Patterico's Pontifications


Biases and Perceptions

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 6:37 am

Yesterday’s post about the woman who poured out her water at a TSA security checkpoint illustrates a point I have repeatedly tried to make on this blog: jury selection is important, because people’s emotions and biases strongly affect the way that they perceive events.

In a video in my post, a woman is shown pouring out water from a sippy cup. She later complained that it was an accident and the TSA overreacted. The video belies her claim.

Most of you watched the video and determined that the woman deliberately poured the water out of the sippy cup. I would not judge you to be crazy if you thought you couldn’t tell one way or another, although it certainly looks to me like deliberate pouring.

But there were actually commenters who advanced a remarkable theory: that she a) deliberately poured out the water but b) wasn’t necessarily lying, because she didn’t realize she had done it. I don’t mean to pick on anyone in particular, but a couple of people said that she “might have believed herself,” or that “she might actually believe that she didn’t dump the water as shown” and that “she might not have been conscious of her act.”

Guess what? These people also strongly believed that the TSA acted badly in this incident. Do you think there’s any relationship there?

Again, my point is not to pick on specific commenters, but to illustrate a general phenomenon, which lawyers recognize when they are picking juries: when somebody really doesn’t like one side, they are willing to believe all sorts of things that they might not otherwise believe. They always find “rational” explanations for their opinions, of course, but often the rational explanations are rationalizations.

For a prosecutor, if the jury doesn’t like your victim, you have a huge uphill battle. No jury will say: “We acquitted because we didn’t like your victim” — but they will rationalize until the cows come home. The standard of proof shoots up into the stratosphere, and becomes something like beyond any possible doubt, whether reasonable or not. This is what happened in the Robert Blake case, for example.

When the question at issue is one of memory or intent, it’s easier to rationalize. After all, you can’t explain away what you see in a video, but you can come up with creative theories about what someone might be thinking, intending, remembering, or forgetting. Thus, a woman who deliberately spills a drink in an airport — an event which triggers a prolonged detention — might not even realize she did it . . . or so you might believe, if you really, really wanted to. Or (and this will upset some of you) Scooter Libby learned of a way to discredit a political opponent, and then forgot it, and then learned it again anew as if for the first time, and forgot that he had forgotten it — or so you might believe, if you really, really wanted to.

This is why it’s important for lawyers to have peremptory challenges — to spot the people with the strong preconceptions who might have their judgment clouded on a particular issue.

44 Responses to “Biases and Perceptions”

  1. So, when I turned loose of that bat (after swinging) that broke my brother’s nose 40 years ago, it’s not really my fault his nose is broken, cause I didn’t think I meant to let go? …… Got it.

    Rovin (7f64b8)

  2. I’m sorry … this was a sippy cup that was taken from a 19 month old child. Watch the kid drink from it and let them through. She walks if I’m on the jury. Form over function fails everyday in my book.

    MOG (f57a20)

  3. Well, it definitely appeared to me that that she deliberately poured the water out. But what we don’t know, unless it was on video that I didn’t see, was the behavior of everyone leading up to this.

    I fly on business occasionally, and at one point I was flying home, and I got screamed at by a TSA screener. My “crime”? I had taken my laptop out of the bag and placed it on top of the bag in the same bin as the bag. Every airport’s rules are different on things like this, and there aren’t always signs letting you know.

    I just took it, and complied, but I have no doubt that if I’d said anything, anything at all I’d have been harassed to no end, because they could. So having had this happen to me, I believe it’s quite possible that the TSA agents weren’t calm and professional.

    So do I get one of your peremptory challenges in this case?

    Skip (5b0418)

  4. MOG….why didn’t she just have the sippy cup empty at the gate, not carry on the bottle of water (which we all know is not allowed) and then get a bottle of water in the terminal beyond the TSA stations?

    Why can’t she just follow the basic rules?

    You would let her walk? And, if she were a terrorist, wouldn’t she have just let the kid drink the gasoline, and then spark it on the plane, killing the child anyway?

    reff (f3109d)

  5. I believe that TSA stands for Totallyunaccountable Security Agency.

    Bush made an obvious mistake in Federalizing those jobe. We, our children and our grandchildren will pay for his mistake.

    Jim Kurtz (6a3f11)

  6. The TSA bozos are idiots. If there were anything dangerous in the water, they would all be dead. Why not just dump out the cup and confiscate the bottle? Maybe even get the hell out of the way of all the other people. Explain the law to the ex-secret service woman and send her on her way.

