From an address by Malcolm Gladwell, author of the newly published book Blink, Monday, February 14, at the Medical Sciences Building, for the University of Toronto Bookstore Reading Series. Rating: NNNNN
When it comes to improving the quality of decisions, we pay way too much attention to changing the hearts and minds of the decision-makers and far too little attention to changing the context in which decisions are made.
[Take] the shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York six years ago. A 22-year-old African immigrant is standing outside his apartment one night.
Four cops drive up, think he's suspicious-looking and back their car up. He doesn't run away like he's supposed to, so they think, "Oh my God, he's a badass, he's a hardass."
And then they chase after him. He's not just scared, he's terrified. He goes to take out his wallet to show his ID, and they think he's bringing out a gun. They see something black and shiny, and they go boom boom boom. They shoot him 41 times.
That case made headlines around the world. It's interesting for a number of reasons. It's about snap judgments gone horribly awry. The time that elapses from the moment the cops stop the car to the moment Diallo lies dead on the sidewalk is seven seconds. That's it. And in that moment three tragically bad snap judgments are made.
One, he's suspicious. No, he's not, he's innocent. Two, he's brazen. No, he's not, he's curious. Three, he's dangerous. No, he's not, he's terrified. How do you stop people from making those terribly bad snap judgments?
Well, one way of thinking about that is the problem that these cops are racist and they jump to racist conclusions. That's absolutely true.
But can you tell me how to use that fact to create a situation where this won't happen? Can we make changes in the environment in which police operate so that they don't make those kinds of tragically bad snap judgments? The answer is, we can.
One of the things we know is that cops in groups make many more mistakes than cops by themselves. If you look at instances where police do something wrong - shoot a gun when they shouldn't or engage in police brutality - these are powerfully correlated with cops being in groups.
Put a group of young men together - they don't have to be cops - and they will take chances, they will speed things up, they will take risks, they will charge the situation. They will be emboldened by the presence of their colleagues. They will do all kinds of stupid things.
A cop [alone] does not make those same kinds of errors. We have lots of research to show that police officers by themselves get into far less trouble. This is why over the last 20 years there has been a big move all over North America toward single-officer squad cars. It's not about saving money, it's about saving lives. Cops make better snap decisions when they're by themselves.
What does being physiologically aroused do to our ability to make snap judgments? When your heart rate's up at 175 and you've got adrenaline and cortisol surging through your body? Snap. The answer is we lose coordination, we lose short-term memory, we lose judgment.
This is why police officers tell you to practice calling 911. Why? Because if there's actually a burglar in the next room you can't call 911. You've lost so much motor coordination because you're terrified. You can't pick out 911. You can't remember 911. Or you keep dialing it on a cellphone and forget to hit the send button.
So think about this in the context of police work. This is why so many police departments have banned high-speed chases. It's not just about what happens during chases. It's what happens after. When police officers get out of their car, they are terrified. [They've had] a 120-mile-an-hour ride in a residential street where all they can think about is, "What if some kid runs out in front of my car and I kill him? It's the end of my world, I know it."
His heart rate's at a 190, his body is surging with the adrenaline cortisol. Cops in that state do profoundly stupid things. The last few race riots in North America were all caused by stupid things that cops did at the end of a high-speed chase. Think about Rodney King and the group of cops after a high-speed chase. What do they do? They exercise profoundly bad judgment because they're in a situation where the ability to make an effective snap judgment has been sorely compromised.
Now, what do we do in that situation? We come up with a way to help them out. And how do we help them out? By banning high-speed chases, and then putting them alone in squad cars... to protect people who on a day-to-day basis have to make up their minds in the blink of an eye.
Compiled by Yee-Guan Wong