an aggressive police response.

So, We Should Hold Off Pending Further Information — Right?

What purpose does it serve to think in these distorted ways? For one, there’s a psychological benefit. Both tendencies — to view authority as mostly Machiavellian or mostly fair-minded — lower anxiety. Why? Because they impose the illusion of pattern and predictability upon a frighteningly random world. And, evolutionarily speaking, like all cognitive distortions, they provide a boost to our chances of survival because they simplify the world and allow for quick and dirty decision-making, which is infinitely more adaptive than making no decision as you wait for more information to arrive.

Which takes us to perhaps the least noticed cognitive bias of the three. The illusion of unbounded rationality. According to this thinking error, if we gather enough data and think hard and long enough about it, we will find the truth hidden behind our cognitive biases and the shortcuts of heuristic thinking.

But truth isn’t like that, except in the most strictly controlled scientific experiments. Facts don’t stay stable, they weave and bob. There is only so much time and brainpower available to make the decisions required to keep us alive right now: If we think too hard or too long, the moment is gone and the facts are all changed. At most of the crossroads we face, we make decisions, even life and death ones; we act with confidence, then move on.

In other words, in the real world, there is no such thing as complete information or complete rational consideration of something as (almost infinitely) complex as the emotional dance between a cop and a pickup driver struggling together in a grocery store parking lot.

Our heuristic mental shortcuts leave each of us trapped in a cartoon world of stereotypes and biases, in other words, but we’re stuck with it. We can’t escape these limitations for most practical purposes, but by recognizing and understanding them a little, we gain perspective on ourselves and a little extra tolerance for people who see the world differently. Can that be enough for now?

— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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