First Published: February 2013 by Nextions LLC
Seeing is believing, right? Actually, research suggests we should replace “seeing is believing” with “believing is seeing.”
As a society, we are slowly coming to grips with how implicit biases impact how we learn, interact and lead in the workplace because our brains tend to see what we expect to see instead of what actually is in front of us. That said, the impact of this disconnect reaches far beyond the workplace and is most profound in the criminal justice system, where what we think we see and what we remember seeing can be literally a matter of life and death.
In The Next IQ (Chapter 9: The Comfort of Similarity: We See What We Know, We Become What We See), I outline how our implicit biases greatly impact what we see and how we see it. We think we know what we see when we actually see what we know. For example, Journalist Miranda Leitsinger, who has studied eyewitness accounts gone wrong, recently profiled the Jon-Adrian Velazquez’s murder case on MSNBC’s dateline. She found that a search for a suspect described as “a black man with braids” ended with the conviction of a “Hispanic man with very little hair.”
As Karen Newirth of the Innocence Project explains to Leitsinger, “A witness’ perception of a crime can be affected by lighting, distance, stress, and the race of the alleged perpetrator — especially if it is different than their own…They also can be influenced by the suggestions of law enforcement and other witnesses as they try to fill in the gaps in their memory of that event.” (Click to read the full article.)
Eyewitnesses are considered golden evidence in any prosecution, but an eyewitness is usually nothing more than an “I witness…” meaning: I see what I think I’m supposed to see. Remember Twelve Angry Men? In fact, eyewitness testimony has been shown to be among the least reliable pieces of evidence. The Innocence Project, Leitsinger notes, has helped win freedom for nearly 300 prisoners in 35 states through DNA testing — including 17 who spent time on death row. In its 20 years of work, this nonprofit group dedicated to criminal justice system reform has found that in 75 percent of their wrongful conviction cases, the leading factor in their convictions was witness identification; in 36 percent of those cases, convictions were in part based on an identification made by more than one person.
Implicit bias may be implicit in its origins, but it is quite explicit in its impact. Our predilection to see what we believe rather than believe what we see has put many innocent people behind bars despite a prolonged deliberative process. Our justice system stands as a stark reminder of the extent of the impact that our implicit biases can have…but, it’s not the only place where our biases lurk.