… we are born with particular mental tendencies … and over time, certain tendencies are repeatedly reinforced, creating ever-deeper tracks for our minds to follow.
When the Buddha taught about the human mind, he put forth an idea that has been developed independently by psychologists and neuroscientists in more recent years: that we mainly interpret the world through deeply rooted habits of thought and perception, that we are born with particular mental tendencies – some that are universal to all humans, and others that are particular to each of us as individuals – and over time, certain tendencies are repeatedly reinforced, creating ever-deeper tracks for our minds to follow.
In some ways, these habits are very useful, and they probably developed to help us survive, enabling our ancestors in the jungle or the savanna to quickly learn the difference between a threatening tiger and a benign butterfly, for example. Thanks to mental habits, we do not have to start fresh with every tiger or butterfly we see, interpreting what it might be and how it might affect us. But in other ways, the limitations imposed by these habits can have profoundly negative consequences.
Recently, I’ve been confronted with this problem in the context of the criminal justice system. I have been working as a researcher and writer for the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE), a database that tracks cases in which an innocent person is wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all charges. In each of these cases, police and prosecutors constructed a story about how and why a particular crime was committed– a story that later turned out to be entirely wrong.
… even when the wrongful conviction is the result of honest mistakes, there are often many red flags along the way that would alert prosecutors that they had the wrong person, if they were open to unexpected information.
Many of these wrongful convictions (42%) involved intentional misconduct on the part of police or prosecutors – hidden evidence, coerced confessions, or secret deals with witnesses, to name a few common scenarios. In the rest of the cases, we can usually assume that authorities truly believed that the person they were prosecuting was guilty. But even when the wrongful conviction is the result of honest mistakes, there are often many red flags along the way that would alert prosecutors that they had the wrong person, if they were open to unexpected information.
Instead, as prosecutors build a theory of a case, they can quickly develop a kind of tunnel-vision. According to a report by the Innocence Project:
Tunnel vision is the process that leads investigators, prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers alike to focus on a particular outcome, and then to filter all evidence in a case through the lens provided by that outcome. Through that filter, all information that supports the adopted outcome is elevated in significance, viewed as consistent with the other evidence, and deemed relevant and probative, while evidence inconsistent with the chosen theory is easily overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant, incredible, or unreliable.
Once authorities begin to focus on a particular suspect, evidence that supports this suspect’s guilt – a previous criminal record, a witness who saw him near the crime scene – begins to seem highly reliable and important. Evidence that conflicts with the theory – a lack of physical evidence, an alibi, signs that a witness is lying – is ignored, brushed aside as irrelevant.
… over the course of the investigation, lots of evidence came up to suggest that someone else was responsible … and was ignored.
This tunnel vision afflicts the entire criminal process, from investigation to trial to the appeals process – and helps explain why, when a person is wrongly convicted of a crime, it is exceedingly difficult for him to clear his name. A recent article in Slate magazine describes how tunnel vision led to the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton, who spent 25 years in prison for his wife’s murder. As the article points out, the initial theory that Morton was involved wasn’t wildly inappropriate – women are more likely to be killed by husbands or boyfriends than by strangers. But over the course of the investigation, lots of evidence came up to suggest that someone else was responsible – a fresh footprint in the backyard, a fingerprint on the doorframe that didn’t match anyone in the household – and was ignored, because investigators were already locked into the familiar story that the husband was guilty.
Lab testing finally revealed evidence of another man’s DNA on a bandana found at the scene – but even then, prosecutors were unwilling to admit that Morton was innocent. Only when the DNA was linked to a man who was a suspect in another murder was Morton finally cleared. In some cases in the NRE database, even finding the real culprit isn’t enough – faced with such evidence, prosecutors then amend their story by claiming there must have been two perpetrators, even when this was not part of their original theory, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this is true.
When our tendency toward habitual thinking combines with other problematic human tendencies, some of the worst mistakes can occur. A well-known example is the story of the “Central Park Five” – featured in a new documentary by Ken Burns – in which five African-American and Latino teenagers were wrongly convicted of the brutal rape of a jogger in Central Park.
In the late 1980s, New York City was dangerous, and people were fearful. When a horrible crime was committed, there was enormous pressure to solve it, and to solve it quickly. Racist tendencies quickly told hold. When the five 14- and 15-year olds were brought in for questioning, police already “knew” they were guilty – and through threats and coercion, they wore these kids down until each had confessed to a crime they did not commit. (This is not an unusual phenomenon – about 14% of the cases in the NRE database involve a false confession. These confessions are usually retracted almost immediately, but by then it is too late. But the psychology behind this process is best left to another blog post.)
Everything reinforced the perspective that these teenagers were violent, deranged and absolutely guilty.
The media sensationalized the horrifying story, and a mob mentality took hold. Everything reinforced the perspective that these teenagers were violent, deranged and absolutely guilty. It became nearly impossible to imagine an alternative scenario – a bunch of kids in the wrong place at the wrong time, themselves terrified and confused, browbeaten into false confessions after hours and hours of interrogation in which they were told they might never go home unless they told the right story. But of course, as we now know, this is exactly what happened. The real killer confessed years later and DNA linked him to the crime. But fear, racism, and the need for answers meant that police and prosecutors made quick assumptions about the first suspects they came across, and the media and the general public eagerly grabbed onto a story that fit with their preconceived notions.
… it’s a good reminder that the notion of mental habituation is not just an abstract theory, but a real limiting factor in our understanding of the world, with real social consequences.
The process of wrongly convicting an innocent person represents an extreme example of the damage that can be caused by habituated thinking. But it’s a good reminder that the notion of mental habituation is not just an abstract theory, but a real limiting factor in our understanding of the world, with real social consequences. We are all capable of falling into the trap of habituation – and we are probably most likely to do so in contexts that are part of our everyday routine. When police officers and investigators see many cases over time in which a husband harms his wife, they start to see this pattern automatically, whereas someone with less experience in the field may be more open-minded.
One goal of Buddhist practice is to quiet our incessant mental activity so that we can observe our own mental habits and improve our capacity to see the world in way that is open, spontaneous, and real. Whether through introspection and meditation or by exposing ourselves to a diversity of views, it’s a practice we can all benefit from, and particularly when it comes to the particular paths we’ve developed over time in our work lives and personal relationships.