Availability Heuristic

So, a lot of people I know (almost universally white, millennial, left-leaning) are following the Black Lives Matter movement with some real intensity. I don't object to that. It's raising some serious questions that we ought to address. I wonder, though, if there isn't a distortion beginning to appear arising from the intense focus on black people killed by police to the exclusion of other data.

According to USA Today, police kill black Americans about twice a week, which is to say around 100 times a year. But last year, 68 police died in the line of duty. Now there were about 38,929,319 blacks in America last year, whereas the United States has about 120,000 police. So even if you eliminate deaths of police from non-violent causes, the death rate of police from violence is much higher than the death rate of black Americans from police.

But the point is that we're not paying attention to the same information. Everyone who is concerned about the Black Lives Matter movement are focused on the one data set, rather intensely to the exclusion of others. You can be reasonably sure that most police officers hear about it when a brother officer is shot or killed in the line of duty. The world looks very different to these two sets of people who keep coming into violent conflict.

I've talked in the past about how the police treat me as a threat, but they're not wrong to do so. I'm a very dangerous man. I bear them no ill will, and so in point of fact they are not in peril with me, but they have no way of knowing that until I show it to them. Given what they do know -- the availability heuristic operating on all those stories of officer deaths in the line of duty -- their actions are not irrational. Once they've had the benefit of seeing how I interact with them, they've almost always been very helpful (sometimes even when I was really at fault).

We have to get over this hump to fix the problem. Officers are probably being overly aggressive because they are thinking about a subset of information that suggests that interactions with the public (and perhaps especially with black members of the public) are more dangerous than they really are. But members of the public are also overreacting, because they don't see the degree to which peace officers are bearing a substantially higher cost in loss of life and exposure to violence. Both perspectives make sense on their terms, but neither one is complete.

Just a thought.


Eric Blair said...

I have to disagree with this. The point of this situation is that outrage is being ginned up by those who think they will benefit from it.

In every single high-profile case so far, a very nasty collusion between the media and political activists has made each case worse than it was.

Grim said...

Even so, the cases are real enough -- even if the shootings (or hangings in jail cells) turn out to be 100% on the side of the police, the killing is going on. People who are tuned into this have the availability heuristic at work overtime, because there's constantly new examples being presented to them. That's what is enabling people to gin up anything out of it. If it only happened once and never again, you couldn't get very far with it.

douglas said...

I think this is a symptom of a larger issue- a cultural issue- and that is the distortion of modern communications- national news and internet information distribution. How many of us watch national news instead of local news now? How easy is it to see something on the internet and see a bunch of people react to it in a way that makes it seem normal, even when we perceive it to be not at all normal? The internet makes it easy for like minds to be drawn to common virtual locales and creates a false impression that the incredibly small minority is larger than it is- because you stumbled upon a corner of the internet that has a wildly disproportionate number of such people- perhaps in cases where in real life you might never have known anyone else agreed with you, but on the internet you can find a chorus to any song, no matter how off the beaten track. Media then make it worse by implying things as truth which are not, and this takes hold because you can find some self selecting sample that makes it seem so on the internet somewhere. People weren't made to understand social mechanisms on the order of hundreds of millions of people.

E Hines said...

A commenter on Belmont Club had this to say about Wretchard's not to unrelated post. The comment seems a propos here, too. (If the link doesn't take you to the comment (or even if it does), the commenter is sevenwheel, and sorting the comments by oldest first moves his near the top.)

You can never truly run out of grievances. You just have to look for smaller and smaller ones as the pool dries up. Today's grievance hunters are stalking brine shrimp with harpoons, and they aren't done yet.

Eric Hines

Ymar Sakar said...

The Red vs Blue team, ginned up by unions on both sides to consolidate power and purge dissidents. Those who think otherwise have a D attached to their screen name.