What “bodycams” can and can’t be expected to do. . . plus coolest study of the year

I definitely favor police “bodycams” as a means of promoting  greater police accountability to the public and greater public confidence in their police.

But there’s a pretty straightforward reason why bodycams won’t prove to be a silver bullet in the effort to subdue societal conflict over excessive police force: perceptions of who did what to whom in such disputes are among the class of factual beliefs influenced by cultural cognition.

When it comes to the impact of cultural cognition, there’s nothing special about brute sense impressions.

Indeed, the foundational study of motivated reasoning—of which cultural cognition is one form—involved distortion of visual perception.  Described in Hastorf & Cantril’s 1954 paper, “They Saw a Game,” the experiment showed that students from rival colleges formed opposing perceptions of disputed officiating calls featured in a film of a football game between their schools.  The students’ stake in experiencing solidarity with their classmates, researchers concluded, had unconsciously influenced what they saw when viewing the film.

Whether the police can be trusted to refrain from abusing their authority turns on a host of disputed facts symbolically identified with membership in important cultural groups.  Accordingly, the stake that individuals have in experiencing and expressing solidarity with those groups can likewise be expected to unconsciously shape what they see when they view filmed depictions of violent police-citizen interactions.

People who remember the divided reactions to the Rodney King video probably have a sense of that—although, in fact, when people are experiencing this sort of cognitive dynamic, they tend to notice its impact only on those with whom they disagree and not on themselves (Robinson,  Keltner, Ward,  & Ross 1995).

But there is also experimental evidence corroborating the impact of cultural cognition on visual perceptions of behavior in police-citizen confrontations.

These include two CCP studies:  They Saw a Protest (Kahan, Hoffman,  Braman,  Evans, &  Rachlinski 2012) which involved a film of police and political protestors who were variously characterized as demonstrating against abortion rights or against the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell policy”; and Whose Eyes Are You Going to Believe (Kahan, Hoffman & Braman 2009), which involved film shot from inside a police cruiser that deliberately rammed that of a fleeing suspect.

In both instances, the studies found that what the subjects reported observing –protestors blocking access to a building or people shamed into avoiding entry; a driver veering wildly into lanes of oncoming traffic or police “taking out” a motorist for defying their will — depended on the subjects’ cultural identities.

But the coolest study on motivated reasoning and perceptions of police force was featured in an article that just came out,  Justice is not blind: Visual attention exaggerates effects of group identification on legal punishment (Granot, Balcetis,  Schneider, & Tyler 2014).

Indeed, GBST  is for me the run-away winner in the contest for “coolest study of the year.”

Actually, GBST reported the results of two related  studies. In one, the researchers correlated perceptions of a violent citizen-police encounter with subjects’ moral predispositions toward the police generally.

In the other, the researchers correlated the subjects’ group membership with perceptions of the behavior of two brawling private citizens, who were identified variously as belonging either to the subjects’ group or to a rival one.

The super cool part of the study was that the researchers used an eye-tracking instrument to assess the predicted influence of motivated reasoning on the perceptions of the subjects.

Collected without the subjects’ awareness, the eye-tracking data showed that subjects fixed their attention disproportionately on the actor they were motivated to see as the wrongdoer—e.g., the police officer in the case of subjects predisposed to distrust the police in study 1, or the citizen identified as an “out-group” member in study 2.


Before reading this study, I would have assumed the effect of cultural cogntion was generated in the process of recollection: that people were fitting bits and pieces of recalled images onto narrative templates featuring police force and the like (cf. Penningon & Hastie 1991, 1992)

But GBST’s findings suggest the dynamic that generates opposing perceptions in these cases commences much earlier, before the subjects even take in the visual images.

The identity-protective impressions people form originate in a kind of biased sampling: by training their attention on the actor who they have the greatest stake in identifying as the wrongdoer, people are–without giving it a conscious thought, of course–prospecting in that portion of the visual landscape most likely to contain veins of data that fit their preconceptions.

Sadly, the benefit of gaining this remarkable insight into the workings of motivated cognition comes at the cost of intensified despair over the prospects for resolving societal conflicts over the appropriateness of the use of violent force by the police.

These disputes look like ones that could be resolved if we only had more information about the facts.  Hence the proposal that the police wear bodycams.

But this understanding has things backwards: the cultural conflict that this policy is meant to dispel will in fact shape what people see when they watch the bodycam videos.

Thus, the full value of the bodycam video policy—which I think can be considerable—will actually depend on our dispelling the antagonistic meanings that make police-citizen encounters a focal point for cultural conflict.

But in fact, that’s part of why I support the bodycam policy.

The policy involves a significant commitment on the part of society to monitor police, and on the part of the police themselves to make their conduct amenable to monitoring.

Accepting that obligation itself conveys a signal, to the citizens who have the most reason to doubt it, that society and the police themselves are dedicated to assuring that the police will use force appropriately—to protect rather than violate the rights of the members of the community they serve.

More than this gesture will be needed, of course, to create the conditions of reciprocal cooperation and trust necessary to vanquish the distorting influence of cultural cognition on perceptions of violent confrontations between police and individual citizens.

But it’s a good start.


Granot, Y., Balcetis, E., Schneider, K. E., & Tyler, T. R. (2014). Justice is not blind: Visual attention exaggerates effects of group identification on legal punishment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(6), 2196-2208. doi: 10.1037/a0037893

Pennington, N., & Hastie, R. (1991). A Cognitive Theory of Juror Decision Making: The Story Model. Cardozo L. Rev., 13, 519-557.

Pennington, N., & Hastie, R. (1992). Explaining the Evidence: Tests of the Story Model for Juror Decision Making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(2), 189-206.

Hastorf, A. H., & Cantril, H. (1954). They saw a game: A case study. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49(1), 129-134. doi: 10.1037/h0057880

Kahan, D. M., Hoffman, D. A., & Braman, D. (2009). Whose Eyes Are You Going to Believe? Scott v. Harris and the Perils of Cognitive Illiberalism. Harv. L. Rev., 122, 837-906.

Kahan, D. M., Hoffman, D. A., Braman, D., Evans, D., & Rachlinski, J. J. (2012). They Saw a Protest : Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction. Stan. L. Rev., 64, 851-906.

Robinson, R. J., Keltner, D., Ward, A., & Ross, L. (1995). Actual Versus Assumed Differences in Construal: “Naive Realism” in Intergroup Perception and Conflict. J. Personality & Soc. Psych., 68, 404-417.

Oh — that reminds me: an “advance publication” version of my paper Laws of Cognition and Cognition of Law is now “availabile” on-line (for those who have access to the Cognition website; those who don’t can still get the pre-print version at SSRN).

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