Posted on September 22, 2020

Black Lives Matter and the Mechanics of Conformity

Matthew Blackwell, Quillette, September 17, 2020

The death of George Floyd in May, circulated in a bystander’s excruciating video clip, reignited furious and sometimes violent protests demanding reforms to address police brutality against ethnic minorities. According to the Center for Police Equity’s 2016 report “The Science of Justice,” black Americans are disproportionately affected by the amount of force used against them by police, such as being tasered. Additional investigations have found that black suspects are more likely to be manhandled, pushed to the ground, handcuffed, threatened, or pushed against a wall during a police interaction than their white counterparts. Bias against the black community appears to extend in all kinds of directions, from the courtroom to the maternity ward, where black women are 10 times more likely than white women to have their newborn baby taken from them if they test positive for an illicit drug.

The apparently inequitable use of force against ethnic minorities, meanwhile, has unleashed a torrent of emotion and allegations against police departments across the United States in the wake of Floyd’s death, spurred on by celebrities and activists alike. {snip}


But, for all their zealous advocacy, celebrities and protestors alike are reluctant to acknowledge or discuss the nuances of the empirical literature on the racial biases they are protesting. As part of an effort to quantify racial bias in police killings, a 2016 study in the journal Injury found that black Americans are not more likely to be injured or killed by police than white Americans during traffic stops. And, despite the general finding in the Center for Police Equity report that police officers use greater force against black suspects, it also found that blacks are no more likely than whites to be subject to lethal force. In fact, it found that white people face a higher risk of being killed during an arrest. Researchers have also turned their attention to shootings, in particular. An early study provides some evidence of a racial disparity, but not in the expected direction—it found that police fire more bullets at white than black suspects.

Things get even weirder when we try to probe psychological biases in police officers. Under multiple intense psychological simulation experiments carried out at Washington State University, police were found to exhibit a propensity to fire on white suspects faster than black suspects, and were also more likely to shoot unarmed whites (these experiments measure split second differences in reaction times that the researchers believe are not susceptible to conscious control). However, it is the work of economist Roland Fryer that has attracted the most attention and discussion of late.

{snip} On the back of an earlier study that found unarmed blacks are at higher risk of a police shooting than unarmed whites, Fryer and his team came up with a more complete dataset and used an innovative methodology of comparing police interactions in which no shots were fired to those in which there were. His study arrived at a different conclusion. “The results are startling,” writes Fryer. “Blacks are 23.5 percent less likely to be shot by police, relative to whites, in an interaction.”

An obvious question arises—if black people are more likely to be roughly treated during an encounter with police, how is it possible that they are less likely to be killed? When a female Chicago police officer was beaten by a black man in 2016, she was asked in hospital by her superintendent why she didn’t draw her weapon and defend herself when she could have done so. “She looked at me and said she thought she was going to die, and she knew that she should shoot this guy. But she chose not to because she didn’t want her family or the department to have to go through the scrutiny the next day on national news.” While a white death at the hands of a police officer rarely makes headlines, a black death is likely to incite immediate media coverage, outrage, and protests or riots that last for weeks or months.

Researchers have hypothesized in an article for Criminology & Public Policy that the apparent “reverse racism” bias of police shootings reflects law enforcement fear of the consequences of a minority death, “the underlying causes of the reverse racism effect is rooted in people’s concerns about the social and legal consequences of shooting a member of a historically oppressed racial group. We believe that this, paired with the awareness of media backlash that follows an officer shooting a minority suspect, is the most plausible explanation.” The study on police shootings published by the National Academies of Sciences includes another finding that may make sense in this light—black police officers are more likely to shoot black suspects than white police officers are, perhaps because white officers will be subject to increased scrutiny following a fatality. The authors of the study conjecture, “The disparities in our data are consistent with selective de-policing, where officers are less likely to fatally shoot Black civilians for fear of public and legal reprisals.”


While doubt prevails among those familiar with the data on policing killings, faith-based inerrancy seems to invigorate activists to the point where discussion becomes futile. When video journalist Ami Horowitz tried to engage with Black Lives Matter activists he found they had virtually no familiarity with the data on police killings and no desire to know about it. “I can’t, I’m getting angry, I don’t want to talk anymore,” said one activist in response to Horowitz’s attempt to discuss the evidence. Another said, “Your data can go and suck the same dick you’re gonna suck.” Another rebuffed Horowitz by demanding to see his sources but then refused to look when he attempted to produce them on his phone. Yet another resorted to conspiracy theorizing, suggesting that any study conflicting with the sentiment of Black Lives Matter must be some kind of academic plot.

