Cognitive Psychology

Making the Inexplicable Death of Daunte Wright Plicable: Priming, Working Memory, Stress, and Policing in America


There is no question that Daunte Wright should be alive today. No warrant, no license plate tag, no traffic stop should result in a death. By all accounts, this was a minor traffic stop and a misdemeanor warrant. If he wanted to flee, they had his name, driver’s license, license plates. They had him. They didn’t need to use force, taser, gun, or otherwise.

The shooting seems inexplicable, but psychology can make it more plicable: priming, working memory, and the effects of stress. But, before we can address those points, we’ll briefly summarize the incident starting with the video. Feel free to skip this part.

The Video of Daunte Wright’s Shooting

Seeing is Believing

Thank goodness we have video of many of these shootings, killings, and murders. In the past, we had to rely on the word of the survivors:

  • The companions of the deceased were always suspect because they were motivated to minimize how much the dead person deserved to die at the hands of the police.
  • Eye witnesses are people who happen to be close enough to see what happened or a portion of it, but, as we all know, a dozen people can see the same thing, and we’ll get a dozen versions of what happened. Eye witnesses are not reliable.
  • The police were always given the benefit of the doubt. White Americans believe that they would never do anything that would put an innocent person in jeopardy, would they? White Americans always took their word for it because they were the police. They were trustworthy.

We have seen the shootings and other abuses in video shot by the deceased or his companions, eye witnesses, and the police — when they have their body cams on. Nothing suspicious about that.

As fans of Star Wars, WWE, and David Cooperfield know, seeing is believing. We evolved to believe what we perceive. So, we see these videos of police shootings and we believe it. The police appear to be guilty in many of these situations of cold-blooded murder whether a jury, a police inquiry, or any other investigation finds it to be true.

The Video

Watch the video, if you haven’t already. Or not. Not only is it pretty disturbing, but buffering. Buffering is such a pain in the arse. We can put a person on the moon and fly helicopters on Mars, but we can’t stream video without buffering. That’s capitalism for you.

Traffic Stops

I don’t know your experience with traffic stops and that sort of thing, but just for traffic safety, once you get someone out of their car, you get them to the back of the car so you’re out of the road. Out of the road means you’re less likely to be hit by a car. Duh!

Then, what was all the patty-cake hand jive the officers were engaged in when trying to handcuff him? One guy’s got him next to the door and trying to handcuff him. The woman comes up, and the male cop steps back. She reaches between them for Wright’s hands? Wright shakes free, gets back in the car. She has her gun out shouting about tasing him, and then when the male officer clears the way, she shoots him in the chest. Only then does she realize what she’s done.

Making the Inexplicable, Plicable

As people much smarter than me have pointed out, a taser and a pistol differ markedly. I’ll summarize what all the punditing pundits have pundited:

  • Typically, the handgun is on the right hip because right handed, and the taser is on the left. One assumes that it is the opposite if the officer is a lefty, but no pundit has pundited on that, so thanks pundits.
  • A pistol is heavier than a taser.
  • A pistol has a different grip than a taser.
  • A pistol is a different color than a taser.
  • The trigger on the pistol differs markedly than that of a taser. Exactly how it differs, I don’t know, so we’ll just have to take a pundits punditry for it. Please explain in the comments if you know.

So, how does a 26-year police veteran shoot someone with her pistol when she means to tase him with her taser?

Priming

A large part of cerebral cortex — the outer layer of the brain; the part that is all wrinkly — is taken up with the associative network. Every perception, thought, movement, behavior, and mental process is associated with others. If two things happen or are thought of a short time apart or if they have other similar attributes, they will become associated.

Association just means that when one is thought of or activated, the other one is, too. If I say boy, most of think girl. If I say Margerie Taylor Green, idiot. You see how that works.

In policing, it means that when an officer encounters a Black man, they fear for their lives. Seriously. They automatically enter fight or flight. That’s the association police officers make with Black men: dangerous violent unpredictable criminals, be afraid, very afraid.

Priming means that some element of an association has been activated. If I want to find out about your thoughts on vacations, but I don’t want to ask you about it, I’ll talk about my vacation. Your thoughts on vacations including your last vacation or significant vacations will be activated. You’ll be primed to tell me about your vacation or share your most significant thoughts and feelings on vacations.

