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Heuristics? The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Cartoon created by Fred Voorhorst

Last week, in the middle of the pandemic, the highly publicized police killings of black men, and the resulting protests and demonstrations I learned of the death of Professor Anders Ericsson. Professor Ericsson was a preeminent psychologist who studied the development of expertise. He was interested in the development of high levels of skill that allow 'experts' to do things that are beyond the capacity of most humans. In particular, his work was instrumental in illustrating that deliberate practice was critical in developing the heuristics that allow experts to become both faster and more accurate in processing information. In essence, because of these tricks of the trade, experts are able to avoid the information limits that bound the performance of most humans. This is the positive, good aspect of heuristics. These heuristics allow experts to focus on the patterns (or chunks) that specify significant aspects of situations and to coordinate their action to respond automatically - quickly and accurately. 

The term heuristic is also used to describe biases in decision making. As the extensive research of Kahneman and Tversky demonstrates, heuristics can lead people to make choices that violate the conventions of traditional logic. Heuristics are a form of bounded rationality that apply within certain domains of activity. Thus, the automatic responses that work in one set of situations can seem illogical or mindless when they are applied in situations outside that domain. This is the negative, bad side of heuristics - they can lead to performance that Jim Reason referred to as 'strong, but wrong.' 

The ugly side emerges when we put people in domains where the circumstances lead them to develop heuristics or implicit biases that not only violate logic, but that violate our cultural values!  

My father entered the Marines when he was 17 at the end of WW II. He only served for two years and never left the country. But in his forties, when someone tried to mug him on the street one night, he automatically responded as he had been trained - slash, kick, gouge! It thwarted the attack and may have saved his life.

There are many parallels in the training of police and soldiers - to prepare people to respond automatically to defend themselves and to survive potentially deadly situations. It is very tempting to attribute these mindless responses to evil intent of individuals, but we might consider that these implicit biases are a product of training and socialization. These biases are the result of years of deliberate practice!

In some cases, the violent acts that we see on the cell phone videos are the result of many years of deliberate practice, that result in mindless responses to situations.  The implication is that the problem of police violence is not simply a function of a few bad apples, but the product of a system that deliberately trains mindless responses to threatening situations. 

In hindsight, it is easy to attribute the clearly mindless violence to evil intent. But, at least in some cases, consider that these mindless responses are the product of a system of training designed for soldiers, not for peace officers. We want to blame the officer, but this will not ultimately solve the problem of police violence. Ultimately, we must change the system and reconsider what type of skill training is most important for creating expert peace keepers, rather than expert soldiers. 

3 thoughts on “Heuristics? The good, the bad, and the ugly.

  1. Rob Hutton

    Hopefully this article is not taken too literally by readers... thinking that police officers are only trained to shoot black targets. My understanding is that police fire arms training also includes deliberate practice at *not shooting*, ‘rules of engagement’ and processes for escalation... until they are automatic. The key training challenge however is the judgment of *which heuristic/automatic response is appropriate in this situation. This is why the work of ShadowBox and by the likes of Joel Suss are so important.

  2. Troy Faaborg

    Thought provoking read, thank you John! As a career military officer who spent decades training aircrew, I can appreciate the discussion of the critical purpose of “mindless” action in high-risk and time-limited situations - and what a perfect example the thwarted mugging attempt is. Related to the appropriateness of the tactics used in law enforcement, I was reminded of the idea that every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets - if we want to see a different outcome, we must examine the way we train and equip these officers and change the system to produce different outcomes. What a timely and relevant commentary!

  3. Walter van Steenis

    Well analysed and well written article. In the end we have to change the system to create expert peace keepers, we do need them.


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