In the South Bronx, on a street called Wheeler Avenue, there was a Guinean immigrant named Amadou Diallo. Late on the night of February 3, 1999, Diallo was standing outside his apartment building, looking out at the street. Meanwhile, four plainclothes police officers were driving by Diallo’s building. When they saw Diallo, they thought that he might be a burglar trying to break into the apartment, based on the way he kept looking to the left and the right, and he supposedly fit the description of a reported serial rapist who’d been seen in the neighborhood. So they stopped their car and asked to speak to him. Diallo, who stuttered and spoke poor English, didn’t respond right away. Diallo may have thought that the officers were criminals—indeed, one of Diallo’s friends had recently been attacked by a group of armed robbers. Diallo ran into his building, away from the police officers. The officers yelled for Diallo to stop running, but Diallo did not. The officers ran into the building and chased Diallo toward his apartment. At this time, one of the police officers reports, Diallo seemed to be carrying an object that resembled a gun (the object turned out to be his wallet). The police officer opened fire on Diallo. The other officers, who were coming around the corner, heard gunfire, thought that their partner might be in trouble, and fired their own guns at Diallo, ultimately killing him.
The final chapter of the book opens with a particularly striking, tragic example of snap judgments. The four plainclothes police officers who pursued and killed Diallo made a series of decisions: 1) they decided to question Diallo because they thought he looked like a reported serial rapist, or that he might be a robber; 2) they decided to chase Diallo into his apartment building; 3) one of the officers decided to shoot Diallo when Diallo reached for his wallet; 4) the other officers decided to shoot Diallo after they assumed that their friend had been shot. Gladwell will focus on decisions 2, 3, and 4, arguing that the police officers may have acted out of confusion and bad intuition, rather than explicit, overt racism. (After the publication of Blink, Gladwell was criticized for not spending enough time discussing decision 1—a decision that was arguably motivated by conscious racism, and which seems harder to categorize as a bad “snap judgment.”)
The most common kinds of snap judgments we make are snap judgments about other people. For the most part, humans are good at making these kinds of snap judgments—humans are adept at reading subtle facial cues and picking up on subtle displays of emotion. Clearly, the four plainclothes officers who shot at Diallo made a series of bad snap judgments: they judged Diallo to be a criminal, believed that he was going to shoot at them with a gun, etc. In the end, however, a jury acquitted the four plainclothes police officers, on the basis that they had made some bad but forgivable mistakes in judgment that night. The jury’s decision outraged many people, who interpreted Diallo’s death as a textbook example of police racism.
The final chapter of Blink is about interpreting facial cues—one of the most basic kinds of snap judgments that we make. In the process, Gladwell will argue that Amadou Diallo’s death was the result of some bad snap judgments and mistaken interpretations of facial cues—and not (as many argued, and continue to argue) the conscious racism of the four plainclothes police officers.
It seems wrong to say that the four police officers killed Diallo because of a simple misunderstanding—after all, the officers had three or four “misunderstandings” in a row, beginning with their judgment that Diallo was a criminal, and ending with their tragic belief that Diallo had a gun. But it also seems wrong to say that the officers killed Diallo because they were murderous racists: indeed, none of the officers had any previous history of overtly racist behavior. As we will see in this chapter, Diallo’s death falls in the “grey area” between deliberate and accidental behavior.
Gladwell returns to a provocative argument here, claiming that human beings do not always choose what to do consciously, but neither are they involuntarily “conditioned” to act. Instead, he says, freedom is a constantly shifting “grey area”—depending on the situation, people’s actions are somewhat voluntary and somewhat involuntary in varying degrees.
In order to understand Diallo’s death, we’ll need to understand the “affect theory” developed by Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman, two of the most important psychologists of the 20th century. Tomkins taught at Harvard throughout the 1920s and 30s; during this time, he developed a complex affect theory—in other words, a theory that humans display their innermost emotions through subtle facial expressions. Many years later, Tomkins became a mentor to the young Paul Ekman, who shared Tomkins fascination with the hidden language of the human face. Together, Tomkins and Ekman studied facial expressions by videotaping thousands of subjects from around the world. Gradually, Ekman and Tomkins found a sophisticated way to analyze facial expressions.
