Why do we jump to conclusions? The Trayvon Martin case

Although I have been sort-of following the news of the shooting of the teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida (who can avoid it?), I have not written anything about it so far. Part of the reason is that there does not seem to be much point in adding my voice to a case that so dominates the media and for which I have no information to contribute.

The second reason is that huge uproars suddenly erupt about something or other and just as quickly shift to something new. The media, especially cable news with its need to fill 24 hours of airtime, tend to be like dogs chasing squirrels, rushing from one thing to another, and the rest of us get dragged along by the leash. We had the Rush Limbaugh episode, the Joseph Kony boomlet, and now the Trayvon Martin case. Next week it will be something else that we are supposed to be tremendously upset about.

But the main reason that I did not comment is that past experience has taught me that one has to very cautious about forming an opinion on cases like this based on the first reports that emerge. It is almost always the case that initial reports are highly incomplete or are offered by people who may not be totally objective or are even completely wrong. One has to be especially skeptical of initial accounts if they are released by authorities such as the police or governments that are themselves involved in the incident. But skepticism is warranted even when the incidents do not involve official authorities and in cases where there are a lot of eyewitnesses but in this case, the events took place in a dark and isolated area, compounding the problem.

But people quickly take the initial stories that emerge as the complete narrative and jump to conclusions as to who is right and who is wrong, and then take highly visible and vocal stands on what should be done. Once those positions have been publicly staked out and lines drawn and sides formed, it becomes hard for people to become more nuanced as more information inevitably emerges that challenges the straightforward early narrative.

It is because of this that I try not to form an early judgment, even though the temptation to do so is very strong. But why is that desire so powerful that almost all of us succumb to it so easily? Why do we tend to form strong opinions so quickly on the basis of so little information and yet are so certain about the rightness of our conclusions?

In his 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial prize for Economics) describes the processes by which we make judgments, assess risks, take chances, and the like. He says that it is convenient to think of our brains as having two ‘characters’ that he calls System 1 and System 2. He says that “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” while “System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” (p. 20)

System 1 works at lightning fast speed in arriving at conclusions about practically anything we encounter. It has emerged because, evolutionarily, it is advantageous to be able to quickly judge situations and take action, especially when it might be dangerous. But the methods System 1 uses are not the ones that are likely to give us the best results, unless the situation is one in which we have deep and expert knowledge gained from prior experience in that area. The problem is that it works on a WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is) basis, where it assumes that all the evidence that is readily at hand is all there is and is sufficient to make a judgment. It then combines that evidence with any other ‘evidence’ that it can recall from memory, along with any ideological biases or prejudices that spring to mind.

The catch is that this process gives much greater weightage to things that are easily recalled, which means to events that are highly impactful and emotionally charged or receive the most publicity, even though they may not be at all representative of the full set of data that should be used. System 1 seems to think that if something can be easily recalled, then it must be representative of the general case, though that is often not true. In crimes that have racial overtones for example, people’s judgment will be swayed by their memories of O. J. Simpson, Tawana Brawley, Rodney King, the Central Park jogger, and the like. (Those events sprang to my mind immediately in connection with the Trayvon Martin case even though there is no reason to think that the current case is anything like them.) System 1 then uses this highly biased data set to construct a story about what might have happened in the current situation. It then uses the plausibility of the story it has itself constructed to judge whether it is likely true or not.

System 2, on the other hand, is more analytical and tries to deliberately construct alternative hypothesis as to what might have happened and actively seeks out new information and more relevant data to see if a better judgment can be arrived at by weighing the evidence more appropriately. The problem is that using System 2 requires a lot of work but the brain is lazy and likes to conserve energy and is quite willing to let the speedy System 1 take charge and run things as much as possible. System 2 does not get called into action unless forced to do so, either by willful effort or because System 1 cannot quickly come up with a plausible story or it is immediately challenged by a contradictory evidence or when people are forced by circumstances to confront all the evidence, such as when they are serve on a committee or jury or because the problem is one which System 1 is not equipped to handle. This is why having someone play a ‘devil’s advocate’ role in such situations is useful.

