The Danger of Speaking in Absolutes

A couple of years ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which focuses on making judgments quickly and almost subconsciously as a result of much experience. There’s a lot I dislike about the book and the last chapter in particular bothers me.

It deals with the 1999 shooting of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by four plainclothes New York City police officers. As Mr. Diallo was standing late one night outside the door to the building where he lived in the Bronx, the officers, the oldest of whom was 35 and the others all under 30, drove by in an unmarked car. The officers were new to the Bronx and part of a new unit to fight street crime and they thought that Mr. Diallo might be a lookout for a burglary gang.

The officers stopped and backed up to where Mr. Diallo was waiting and were “amazed” to find him still standing there. The oldest officer, Sean Carroll, remarked “I’m like, all right, definitely something is going on here.” Carroll and another officer got out of the car, identified themselves as police (though Mr. Diallo apparently did not speak much English, so who knows if he understood what they said) and approached Mr. Diallo. As they did so, he turned and ran back into the vestibule of the building grabbing at a door knob while reaching with his other hand into his jacket pocket.

Perhaps thinking that the plainclothes offers were muggers, Amadou Diallo pulled his black wallet out of his pocket. Gladwell quotes Officer Carroll recounting that moment: “He starts removing a black object from his right side. And as he pulled the object all I could see was the top – it looked like the slide of a black gun. My prior experience and training, my prior arrests, dictated to me that this person was pulling a gun.” Carroll shouted out “Gun!, He’s got a gun!” Amadou Diallo raised the wallet up in the direction of the officers.

That’s when Officer Carroll opened fire. By the end, all four officers had shot at Mr. Diallo, hitting him 19 times.

The incident gained national attention, with some seeing it as a clear case of racism by the white officers against a black man. Others simply called it a horrible accident resulting from the fact that police have dangerous jobs and sometimes make snap decisions that turn out bad.

Gladwell offers a different suggestion, tough. He claims that this tragic incident happened because the officers made 3 critical mistakes:

1. Carroll decided in an instant that Diallo looked suspicious;

2. Carroll attributed Diallo’s continued presence when the police car backed up to Diallo being “brazen”, and

3. The officers decided that Diallo was dangerous when he put his hand into his pocket.

At the heart, Gladwell attributes the incident to a “mind-reading failure” – the officers failed to read Amadou Diallo’s mind the way that people normally do when they compare what a person says or does to what their facial expressions or body language implies.

Here’s the beginning of what bothers me: When I read this chapter, first of all it stuck me as a Really Bad Example of “the power of thinking without thinking”. Perhaps “the danger of thinking without thinking” would have been a better subtitle for the book. All 3 of the mistakes Gladwell lists were the result of the split-second ‘blink’ thinking that he advocates in his book.

To prevent similar incidents, Gladwell suggests that police officers should patrol the streets by themselves, rather than in pairs or groups because “When police officers are by themselves, they slow things down, and when they are with someone else, they speed things up.” (italics in original)

Here’s more of what bothers me, though: I don’t think Mr. Gladwell is right – I’m not certain that this incident could have been avoided by training the officers to be better at making snap judgments. And I’m not certain that having just Officer Carroll there by himself would have changed the outcome either.

It seems to me that this tragic incident could have largely been the result of the way that Officer Carroll spoke. Look closely again at the words that Officer Carroll actually spoke during the incident and what he later recounted he was thinking, all of which are in boldface above. In each case, Officer Carroll spoke in absolutes. “He’s got a gun”, “definitely something is going on here”, “this person was pulling a gun”.

When writing police reports, officers are trained to differentiate facts from allegations or suspicions. If a neighbor claimed to see a man in a red jacket smash a window, the report will say “the neighbor claims to have seen a man in a red jacket smash a window”, and not just “a man in a red jacket smashed the window”. And when a person matching that description is caught, they are referred to as ‘the suspect’, not ‘the thief’ nor ‘the criminal’. Officers are trained to always carry that kernel of doubt in their mind, no matter how clear-cut and obvious things seem to be.

But when Officer Carroll, the oldest and most-experienced officer present, spoke and thought during this incident, he tossed all that training and all that experience aside.

Imagine how differently the Diallo incident might have gone if, when the officers drove up to the building, Officer Carroll had instead said: “Guys, I think something criminal might be going on here.” And when Amadou Diallo was just pulling out his wallet, if Officer Carroll’s prior experience and training, his prior arrests, had instead “suggested to me that this person was perhaps pulling a gun.” And especially if, when he saw the wallet, he had instead shouted “Might be a gun!

Gladwell talks about how, in stressful situations, people describe the feeling of time slowing down dramatically and their vision being focused entirely on one thing. Perhaps if Officer Carroll had shouted “Might be a gun!” instead of “He’s got a gun!”, all of the officers, Sean Carroll included, might have focused their entire attention on Amadou Diallo’s hand and the wallet in it, rather than on Amadou Diallo’s head and chest, where they fired their guns.

It seems reasonable to me that if Officer Carroll was by himself and used “the power of blink” but still thought in absolutes, the Diallo incident would have come to essentially the same result that it did. But it also seems reasonable to me that if Officer Carroll recognized that his suspicions and allegations had a reasonable doubt associated with them, he might not have spoken in absolutes and perhaps the incident would have turned out much differently.

~~~
UPDATE, 15 July 2013: This excellent article ‘Culturalism, Gladwell, and Airplane Crashes‘ from the Ask A Korean! blog is also critical of a theory of Gladwell’s.

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  1. Excellent article, thank you for the review, it was a worthwhile read and a solid perspective!

    The “Might have a gun” shout I wonder about though- I would assume once it gets to that point, where the officer (even incorrectly) assumes there is life threatening danger, the need for immediate and commanding action would not do well with a passive statement. The *might* brings hesitation, a second thought, and at that instance of fight or flight requires a decision to be made.

    I am not a cop, but I took years of martial arts and self defense training. The focus of having an open mind was taught to us, but once there was a need for immediate action to save a life, the will to act had to be direct and unwavering. In this case, the officers thought more of their lives then Diallo’s, unfortunately, and thus a command.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of the article, just that point has me wondering- hesitation in a real situation of violence could have meant their death.

    • Brady – Tthanks for taking the time to comment on my post. I certainly see what you’re saying about the need for decisive action when the need arises.

      I am not a police officer either, and have never had military or self-defense training, so I have never been in a position (to the best of my recollection) where I’ve had to make decision like this.

      Obviously in situations like this there are two different ways to make a horrible mistake: (1) pulling the trigger on a innocent man and (2) failing to pull the trigger when the other guy has a gun and is about to use it.

      I’m certain that members of the NYPD have been in life-or-death situations like this thousands of times before the Diallo incident and thousands of times after and, whatever the NYPD’s protocol and training is, it seems to work the vast majority of times.

      Unfortunately (if Malcolm Gladwell’s recounting of the encounter is correct), the senior officer in the Diallo case did not, as you said, issue a command. He said, “Gun! He’s got a gun!” A direct and unwavering command would have started with a verb – More like, “Fire! Open fire!” or “Shoot! Shoot him now!”

      I think the main point of my post is simply, maybe if the officers had not spoken in absolutes leading up to that instant, they never would have had to make that split-second decision at all.




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