For example, if I say “bubbles,” and then ask you to fill-in these blanks to form a word:

s ____ ____ p

Most people, a statistically significant number of people, will complete the word as SOAP and not SOUP because I activated your associations with soap by using the word bubble. Pretty nifty, hunh? Unless you’re a 20 year old Black man being pulled over by a troop of white cops for a minor traffic violation. Then, it is terrifying because as soon as the cop gets wind of a Black person being involved, their implicit bias against Blacks becomes activated and that means dangerous violent unpredictable criminal behavior fear for your life. It is as simple as that.

Working Memory

Most people think that there are two types of memory: long-term and short-term memory. But, one of the most popular models of memory posits three types of memory: sensory memory, working memory, and long-term memory. It used to be short-term memory, but then some folks did some very complicated experiments and decided that working memory made more sense.

Working memory is where our thinking and evaluating and decision making occurs at. We process information “there.” We still don’t know the neurological structures that are involved, though, so we don’t know where it is. We do know, however, that it occurs in this way.

Working memory has several important characteristics:

  • It has limited space: 7 +/- 2 chunks are available to most of us. If we do the math, that means five to nine chunks of memory are available in working memory. Even if we can maximize the size of the chunks, that ain’t much. It is what is known as a bottleneck. This is why phone numbers used to be seven digits. Seven turns out to be a magic number in the human mind.
  • It is of limited duration. Depending on who you ask, it only lasts 20 to 30 seconds unless you refresh it. If you don’t rehearse the information stored in the chunk of working memory, it literally fades away never to be retrieved again. It’s why you forget the reason you went to another room so often.
  • It is has a central executive controlling its functions and managing the flow of information… or it is as if it has a central executive. Honestly, we don’t know for sure but it is as if this is what’s happening.
  • There are several other processes that working memory uses, but they aren’t important to our discussion. They can be fun and interesting, but, hey, focus folks, amirite? We don’t need another TL;DR-post.

What do these two limitations mean for our meaning-to-tase-but-actually-shot officer? Essentially, there was so much information flooding into her limited working memory, she could not send the “right” signal to both her hands and to her mouth.

When her working memory was overloaded — in part because of the stress she was under, see below — the signal she sent to her hand was the more practiced, familiar, automatic one. She reached for her gun. It was going to take effort to override the automaticity of that action under those circumstances.

It’s a failure of concentration. She’s not focused on what she’s doing. She’s reacting to her situation.

Stress and Cortisol

When you’re stressed or distressed, your brain is flooded by the hormone cortisol to help your body prepare for fight-or-flight. It literally makes it more difficult to think. It shuts off non-essential processes so you can only do the things that will help you survive. Thinking too much can hamper your efforts at survival, so you don’t.

As Duante Wright is attempting to flee, her fight-or-flight reaction jumps into overdrive. It constricts her already limited working memory making it nearly impossible for her to process the differences between her pistol and taser like its weight, color, feel, and triggering mechanism. The cues that clued her in about what was held in her hand during training went unnoticed in this situation.

Making It Plicable

The real culprit here is the priming. There’s no reason in the world for a misdemeanor warrant and traffic stop to trigger this kind of behavior. There is no reason why a fleeing misdemeanor suspect gets anything more than a laugh because they have all of his identifying information and will pick him up on a new charge of fleeing or whatever the police-speak is for it.

For the cops, this was not and should not of been a fight or flight situation. If it were a white person, it would’ve been much less likely to have been. Because it was a Black person, it became fight or flight and stop him from fleeing at all costs. That’s when the her working memory became overwhelmed with details and much more limited because of the effects of cortisol.

Essentially, Duante Wright is dead because of American policing. American policing says Black people are violent unpredictable criminals and always must be treated as such. They literally lose their minds when they confront Black people in the course of their jobs. Until that association is broken, we will continue seeing innocent Black people murdered by police. It is as simple as that.

If you enjoyed this explanation of the inexplicable, join our email list so you’ll never miss another post!

