Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Trayvon Martin and Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias involves looking at a situation and emphasizing the details that fit your preconceived notions, while discounting those aspects that conflict with them. In the case of Trayvon Martin, we seem to have one faction who deems it perfectly reasonable to believe that a young African American man in a hoodie, walking alone in the mid-afternoon, must be up to no good - gang activity, drug dealing, burglary, whatever. You find a Facebook page of a man named Trayvon Martin, and he's depicted striking what you believe to be a gangster pose? That can only mean that every black man named Trayvon Martin is a ganster. You see a picture of Trayvon Martin where he doesn't look dark-skinned? That can only mean that the biased media is trying to make him look less scary because, well, no logic there, just prejudice. And of course, despite your own obsession with race, it's tragic that everybody who is critical of the shooting of a 17-year-old who was doing nothing more menacing than walking is turning this into a racial issue. What sounds like a muttered racial slur by Zimmerman, perhaps a completely innocent reference to "bleah" people, right?

From what we've heard so far, it sounds like the police also drew conclusions based upon confirmation bias, failing to adequately challenge the dubious elements of Zimmerman's story and accepting Zimmerman's belief that nobody who looked like Martin belonged in that neighborhood or could be present for anything but nefarious purposes. The fact that they leaked information about Martin's background - facts irrelevant to the shooting incident - suggest that the person behind the leak believes that Martin somehow got what was coming to him, and believes that the fact that he apparently used marijuana supports that position.

On the other hand, you have a documented police officer wannabe with a history of violent confrontations, who likes to tour around his neighborhood playing captain of the neighborhood watch. (That's all documented.) It is pretty easy to go from there to seeing Zimmerman as a guy who wanted to be Dirty Harry - savior of the neighborhood - looking for a "Make my my day, punk" moment until he finally found one. That is, until he made one. The evidence is more sympathetic to this interpretation, given that there's no evidence that Trayvon Martin did anything wrong before being stalked and confronted by Zimmerman, but there is a possibility that Zimmerman has an innocent explanation for what sounds like a racial slur during his 911 call, and that he actually did stop accosting Martin and start to return to his car before a renewed altercation leading up to the shooting.

Let me emphasize, there is a material difference between inferring the worst about Zimmerman and the worst about Martin. With Zimmerman, we're talking about the guy who is still alive and is free to make his case. At any time he chooses he can make a public statement explaining what he really muttered during the 911 call, and provide a plausible explanation of why he would pursue Martin with such vigor, in total disregard of the instruction he was given by the police, then suddenly decide to let him go. He may be entitled to a presumption of innocence if he's prosecuted for a crime, but he is not owed any such presumption in the court of public opinion.

With Martin, on the other hand, there's no evidence that he did anything wrong or suspicious before being accosted by Zimmerman. Even in Zimmerman's own words, Martin's big offenses were walking through Zimmerman's neighborhood, wearing a hoodie on a rainy day, and keeping his hands in his pockets, presumably to keep them warm. Everything else is projection or, in the case of people like Michelle Malkin, opportunistic race-baiting. I don't see any measure by which Zimmerman's actions were reasonable, particularly after being told by the police that they did not need him to follow Martin, and it seems difficult to avoid seeing that his perceptions of race colored his actions, but there's room for a factual explanation that makes him something less than a poster child for a Dirty Harry wannabe who was eager to shoot a "punk".

I'm not going to argue that the public at large should give Zimmerman every benefit of the doubt, or cut him some slack. Given his documented actions, I'm not sympathetic to him. I do think this incident reflects the foolish nature of "stand your ground" laws that transform this type of incident from an "imperfect self defense" - "The fight I started wasn't intended to escalate to this level so I should only be convicted of manslaughter" - to actual self-defense. If the attention that this incident generates causes Florida to restore at least that level of sanity to its statute, that's worth something. Centuries of sound public policy lie behind the idea that you should avoid escalating a conflict to involve deadly force whenever possible, even if that means retreating, and it's a shame that legislators and lobbying groups have played up to the fears and prejudices of... well, people like Zimmerman... and have extended the concept of self-defense to the point of foolishness.


  1. Without disagreeing with the main thrust of your article, I will ask if "confirmation bias" would also cover the folks who immediately assume "racial bias" and "conspiracy" rather than "incompetence," "old-boy-network," and "bad law"?


