Bad Heuristics: Social Political Judgment And the Communication Breakdown

by emory989

A gunman shot two police officers Saturday. I thought that the most notable thing about it was not news itself, but the reaction to it. The link I was sent was a rag from the New York Post, so it was of course rather jaundiced: “Gunman executes 2 NYPD cops in Garner ‘revenge’”. Apparently the police union chief, Patrick Lynch, blamed the mayor in the hackneyed philippic that passes for political conviction these days; to Lynch, the lack of support for the police by the political establishment in the wake of their non-indictments in the Garner and Brown cases is tantamount to encouraging cop-killing.

Reports say that the man drove to New York to shoot cops after shooting his girlfriend in the stomach, posting his intentions to social networks and saying it could be his last post. In other words, he committed a violent crime, and afterwards suddenly decided to commit another violent crime. This seems to me to make the fact that he chose to shoot cops incidental. Quite simply, the man was most likely mentally unbalanced, and that’s the cause of his actions. We can certainly speculate that the the heightened societal focus on cops fixated this man on the police, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was mentally ill; in any other context, I think Patrick Lynch would have recognized that, which makes the really interesting thing here the semiotics – Patrick Lynch’s own psychology in interpreting events.

The police brutality vs. line-of-duty dichotomy of judgment, perhaps just as the entire political debate of the last 10 years, is a manifestation of in-group vs. out-group conflict, or intergroup behavior. In short, intergroup behavior is when John treats Jane not according to the content of her character, but the according to pre-conceived notions he has about her group. 

 “Whenever individuals belonging to one group interact, collectively or individually, with another group or its members in terms of their group identification, we have an instance of intergroup behavior” (Sherif (1966))

In application, this means that when Officer John interacts with a member of the public as a cop, his behavior will be directed by his awareness that he’s a cop and the person he’s interacting with is not. Gone are John and Jane; in exchange we have A Police Officer and A Possible Criminal. The problem from the point of view of the police brutality side is that the black people Officer John interacts with go from “possible criminal” to “criminal” more often than white people. Perhaps even a step further – that the people he interacts with as though they were criminals get harsher treatment if they’re black than if they’re white, regardless of how they got classified as criminals to begin with. From the line-of-duty side, on the other hand, the problem is that the public doesn’t understand that Officer John needs to put himself in the role A Police Officer and Jane in the role of A Possible Criminal; mistakes, of course, are made, but they could all be avoided if Jane The Possible Criminal would do everything possible to let The Police Officer make certain Jane is really A Law-abiding Citizen.

I don’t think any of the above is in dispute. However, Patrick Lynch’s statement, imputing a sinister cause to an event with a very common and simple explanation, shows that he is acting out of hostility to the people challenging the police about their behavior. Henri Tajfel’s explanation of hostility towards out-groups fits the current situation very neatly.

Conceptions of out-groups are generated in their social and historical contexts and then transmitted to individual members of groups and widely shared through a variety of channels of social influence. At least three social functions of these conceptions can be distinguished: justification of actions planned or committed against out-groups; perception of social causality, especially as it relates to large-scale distressing events (such as inflation, unemployment, a lost war, etc) whose complexity needs to be reduced to simpler proportions; and a positive differentiation of a social group from relevant out-groups. This threefold framework is useful in the integration of some recent research which relates to one or more of these group functions. Thus, Billig and Guillaumin presented extensive descriptions, based on data from contents analyses, of the “conspiracy theories” of social causation in which the evil intentions and actions of selected target groups become the assumed “cause” of the ills befalling society at large.

To apply this to the current situation, Patrick Lynch has differentiated his in-group, the police, as justice-loving, self-sacrificing public servants, justified their actions in the context of keeping the peace in a dangerous environment, and simultaneously blamed collusion among out-groups for his group’s current embattlement. What’s important about this is that it implies that he is interpreting events entirely through these in-group/out-group heuristics; in other words, he’s stopped listening in any meaningful sense of that word and is simply voicing his stereotypes as a member of a group. Unfortunately, those stereotypes are sounding rather racist and reflecting poorly on his group.

Looking at issues through this paradigm is extraordinarily revealing, but sometimes disturbing. Although what I’ve pointed out above certainly doesn’t go this far, the effects of social identity and group favoritism on our judgment seem at times to be so complete that they all but determine our reactions and actions. Supposing that to be the case, what can we really expect of ourselves and our leaders?

How often do you question your first judgments? How many times in your life have those judgments undermined a core value or your identification with a valued group?