In the Trayvon Martin case, the initial facts were that a young unarmed black man walking in a residential neighborhood at night was shot dead by a Hispanic white neighborhood watch person who had suspicions that Martin did not belong there and had some criminal intent. Using just this data, it is easy to construct two stories that are plausible, depending on one’s ideological presuppositions. One is that of Zimmerman as a prejudiced person who was itching to be a crime fighting Dirty Harry shooting an innocent person merely because the latter fitted his racial stereotype of a criminal. The other narrative is that Zimmerman, although mistaken in his judgment of Martin, had good reason to be suspicious of him and was not guilty of racial malice, and may even have been defending himself from attack.

Either of these narratives may or may not eventually turn out to be largely true but once people picked one early, it became the one to be defended even if they had no idea if it was true or not. People on both sides have now dug in their heels and refuse to moderate their early strong stands since that would involve a loss of face or admitting they might be wrong. Instead they highlight evidence that supports their case and try to poke holes in anything that does not agree with it. This is an example of the danger Sherlock Holmes warned about to Dr. Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia when he said, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

This is why in such situations, rather than quickly deciding guilt and innocence, the only call for action that makes sense is for a full, open, and transparent investigation of all the facts that can then be weighed carefully. In other words, System 2 needs to be brought in. Carrying out the due processes of law may not be emotionally satisfying to satisfy our System 1 needs for quick answers, but we have got to get into the habit of doing so to prevent every tragedy of this sort becoming a full-fledged circus with two competing sides seeking to ‘win’ their case in the media, because then truth becomes the ultimate loser.

Kahneman makes the following recommendation of how to do so (p. 417):

What can be done about biases? How can we improve judgments and decisions, both our own and those of the institutions that we serve and that serve us? The short answer is that little can be achieved without a considerable investment of effort. As I know from experience, System 1 is not readily educable.
The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2… Unfortunately, this sensible procedure is least likely to be applied when it is needed most. We would all like to have a warning bell that rings loudly whenever we are about to make a serious error, but no such bell is available, and cognitive illusions are generally more difficult to recognize than perceptual illusions. The voice of reason may be much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition, and questioning your intuitions is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision.

Most hot-button political issues are cognitive minefields. We need to learn how to recognize them so that whenever we encounter one, we immediately recognize the need to slow down and engage System 2.


  1. dano says

    Mano you are so right. I also jumped to conclusions for a little while assuming ZImmerman was guilty and should be arrested but then decided we need to get all the facts before jumping to any conclusions. I still think there is more to learn and hopefully now that the government is involved we see some closure whether that means an arrest or not. I will say that if Zimmerman is found guilty of a crime he should be punished to the full extent of the law. Thank you for the post.

  2. says

    From what I gathered about this case, the fact that it blew up had nothing to do (or very little to do) with what actually happened during the shooting. Initially, the outcry was over the fact that Zimmerman was not arrested, questioned, tested for alcohol or drug use, photographed, all the standard police proceedures when investigating a claim of murder by self defence. It was about the fact that the police seemed to take Zimmerman’s word for it and let him go, when if someone claims self defence the burden of proof is on THEM to demonstrate that that is what happened, not the other way around.

    It was about the fact that if a 200+pound self-appointed neighbors-think-Im-creepy previously-arrested-for-assault black man shot an unarmed 17 year old white boy in the chest, there is no way in hell that man would have been allowed to go home and sleep in his own bed.

    It was not about the circumstances of the shooting, it was about the indefensible way that the police handled it. Only now has the focus shifted away from the police and to what actually happened, partially because of the “blame the victim” campaign that has been launched by the Zimmerman defenders, partially for the crime-scene curiosity of the public, but even if Zimmerman had a good reason to shoot him (which I personally doubt given the evidence released) it doesnt change the disgusting way the police handled it, not collecting what could have been crucial evidence, and the racial profiling (testing the corpse for alcohol but not the shooter?!)

