The Casual Blog

Tag: Mistakes Were Made

A new crane, a wrongful execution avoided, and factoring in dissonance

14 09 17_2621_edited-1I like watching work at construction sites, and I particularly like cranes. They denote strength and optimism. So it was a particular treat this week to get a close view of some hardworking guys putting up a big crane on a building site one block up from, and almost level with, our apartment. It took two guys about a day a a half to put up the structure, and a group of five worked on the cabling for another day and a half.
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There are lots of good arguments against the death penalty, including that it doesn’t deter crime, it costs way too much, and it conflicts with the fundamental moral rule against killing. Recently I was powerfully reminded of another one: our criminal justice system inevitably gets some cases wrong and convicts innocent people.

It was front page national and local news recently that Henry Lee McCollum was found innocent after 31 years on death row. As a younger attorney, I volunteered to represent McCollum in one of his appeals (to the N.C. Supreme Court). He’d been convicted – found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a unanimous jury – of a horrible crime – a particularly gruesome rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl. After I’d spent many hours studying the record and the elaborate constitutional doctrines surrounding the death penalty, I pulled together a lengthy brief of what I thought were the best arguments for not executing him.

In my brief, I did not mention the possibility of innocence. Truly, despite McCollum’s innocence claims, I never seriously considered the possibility. He’d made an elaborate, detailed, signed confession. Why would anyone confess to a crime they didn’t commit?

Of course, we know now that this is all too possible. Coerced confessions happen. The case of the Central Park five, young men convicted of a brutal rape of a young woman jogging in the park back in the 80s, is a dramatic example. Just this month New York City agreed to a settlement of $41 million to compensate the young men for their wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

McCollum was and is a mentally disabled person (IQ of around 60, as I recall), and when I met him, in the visiting room at Central Prison, he seem gentle and soft spoken. He was still a teenager at the time of the crime. It’s not hard to imagine that he could be coerced into doing something contrary to his interests. Apparently after the interrogation and confession were complete, he asked, Can I go home now?
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I’d thought about him from time to time over the years, and figured he would probably escape execution because of later developing Eighth Amendment (“cruel and unusual punishment”) law barring execution of the severely mentally disabled. It was cheering to hear that a team from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation had worked diligently on his behalf. But it’s also horrible to think of the injustice our state (that is, us) inflicted. Putting a man on death row for 31 years is, in a very real sense, robbing him of his life.

We now know that eye witness identifications are far from completely reliable. Confessions are not always reliable. Memories can seem absolutely certain, and still be wrong. We are inevitably going to make some mistakes in on the basic question of guilt or innocence. This argues strongly against punishing people with death.

Mistakes Were Made

The more I learn about how error-prone our thinking processes are, the more I think we should be a little more humble about the power of our brains and the reliability of our notions. I’m re-reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), by Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson. Tavris and Aronson are social psychologists, and their book is a lively guide to the systemic flaws in our perceptions and theorizing. Their primary subject is cognitive dissonance, and the comedy and tragedy of self-justification that flow from it.
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Dissonance occurs when we try to hold two conflicting ideas in our heads at once. It causes us discomfort, and we will perform remarkable mental gyrations to avoid it. Thus it is amazingly hard to talk someone out of strongly held beliefs. Dissonance makes us ignore and suppress facts and arguments that don’t fit with those beliefs. To avoid dissonance, we come up with justifications for our most egregious mistakes.

Tavris and Aronson convinced me that this is not something that happens only now and then, but rather is pervasive. One of their numerous examples is police coercion. The police “know” (strongly believe) that a suspect is guilty, and therefore feel justified in using extreme coercion to extract a confession. The innocent suspect is confronted with powerful dissonance – actual innocence and authority figures forcefully insisting on guilt. One path to eliminating dissonance is to confess. It isn’t that hard to imagine that a young or weak person could go that way.

They note that even scientists are vulnerable to this basic mechanism, but suggest that science itself can help us address our inborn tendency to avoid dissonance. The ability to allow for the possibility that we might be wrong is incredibly valuable. It can keep us from making terrible mistakes.
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Strawberries, memory flaws, driverless cars, manufacturing, massage, and Il Trovatore

The strawberries from the Raleigh farmers’ market were good this week — firm but not too much so, and fairly juicy. I put quite a few in my breakfast smoothies (together with kale and other nourishing things), and also made a point to taste them in their unprocessed state. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that the strawberries of years ago were sweeter. Are strawberries losing their taste little by little, like tomatoes before them? Or is this just memory playing tricks?

