Gladwell narrates the story of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea who lived in the Soundview neighborhood of the South Bronx. He was 22 and working as a peddler in Manhattan. In February 1999, he returned to his apartment just before midnight and went downstairs and stood at the top of the steps to his building, taking in the night. A few minutes later, a group of police officers turned onto his street (4 of them – all white in plainclothes with bulletproof vests and carrying semiautomatic handguns). One of them spotted Diallo standing and another thought that he was a burglar who was pretending to be a visitor. They stopped the car right in front of the building, and one of the cops asked Diallo if they could talk.
It later turned out that Diallo had a stutter and spoke imperfect English. Diallo paused and then ran into the building, grabbed the doorknob, and reached into his pocket (as the officers would later testify). It seemed to the officers that Diallo was turning his body sideways because he wanted to hide whatever he was doing with his right hand. As Diallo pulled something out of his pocket, he began raising the black object in the direction of the officers. One of the officers opened fire, and the other instinctively jumped backward of the steps and fired as well. The other two came running and also started shooting as well. Diallo was killed and the four officers were charged with first-degree manslaughter and second-degree murder.
A lot of the research and science regarding mind reading comes from two scientists: Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman, Tomkins’ student. Tomkins believes that faces hold valuable clues to inner emotions and motivations. After getting to know each other over a few years, Ekman and his research collaborator Wallace Friesen decided to create a corpus/taxonomy of facial expressions. They went through medical textbooks that outlined the facial muscles, and identified every distinct muscular movement that the face could make. There were 43 of these movements, and they called these movements action units. When they had mastered each of the action units, Ekman and Friesen began putting action units in combination, layering one movement on top of another. Layering allowed Ekman to compose the more complicated facial expressions that people often identify as emotions. Ekman and Friesen brought all these combinations together into the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) and wrote them up in a lengthy document. FACS takes a very long time to master, but it gives immense insight into the messages people send each other. Ekman is essentially saying that the face is a rich source of information about emotion. In a certain sense, the face represents what is going on inside the human mind.
Ekman, Friesen, and their colleagues conducted further studies that found that emotion can also start on the face – the face is not a secondary indication of internal emotions, but it is equal in the emotional process. Whenever a person experiences a basic emotion, the muscles of the face automatically express that emotion. That response may linger on the face for just a fraction of a second or be detectable only if electrical sensors are attached to the face – but it is always present. The involuntary expressive system is in many ways even more important: it is the way that humans have been equipped by evolution to signal our authentic feelings. What Ekman is describing is the physiological and physical basis of how people thin-slice other people.
Gladwell briefly discusses the case of people with autism, who are often unable to pick up on the facial cues and nonliteral expressions that other people are able to. In a test, people without impaired social interaction skills were able to track the eye movements of actors in a movie when those actors were talking (because when people talk, others listen to their words and watch their eyes to pick up on all the expressions that Ekman has catalogued). But autistic subjects did not look at actors' eyes - if a person cannot mind read, then there is nothing special to be gained from looking at eyes and faces.
Most police officers go their entire career without ever firing on anyone, and those who do fire describe their experience as incredibly stressful - so stressful that Gladwell asks the reader to wonder whether it is reasonable if firing a gun could be the kind of experience that could cause temporary autism. Interviews with police officers who have been involved with shootings produce the same details again and again: extreme visual clarity, tunnel vision, and the sense that time is slowing down. The mind, when facing a life-threatening situation, greatly limits the range and amount of information that a person has to deal with. This narrowing allows police officers to better focus when they confront a threat. When such heightened pressure generates too much stress, behavior becomes inappropriately aggressive. This is why many police departments in recent years have banned high-speed chases - not just because the chases themselves are dangerous, but the aftermath can be challenging. The pursuit of a suspect at high speed often provokes the kind of physiological activity that pushes police officers into a dangerous state of high arousal. Arousal can leave people mind-blind.
Gladwell thinks that people can also become temporarily autistic in situations when they run out of time. For this reason, many police departments have moved toward one-officer squad cars instead of two-officer ones. Safety and ease of policing are negligibly different in either situation. This is because when police officers are by themselves, they slow things down. When they are with someone else, they speed things up. Unconscious thinking is one critical respect, no different from conscious thinking. In both kinds of thinking, people are able to develop their rapid decision making with training and experience.
Gladwell says that extreme arousal and mind-blindness are not inevitable under conditions of stress. Practical training, conducted over and over again and in combination with real-world experience, fundamentally changes the way a police officer reacts to a violent encounter. The gift of training and expertise can allow for less aggravated encounters between police. It is the ability to extract an enormous amount of meaningful information from the very thinnest slice of experience. To a novice, a stressful incident can go by very quickly. But to an expertise, every moment is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction.
The four police officers that shot Diallo were raw, new to the Bronx, and new to the immense stress of chasing what they believed to be an armed man down a dark hallway. The entire incident, in which 4 men with semiautomatic pistols fired 41 bullets, could conceivably take only about 2 and one half seconds. But in those few seconds were enough steps and decisions to fill a lifetime.
Gladwell says that perhaps the most important and common forms of rapid cognition are the judgments that people make and the impressions that they form of other people. Every minute that a person is in the presence of someone else, he or she comes up with a constant stream of predictions and inferences about what the other person is thinking and feeling.
The practice of inferring the motivations and intentions of others is thin-slicing. It is picking up on subtle, fleeting cues in order to read someone’s mind – and there is almost no other impulse so basic and so automatic that humans excel at. Gladwell says that the four officers that killed Diallo failed at this most fundamental task.
The mistakes that the police officers made about the intention of Diallo’s behavior were not random, and happen to everyone. Because these failures are so instantaneous and mysterious, it is difficult to understand them. The Diallo shooting falls into a gray area between deliberate action and accidental action. Mind-reading failures are not always so obvious as other breakdowns in rapid cognition. They are subtle and complex and common. What happened to Diallo is a powerful example of how mind reading can go haywire.
Gladwell's parallel to autism and the police officers' inability to make coherent decisions in times of heightened sensitivity can be explained alternatively simply by the fact that less time allows for less coherent decisions. However, his attempt to complicate things also goes back to Gladwell's lack of considerations for alternative explanations of the phenomena he cites.
Gladwell asks if under certain circumstances the rest of the population could momentarily think like autistic people. Could it be possible for autism (or mind-blindness) to be a temporary condition instead of a permanent one? Could that explain why sometimes otherwise normal people come to conclusions that are completely wrong and harmful?