Ekman and Tomkins’ research reiterates some of the themes that Gladwell brought up in the first chapter when he discussed the research of John Gottman. Gottman, like Ekman and Tomkins, concluded that the face, and the human body in general, speaks a subtle but important “language”—facial expressions communicate all sorts of information, including information that the person is trying to hide. Notice that Tomkins and Ekman also had to develop their “thin-slicing” abilities by studying many hours of videotapes of people’s expressions.
Gladwell met with Ekman, now in his sixties, to discuss the “taxonomy of facial expressions.” Ekman explains that there are at least 43 distinct “action units”—in other words, 43 different facial muscle movements. These action units can be combined in hundreds of different ways to produce different emotional “affects.” For example, the normal human affect for fear is a combination of action units one, two, four, five, and twenty: inner and outer brow raised, raised eyelids, dropped jaw, wrinkled nose, stretched upper lip. Ekman and Tomkins’s research has thousands of applications—for example, the animators for the movie Toy Story used action unit research to draw characters with realistic expressions.
Ekman has probably gone further than anyone in “breaking down” the face into a set of recognizable expressions. But the strange thing about Ekman’s research, as we’ll see, is that usually, human beings already know what facial expressions mean, whether they’ve researched them or not. So even if Ekman is particularly good at studying facial cues, the average person is surprisingly good at doing so, too. As Gladwell said, “we’re old hands at thin-slicing.”
Ekman has reached some other surprising conclusions about the human face. Usually, people think of the face as expressing an internal emotional state; for example, we smile because we are happy, not the other way around. But Ekman’s research suggests that sometimes, people feel happier when they’re made to smile. Ekman also learned that people communicate through “microexpressions”—facial affects that only last for a tiny fraction of a second. For example, Ekman studied footage of the trial of the famous Soviet spy Harold Philby. When the prosecution questioned Philby about his espionage activity, Philby tried to affect a look of confidence and security as he denied his crimes—but, Ekman discovered, Philby’s face betrayed smugness, fear, and distress for a few crucial milliseconds, foreshadowing the revelation that Philby was guilty.
Ekman’s findings have some interesting applications, which Gladwell doesn’t explore in great depth. For example, it’s easy to imagine how powerful Ekman’s findings would have been in the 1950s, when Harold Philby was on trial—Ekman could have studied Philby’s face and determined that Philby was a liar before Philby stole any more secrets. Indeed, one of the most important applications of affect theory is interrogation—it’s fairly common for FBI and CIA agents to study affect theory so that they can tell when potential enemies are lying and when they’re telling the truth.
The face, it would seem, “has a mind of its own”—it reveals our innermost emotions, even when we’re trying to hide them. But this is puzzling—why, if the face is so adept at displaying its owner’s innermost emotions, are humans sometimes bad at picking up on facial cues? And why did none of the plainclothes police officers who shot Diallo notice his fear or distress on the night of his death?
In this short section, Gladwell asks the question that he’ll spend the rest of the chapter trying to answer—if we’re so good at interpreting facial cues, then why were the police so bad at interpreting Diallo’s facial cues on the night of Diallo’s death?
To understand why the police officers shot Diallo, we’ll need to understand how autistic people live. Many autistic adults are capable of living fairly “normal” lives—they have houses, jobs, and families. But autistic people, for the most part, are unable to pick up on basic facial cues. In one psychological experiment, an autistic adult, Peter, was asked to watch the film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, while machines tracked his eye movements across the movie screen. Peter was able to pick up verbal cues in the film, but not the characters’ expressions and gestures. For example, one character in the movie mentions a painting hanging on the wall. Ordinarily, people would be able to tell which painting the character is referring to because of the position of his body and the direction in which his eyes are pointed. But Peter responded to the word “painting,” not the character’s facial cues; as a result, he looked at a different painting on the wall.
As Peter’s behavior indicates, it is possible for a human to observe a human face without gleaning any of the usual information. Autistic people, for example, usually can’t pick on expressions and facial cues. In one sense, the face is “just another object” to an autistic person like Peter—Peter can still see other people’s faces, but he lacks the usual intuition for faces. The experiment described in this section is an interesting reminder of how heavily most people rely on facial interpretation. People communicate through language, but language by itself isn’t always sufficient for getting a message across.
In general, Peter paid more attention to words and physical objects than to people’s faces or gestures. Gladwell speculates that Peter’s condition—the inability to pick up on important facial cues—isn’t as rare as it seems. Perhaps the four police officers who shot Diallo experienced a kind of “temporary autism,” during which they ignored Diallo’s facial expressions.
