Gunmen or Maintenance Worker? Applause or Gunshot?  How Expectation Influences Perception

November 20, 2017

Earlier this month police in Schaumberg, Illinois, responded to a call of one or more gunmen walking around a business district. According to the Chicago Tribune, "investigators determined that the purported gunman was a maintenance technician wearing a belt that held a tool resembling a gun, police said. ‘Everyone is safe. Every office is open, and officers are clearing out,' Schaumburg Police Sgt. Christy Lindhurst said shortly after noon on Tuesday.' At 10:50 a.m. police received a call of a gunman at the Woodfield Corporate Center at 200 N. Martingale Road. A ‘very heavy police presence' responded, Lindhurst said. Some businesses evacuated. Others chose to shelter in place.'"

Another news report offered additional details and claimed that a second gunman had been spotted: "Schaumburg police responded about 10:50 a.m. Tuesday to a report of two men with guns. Police later reported that there was no indication that shots were fired, no firearm was found, and police say no one was injured. Police reviews video surveillance, and confirmed that the original report was incorrect. Schaumburg police say there was no threat."

How do we explain this mistake? Drills, nailing guns, and other construction equipment can look like a weapon from a distance. But the item was seen in a tool belt worn by a uniformed maintenance worker. Obviously a shooter could dress in any fashion they like, but there are tens of thousands of construction and maintenance workers with equipment-laden toolbelts across the country at any given time, and very rarely are they mistaken for active shooters.

There's something else at play, and it involves eyewitness perceptions.

This case is reminiscent of another from four years ago. In 2013 Ohio's Oberlin College cancelled classes after someone reported spotting a person walking on campus wearing what appeared to be a Ku Klux Klan-like hooded robe at night. College officials released a statement on Monday explaining that "This event, in addition to the series of other hate-related incidents on campus, has precipitated our decision to suspend formal classes and all non-essential activities ... and gather for a series of discussions of the challenging issues that have faced our community in recent weeks."

What of the uniformed Klansman spotted on campus? According to a piece on Slate.com, "Local police responded to the report, but weren't able to find anyone wearing the hard-to-miss KKK garb. They did, however, discover a female walking with a blanket wrapped around her, suggesting the very real possibility that the eyewitness was mistaken." The Chronicle-Telegram added, "Oberlin police Lt. Mike McCloskey said that authorities did find a pedestrian wrapped in a blanket. He said police interviewed another witness later in the day and that person also saw a female walking with a blanket."

It's much more likely that a person on campus was wearing or carrying a light-colored blanket, coming back from a toga party, or even a prankster dressed like a ghost, instead of dressed in full Klan regalia.

As The Atlantic reported, "Reports on Monday that someone was walking around the campus of Oberlin College in Ku Klux Klan regalia--for which the Ohio liberal arts college cancelled an entire day's classes--may have been a huge misunderstanding. That's the sense one gets from reading a comprehensive report published on Tuesday morning by the local paper, the Chronicle-Telegram, which traced the early-morning sighting to someone wearing a blanket: ‘Oberlin police Lt. Mike McCloskey said that authorities did find a pedestrian wrapped in a blanket. He said police interviewed another witness later in the day and that person also saw a female walking with a blanket.' But no KKK garb."

But why would someone make that particular mistake? The answer lies in what psychologists call expectant attention and confirmation bias.

Expectation Influences Perception

Though many people assume that eyewitnesses accurately perceive, understand, and report what they experience, we are subject to several biases--and they influence us in ways we often aren't consciously aware of. In order to make sense of what we see (especially things we don't recognize or fully understand), the human brain looks for contextual cues; we look for what else is going on in the environment that might lead to one interpretation instead of another. One powerful influence on our perceptions is our expectations. A well-known example of this can be seen in the illustration of a duck or a rabbit. Neither answer is wrong; both interpretations are correct within their context. But the context makes all the difference.

How does this apply to the Klansman seen at Oberlin College? There were several contextual factors that led the eyewitness to associate the figure with the Klan. Most importantly, the campus had recently experienced a string of events characterized as hate crimes, with flyers and graffiti targeting African-Americans, gays, and Jews appearing on campus. The events were widely reported and triggered much discussion on campus about the presence of hate groups. Most bald men are not skinheads, and racists can come in any race, gender, or color. But the most identifiable hate group--the only one with an image that is unmistakably associated with intolerance--is the Ku Klux Klan and their distinctive hoods and robes.

Secondly, the location played a role in the misidentification: The white-clad figure was not seen outside a local pizza place or library, but instead outside the Afrikan Heritage House, the building on campus most closely associated with African-Americans. It's unlikely that if the same woman had been seen outside a campus synagogue she would have been interpreted as a member of the Klan.

Then there's the fact that the eyewitness probably didn't know exactly what an actual KKK outfit looks like. Real Klan robes have a distinctive, specific cut to them, and typically a cross emblem on the front. The eyewitness only caught a glimpse of the person, in low light and early in the morning. Psychological studies have shown that under such conditions, the human mind is very poor at accurately perceiving, remembering, and reporting even basic elements of the experience. Our brains often "fill in" details with what we expect to see--not necessarily what we actually see--and we tend to bias our reports accordingly. Thus a person wrapped in (or even carrying) a light-colored blanket can become a Klan outfit.

The same thing happened at Woodfield Corporate Center: In the context of school and workplace shootings, anything is possible and in light of scary reports many unusual things are plausible. In an enlightening article for New York magazine, David Wallace-Wells describes being caught up in a chaotic panic caused by a false report of a gunshot in a New York airport:

"When the first stampede began, my plane had just landed. It started, apparently, with a group of passengers awaiting departure in John F. Kennedy Airport Terminal 8 cheering Usain Bolt's superhuman 100-meter dash. The applause sounded like gunfire, somehow, or to someone; really, it only takes one. According to some reports, one woman screamed that she saw a gun. The cascading effect was easier to figure: When people started running, a man I met later on the tarmac said, they plowed through the metal poles strung throughout the terminal to organize lines, and the metal clacking on the tile floors sounded like gunfire. Because the clacking was caused by the crowd, wherever you were and however far you'd run already, it was always right around you.

There was a second stampede, I heard some time later, in Terminal 2. I was caught up in two separate ones, genuine stampedes, both in Terminal 1. The first was in the long, narrow, low-ceilinged second-floor hallway approaching customs that was so stuffed with restless passengers that it felt like a cattle call, even before the fire alarm and the screaming and all the contradictory squeals that sent people running and yelling and barreling over each other--as well as the dropped luggage, passports, and crouched panicked women who just wanted to take shelter between their knees and hope for it, or "them," to pass. The second was later, after security guards had just hustled hundreds of us off of the tarmac directly into passport control, when a woman in a hijab appeared at the top of a flight of stairs, yelling out for a family member, it seemed, who had been separated from her in the chaos. The crowd seemed to rise up, squealing, and rush for the two small sets of double doors."

Examples like this help remind us that sincere, otherwise credible eyewitnesses can often be influenced by many factors, including what they expect to see. The idea that people often incorrectly see, remember, and report what they experience is not merely theory but a proven fact; there are over 2,000 published scientific studies demonstrating it. By some estimates, as many as one-third of eyewitness identifications in criminal cases are wrong, and nearly 200 people who were convicted of crimes based on positive eyewitness identifications were later exonerated through DNA evidence. By employing critical thinking skills and focusing on what we actually see instead of jumping to conclusions we can help avoid needless fear and panic. 

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