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  • Laura Huey

Sandra Bland and Attribution Error

Lately I’ve been reading a bit about the Sandra Bland case in the U.S. And yes, I know, it happened about 5 years ago, but I learned a long time ago to always wait a while before reading up on any criminal or other case because, inevitably, most of the immediate reporting is inaccurate.

The rough outlines are as follows: a Texas state trooper was watching cars on a stretch of highway, looking for minor traffic and other issues in order to engage in pretextual stops. Of the people pulled over, one was a 28 year old African American woman, Sandra Bland, who not only had a history of such stops, but was under a lot of stress and dealing with some mental health issues that were compounding her stress. In other words, she was having a very bad day. Not surprisingly, her responses to the trooper’s questions were curt, and when asked by him if she is “irritated”, she agrees. At some point, she lights up a cigarette, probably to calm her nerves. The trooper orders her to put the cigarette out and when she refuses, she is arrested and held in a local jail. Three days later, she dies from self-asphyxiation.

There are many theories as to how such an encounter went so horribly wrong. I have one too. The standard sociological explanation for this event has to do with the concept of “deference” and it’s found in a classic work by the scholars Gresham Sykes and John Clark. Let’s use their own to explanation (cribbed from some of my lecture notes):

• “Police are of higher status than many citizens with whom they interact by virtue of their occupational role and, in many instances, by virtue of their general socioeconomic condition … this difference in status influences the flow of deference so that it is expected that it will be expressed differently downward or upward.” (Sykes and Clark 1975).

• However, officers also believe that they are owed deference because of their symbolic status: “the officer generally has greater social value and influence than the citizen” (Sykes and Clark 1975).

• Sykes and Clark (1975) attempt to show that it is because lower-status people have less ability to express deference that they more often end up being officially processed. They also show that the police are reciprocally more disrespectful to young, male suspects in order-maintenance situations and least likely to be disrespectful in service calls involving women, senior citizens, and the middle class.

In other words, according to this theory, Encina was executing what he believed was a lawful act and Bland was disrespecting him, so he tried to reassert his authority and thereby escalated the situation. Another classic sociological work by John Van Maannen (1978) , would see Bland labeled as an “asshole”, someone whose behaviour in an interaction with officers is viewed as disrespectful and/or not in accordance with how a 'decent citizen' would be expected to act. In these interactions, Van Mannen suggests, failure to show deference, or respect for authority, is viewed as a "personal insult."

While I see a lot of merit in this perspective, I think basic psychology can additionally offer us more insight. I tend to attribute both Encina and Bland’s behaviour to something called “fundamental attribution error”(FAE). In effect, this is what we do when we under-emphasize situational causes of behaviour and over-emphasize personality and/or perceived moral flaws that we attribute to the other person. Let’s review the tape.

Bland’s refusal to put out the cigarette seems to me to be the pivot point, where things began to go downhill quickly. What would have happened if, rather than interpreting Bland’s behaviour as a refusal of his authority, and therefore a demonstration of her “asshole” nature and/or possible criminality, Encina had simply engaged in one small Jedi mind trick: attributed her refusal to something other than himself.

Flip the script: when I first started teaching at Western, I had to deal with something I wasn’t prepared for: overwrought students who would sometimes become visibly angry over grades. How do you explain this? Here’s one theory: students are “assholes”. Classic fundamental attribution error.

The reality is that most students – particularly at different points and stages in their academic career – undergo tremendous stresses of which I generally know very little, if anything. Their grandparents die. There are student suicides. They may have significant financial pressures. Many have been victimized, physically and/or sexually. Plus, the whole host of fears we place on young adults related to life and career success. No wonder sometimes people begin to act or react to risible and invisible triggers.

Earlier in my career, I would take it personally AND blame them, seeing their behaviour as a challenge to my own authority. The response from me would be a very, very cold shut down.

After a while, something clicked. I needed to switch from Sykes and Clark's descriptive take on these events and develop a prescription to help me improve the situation. And that is how I see attribution error, as a cognitive bias from which we all suffer, and also a key concept that I can draw on to defuse potentially volatile situations.

Now imagine this: what if Encina had seen Bland not as someone who was challenging his authority, but had thought, “this might not have anything to do with me, but I can try to chill it out by not reacting or showing some sympathy" - a stance I've seen plenty of frontline officers adopt in interactions with challenging individuals and trying situations.

Whether you call it FAE or not, we can definitely call it good policing (and better teaching).