    PS - Tawana lied - and even though I admit that it is inappropriate on my part, to me, anyone who brings in that race-baiting self-promoter automatically loses some of my sympathy.

    PPS - Zimmerman's father being a retired judge may have had more to do with the the local prosecutor's decision not to charge him with manslaughter (as the police wished) than the race of the victim . . . or it may not.

  2. Yes, that's fair. The assumption that Zimmerman must have been a racist, augmented by some misleading presentations of the 911 call, may reflect confirmation bias. Coming down on 'stupid' vs. 'evil' vs. 'doing their job perfectly' in relation to the police and prosecutor, similarly. We have enough information to do some judging of the various actors, but we very clearly don't have the whole story.

  3. CWD - yes, it is inappropriate on your part. I'll see you Tawana and raise you how many fucking decades of the KKK and its fellow travelers?

    As Aaron already alluded to, it's a false dichotomy to assume that Zimmerman was either a model of diversity OR was a racist ass out to gun down a black kid whenever he saw one. Racism can be a lot more subtle and ugly than "I would like to shoot a black kid". Would Zimmerman have seen a white teenager in a hoodie as a likely criminal? Would he have muttered that such teens "always get away"? Would he have assumed a white Martin belonged in the neighborhood? Perhaps he would have acted in exactly the same way if Martin had been a blonde-haired blue-eyed teenager named O'Martin, but it seems a little silly to pretend that it's a choice between "complete racist shitsack" and "no racism whatsoever".

    BTW, I can't help but wonder what the senior Zimmerman and 'family friend' Taafe think they're accomplishing, other than to make Zimmerman look awful, by putting out stories conflicting with Zimmerman's own statements and making racist remarks, respectively.

  4. Mythago - The fact that the KKK and its fellow travelers have done horrible things for decades doesn’t really much change my opinion of Reverend Sharpton and how he conducted himself in the Tawana Brawley case. As for my comment’s appropriateness, I sort of addressed that when I made it. The fact that the family brought him in doesn’t change the tragedy of what happened to their child or what the correct legal outcome of the case against Zimmerman is, it just impacts my sympathy for them.

    As to your second point, assuming it’s directed at my comment – you seem to have missed my point. I didn’t offer an opinion on whether Zimmerman was a racist or not. I asked, rhetorically, if the people who “knee jerked” that the answer was 100% racism (as opposed to other potential causes) also suffered from the same sort of confirmation bias Aaron described in his post. I didn’t offer an opinion on the ultimate issue of what happened and why that night (or later through the justice system), because I don’t know. I’m inclined to agree with you about our societies biases against both teens in general and black teens in particular (I believe Jessie Jackson made some rather well known comments on the subject). If your second comment wasn’t directed at me, disregard.

    As to your final point, I’m afraid I don’t have much to add. I agree with your analysis of the usefulness of the remarks – although I’ll at least give them points for courage if not brains for being willing to make any comments in public. I’m guessing that the public backlash for anybody taking Zimmerman’s side is pretty intense.


    PS – the last news report I saw indicated that Zimmerman’s father was a retired magistrate from VA. If accurate, that would undercut my earlier comment.

  5. "...I’m guessing that the public backlash for anybody taking Zimmerman’s side is pretty intense...."

    Is that a reaction to their defense of Zimmerman or to their vilification of Martin? It's possible to do the former without doing the latter.

    Magistrates are often assigned to such pleasant duties as signing warrants in the middle of the night so that the judges can sleep. The fact that he was a magistrate and not a judge does not mean that he has no relationships within the police department or prosecutor's office. I have seen no evidence, though, that Zimmerman's father actually did something to interfere with the police investigation or prosecutor's review of the case.

    1. 1. My hunch is that to the people protesting in the streets, ranting on the Internet and just generally calling for Zimmerman's arrest and/or head - your distinction is lost.

      2. My point was that before his retirment he was a magistrate in VA and the officials in question are in FL.


    2. Ah... I wasn't paying attention to the state.

      Although I concede that both exist, I think there's a distinction to be made between "public backlash" and "people protesting in the streets", just as there's a distinction to be made between "Zimmerman defender" and "White supremacist racist trash who hacks Martin's email account as part of a smear campaign." Also, although I haven't followed the protests, I doubt that all protesters or Internet 'ranters' are of uniform opinion on the subject of Zimmerman, and the craziest rants seem to be coming from... best call it the anti-Martin side, because I don't sense that many of them actually care about Zimmerman.


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