Memory’s Nasty Little Trick

For the last twenty-plus years I have warning crime fighters about a nasty little set of tricks our memory plays on us after a critical incident. I have written and written about it and I am going to again today because this is a dirty little trick the...


The most common experience of this bias is upon viewing a movie or television show we have seen before.  The thrill is gone, the intensity muted, the characters clearly defined and ambiguity eliminated.  Similarly, when you sit on a shooting review board you are reading a report of a life event backward, in hindsight.  The shooting is over, the facts are clear, the diagrams drawn, the lights turned on, and the veil lifted.  For the officers involved the distances were uncertain, the threats unclear, the lights dim, the characters ambiguous!  Unfortunately, by the time of a hearing or review even in their minds it will be difficult if not impossible to recreate that “uncertain future” mental state we have during a crisis.

I have said over and over again that no one ever gets a call, “Go to 110 West Elm and shoot the occupant!”  Yet our memories forget the uncertainties and ambiguities and often it isn’t until, upon hearing the dispatch recording, it is recalled the actual dispatch was a domestic violence call!  In fact, participants in events will often feel as if they sensed it was coming.  That the event seemed totally predictable based on what they saw or heard.  This is called “Creeping Determinism” and it makes is seem so obvious that the final outcome of an event would occur.  Worse still, is the sense that it was probably an avoidable outcome!

“Hindsight bias” and “creeping determinism” are used regularly by the media to stir up social anxiety and unrest but it can just as easily make a use of force ruling incorrect, or cost an officer a career if not understood.  Your brain has a hard time recreating or understanding ambiguity, it seeks a clear timeline, a plot, and life is a thriller with red herrings everywhere and threats galore.  Only after an incident has become a stabilized crime scene is it possible to get true facts.  “Perceptions are us!” Should be our motto and understanding that “reasonable and necessary” is judged on perceptions, not facts, is the first step in finding the truth in use of force cases. 

Walking an officer through a crime scene has become a common way to recreate that sensation of threat, but the officer should be coached to remember the sense of naïveté, unknowing, they experience as they arrived.  Every critical incident is a novel event for the participant regardless of experience and that is why they need to try to recall all the sensations, sounds, and fears they felt living it, not remembering it!

Reviewers need to put aside their own biases and experiences and try to sense the officer’s ambiguity in the midst of chaos, in threat, and anxiety!  When an officers tells you macho BS call “BS” and explain it is time for truth not testosterone!  Fear is our root justification for everything from pat downs to deadly force, so don’t let it be masked or denied.  Courage is the Golden Mean between cowardice and recklessness and fear is our guide to that Mean!

If I still haven’t convinced you and you think this phenomenon is something rare, let me show you how omnipresent and powerful it is.  I assume you have seen the original Star Wars, the good one, remember?  In it you meet an ambiguous fellow named Hans Solo who is a smuggler and mercenary who happens to owe Jabba the Hut a lot of whatever they owed in that universe.  I bet that right this second you remember him as a hero who saves the day, wins the princess and helps make the universe safe for Ewoks!  But with five minutes to go in the original movie he is an evil mercenary who takes the money and runs, except that you don’t remember that!  Since you have seen the ending of the story and that act of selfishness was a dodge to fake you out for his ultimate redemption, your memory doesn’t retain it…it wasn’t part of the rational timeline your memory established to explain what happened.  In real life your memory tries to create rational time lines too, by dropping ambiguities that proved wrong or irrelevant!  Except they were important at the time!

In fact, lots of our stories don’t have clear cut happy endings and that is why we need to think of the “Star Wars” example whenever we review an incident.  The officers don’t know the heroes from the knaves, the armed from the innocent, and it is their perceptions at the point of crisis that is so important, yet they, themselves may have a hard time recreating even to write their report or give a statement!

A great little book should be on the on every investigator, commander, and risk analysts bookshelf, it is Everything is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer, by Duncan J. Watts, and it helps us understand a pernicious but ever present problem that memory creates for participants and perception creates for investigators and with a little understanding can be reduced. 

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