It’s unsettling to think that memory is unreliable. It is such a vital part of our interior lives, of our concepts of our ourselves. But it is highly prone to error. Thousands of Americans “remember” being abducted by aliens. Many others recall, after extensive coaching by incompetent therapists but without any confirming evidence, being sexually abused by their parents. In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a swing at explaining these and other social-psychological debacles involving strongly felt, but completely wrong memories.

Tavris and Aronson explain that complex memories are not a literal or objective recordings of events. There is no place in the brain where everything that happens to us is stored. Our brains hold selected vivid highlights of events, which we mix together with other knowledge or impressions to construct storylines. These storylines can, especially when repeated many times, come to feel like literal truth. The “mistakes” of the book title refers to our tendency to construct the storylines according to our own biases and tendencies towards self-justification.

Tavris and Aronson give a lively, readable account of the theory of cognitive dissonance, which drives us to reduce internal discomfort by ignoring information that conflicts with strongly held beliefs. They convinced me that there are systematic flaws in our mental functioning, even when we are healthy and operating normally. This is, as I say, unsettling, but it is worth pondering. It may be that by understanding the likelihood of certain kinds of mistakes we can lessen their likelihood.

Humans do some ridiculous things, but also amazing ones: our machines keep getting better and better. The self-driving car was in the news this week, with Google, which has been road testing its design, announcing plans to commercialize, and with Nevada becoming the first state to legalize one. What does this mean for the future of human driving? The end is near. As a person who enjoys driving, I say this with some sadness, but our AI drivers will be much more reliable and efficient than we are. There will be fewer accidents and better fuel consumption. Human driving will become like horseback riding — a noble but slightly mannered hobby allowed only in special areas.

More on amazing machines in last week’s Economist: a feature headlined The Third Industrial Revolution which gave a valuable perspective on how manufacturing is changing, and those changes are starting to transform societies. Major players include more sophisticated robots, improved software, nanotechnology and 3D printing. The new factories use significantly fewer people. The U.S. has a manufacturing output worth about the same as China’s, but uses only ten percent of the workforce used by China. Amazing, right? 3D printing is making possible product customization to a remarkable degree, and lowering costs. So it sounds like we’ll get more remarkable products cheaper, but have fewer manufacturing jobs. What are all the excess people going to do? Especially once their cars no longer need them?

I have a couple of ideas. Number one: more massage. This is a no brainer. Massage is simply wonderful, and we should all get more and give more. I saw Meredith at Hands on Health this week to get some work on my shoulders. Meredith does therapeutic massage, which is designed not to relax you but to make you healthier, and it can involve some discomfort. There were moments when I was close to my pain redline. To cope, I did deep yoga breaths, and was very proud when she told me that my breathing had been “fantastic.” Afterwards I felt great. Meredith is seven months pregnant now, and doing just fine. She’s helped me a lot, and I’ll miss her while she’s on maternity leave.

Another idea: more art. Art is something humans really like to make and share, and they’ve been doing it for millinea. I worry about our artists and artistic institutions, but they’re not dead yet, and there are still endless possibilities.

I felt particularly optimistic Friday night after the N.C. Opera’s production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore (The Troubadour). They performed the work in a “semi-staged” fashion, with no scenery, and the singers moving in front of the orchestra. Il Trovatore has great music, and the soloists were very fine. Leah Crocetto as Leonora was excellent — an exceptional voice, a sensitive musician, and an expressive actress. But gosh, she’s heavy! I’ll say no more about it, except that it detracted from her effectiveness as an artist. But I just loved her singing, and think she could go far.

I was also impressed with tenor Noah Stewart, who was a powerful and sensitive Manrico. Another cheering point: casting an African-American as a romantic lead for a North Carolina audience has become completely uncontroversial. Liam Bonner was strong as the Count de Luna, and Robynne Redmon was a marvelous Azucena. Richard Ollarsabe as Ferrando had a wonderful bass voice. I was impressed with the sensitivity of the conducting of Timothy Myers. One cavil: the male chorus was raggedy. But this was on the whole a fine production, and made me very happy to be living in Raleigh at this moment in history