    Mark (e7967d)

  7. Where on earth do the last two commenters get off calling the TSA names like that? Is my experience so unique? Since airport security was federalized, the screeenrs have universally been more courteous, and at least seemingly more efficient, than the rent-a-cops I dealt with prior to 9/11.

    I don’t know why, but every security screener at the airports I went through before 9/11 was black, but now, it seems the majority at least of TSA screeners are white. Just my experience, and I don’t mean to appear racist, although I may well be by now (I’m getting older and more curmudgeonly every day), but this may be a factor in why I was greeted with surliness and silence by pre-9/11 screeners, but now am universally treated more politely and professionally by TSA uniformed screeners.

    I would HATE to go back to how it was before. Security screening at airports is unpleasant enough already, without having to give up the tiny comfort of polite uniformed TSA personnel.

    Alistair (c12040)

  8. I guess everyone really does bring so much personal baggage to the table…yes, it’s a good thing, definitely–those challenges to the prospective jury.

    To me I can just imagine this mom pitching an unbearable, snobbish entitlement fit because it’s HER pwecious widdle uggums who’s oh-so-important sippy cup is challenged. The hell with that nonsense! Yes, the rules are “silly”–to us, but there they are, for post-yuppie mommies as well as the hoi polloi. Too effing bad.
    What a childish, bratty thing to do–in addition to being pork stupid: pour out the cup on the walkway?! THAT’LL show ’em-the fools! Patterico’s right–if she’d just been honest and copped to her fit of pique I’d probably have just as much sympathy(hey, no one’s perfect, and we all DO detest the dumb rules)as I have scorn. As it stands I think she’s just a spoiled liar.

    jpl (e52c22)

  9. If everyone just follows the rules, our obviously broken security measures will keep us safe, jpl?

    alphie (015011)

  10. Patrick’s point here is not TSA policy (which I think is very strange and doesn’t make me much safer), but rather the woman’s statement that put them in a much worse light than they deserved.

    Witnesses almost always will put themselves in a more favorable light than facts warrant. The sippy-up “accidentally” unscrewed, tipped over and shook itself dry.

    The film here greatly weakens her credibility and boosts that of the TSA bureaucrats. Law enforcement officers face this all the time, which is why many (& I) favor video/audio recordings of our interactions.

    ManlyDad (22e85d)

  11. If sippy cups are outlawed only outlaws will have sippy cups!

    Polybius (dd2bdb)

  12. With the level of security concerns in today’s life, to not have security video at every interface between the travelling public and the TSA troops just amplifies the level of incompetence that pervades Homeland Security.

    And, this is just as true at the local level with police/citizen interactions. For city councils to say they can’t afford to buy the hardware is just denying the amount of money they have to spend in settling lawsuits that would be won with video evidence.

    Another Drew (33c3dc)

  13. If she’s former Secret Service, she understands that there are rules and that people are tasked with enforcing them. But she decided to pitch an indignant entitlement fit causing the TSA to waste their time dealing with her.

    If this were some first time flyer Mom from Podunk, I’d have some sympathy. This lady knew better, and she decided she was going to bully her way around the rules.

    Pablo (99243e)

  14. I would never be able to serve on a jury. I am so hostile to the prosecution that I’d find everybody not guilty just on general principal. Except cops. Them I’d find guilty just on general principal.

    I think we have the best system of justice this world has ever known and it still sucks. Prosecutors have way too much power in this country. Way too much. They ruin lives on a whim and they never have to answer for it.

    Most juries are full of stupid people. They think that there must be something to it or it wouldn’t have gotten as far as a courtroom. They trust prosecutors. They trust cops.

    Anyone smart enough to decide a case is smart enough to get out of jury duty.

    Lori (3f0b71)

  15. Lori,

    What is the source of this hostility you have to prosecutors?

    Is there anywhere you would draw the line? Are you happy to see a murderer like O.J. Simpson free? Robert Blake? Do you want to see Phil Spector go free?

    Should we spring Charlie Manson and the Night Stalker — both convicted by (gasp!) prosecutors?

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  16. “Anyone smart enough to decide a case is smart enough to get out of jury duty.”

    While this may be true, believe it or not, some very smart people consider jury duty a privilege and not something to worm their way out of.

    Dana (ef52a8)

  17. “Let’s go to the tape…”

    As some commenters have noted, many LE agencies really like tape. It’s a great thing to have when the freaky-looking out-of-control perp or staggering drunk driver is all cleaned up at the defense table, I’m sure.

    Not to change the subject, but there is one agency that has a policy NOT to a/v record interviews, but to write them up weeks or months later (usually, as the case is shaping up, so they can be tuned up as needed). That’s the FBI.

