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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.  Originally, I had read Donald Norman’s The Psychology of Everyday Things and it had piqued my interest in a phenomenon known as hindsight bias and its nasty side effect “creeping determinism.”  I have written and written about it and I am going to again today because this is a dirty little trick the mind plays on itself often to the detriment of the officers involved.

Two very recent examples show how dramatic hindsight bias is and how it can cause extraordinary stress not only on those involved but if used in a certain context can create a social crisis.  Trayvon Martin was observed by George Zimmerman as a suspicious person walking in the rain casually looking at residences in a neighborhood that had been burglarized by a subject roughly matching Martin’s description. 

Zimmerman didn’t know if the subject was armed, alone or had an accomplice elsewhere and he had no idea what the intent of the individual was.  After calling the police, Zimmerman followed the subject, lost him, then was confronted by him and ultimately killed the suspicious subject after the 6’ 2” young man became violent, breaking Zimmerman’s nose and banging his head on the sidewalk!

In New York City, two rookie NYPD officers heard shots around three o’clock in the morning and found a man firing at four others who were running away.  The officers challenged the man who then turned his gun on them.  One of the officers shoots and kill the assailant with a shot to the head and the headlines are:  “Shaaliver Douse, 14-year-old boy, shot and killed by New York City Police!” 

The media immediately interviewed an aunt who wondered why the police are allowed to shoot little boys in the head.  She fails to mention that the “little boy” is in a gang, is awaiting other charges for assault and was killed in the act of trying to kill four other people!  That last part isn’t in the interview.

The Trayvon Martin shooting has become a national nightmare as an example of racial profiling which, until the verdict, the FBI was adamant it was not, while the Shaaliver Douse incident, headlines or not hasn’t really captured the nation’s attention so far and hopefully will not lead to any significant issues.  The thing these stories have in common is that the facts learned in hindsight have become the dominant theme in evaluating each of the incidents. 

The thing is, once the incident is over many facts are confirmed and what happens in the human brain is a strange affect known as “hindsight bias” where we seem to have known these facts all the time when we could not have.

My point in this article is not to explore the social implications of above incidents but show that use of force events have a potential to go viral in a heartbeat and that understanding how your perceptions can change after a critical incident can help you keep yourself or your agency out of the headlines.

This isn’t just true for the officer doing the shooting or fighting during an incident but also the command personnel evaluating it in hindsight.  The old maxim: “Hindsight is 20/20” is actually not true at all and, worse, may be a horrible distortion of the reality those experiencing a crisis in real-time faced making it even harder to evaluate.  In fact, the participants memories are altered after an incident as facts are confirmed or disproved; the officer may have feared a suspect was armed, but after a violent struggle it is determined the subject wasn’t,  the officer’s own justification for escalating so violently may seem unjustified even to him!  Although in every confrontation with a police officer a firearm is present and must be retained.

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. 

If you or your agency ever faces a hostile media over a critical incident, constantly refresh the unknowns the officer or officers faced that the media will act as if they were facts known to the officers.  Uncertainty, risk, fear, and the unknown are ubiquitous in our daily calls and the public must constantly be reminded of that so they can better understand our actions and their consequences!

For all investigators, command staff and trainers understanding hindsight bias is an essential step in learning from critical incidents and creating more effective training and policy!


Additional references:

Donald A. Norman, Ph.D. (1988). THE PSYCHOLOGY OF EVERYDAY THINGS. New York: Basic Books. 

Fischoff, B. (1975). HINDSIGHT- FORESIGHT: THE EFFECT OF OUTCOME KNOWLEDGE ON JUDGMENT UNDER UNCERTAINTY. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 1, 288-299. 

Wildavsky, Aaron, Ph.D. (1988). SEARCHING FOR SAFETY. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

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