How can we understand the swiftly moving and factually erroneous consensus that cops are killing unarmed black men all the time and everywhere? One answer is through the research of Daniel Kahneman. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Noble prize winning psychologist Kahneman describes a thinking error that plagues ordinary folks as well as researchers. He identifies two thinking systems of the brain. System 1 is our intuitive thinking which is the part of the brain that actually makes most of our decisions and drives most of our behavior. We are largely unaware of its influence.
System 2 is our conscious decision making process where problems are examined and conclusions reached. Kahneman tells us that our System 2 thinking is influenced significantly, and surreptitiously, by System 1 thinking. This is why intelligent people can form an objectively incorrect conclusion such as that killings by police of African-Americans is rampant.
System 1 thinking assumes what Kahneman labels WYSIATI - "what you see is all there is". This derivative of our caveman minds makes quick assessments based on limited information to survive. Rhetoric about Ferguson in newspapers, blogs, and tweets saturated the media. Many, moved by the emotional impact of the event, believed what they read. Kahneman says this thinking "suppresses ambiguity and spontaneously constructs stories that are as coherent as possible. Unless the message is immediately negated, the associations that it evokes will spread as if the message were true."
Kahneman also notes that small numbers are much more prone to erroneous conclusions than large numbers. There's some statistical math involved, but essentially the fewer examples one tests, the chance of randomness being identified as a pattern increases significantly. Kahneman says there is a strong bias toward believing small samples: "We are prone to exaggerate the consistency and coherence of what we see." What this means in the current debate is that: 1) people heard the first narrative of police killings of blacks and not only believed it but immediately framed all stories within that mindset and, 2) the number of unarmed black men killed by police is so small as to make it mathematically impossible to draw any conclusion outside of randomness. In other words, even if there is a "kill bias" based on police perceptions of race, there is not enough data to prove it because the events are, in fact, quite rare.
Our brains are crazy about finding patterns. Basketball fans just know that sometimes players get a "hot hand", but statisticians have proved that these are random events. The casino industry relies on gamblers believing they have found a pattern that will repeat for a big win but, again, math always wins. The formulations of a pattern that frames our thinking and behavior is useful, but often factually flawed based on limited data. Such is the case with the social contagion exhibited by protesters and pundits about the police "pattern" of killing black suspects.
These brain based biases are cemented so quickly that we will ignore compelling evidence that contradicts them. That's why those reading this article with the already formed conclusion of black victimization by police will not likely use their frontal cortex to examine facts that may change their thinking. Grand jury findings and investigative reports are rejected as flawed and unreliable against their predisposed belief. When people use the comic line "my mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts", they are stating a fact of brain science that can be overcome only with a disciplined consideration of facts which most are unwilling to work through. "Sustaining doubt", says Kahnmen, "is harder work than sliding into certainty."
The consequences of understanding how contagious opinions are formed are significant for police leaders. First, it is encouraging to know that there may be a scientific explanation for the mass behavior that seems to be irrational. Secondly, we can be aware that we should not make sweeping procedural changes based on public opinion that may have no basis in fact. That's not to say we don't consider the political and diplomatic consequences, but making permanent changes that may reduce officer safety must be done based on reliable data. Third, we know that only an infusion of factual information can inoculate the population from the zombie march of brain dead thinking.
The current anti-police sentiment will not fade like the Macarana or the Ebola panic. Unless law enforcement leaders arm themselves with reliable data to share with the pubic, the mythology of the current movement will become embedded as a cultural reality. We must not allow this mistake of history to prevail.