    This film was interesting for two reasons — one, is that it shows that neither the traveler nor the TSA screener who wrote the official report was telling “the truth, the whole truth” et cetera. This is probably pretty much the default in a courtroom, isn’t it? The other, is that the TSA releases tape selectively when it can support their argument, but considers the tape “too sensitive for security reasons” when it shows TSA misconduct.

    Re: Dana: “some very smart people consider jury duty a privilege and not something to worm their way out of.”

    Dana and all, for that very reason attorneys treasure their peremptory challenges! Especially when they have a loser of a case (a more frequent problem for the defense… prosecutors are loath to bring weak cases, Nifong notwithstanding). If your case is a loser, you can try to sway opinion with emotion. Both sides do this.

    I’m pretty cynical about the court system. Apart from some obvious biases (i.e. towards money), the output of the system seems largely random. I’m not confident that either a guilty or an innocent defendant will ever receive justice.

    Unfortunately the alternative is not perfect justice, it’s one of the many other systems of justice that have been tried, most of which are demonstrably worse. So we live with the system we have. A lot of people are trying their best on it, including our kind host here.

    Kevin R.C. O'Brien (ae83cd)

  18. TSA workers are nothing more than trained monkeys I know several at LAX that are former xray screeners who simply got a new boss. Except now are power infused morons who are wont to abuse their station. I’m been witness to or experienced more than one instance of TSA harassment. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Without the permission to profile those who commit terrorist acts my non-muslim grandmother of 90 years will continue to get searched while Muslim clerics go gleefully past seondary inspection. Give me a break. stereotypes do work only those who the stereotype fit complain.

    TSAmonkeybasher (9deff0)

  19. you know, this crazy woman got off easy to just miss a flight, in my opinion, but Kevin has a very pertinent point: I could never get them to release tape if the facts went my way. This super secure stuff is out in the open when it tilts their way.

    We’ve lost a lot of freedom. That’s obvious in the airports. On the other hand, the policies in place today have markedly made us safer. And that’s a fact. Terrorists are trying harder and spending more, but they have failed utterly to wage war in the US. These policies (mostly the Iraq flypaper idea) haven’t made us “safe,” but they have reduced the odds of a successful attack.

    Is that worth pissing off idiots like this lady? Well, yeah. Worth having bureaucracies that are pointlessly caustic? I think we can refine our approach some.

    Dustin (50889f)

  20. Patrick–

    On the other hand, there are those that, given facts favoring X and one lie by X, will focus on the lie and ignore the rest of the case. Call it an emotional aversion to lies, even those committed in the heat of the moment.

    Kevin Murphy (0b2493)

  21. Pardon my impertinence buy why can’t U.S. Government officials get as excited about the uncounted millions of illegal aliens here as they are about a woman with a baby and water in a sippy cup?

    Person of Choler (2f1b0a)

  22. By the way, Patrick, have you never done something ill-advised then completely forgotten you had done it? I have done that and been completely and utterly indignant when called on it a month later. Then was shown what I did (a _long_ email typed and sent in haste while trying to do several other things), remembered and felt very, very stupid. It’s not like I accidentally sent it. But it had left my mind the moment I pushed send.

    So, am I rationalizing because I dislike the TSA and think it one of Bush’s worst ideas? Perhaps. Likely even. But I also know that one CAN forget things, especially when multi-tasking. I also know that everybody occasionally lies (“No officer I did stop at the sign”), and suggest that the TSA reaction to the spill was overboard at best, which ought to be the real subject of the debate.

    Are you focusing on this one aspect of the matter because you generally give the benefit of the doubt to Authority? Looks that way over here. Otherwise you’d be rather upset at the officiousness of the TSA agents and their lack of tolerance of an overstressed traveler.

    Or do you really think the issue here is that somebody lied?

    Kevin Murphy (0b2493)

  23. “might have believed herself,”

    Er… kinda. Though when I said it it was within the frame of her lying, i.e. ‘stupid of her to lie but maybe she believed herself.’

    I know we’re all fast shots with the keyboards and all, but it surprises me a little that the concept of someone behaving badly under stress and then convincing themselves it didn’t happen is so alien to some people.

    I mean, she had to know there was security footage. Maybe she’s just that stupid. Self-delusion isn’t a heroic or redeeming trait in my book, though P seems to have read my comment to mean otherwise.

    Guess what? These people also strongly believed that the TSA acted badly in this incident

    I think they behaved badly regardless. Airport screeners hassling ex-federal law enforcement agents because of their kids’ sippy cups seems like a new low in the GWOT.

    Not that the lady didn’t deserve it to some extent or another.