  3. Alverant says

    Armed man chased then killed an unarmed kid in his own neighborhood. The armed man then claimed self defense and the police accepted it with little question.

    These facts were known initially and have not changed. How much more do you need to know before you’re allowed to make a conclusion without being accused of jumping to it?

  4. RW Ahrens says

    While I do agree that much of what you write here is valid and lends itself to self examination in future incidents, I have still not seen reason to change my initial judgement of the Martin case, which was that Zimmerman was unduly aggressive and used excessive force. I have been sort of waffling about the racist issue -- on one hand, it seems like a slam dunk, once one listens to the 911 tape, but on the other you hate to make an assumption. I do, however, tend to think that race played a part -- if only as a profiling kind of process in his mind given past incidents in the neighborhood.

    On the other hand, I DO think race played a big part in the cops’ reactions -- given the failure of them to identify Martin’s body for three days when he had a doggone cell phone on him. It COULD be sloppy police work, but damn, it would be more like sheer incompetence to me, if racism wasn’t part of the picture.

  5. unbound says

    I agree with Mano that we should always be cautious. I don’t know if there was really racism at work here, or if, in the end, there really was a life threatening situation. But that is actually irrelevant.

    I have not seen anything yet that negates the most important point (for me at least) in this issue. Zimmerman spotted Trayvon. He contacted the police who told him that he shouldn’t follow (yes, I know that they actually said he didn’t need to do that in lieu of do not follow, but I’m sure both the operator and Zimmerman knew full well that the statement meant Zimmerson shouldn’t follow the kid). Zimmerman ultimately confronted Trayvon when there was no reason for the confrontation. In any state that does not have the “stand your ground”, Zimmerman would have to be put in cuffs and an investigation accomplished to determine what happened before he would even be considered for release. Manslaughter charges (at a minimum) would be initially set for Zimmerman.

    Sans the confrontation that Zimmerman initiated (and I will absolutely change my stance if there is even light evidence that Zimmerman did not create the confrontation), Trayvon, at most, would have been harassed by the police. Trayvon did not seek out Zimmerman on purpose or even accidentally (e.g. he wasn’t drunk and stumbled into him). This doesn’t seem to be an issue of bias, but of the information that was provided quickly and haven’t been refuted to this date.

    Sadly, this key point of the event isn’t even being reported all that much in the mainstream media.

  6. LIsa says

    You’ve made some really great points and I agree that most of the time we are manipulated by the media and not given enough info before the instant judgement sets in. Unfortunately what makes this issue exceptionally sticky is that racism on the part of a listener is profoundly influential. When an individual living in a racist culture first hears about this case he/she immediately assumes that the black individual was doing something wrong or is guilty, not because he/she is racist but because racism is part of the very institution within which we live (not unlike sexism). This is precisely why this case is so poignant and why the Amadou Diahlo case also caused such outrage. When a society has racism that makes up the very fabric and foundations of its constitution the ability to use System 2 is useless, because the roots of racism run so deeply that the cognitive abilities are choked by this racism that entwines around our thinking.

  7. Thorne says

    I have to agree with others here. The problem isn’t whether or not Zimmerman was GUILTY of a crime, but whether her should have been arrested. Guilt or innocence is a determination for the courts. The role of the police is to arrest those who are suspected of breaking the law. And in my view, anyone who kills an unarmed person should automatically be suspected of breaking the law. He should have been arrested, processed and brought before a judge to determine whether there was a valid reason to charge him.

  8. slc1 says

    Re Alverant @ #3

    Au contraire Mr. Alverant. Zimmerman’s story is that he initially pursued Martin but then broke off the pursuit and was returning to his vehicle when Martin jumped him from behind, forced him to the ground, and began banging his head against the ground. There is a witness who partially corroborates Zimmerman’s version because he saw the two men wrestling on the ground. There is also disputed evidence of a nose bleed by Zimmerman and injuries to the back of his head.

