The Trayvon Martin Tragedy And Psychology, Part Two: Cognitive Bias And Confirmation Bias

Zimmerman Martin 104When we look at the Trayvon Martin case, we have to wonder what was going on in Mr. Zimmerman’s mind the night he spotted Trayvon Martin, an unfamiliar figure, walking through his neighborhood. Instead of looking at this as a race incident, I think it’s important that we take a look at what in psychology is called cognitive bias.

Cognitive bias is something that I find easier to understand than to actually explain, but Haselton, M. G., Nettle, D., & Andrews, P. W. in The evolution of cognitive bias (2005) explain cognitive bias as a pattern of deviation in judgment, whereby inferences of other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion.

Basically, people create their own sense of reality (subjective social reality) based on their perceptions of objective information which influence how they respond and react to situations both mentally and physically. This cognitive bias however can be wrong and lead to poor judgement, wrong interpretations of a situation, perceptual distortions and irrational behavior/reactions.

Confirmation bias on the other hand is when we look for information that confirms what we already believe, even if other information that disconfirms it is also present. For instance, supporters of Mr. Zimmerman and Zimmerman himself will latch on to information that suggest Trayvon had a violence past, used marijuana or was involved in gang activity while Trayvon’s family and supporters will likely relish information that says Mr. Zimmerman was a racist, impulsive or quick to take the law into his own hands.

With little other information about either person, we are likely to come to some pretty strong conclusions based simply on our cognitive biases and confirmation biases alone.

Some cognitive biases are adaptive and help us make decisions faster, especially when a higher value is placed on quick action over accuracy. Others can be learned, generally subconsciously.

There are entire books written on cognitive biases, but the important part is that you have a basic understanding that people often think incorrectly and then act irrationally based on their misperceptions.

Late psychologist Ziva Kunda wrote in her article “The Case for Motivated Reasoning” that “people are more likely to arrive at those conclusions that they want to arrive at” unless they are motivated specifically to make accurate judgements and decisions.

For instance, there’s a study done by psychology professors at Notre Dame and Purdue University that showed that a person carrying a gun is more likely to “see guns in the hands of others”.

In the study, participants were given a toy gun or a foam ball. They were then flashed people across a computer screen holding either a toy gun, a cell phone or something else. The participants with the toy guns were more likely to say that the people on the screen were holding a gun, even when they were not.

In the Trayvon Martin situation this means that Mr. Zimmerman saw what he thought he saw based on his own experiences and mental frameworks. Mr. Zimmerman had stated on several occasions that there had been multiple break ins in his gated community and that “they always get away”. By “they” I am assuming he means burglars or other bad guys, not African Americans, but those who are looking for a racist spin will interpret “they” as meaning African American or black people.

Mr. Zimmerman was looking for Trayvon to be a criminal and thus he saw a criminal, although Trayvon was just walking back to his father’s house from the store and wasn’t involved in any criminal activity. As the neighborhood watchman, Mr. Zimmerman was likely looking for criminal and suspicious activity everywhere and thus was more likely to think someone was a criminal or suspicious even when they weren’t.

Now that Mr. Zimmerman believes he has spotted a criminal, he goes on to do some irrational things based on his cognitive bias that Trayvon is a criminal. He starts following Trayvon, calls the police and then continues to follow Trayvon so that he can give the police an accurate location to find this “criminal”.

Many people want to say that Mr. Zimmerman did what he did on that night because he is a racist, something I can’t say he is or isn’t, but you don’t have to be racist to be prejudice and you’ll be surprised to learn that most of us are prejudice to some extent.

Subconsciously we are more likely to be prejudice towards out-groups, which are people we psychologically do not identify with as part of our group. I discussed in a post I wrote about helping others how this same type of subconscious thinking makes it more likely for us to help those that we feel are similar to us in what is called similarity bias. 

Because Trayvon was of a different race, it made it more likely that subconsciously Mr. Zimmerman was even more suspicious of him. In the next post I’ll discuss how social stereotypes predispose most of us to have certain prejudices that then lead us to have different cognitive bias.

Although these subconscious forces are indeed powerful, there is a way we can control them to a degree through what is called “thinking safe” instead of “thinking quick”. When we think quick, we are likely to make inaccurate assumptions and if Mr. Zimmerman thought he had spotted a criminal prowling his neighborhood, he was most likely thinking “quick” and not “safe” and his cognitive biases and subconscious prejudices combined with that probably contributed a lot to the actions he took that night that left an unarmed teenager dead.

What I am getting to is that while race and prejudices probably played major factors into this tragedy, most of it likely came from subconscious psychological factors that were at play.

We will put all this together and wrap it up in part three of this discussion.