Psychology’s Role in Opinions Toward Police Shootings

The shootings of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile have once again cultivated public outrage towards law enforcement officers. Following the shootings, multiple police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge were shot and killed, seemingly as retaliation against police violence. If you are on social media, you have no doubt seen the videos and the angry reactions to all of these tragedies. Many people have strong opinions concerning the shootings, and it can often be quite easy to tell who is outraged with law enforcement and who defends law enforcement based on the things they say and share on social media.  So how are these opinions developed and maintained? Today’s post will explain the potential for bias in forming opinions, and why such biases can be problematic.

The first concept we will delve into is confirmation bias. This is the idea that we tend to only select information that is consistent with our preconceptions. How does this relate to opinions towards police shootings? Well, the articles you read and accept as true, and the information you ignore or discount may depend on your pre-set beliefs about police. For instance, if you tend to defend police officers, you may only attend to examples where violent police action was either justifiable or not present while discounting instances of race-based police brutality. On the other hand, if you believe that white officers tend to shoot unarmed black individuals, you may be more likely to follow stories of racial injustice while ignoring instances of positive interactions between black people and white police officers.

Confirmation bias is especially problematic because it doesn’t allow for objective reasoning or entertaining other points of view. If you only seek information that is consistent with what you believe and ignore information that contradicts these beliefs, it is very hard to have a rational conversation with someone of a differing opinion. Rather, this bias only serves to strengthen pre-existing opinions and further polarizes people with differing views.

The second concept is the availability heuristic. This heuristic uses the availability of information about an event to make judgments about the likelihood the event will occur. To illustrate: which is a more likely cause of death – being killed by dog or a shark?  Most people will say that a shark attack is more likely thanks to the media coverage when an attack does happen and the graphic imagery found in movies like Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, and The Shallows. Positive experiences with dogs are much more common, and national media rarely carries stories of deadly dog attacks. However, an average of about 30 people in the US die every year from dog attacks whereas 0-3 die from shark attacks. Because we have such readily available images of shark attacks, we are likely to overestimate the likelihood of such an attack occurring. Because we don’t have very available images of dog attacks, we’re more likely to underestimate the odds of dying due to a dog attack.

In the last couple weeks, there been highly publicized cases of police violence against unarmed black men and deadly retaliation against police officers by black men. This has resulted in extreme scrutiny and hatred directed toward both police officers and the black lives matter movement. However, the deliberate targeting of police officers is very rare, and according to the Washington Post, unarmed black men made up just 4% of the people killed by police officers in 2015. It is important to recognize that it is often the few bad eggs and extremists that get the media attention. The easily available information about these atypical people unfortunately leads to the misperception that they represent their particular group and that other members of their group are likely to preform similar actions. This is not the case, rather it is an example of the availability heuristic.

As an additional note, it is also important to consider the dangers of underestimating event likelihood. National media does not typically feature stories of positive interactions between white officers and black people, nor do they show stories of racial profiling by police. Just because these events may not be as readily available in people’s minds does not mean that they do not happen.

As you can see, there are reasons that people form and maintain their opinions. But what do the statistics say? Unfortunately, there is not a rich data set examining the characteristics of police shootings. However, the Washington Post is starting to compile this information. Using a collection of different sources, they are collecting data on victim race and mental health, circumstances leading up to the shooting, and about 10 other types of information. Data is still being collected for 2016, but here is the gist of what they have found for 2015. Of the nearly 1,000 people killed by police officers, 50% were white and 26% were black. At face value, this statistic seems to indicate that police are more likely to kill white people than black. However, the 2009 US census data shows that the population is approximately 62% white and 13% black. Now this tells us that a black person is twice as likely to be killed by a police officer than a white person. But, there is still one more statistic – blacks are charged with more than 50% of the murders and robberies in major US cities, thus increasing their contact with police officers.

So how do statistics factor into what we believe? Although statistics are substantially more grounded in reality than opinion, they’re not always the straightforward, definitive truth we want them to be. First, most people struggle to understand statistics. What seems like a simple statistic at face value can often require complex thinking that factors in elements such as base rates and population distribution. The average person is more likely to accept whatever statistic is presented than they are to do the research and math required to properly interpret it. Second, there is still room for bias in the interpretation of statistics. In the previous paragraph, there were three different interpretations offered for one statistic. Due to confirmation bias, people are often motivated to select the interpretation that best fits their opinion. Third, statistics can sometimes gloss over deeper systemic issues. In essence, statistics such as the ones previously described are good at telling us that something happened, but not so good at explaining why it happened.

We may like to think that we’re rational beings, but we aren’t. The world we live in is often too complex to fully consider every single detail, and so we develop biases and heuristics as a way to simplify this complexity. Often, these biases and heuristics are quite useful. For instance, confirmation bias can prevent us from pursuing irrelevant pieces of information when making decisions, and availability heuristics can prevent us from worrying too much about seldom occurring events.  However, as previously noted, these biases and heuristics can also be quite dangerous.

Biases and heuristics are quite difficult to avoid, but as you’re reading articles and discussing your opinions, take a moment to reflect. Are you ignoring information because it contradicts your own opinion? Is your fear or anger based mainly on media coverage? It helps to keep in mind the following two pieces of advice. First, be respectful of others and listen to what they have to say, even if you don’t agree with them. You may still disagree with them afterwards, but they may also be able to introduce a perspective you hadn’t previously considered. Second, recognize that you don’t necessarily have to pick a side, nor do you have to defend everything a person/group you support does. For instance, you can support police officers while still being upset with the ones who kill unarmed black men.

Between the social unrest and the current political situation, you’re going to be seeing a lot of people sharing pictures, videos, statistics, and articles that support their particular views. So as you’re scrolling through Facebook or sharing your own opinion, just be aware of the potential for bias and availability heuristics to influence the way you think.


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