Much of this isn’t surprising given what we know about the psychology of political activists. After subjecting more than 10,000 people to knowledge-based questions about the state of the world, the late researcher Hans Rosling found that, on average, activists had a less accurate picture than the general public of the very issue to which their activism is devoted. {snip}


It might seem incredible that conformity could manifest in the absence of supporting evidence, but the phenomenon of scientifically groundless belief enjoying mass acceptance is hardly new. In his paper “The Blind Leading the Blind,” David Hirshleifer describes a process of informational cascades, by which beliefs can spread through a population. Because it is costly in time and effort to master evidence involved in a variety of issues, most people base their beliefs on what others believe rather than on primary evidence, on the assumption that others are well informed. A snowballing effect then occurs as the validity of a belief increases along with the number of believers. {snip}


Just as sticks propped against one another are kept upright by mutual inter-dependence, false beliefs may acquire spurious validity in the public square from the confidence engendered by their popularity. {snip}


In the 1960s and 1970s, the behavioural scientists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman began studying the mental shortcuts that inform our psychological judgements, and termed one of these shortcuts the “availability heuristic.” Tversky and Kahneman found that the ease with which specific instances of a thing can be recalled, the more likely we are to overestimate the importance and frequency of that thing occurring. “People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by ease with which they are retrieved from memory,” writes Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. What is in our memory, he argues, “is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.”

Research carried out by Sarah Lichtenstein, Paul Slovic and Baruch Fischoff bears out this view. For example, the media pays a disproportionate amount of attention to deaths in tornados and accidents of all kinds compared to deaths by diseases such as asthma or diabetes. Lichtenstein and her colleagues found that people believe that accidents are 300 times more likely to kill someone than diabetes when in fact diabetes kills four times as many people as accidents. Tornadoes are thought to kill more people than asthma, even though asthma kills 20 times as many people. The implications of this availability heuristic and our media saturation of black deaths in police hands should be obvious. {snip}

{snip} The media chooses to disproportionately report on black deaths for the same reason police officers have allowed themselves to be assaulted rather than fire their weapons at black attackers. Black deaths are far more likely to incite newsworthy protests and condemnation. Anger and civil unrest follows a black fatality because there is a widespread perception that an epidemic of black killings is occurring, a perception in turn influenced by our availability heuristic due to disproportionate coverage of black deaths in the media following earlier outrages.


For instance, Pulitzer Prize finalist Ruth Marcus writes in the Washington Post that black men are “two and a half times more likely than white men to be killed by police.” This figure reflects the fact that the black population makes up 14 percent of the American population but 34 percent of fatalities at the hands of law enforcement. While these figures are correct, important context is missing. White Americans are twice as likely to be killed by police as Asian Americans after adjusting for population benchmarks, but this doesn’t reflect racism against whites—it reflects differing rates of criminality among whites and Asians.

Because white Americans are more likely to commit crime than Asian Americans, they are twice as likely to interact with police and to be killed while doing so. Black Americans are seven times more likely to commit murder as white Americans, and the majority of murders and robberies in the United States are carried out by black Americans even though they are a minority. Thirty-five percent of police officers are killed by a black offender. As Roland Fryer and other scholars are aware, levels of criminality are independent variables that must be controlled to determine the dependent variable under discussion—police violence motivated by racism. {snip}


So, poor reporting influences public opinion wherever preconceived visions provide an availability market for certain beliefs to grow. This increases the number of believers which gives rise to further informational cascade effects as those believers increase the influence on others, and so on. The public and the media may then become less willing to publicly challenge ascendant beliefs due to a social mechanism called a reputational cascade. Reputational cascades behave like informational cascades but the underlying motivation is different—people publicly embrace the beliefs of others out of social necessity rather than genuine belief. As a consensus emerges, the burden of justifying one’s beliefs falls on those who dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy, and as the prevalence of a belief grows, the costs of dissent increase causing a snowballing effect of preference falsification (publicly lying about what one really believes).

{snip} Over the past few months, we’ve seen corporations and businesses around the world trip over themselves to declare their support for Black Lives Matter, change the name or branding of their products, and even fire employees who have publicly dissented. Meanwhile, mayors, house speakers, and a prime minister have fallen to their knees in a gesture of support for the movement (without explicitly endorsing any of that movement’s claims). Celebrities and politicians may declare their allegiance to the cause owing to reputational concerns, but their voices, amplified by the media, increase the availability of the belief to others who may assume that their opinions must be properly informed and well supported if they are prepared to declare them in public. Before long, the idea that an epidemic of racially motivated police killings is underway has become an unchallengeable article of faith. Informational cascades and reputational cascades feed into and reinforce one another—both increase the number of people publicly confessing to a belief and thereby exert more influence on others to conform.