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...


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.

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