    I agree with Prof. Singham, we don’t have all the information as we sit here today so the prudent thing to do is to demand a full investigation by an impartial body that will let the chips fall where they may.

  9. mnb0 says

    “Why do we tend to form strong opinions so quickly”
    Ask our hunting ancestors roaming the grasslands and the woods.

    “once people picked one early…..”
    That’s the main mistake, isn’t it? Being human I jump hastily to conclusions as well, but I always keep in mind what Keynes once said: “If my information changes, my decisions change. What about you, sir?”

    My information is summarized by Alverant in #3 above. If there is more I’m curious to learn about it.
    So correct analysis, wrong example as far as I am concerned.

  10. josh says

    You’re jumping to conclusions. We don’t know that Zimmerman ‘chased’ Martin. He apparently followed and then approached him, but there’s no evidence that Martin tried to run away. Rather, Zimmerman claims he was walking away (I’m not sure if he says he talked to Martin or not), and Martin then jumped him.

    The police did not accept his story without question. They handcuffed him and took him to the police station for processing, however, no formal arrest was made.


    Reports are that Zimmerman had wounds and grass-stains on his jacket consistent with his story. An eyewitness also corroborates the claim that Zimmerman was in a fight with Martin with Zimmerman on the bottom. However, note that the video I linked is now being claimed as evidence that Zimmerman wasn’t injured and didn’t have grass-stains. From what I can see in the clip, said injuries aren’t in evidence but it’s virtually impossible to judge from the angle and resolution of the camera.

  11. says

    Bottom line: Zimmerman was told to “let it go” by the 911 dispatcher but decided to continue; had he followed instructions we wouldn’t be talking about this.

    This is yet another bit of evidence that black people automatically arouse suspicion.

    Of course, the details of this case need to be examined carefully and professionally.

  12. itzac says

    @slc1 #8

    “There is a witness who partially corroborates Zimmerman’s version because he saw the two men wrestling on the ground.”

    That testimony is equally consistent with a scenario where Zimmerman chases and confronts Martin. It doesn’t prove anything either way.

  13. Jager2 says

    I agree. And actually, my shock was never with the crime and Zimmerman himself, but rather, with the Sanford PD who clearly didn’t follow even the most basic of operating procedures to ensure that this was handled correctly.

    Additionally, this underlines the problems inherent in the Stand Your Ground law. Back when it was first implemented, it was criticized for enabling vigilantism. Clearly, that allegation wasn’t far off the mark.

  14. itzac says

    Actually, Josh, if you listen to the audio of Zimmerman’s call, you can hear him say, “He’s running away.” At which point he exists his vehicle and pursues him until the dispatcher tells him not to.

    The next thing anyone knows for certain is that they were fighting. This is not inconsistent with either scenario.

    The problem now is figuring out what happened in between. Did Martin attack Zimmerman as he claims? Or did Zimmerman confront and attempt to forcibly detain Martin? Unfortunately we may never know the answer to this because of the mess the local police made of it.

  15. Tim says

    Well said. I agree. Let’s also consider the issue of adult vs. juvenile. Assuming 17-year-olds are considered juveniles in Florida, I think the difference in an adult confronting a juvenile also comes into play here.

    That, and the fact that I have 17-year-old son.


  16. says

    Can we still make informed decisions subjectively without some form of informational gathering? What we really need is an objective news source that doesn’t taint or spin what they’re reporting towards their own idealism. Then your next problem would be the content itself. (i.e. what is being reported and what isn’t)

  17. says

    Lost in all this speculation about what happened that night is the unambiguous attempt of the right wing to twist the racial element of this saga for its own purposes. As a case in point, the obnoxious columnist Cal Thomas argued recently that black-on-black violence is a far larger problem that the media ignore. While this observation is not without factual merit, his column was spectacularly insensitive and aimed squarely at a self-satisfied, white ruling class that is content to regard black America as a permanent underclass. If the real problem is in the black community itself, then white America need not trouble itself with self-analysis, let alone (expensive) social policies.

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