The chapter posits that the police officers who chased Diallo weren’t consciously trying to hurt Diallo; they just lost touch with their own natural intuition for facial cues, and therefore failed to pick up on Diallo’s expressions of fear and panic.
Another important factor in Diallo’s death was the intense, high-stakes nature of the conflict—most of all, the gunfire. Although movies and TV shows portray gunfire as an everyday occurrence for police officers, more than 90 percent of officers go through their entire careers without firing a gun at another person—thus, the officers who do fire their guns tend to be in particularly intense situations before firing. Many police officers who fire their guns have reported dissociative states in the moments leading up to the gunshot, during which they forget where they are or lose their ability to hear. There is a biological explanation for these bizarre episodes: in high-stakes, life-or-death situations, people’s heart rates may rise to 175 beats per minute or more—in such a situation, people forget how to perform even the simplest tasks.
Most people would probably think that police officers are used to the experience of firing a gun, but in fact, the vast majority of police officers never fire a gun at another person, meaning that using a gun in the line of duty is often an immensely stressful experience. On the night of Diallo’s death, three of the four police officers heard a gunshot. Assuming that Diallo had shot their friend (rather than the other way around), they opened fire—perhaps because, as Gladwell argues here, they were momentarily traumatized by the experience of the initial gunshot.
Gladwell hypothesizes that police officers who shoot innocent people—for example, the officers who shot Diallo—lose their cognitive abilities because they’re in high-stakes situations. The plainclothes police officers felt themselves to be in a high-stakes situation when Diallo ran into his apartment—in the ensuing panic, the officers lost their ability to think clearly, as well as their ability to interpret Diallo’s facial expressions. As a result, they shot Diallo.
Almost from the beginning, Diallo’s encounter with the police was a “high-stakes situation”—Diallo was frightened that the police officers were going to hurt him, and the officers thought that Diallo was running away and drawing his weapon. However, some have argued that the chapter shies away from the one of the most basic questions about Diallo’s death—why did the police officers choose to stop Diallo in the first place, before there was a high-stakes situation? why did they suspect that he was a dangerous criminal? Critics have argued that the officers’ decision to stop Diallo was emblematic of conscious racism, rather than the kind of unconscious racism that Gladwell discusses here.
For a vivid example of the limits of facial cue-reading, Gladwell considers John Hinckley’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981. Hinckley pushed past other people in the crowd and fired six shots point-blank at Reagan, hitting Reagan in the lung. The mystery of Hinckley’s crime is how he managed to get so close to Reagan, considering that Reagan was surrounded by bodyguards. The answer is that bodyguards have a tough job—they have to scan the crowd to determine which people are dangerous. On the day of the assassination attempt, not even Reagan’s professional bodyguards had enough time to interpret the threatening look on Hinckley’s face. Gladwell posits that human beings become “temporarily autistic in situations where we run out of time.”
Situations of great danger and uncertainty can cause people to become temporarily autistic. Furthermore, fast-paced situations can be equally devastating for people’s facial interpretation skills—even trained bodyguards couldn’t protect Reagan from John Hinckley, because they didn’t have enough time to consider everyone in the crowd carefully. In short, Gladwell argues that people are often thrust into situations where they become temporarily autistic.
In one psychological experiment, subjects were “primed” with a picture of a black face and then asked to identify whether they were looking at a picture of a gun or a wrench. When the subjects were allowed to go through the study at their own pace, they were able to identify the gun slightly more quickly than they identified the wrench, perhaps reflecting racist stereotypes about black people and crime. But when subjects were forced to go through the study very quickly, they began to make notable errors, mistaking the wrench for the gun. The study suggests that when people are forced to make judgments about other people in very little time, they’re more likely to fall back on convenient stereotypes.
The study described in this passage resembles the IAT from earlier in Blink; as before, the test seems to suggest that people, even if they’re tolerant, non-racist people in their conscious minds, can fall back on racist thought patterns when they’re put under pressure. While most people never have to face such serious consequences for their own unconscious prejudices, police officers sometimes have experiences in which they fall back on convenient stereotypes and make horrific mistakes as a result.
