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Confirmation Bias in Discussions of Race, Violence and Mental Illness

Updated on October 27, 2017

Whenever a white person commits a mass shooting you will inevitably hear the complaint that they are always labeled mentally ill while people of color are held to a different standard.

"When perpetrators of violence are people of color, journalists, politicians and many citizens treat their violence as natural, expected. But when shooters are white men who kill white victims, politicians like Trump, and indeed many other facets of white America, reach for the notion of an unstable, angry, isolated person driven to mass murder."
-- When the shooter is white, Jonathan M. Metzl, The Washington Post

What always surprised me about these kinds of claims is that mental illness does often come up as an explanation for mass crimes committed by people of color and many do get sympathetic media coverage. I'll begin with several examples before explaining why I think this belief is so widespread even if it's likely wrong.

There's a widespread belief that mass shootings committed by white men are excused due to mental illness
There's a widespread belief that mass shootings committed by white men are excused due to mental illness

Examples of Media Reports of Mental Illness in Minority Killers

On October 24, 2002, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested for killing 10 people in the Beltway sniper attacks. Muhammad had converted to Islam years before the attack. Yet just days later on October 30, the New York Post ran an article titled "Kin Reveal Shooter’s ‘Terrible’ Inner Torment." These are some lines from the article:

"“Terrible childhood” and losing child-custody battles in the courts, ex-wife Carol Williams said on “Larry King Live.”"

"Gulf War post-traumatic-stress syndrome that caused him to “just jump out of his sleep and scream” if he’d so much as hear a door slam, nephew Edward Williams Jr., 19, suggested."

In fact, many in the media wondered if during Muhammad's service in the Gulf War he had been exposed to toxic chemicals. Some in the media went so far as to suggest that US military policies essentially created the violent individual who carried out the attacks. According to his ex-wife he was happy before he left for the war but came back angry.

"He was a very angry man...The one I knew stayed in Saudi.”

His two divorces and bitter custody battles were also brought up as possible triggers for the attack. Malvo was often portrayed as a victim of manipulation at the hands of "control freak" Muhammad.

When Richard Rojas plowed his car through a crowd in Times Square in New York City killing one and injuring 22, his mental state was repeatedly brought up as a factor beginning the day of the attack.

"Sources also said police are trying to determine whether Rojas suffers from psychological problems, based on statements made at the time of his arrest."
-- Woman killed, 22 injured after car plows into pedestrians in Times Square; no indication of terrorism, ABC News

Even right wing Breitbart, which is often seen as a race baiting publication, had this headline "Reports: Times Square Murder Suspect Richard Rojas Mentally Ill, High on Drugs During Attack" with these quotes:

"Law enforcement officials told The New York Times that Rojas said he heard voices and had hallucinations. He also talked about provoking the police to kill him...Rojas served in the Navy between 2011 and 2014 before being court martialed, the Associated Press reported. A friend of his told the outlet that he had been having a rough time since being discharged and had been posting “crazy stuff” online..."

The mental health system was a factor in the massacre at Virginia Tech carried out by Seung Hui Cho, according to many articles:

"The missing mental health records of Seung Hui Cho, released Wednesday afternoon, provide more evidence that Virginia Tech's counseling center and the state's mental health system failed to recognize, communicate and treat the gunman's increasingly erratic behavior."

Repressed homosexuality was repeatedly brought up as a possible explanation for Omar Mateen's decision to massacre club goers at Pulse in Orlando. Many articles went into detail about Mateen possibly being ashamed of his homosexuality because of his conservative religious upbringing. "Orlando shooter Omar Mateen was gay, former classmate says" was a headline in the Palm Beach Post.

An example of a nonwhite killer getting sympathetic media coverage because of mental illness

This is a headline from the New York Daily News: Letter from Jiverly Wong, the gunman in the Binghamton massacre, shows insight into paranoid mind

"Just before setting off on his massacre, he sent a two-page delusional rant to a Syracuse television station saying the police were spying on him, sneaking into his home and trying to get into car accidents with him."
-- Binghamton Killer Kept His Fury Private, New York Times

This is a CNN headline related to Gavin Long who killed three police officers in Baton Rouge, LA in 2016: Gavin Long said he suffered from PTSD, source tells CNN

So, if mental illness as a factor is frequently brought up even when a mass killer is a person of color, what explains the widespread belief that it's a privilege reserved for white men.

Confirmation bias is a likely explanation. When people either want something to be true, or when they repeatedly hear that something is true, they will believe it to be true regardless of what evidence and facts actually show. Information that confirms our prior beliefs or prejudices jump out at us, while those that contradict them are frequently ignored.

When mental illness is brought up related to white shooters, it confirms that a white shooter's actions are being explained away as illness, a benefit not afforded to nonwhites. When mental illness is brought up related to a person of color, that fact may not stand out, because it conflicts with preexisting beliefs. Contrary evidence is ignored by anyone who wants to hold onto the belief that white shooters are enjoying a special privilege that people of color don't get.

Societal Effects of Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias can have significant effects on society. An example of this is Donald Trump winning the presidency partly by exploiting fears that immigrants entering the United States are a significant source of crime.

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best...They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

This statement makes it seem like most Mexican immigrants are dangerous and a few are good. Yet the evidence shows the opposite. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. According to the Justice Department, foreign born individuals make up 5% of the US prison population while making up about 7% of the population overall.

"The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge." -

Daniel J. Boorstin

How to Counter Confirmation Bias

Since confirmation bias is the tendency to look for information that supports what you already believe, and ignore information that disputes those beliefs, the way to counter it is to look for evidence that proves you wrong. In other words, think critically and look at evidence objectively. And if evidence proves a belief you hold wrong, you should reject it.

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