Tunnel vision by another name

Andrew L. Urban

Tunnel vision compromised the police investigations into the deaths of Bob Chappell in Tasmania and five members of the Lin family in NSW (two of many examples), with Sue Neill-Fraser convicted of the former and Robert Xie convicted of the latter. Both wrongly, we firmly believe. It also happens in science, where it has another name: motivated reasoning. 

Psychologist Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia claims that the most common and problematic bias in science is ‘motivated reasoning’. People that have a ‘dog in the fight’ (reputational, financial, ideological, political) interpret observations to fit a particular idea that supports their particular ‘dog.’

In law enforcement this is known as ‘tunnel vision’.

People’s beliefs become more extreme when they’re surrounded by like-minded colleagues. They come to assume that their opinions are not only the norm but also the truth – creating what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls a ‘tribal-moral community,’ as Judith Curry writes in Climate Etc. It’s not hard to imagine how that works within a group of detectives …

Psychologists Cusiman and Lombrozo found that people facing a dilemma between believing an impartial assessment of the evidence and believing what would better fulfil a moral obligation, people often believe in line with the latter. Cuisman and Lombrozo found that morally good beliefs demand less evidence than morally bad beliefs.

Motivated biases, they say, become particularly problematic once these biases are institutionalized, with advocacy statements made by professional societies, editorials written by journal editors, and public statements by the IPCC leadership. Likewise, the equivalent of such advocacy statements are those by prosecutors and journalists which also become ‘particularly problematic’ in the criminal justice system.

Arguably the most important of [such] conflicts between the responsible conduct of research (investigation) and larger ethical issues associated with the well-being of the public and the environment (justice). Fuller and Mosher’s book Climategate: The CruTape Letters argued that ‘noble cause corruption’ was a primary motivation behind the Climategate deceits.  Noble cause corruption is when the ends of protecting the climate (noble) justify the means of sabotaging your scientific opponents (ignoble).

The parallel of noble cause corruption in law enforcement is the conviction of the suspect (noble) justifying the means of biased investigation (ignoble). Obviously, tunnel vision does not guarantee the conviction of the guilty. This is a serious problem for the criminal justice system and society as a whole.

Although a well known ailment in police circles, treatment for tunnel vision is virtually non-existent. It begins with culture reforms and special training that are uncomfortable for the participants, and reluctantly (if ever) imposed by the leadership.

NB: Lest this article be seen as a reflection of an anti-police bias, we should restate our support for the rule of law and the great majority of decent, honest and dedicated police officers.

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7 Responses to Tunnel vision by another name

  1. Chris says:

    Motivated reasoning also actually affects memory. Memory is not fixed. Police can influence witnesses not just by intimidation, but by manipulation. This happened with a key witness in the Robert Farquharson case… the process of “retrieving” Greg King´s memories about key evidence mirrored the process that occurs when researchers implant false memories. (Of course this is all covered in my book about the case, Road to Damnation.) A lot of work has been done on witness lineups and how police can influence the witness and how memories can change after an identification.. but this principle extends to other police interaction with witnesses.

  2. Peter Gill says:

    Mark Geragos’s excellent book Mistrial begins its Police chapter by explaining why testilying, which police are often ordered to do by their superiors, seems far more sensible to many police than testifying.

    A young man from Sydney once explained to me the two reasons why he left the NSW Police Force. Firstly, the trauma of attending horrifying scenes. Secondly, being asked to lie on the witness stand, and discovering that a transfer to another station would not solve that.

    I’ve just finished reading Deborah Snow’s book about the Lindt Cafe Siege. If it was a work of fiction, the behaviour of many NSW police (Mick Fuller excluded) in that book would be regarded as too unbelievable to bear any resemblance to the real world. The NSW police, still reeling from the bad old days of Roger Rogerson et al, desperately need training from people like Robin Napper, Peter Ryan and Barbara Etter,

  3. owen allen says:

    I cancelled this comment, but, I have to;
    Tunnel Vision/Motivated Reasoning, Noble Cause;
    Stitch Up;
    Job Done.

    Who done it?
    He/she might have.
    There are whispers.
    They could have done it.
    They must have done it.

    (Rest of comment edited)

  4. owen allen says:

    I can verify Robin with police perjury in court from my experience. And intimidation and assault.

    • John S says:

      Same from me both of you, am now using IBAC in Vic to deal with perverting course of justice against a bent cop. Wish more would do so, will keep you all in the loop. Has to be kept confidential for now of course. Wondering if this page is checked by police, IBAC, etc. Big Brother is into everything these days, even calls & e-amils are scanned for key words by ASIO, so I’m perhaps already on watchlists (like so many of us). East Germany here we come! Thankfully Andrew Wilkie is on to this, but he’s the only MP out there on OUR side, the rest are party hacks.

  5. Robin Bowles says:

    I’ve come across other confronting cases of ‘ noble cause corruption’ in my 20 years writing about police investigations. It’s way more common than ‘the man in the street’ could imagine. I first became aware of it during the trial of the alleged killer of baby Jaidyn Leskie in 1997. It was only my second book and as a former army brat I have been brought up to be respectful to anyone in a uniform who volunteers to get shot at. So I was shocked when it emerged that some police lied under oath at that trial and one had to be brought back to apologise to the jury. I discovered that rather than calling it perjury, the police had a NAME for lying under oath— ‘noble corruption’. It often happens when the prosecution has little or no actual EVIDENCE and they hope the jury will believe the nice police officer giving evidence under oath in order to get a conviction. And why wouldn’t a jury of men and women like you and me believe the police?? Well, I’ve learnt a lot since then and you can believe me when I say that in the absence of actual evidence, maintaining a bit of scepticism about ‘police evidence’ doesn’t go astray. A police officer once told me ‘ your mind is like a parachute, it works best when it’s open.’

    • John S says:

      Of course it’s lying under oath by any name, and should be severely punished if done so by police (who are “sworn” officers). It’s not only the US that has badly bent cops, they’re everywhere. And I know so many great people who can’t get in to the police force because they are good enough! Good at what? Being bad?

      As for ‘noble corruption’, the end doesn’t justify the means, 2 wrongs don’t make a right. The Lawyer X thing in Vic could see Tony Mokbel set free! Short term gain for long term you know what. Vicpol = crookpol.

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