Saturday, March 24, 2012

Anger, Race and Psychology in The Trayvon Martin Case

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

After 17 year old Trayvon Martin was shot last month by a neighbor as he walked home from a convenience store, it poked the deep wound of racial injustice in this country. As more protests mount and African American leaders shout out for justice in this case, we should all seek to understand the emotional and psychological issues that led to this young man's death.

It's likely that Martin's shooter, George Zimmerman, had some unresolved anger issues. As a psychotherapist who specializes in anger and conflict management, in my opinion Zimmerman's comments to emergency and non-emergency police revealed smoldering anger. As he speaks to the police dispatcher he mutters what sounds like a racial slur. He also says, "These a**holes. They always get away."

Perhaps Zimmerman experienced a heightened threat sensitivity, anxiety or paranoia. As neighborhood watch captain he likely perceived any stranger walking through the area as a potential threat. The 46 calls he made to police, in the months prior to the Martin shooting, suggest he took his volunteer position very seriously. Zimmerman, angry about recent burglaries in the area, may have suffered from irrational fears that warped his perceptions.

All of us fall victim to perceptual biases that cloud our judgement and decision-making abilities. The confirmation bias makes us see only the information that confirms our prior beliefs, while ignoring evidence that contradicts them. When racial prejudice mixes with the confirmation bias, we often won't even see behavior outside the stereotype. You can't make decisions based on evidence that you can't see.

Anger distorts our perception by narrowing our focus to the perceived threat. Our brain uses short cuts, called heuristics, to rapidly sort through information. The availability heuristic leads us to make decisions based on what easily comes to mind from our memory. So if we've been reading lots of news reports about terrorist attacks and we hear a loud boom, our first thought might be "we've been attacked by terrorists."

Trayvon Martin likely felt fear in his last moments of life as well. Walking through the neighborhood, talking on the phone to a girl, he may have felt pretty relaxed until he saw a large white man following him. He allegedly mentioned this to the girl. She said she told him to run. Witnesses reportedly heard cries for help, a shot, and then nothing.

In 2005 Zimmerman was twice accused of either criminal misconduct or violence. He reportedly had a spotty employment history and financial problems. As a teen he was the victim of a minor criminal assault. When people feel like victims they often act like abusers, as fear leads them to overreact to minor events. Zimmerman, feeling a renewed purpose as neighborhood watch captain, may have felt a warped sense of urgency about a young black man on his street.

Strong emotions and preexisting anxiety distort perception. You see threats when they are not there. After the 9/11 attacks I worked a 12 hour day. A patient told me they contacted the FBI regarding information they had related to the attacks. Tired and stressed I got into my car, late at night, tossed my purse on the passenger seat and heard a strange crunch. The seat was covered with glass. I leaped out of my car and my first thought, "terrorist." After I got my heart rate under control I noticed that the window was broken and a black trash container was stolen.

The availability heuristic led me to a perceptual error clouded by fatigue and anxiety. This happens to all of us. In my case, no one was harmed by my distortion of perception. Unfortunately for the Martin family, Zimmerman carried a concealed weapon, and apparently felt entitled to use it.

Photos courtesy of David Shankbone and bMethe.


Anonymous said...

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DrGina said...

Thank you for your comments.