    David N. Scott (71e316)

  24. A lady goes through airport security with a sippy cup that has water in it (something everyone tells you not to do, including the signs leading up to the checkpoint). She treats the security agents with contempt when she is informed that she is not following the rules (something she should know better about being ex SS). She pours the water out, accidently or not (did she not realize she removed the top?).

    She deserves what she got. End of story.

    OC Chuck (65ddb0)

  25. Why do people have to blame their problems on others? Can’t we just admit we screwed up and move on?

    OC Chuck (65ddb0)

  26. Just to balance Lori’s contempt for the prosecution, I’ll utter an equal amount of vitriol for defense attorneys who have no respect for society’s need for protection from their unremorseful murderers as clients (at the least), and justice would also be nice. And yes, I know it’s ‘their job.’ Don’t care. I’m one of those crazy guys that appreciate truth and justice.

    allan (71fbee)

  27. It would be nice if we recognize the problem and do something about it, Chuck.

    By forcing people to line up at checkpoints, we’re giving terrorists an opportunity to cause mass casualties (see: Iraq).

    The checkpoints aren’t there to protect people, they are there to protect the $100 million airplanes.

    alphie (015011)

  28. Kevin Murphy, if Patrick Nifong-Fitzgerald told us she was lying, would you believe it? Or is lying in the eye of the beholder?

    Vatar (085be7)

  29. Each one of us should approach every person we meet for the first time in public situations with deference and respect until such time as they provide ample evidence that they don’t deserve it. Too many people are all too ready to launch on anyone that they believe to be below their station. This is America folks. There are a lot of poets and philosophers working in low-paying jobs. Treat them with respect, and you may learn something. Show them contempt and you have nobody but yourself to blame for the results.

    The issue with this woman isn’t that she should be punished for her misdeeds. The issue is that she made a big stink over it and claimed innocense, getting a lot of folks to take her side, but she lied to do it. Now a lot of folks are rationalizing. Whether it is because they have some insurmountable bias as P suggested, or because they don’t want to admit that they got suckered, it doesn’t really matter. Vent your spleen on the woman who tricked you. We all act badly on occasion, as she did. We don’t have to complicate our bad behavior by lying about it, and we don’t have to celebrate others when they do it (unless its funny).

    Immolate (4a2eae)

  30. Hate the TSA all you want, but she didn’t hurt them. She hurt herself most of all. Then she hurt the other people waiting in the line. Rules, even if they seem stupid, are not that hard to follow. If everyone threw one 30-second hissy fit, after 60 people you’ve got a half-hour delay getting through security.

    At least this woman had enough respect for the rest of us (that weren’t waiting to get clearance to get on our flights) to lie about what she’d done. She obviously knew the truth of the matter was going to make her look bad, or she wouldn’t have changed her story.

    I remember in the aftermath of 9/11, people telling stories about how they’d gotten box cutters and worse on airplanes. I remember Michael Moore, in particular, writing about a chisel or icepick or something that a friend had managed to get through security. It all seems so ridiculous, doesn’t it?

    MayBee (eb1824)

  31. Vatar — 1) WTF? 2) This isn’t about lying, this is about overbearing authority. The grant of police power to individuals requires them to show restraint — even with mere citizens who are showing less. When the police act out it is a much bigger deal than when a citizen does. Yes, she had a part in it, but the TSA response was, in and of itself, a problem.

    Kevin Murphy (0b2493)

  32. I guess it all depends on how down we want to define “free American”. The TakeScissorsAway assholes were wrong. If they cannot tell the difference between toddler water in a sippy cup and an explosive they have no business being there in the first place. The authoritarian statists seem to be the majority on this thread, however. Here’s a song for them.

    nk (0ebe4a)

  33. Reff — you don’t have kids, do you?
    This was an overreaction by TSA that should have been handled differently (and more rationally) by the TSA. And I would have reacted the same as the woman … I would have poured the water out right there and demanded to be let through. (Although I wouldn’t have made excuses and/or lied about what happened.) As I said earlier, form over function loses out in my book. But then again, neither I nor my kids fit the terrorist profile.

    MOG (f57a20)

  34. getting a lot of folks to take her side, but she lied to do it. Now a lot of folks are rationalizing. Whether it is because they have some insurmountable bias as P suggested, or because they don’t want to admit that they got suckered, it doesn’t really matter.

    You’re right, it doesn’t really matter. Whether or not the woman fooled herself into thinking she was more the victim than she was (which I still maintain is common among Harried Moms and sort of semi-delusional people in general) or whether she lied deliberately has no bearing on whether or not she was treated fairly.