Image Attribution

“North Wales Police – Taser Demonstration” by Gerald Davison is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

12 replies »

  1. I would like to add that when a person is going into action it’s more of a reaction, i.e., if a person goes for a protective/defensive device they will not be fully aware of the device (handgun or taser.) It will most likely be the weapon in which they are primarily accustomed to grabbing more as a reaction than any thought process being involved.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly, Jerry! Training delivers automaticity to action so you can do it without thinking because being in action as in under a lot of stress, you aren’t able to think and decide. Part of the issue here is that this was not a stressful in action situation. It was a misdemeanor stop. There should not have been this level of stress. He was never a threat to the officers. He was a misdemeanor offender fleeing. So what. He was not a danger to the officers, himself, or anyone else.

      She automatically grabbed her pistol because that’s what she was trained to do. She wanted to grab her taser but didn’t because she was overwhelmed by her situation. It should never have been. And, that’s the problem with American policing.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Like

  2. Another factor would be if the officer already had the gun in hand (very likely, given the priming), overriding that to get the taser out and in action would be even more, much more difficult. As in so many other cases, the trigger finger twitches before any conscious decision is made.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      I am reminded of the phenomena of a batter being unable to see the ball that he hits. A baseball traveling between the pitcher’s mound and the batter’s box at 90+ mph covers the distance in too short of a time for the human brain to actually see it. The speed of the neural impulse is too slow for it to travel from the eye to the occipital cortex and be decoded in that amount of time. The batter swings based on the windup and delivery of the pitcher. He is predicting where the ball will be since he cannot possibly see where it is.

      Similarly, the decision to shoot is made long — in neurological terms — before the actual shot is fired. If you put someone in an fMRI and monitor the pre-motor and motor cortex, you’ll see that the decision to throw a ball the activity in those cortices starts before the person consciously decides to through the ball.

      At some level, she decided to shoot him even though the thinking parts of her brain wanted only to tase him, even though, she didn’t have to do anything to stop him. She made that decision based on implicit bias.

      And now we have the unfortunate murder of unarmed 13 year-old Adam Toledo.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Liked by 1 person

      • The video of the Adam Toledo shooting is another example. He had either dropped the gun which the officer had seen and was in the act of raising his hands, but the decision was made when the cop saw the gun and the motor action was in process. Part of the implicit bias on which many police are trained and operate in encounters with Black men is “See gun, shoot.” – “See something that might be a gun, shoot. – “Think there might be a gun, shoot.” That is the priming. The officer enters the interaction with the expectation with an expectation of a high probability that they will have to shoot. The motor system is already rehearsing the action sequence.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!
          It is almost like they’ve designed it to maximize the number of Black and Brown casualties the police can produce. It happens with such regularity that you have to assume it is deliberate, purposeful. We haven’t even addressed the role of the police being “ramped up” in all of this. Of course, that is the dopamine high that keeps wanting to do more violence. But, before we can explore that end of it, we’ve got another mass shooting to address. Funny how these things seem to occur together.

          Huzzah!
          Jack

          Liked by 1 person

          • It is important to remember that policing in this country has two primary political roots: Slave catching, and union busting.

            Is there a connection between police shootings and mass shootings? Well, maybe. Shooting begets shooting, much as within social networks (the real-life kind), suicide begets suicide. Also, it is clear that when a social system is stressed and expectations are not being met, more people will act-out or act-in (as in suicide and addictive behaviors). And this society has been and still is in the wringer on several levels.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Howdy Bob!

              When I was reading in forensic psychology, there was a line of thought that there was a thin line between suicide and homicide. Killing was killing. Given that most mass shooters are disaffected white men and most police shooters are white police officers killing Black people, I could see white mass shooters being inspired by police shootings. I suspect it works the other way round, too. Police could be “inspired” by racial motivated mass shootings, kinda like disparagement humor can cause people to act on their prejudices.

              Most of what is wrong with America can be traced back to our holding of slaves. As a group, as a country, we’ve never been able to overcome the damage that it did to us.

              Huzzah!
              Jack

              Liked by 1 person

              • I heard an interview with or about an author recently (I’ll try to track it down) who traces the trouble farther back to the general brutality of the Middle Ages in Europe, and the invention of American Whiteness as a way to break down the awareness of the class structure of that period and later. The idea being to let poor white men feel equal to rich white men in their permission to abuse women and POC. That brings up another almost invariable connection to mass violence and police violence, domestic violence.

                Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to bobcabkings Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.