Friday, May 28, 2010

Tunnel Vision Deja Vu

By Randy McCall

Last week I found an interesting online article, posted on a Psychology Today blog by Mark White. This particular article, titled Tunnel Vision in the Criminal Justice System examined the work of several professors, which detailed how false convictions happen when investigators and prosecutors unconsciously decide that a particular individual must be the perpetrator.

In essence, the article says that law enforcement and prosecution, having committed to the idea that they have the criminal in custody, then views all following investigations, collected evidence and interrogations through a biased lens.
Findley uses this case as an example of tunnel vision in the criminal justice system, identifying mistakes made at each stage of the process that can be traced to common cognnitive biases. In Findley's words, "tunnel vision is the product of a variety of cognitive distortions, such as confirmation bias, hindsight bias, and outcome bias, which can impede accuracy in what we perceive and in how we interpret what we perceive" ("Tunnel Vision," p. 6).
Some quick definitions would be helpful here:

Confirmation Bias: from the article "Confirmation bias describes the natural human tendency to interpret new information in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs, to remember previous events in a way that confirms those beliefs, and to discount or discard information that challenges them"

Hindsight Bias: from the article "Hindsight bias describes another natural tendency to regard a past event as inevitable, or at least much likely than originally thought, after it is confirmed by later information. Otherwise known as the "knew-it-all-along" effect, it stems from the way we construct our memories of events, using all of the information gathered since the original occurrence to arrive at a much more definite causal chain of events than is objectively warranted."

Outcome Bias: An error made in evaluating the quality of a decision when the outcome of that decision is already known.

We can sum these up much more simply - if the article author will forgive me for the vast oversimplification - as:
  • I believe what I've seen
  • I've seen it all before
  • It's always worked out for the best.
I was particularly interested in the list of cognitive distortions listed above, as - having my own cognitive biases - it immediately occurred to me that we could apply the Tunnel Vision effect to crime victims in-and-out-of the criminal justice system.

Let's call it Tunnel Vision Deja Vu.

Within some elements of society - and certainly within the judicial and reparation systems - there are a series of biases or beliefs about crime victims. Crime victims, viewed through this lens, are all assigned the same general thoughts, motivations and desires, despite their drastically different experiences, personalities, ethnic or cultural backgrounds, and religious or ethical persuasions.

Some of the more common stereotypes, which I'm sure you've read or seen before: Victims are weak, are damaged goods, are somehow at fault for - or caused - their own victimization, are always exaggerating, are attention seekers, are solely interested in vengeance, will always seek maximum penalties, are only interested in money, and so on.

Precisely how these beliefs developed is the topic for a much larger article. I can take a few educated guesses, however.

In some cases it's simply a matter of psychological self defense... for example, the belief that victims caused their own victimization springs from a refusal to believe that: "something bad could happen to me... I would never do that, therefore I am safe, and they were stupid".

In other cases, it could be the result of a very negative experience by judicial staff with a few victims. It's only human nature to remember the worst, not the best, about people, just as a defense: remember "Once burned, twice shy"? Of course, these staff are going to be the ones training new staff members, and sharing their experiences with peers. It doesn't take long for the worst possible examples to be passed around between offices, courts or regions. Over the years the few negative examples from different offices build up and become the base norm. This field is also particular susceptible to the "We know what's best for you" and "It's always worked out for the best" viewpoints. It makes life so much easier than tailor-making solutions.

Finally, some of these viewpoints can be based in the systemic policy of an agency, as is shown in great detail in Adding Insult to Injury, a report by the Ombudsman of Ontario on the Provincial Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, as well as in a UK report on their national Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, Compensating Victims of Violent Crime. Both these reports found policies having staff to stonewall victim applications, to not give full information, and to treat all applications as suspicious (e.g they only want money), all in an effort to pay out as little compensation as possible. Unfortunately, what starts out as a policy, ends up as a bias.

Thus, while Tunnel Vision can drive innocent people into prison, for victims Tunnel Vision Deja Vu creates entire mindsets which then try to force victims of crime into pre-set molds, prepared expectations, assembly-line solutions, and pre-determined successful outcomes.

Time society took another look, don't you think?

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps the author's views on tunnel vision is correct but one thing I do know. (In reference to the confirmation bias) When I listen to a trial, or read about evidence against a person, I do so knowing that, if it can be shown beyond a reasonable doubt to be truth, I am willing to admit my previously wrong impressions.

    To me, jurors have to do much the same when they hear both sides of the arguments. They form one opinion during states case and another during defense. They form one opinion during state's questioning of witnesses and another during defense questioning. And again when they are in a jury room discussing the case.

    So how does my willingness to rethink my previous assumptions and the jurors going back and forth meet the discounting anything that challenges the original beliefs in the confirmation bias of tunnel vision? Or does his view limit the information to LE and justice system. Law enforcement officers are human just like the public at large so wouldn't they think and rethink also?


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