    Q: Why is an ex federal law official that meets no profile whatsoever for Al Qaeda et al and has a child with her being bullied by TSA poeple?

    A: Look! Terrorists! And she lied, too!

    Er, not so much of an answer.

    David N. Scott (71e316)

  35. MOG,

    I understand your point – kids try our patience, especially when traveling – but I strongly disagree with you. Few parents respond the way this woman acted. It’s the equivalent of the Little League Dad who yells at the umpire. My behavior isn’t always perfect but I will never let one of my children see me resist valid authority and/or act like a fool in public.

    Before you accuse me of speaking from ignorance, I have kids and I’ve flown commercially with small children, including at least 7 flights with an autistic child (2 post-9/11). I assure you that I’m nothing is more difficult than that. I’m no angel but if I can handle that, this woman can handle a problem with a sippy cup without losing her cool.

    DRJ (2d5e62)

  36. Former law enforcement. Doesn’t think rules for the little people apply to them. How dare they and she threw a minnie fit. Resorted to law enforcement training when she did something wrong, lie.

    Gerald A (e5486d)

  37. IIRC, the whole concept of “federalized” baggage screeners (TSA) was forced on the Administration by the Congress. They only agreed to it when the Congress accepted the non-unionization of those screeners.

    If the screeners were airline employees, we would probably have a much more efficient, customer-friendly system. Corporations are usually very reluctant to piss-off their customers. Plus, the airline insurers would exert oversight, since it would be their money that is at risk if a plane goes down.

    The entire system, including the FAA & the airports, desperately needs to be privatized.

    Another Drew (8018ee)

  38. MOG, I travel with 20+ youth track athletes at least three times a year. The youngest are 5, the oldest in high school. We get them together and tell them how they will travel. We tell them the rules, and they follow them.

    No, you would not have acted the same way. You would have followed the rules, or been removed from the line. I’m at a loss how you see this as an overreaction. She didn’t want to follow the rules, so she was removed from the line. An overreaction would have been to arrest her. An overreaction would have been to call child protective services since she was placing her child at risk at a checkpoint by letting him run free. An overreaction would have been something more.

    reff (f3109d)

  39. Another Drew, that sounds just like 9/10/2001.

    Vatar (085be7)

  40. Reff & DRJ – I’m not saying this was an overreaction. I’m saying that the situation was not handled with any real world perspective. How many planes have been blown up with a sippy cup? And I’m not aware of what this woman’s ethnicity was, but my guess is that she’s not related to Abdul or a Mohammed. I object to the rigidity and lack of reality of the TSA’s silly ban on what can and cannot be taken on to a plane and by whom. If this were the mother’s bottle of water I would agree that she overreacted. But some children have serious comfort issues that for all involved in air travel, it would be better if there were some wiggle room — depending on the situation — to accomodate. As I said before, have the child drink from the cup. If it’s gasoline or other explosive material, the child will gag or otherwise have a reaction. If it’s not, let them pass and all will be fine.

    And yes, if this were a situation were my child had an issue with a damned sippy cup and some high school drop out wearing their TSA patches told me that they were going to keep the cup or I could go to the back of the line — and miss my flight — you’re damned right I would pitch a fit. Give the kid the cup and watch him drink, or in the alternative, I would pour the contents out and start moving forward.

    MOG (f57a20)

  41. MOG,

    I hope you don’t have to fly often. This subject gets you all worked up.

    DRJ (2d5e62)

  42. Only unabashed stupidity gets me worked up.

    MOG (f57a20)

  43. Let’s see..unabashed stupidity gets you worked up…

    Well, I teach my students that stupidity is when you know the right thing to do, and do the wrong thing anyway….

    Isn’t that exactly what this woman did?

    Now, I’ll end here….no, sippy cups haven’t blown up planes….empty sippy cups get on the planes every day….the mother had a bottle of water…16 oz Deer Park, if I remember correctly….and she didn’t want to give that up either….Who said any of us like the rigidity of the rules?….But, if she, or you, don’t follow them, I’ll be happy to take your place in line….

    And, you would not have cause a scene, either….you would have made sure the cup was empty, and got another bottle of water inside the terminal beyond the checkpoint….just like you probably have before….

    Now, to continue this would be unabashed stupidity….

    reff (f3109d)

  44. I don’t know if you can blow up a plane with 3 oz of liquid explosives or not. I am not a chemist or a security expert. If you are convinced that you cannot, I recommend a strongly worded letter to your congressman, not a hissy fit in the terminal. You won’t win.

    Vatar (5f0f63)

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