Partly in order to avoid prejudicial judgments, many police departments have switched from two-officer patrol cars to single-officer cars: the reason is that when officers work alone, they work more slowly, and therefore are less likely to make prejudicial split-second decisions like the ones that led to Diallo’s death. In general, many police departments have changed their procedures to encourage officers to minimize risks in the moments leading up to their interactions with suspects. For example, police departments have retrained their officers to stand slightly behind drivers who’ve been pulled over for speeding; in this way, the officer makes it more difficult for the driver to shoot them, and it gives them an extra second to decide how to respond when the driver moves their hands suddenly. In short, police departments have tried to cut down on the situations in which a police officer is forced to fall back on instinctive decision-making. In this way, the officer makes fewer instinctive decisions, and therefore, fewer bad, prejudicial mistakes.
For the rest of the chapter, Gladwell explores some of the ways that training and education can counteract the unconscious prejudice of the human mind. The goal of good police training, it would seem, is the limit the number of instances in which a police officer has to make a snap judgment, and maximize the amount of deliberate, careful thinking in which the police officer engages. By limiting snap judgments, police training also limits the number of occasions in which subconscious prejudice and racism dictate a police officer’s behavior.
Criticisms of police shootings tend to focus on the misdeeds of specific officers—officers are accused of racism and conscious bigotry. But in fact, the police officers who shoot innocent people aren’t necessarily racists at all—perhaps, in the heat of the moment, they lose their ability to think clearly, and fall back on unreliable instincts. Police departments take great efforts to prepare police officers for the dangers of active duty, but they can only do so much. The result is that often, when police officers engage in a seemingly dangerous chase or confrontation, their heart rates are well over 175 beats per minute, and they make tragic mistakes.
Gladwell suggests that perhaps people are a little too quick to accuse police officers of conscious racism and hatred—the truth, he argues, is that people don’t always choose what to do on a conscious level, and therefore can’t always be held fully accountable for their instinctive behavior. Gladwell certainly isn’t trying to excuse the officers’ behavior, but he is asking people to be more open-minded and nuanced in their reactions to shootings—a tall order, considering the inherent trauma involved in a shooting, particularly one that seems racially-motivated.
Instinct, somewhat counterintuitively, improves with practice. Indeed, Tomkins spent hours every week practicing his ability to interpret people’s facial expressions. Ekman argues that ordinary people can train themselves to pick up on microexpressions in only a few hours. This kind of training could be extremely helpful for police officers. Gladwell recalls an interview with a police officer who arrested a teenaged boy. The boy reached into his pocket instead of putting his hands up—at this time, the officer realized that the boy was grabbing a gun. The officer was tempted to shoot the boy, but because he perceived the fear in the boy’s face, “something told him” to wait a second longer. Sure enough, the boy dropped his gun on the floor—he had been trying to surrender, not shoot the officer. In short, the police officer responded to basic facial cues and made an educated “snap judgment” to give the boy an extra second.
So far, most police training is designed to limit the situations in which police officers have to make snap judgments. But Gladwell argues that police officers should also be trained in making these snap judgments. Gladwell’s argument is strong because, no matter how much training an officer receives, sooner or later they’ll have to contend with a situation in which they’ll have to fall back on instinct—and in those situations, they should have the best, most reliable instincts possible. The story of the police officer who hesitated to shoot the boy is a great example of how police academies could teach their officers to remain calm and careful, even in the heat of the moment.
Gladwell now returns to the sad story of Amadou Diallo. On the night of his death, Diallo was standing outside his apartment. The plainclothes police officers saw that Diallo was standing outside, late at night, and guessed that he was a criminal trying to rob an apartment. When they asked to speak to Diallo, Diallo’s face must have expressed fear and confusion—thus, he ran away. The police officers must have been frightened, too—they were in a high-stakes situation that involved chasing a man down a dark hallway; as a result, their heart rates soared. By the time the officers caught up to Diallo, they must have been “temporarily autistic.” Instead of reading Diallo’s face, they must have focused on Diallo’s hands, carrying what they believed to be a gun. We already know the rest of the story: in less than three seconds, the officers made a horrible, high-stress decision: they opened fire on Diallo, and killed him.
The police officers’ pursuit of Amadou Diallo certainly counts as a high-stakes situation: the officers feared that Diallo was going to shoot them, and Diallo must have been even more terrified that the four strange men were going to kill him. In the heat of the moment, the officers lost their abilities to interpret basic facial cues, such as fear and panic. Perhaps if the officers had received some simple training in interpreting facial cues—as Gladwell recommends for police officers—they would have hesitated a second longer before opening fire on Diallo, and Diallo would still be alive today.