Peoples' memory for faces isn't nearly as good as they like to believe.
Hacking Human Psychology for a Fairer Criminal Justice System
Criminal justice reform is gaining momentum across the country in the hope of turning the page on the era of mass incarceration. But even the best possible laws must be carried out by humans. Implicit racial, religious, and gender biases, confirmation bias, tunnel vision, and myriad other human psychological foibles make objectivity all but impossible. Add to the mix the often unchecked power of prosecutors, and the result is a system rife with profound injustices. But there is hope: The authors of two new books related to our human shortcomings and how we beat them discuss what it would take to build a better justice system. Stick around after the event for a book signing with Emily Bazelon.
Psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt decided to cut through the noise surrounding bias in the criminal justice system and conduct laboratory studies to see if she could get some concrete results. What she found was that people not only see everyday people differently depending on who they are, but they also interpret mundane objects differently.
When subjects were repeatedly shown black male faces then shown blurry objects, the subjects saw the blurry objects as weapons more readily than if they were instead shown white faces.
Eyewitness identification during criminal investigations and trials is an indispensable tool for police departments. But, says psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt, the bias in inherent in eyewitness accounts is often misunderstood or ignored.
Big Idea[Peoples’ memories for faces] aren’t nearly as good as they like to believe—especially when you're in a situation where you’re fearful or threatened.Jennifer Eberhardt
Our memories are fleeting, says Eberhardt, and when we forget details we fill them in with assumptions. That leaves the door wide open for biases to take command of our memories.
By the numbers
Confirmation bias is an extensively studied psychological phenomenon, wherein people tend to interpret both new and old information in ways that support existing beliefs. Applied to policing, if investigators come in to a case with pre-existing ideas about the outcome, they’re more likely to find that the evidence fits their preconceptions. Jennifer Eberhardt and Emily Bazelon explain further:
This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity
Jennifer Eberhardt: If the prosecutor has a story and it’s time to check for fingerprints or other evidence, and the test results are ambiguous, you resolve the ambiguity in the direction of consistency with the overall story, the overall narrative.
Emily Bazelon: And that shows how this seemingly neutral scientific evidence can be harnessed or twisted in favor of a particular narrative.
Since police are far from immune to biases, they sometimes fit the facts of a case to support those biases instead of seeking the truth.
Let’s say the evidence in a case becomes untenable to support a conviction, or new evidence emerges that could vacate someone’s prior conviction. Emily Bazelon says that in this situation, police officers, prosecutors, and judges frequently dig in their heels and refuse to accept that their first conclusions were wrong. Bazelon says that this moment of illogic is a psychological defense.
Big IdeaI think these psychological biases play into the resistance that professionals have to admitting they made a mistake The moral reckoning of recognizing that you did harm, instead of good, and in fact have ruined someone’s life, is too much to take in.Emily Bazelon
Or, as Jennifer Eberhardt puts it, “No one’s a villain in their own story.” Helping criminal justice communities understand, and course-correct for, biases in their own actions can help prevent those situations from unfolding in the first place.
Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration by Emily Bazelon
Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer Eberhardt