Sunday, July 14, 2013

Heuristics and the Human Mind

In the movie Up In The Air, which starred George Clooney as a outplacement consultant who leads an empty life flying around the country firing people, there is the following exchange between Clooney (Ryan Bingham) and Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener) who plays a young consultant who Bingham is mentoring.

Ryan Bingham: [on getting through airport security] Never get behind old people. Their bodies are littered with hidden metal and they never seem to appreciate how little time they have left. Bingo, Asians. They pack light, travel efficiently, and they have a thing for slip on shoes. Gotta love 'em.
Natalie Keener: That's racist.
Ryan Bingham: I'm like my mother, I stereotype. It's faster.

The fact is that we all stereotype because all of our brains use shortcuts to make decisions. It is the way the brain is wired. These shortcut pathways make decision making easier. Our brain is a wondrous thing. Most of the calories we burn in a day go to fuel this enormous power plant. Therefore, the brain always tries to make decisions that use the least amount of effort and energy it can. These shortcuts are called heuristics.

It does not mean that the decisions based on these shortcuts are always right. But they have generally served the human species well for the most part because it helped us adapt and survive. We could make quicker and more efficient decisions even if we weren't right all the time. We learned that it was dangerous to go outside the cave at night because a higher percentage did not return as compared to when others left in daylight. We learned to avoid the plant with the funny looking berries. Uncle Abner made that mistake. Once we found a "safe" place we tended to stay there despite the fact that had we ventured over the hill we would have discovered an even better place.

If you are human you use heuristics, bias and stereotypes every day. If you don't know better you are going to start with a default position as you assess things. For example, if you are looking at a product you are not familiar with and you have two items to choose from, you are going to assume the expensive option is better. If you move to a new city and need to open a bank account, you are going to assume that the bank with 50 branches and the skyscraper downtown is better than the bank with one office. After all, if they got that big they must have done something right.

In both cases, a closer and detailed look may show you are totally wrong, but you will undoubtedly have an initial bias based on prior experience.  Your brain is not going to start from ground zero when there are already paths established previously to rely on.

All of this is important to remember as we consider the events that coincided to create the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin confrontation in Sanford, Florida. There is little doubt that what happened last year on that rainy night was a human tragedy. However, it all was a result of heuristics and the wiring of the human brain.
George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin
Photo Credit:

Consider what happened from George Zimmerman's perspective. His gated community neighborhood had reportedly suffered eight burglaries in the 14 months prior to the fatal night. This Reuters story from last year provides the background.

At least eight burglaries were reported within Twin Lakes in the 14 months prior to the Trayvon Martin shooting, according to the Sanford Police Department. Yet in a series of interviews, Twin Lakes residents said dozens of reports of attempted break-ins and would-be burglars casing homes had created an atmosphere of growing fear in the neighborhood.

In several of the incidents, witnesses identified the suspects to police as young black men. Twin Lakes is about 50 percent white, with an African-American and Hispanic population of about 20 percent each, roughly similar to the surrounding city of Sanford, according to U.S. Census data.

An African-American neighbor of Zimmerman's said this at the time.
“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. I’m black, OK?” the woman said, declining to be identified because she anticipated backlash due to her race. She leaned in to look a reporter directly in the eyes. “There were black boys robbing houses in this neighborhood,” she said. “That’s why George was suspicious of Trayvon Martin.”

Therefore, if you understand heuristics it should not be any surprise that George Zimmerman would have "profiled" Trayvon Martin.  It was natural to question why a strange, young black man was doing out on a rainy night roaming through Zimmerman's gated community after the string of recent burglaries by similar young men.

It is easy to say that Zimmerman should not have jumped to that conclusion.  However, I doubt many of us, considering the facts and the background of events in that neighborhood, would have as our first thought upon seeing Trayvon be, "There goes a nice young man with a bag of skittles."

The same goes for Trayvon.  He had merely made a quick trip to the neighborhood convenience store and used a well traveled shortcut through the community to make the trip.  It was dark and he saw an older man eyeing him.  His life experience clearly seemed to be that he did not have a lot of trust in "creepy ass crackers".

It was completely understandable that Martin would have felt nervous and threatened if he thought Zimmerman was following him.  I also understand why his first thought in seeing Zimmerman in his car looking at him was not, "There is the wonderful neighborhood watch volunteer protecting the community from thugs and thieves.  I am sure glad he is there watching out for me and others who are living here."

The only two people who know what transpired that rainy night in Florida over a year ago were Zimmerman and Martin.  A jury of their peers saw and heard all the evidence and concluded that George Zimmerman was not guilty of anything that transpired that night under Florida's criminal statutes.  I was not there and did not hear all of the evidence.  I trust they made the correct decision.

I was also not there to hear all of the evidence in the O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony murder trials.  From afar, those cases did not seem to have been decided correctly from my perspective.  But I was not there.  That is fast thinking on my part.  The jurors in those cases saw and heard all of the evidence.  They should have been thinking slow.  Therefore, I accept the verdicts of those juries just as I hope the Zimmerman verdict will be accepted by those who may not think justice has been served.  Is our justice system perfect?  No.  But it still is the fairest system of justice ever devised by mankind.

The one thing I am sure of is that Zimmerman and Martin were both guilty of not understanding heuristics.  As a result, their gut instincts led them to the wrong conclusion about each other.  I would hope that this case would be a lesson for us all to better understand the way our brain works.  Our brain does help us get the right answer in very quick fashion a lot of the times.  But it can just as easily lead us astray.

It is perhaps even more important today with the fast-paced nature and complexity of our society that we learn to slow down and think.  Really think slow, especially when we are in stressful situations as hard as that may be.

Daniel Kahneman, the noted psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics for his research involving heuristics and human decision making recently wrote a book, Thinking Fast and Slow, in which he stated,

"A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped.  The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way. You like or dislike people long before you know much about them; you trust or distrust strangers without knowing why; you feel that an enterprise is bound to succeed without analyzing it'"

Kahneman's point is that we can all think fast.  The real challenge for us is to think slow.  May that be the lesson that we  all learn from the tragedy of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.

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