Our Failure To Understand Ferguson: A Cognitive Explanation

"More Riots in London" by flickr user Surian Soosay via Creative Commons

In the latest addition to It’s Your Fault, The Cubit’s series on blame in contemporary society, RD associate editor Andrew Aghapour explores why it is psychologically difficult, but increasingly important, to blame social institutions for causing harm.

For more on blame, read the introductory post or explore the full series.


I recently found myself yelling at JetBlue from the backseat of an Uber. My wife Emmie was in the passenger seat, rifling through her bag for our Iranian passports. She turned back and asked, “They can’t do this, can they?”

“I don’t know,” I said, now on hold, “I think they can.”


Two years of paperwork and embassy visits were about to go to waste. JetBlue had canceled our flight to JFK, the first leg in a thirty-hour series of international flights, without notification. At the airport we learned that our savvier co-passengers had already filled the Delta flight that was our only alternative. I assumed that the system would somehow take care of us—we had paid good money and followed every rule—until our travel agent called with frantic instructions: “You must make this connection. Bribe two Delta passengers! Pay them each $500 for their seat!”

A Delta representative sincerely apologized: they couldn’t facilitate bribery. We would have to buy new, full-price tickets to Iran.

On the phone with JetBlue’s customer service line that night, my righteous fury dissipated quickly. Could JetBlue really be to blame for bad weather, or a mechanical problem, or whatever system error had made our flight impossible? Don’t I benefit regularly from this massive travel infrastructure that, like Lady Justice, doles its punishments out blindly? I accepted $100 in travel vouchers from a friendly customer service agent and apologized for inconveniencing her.

“It’s no one’s fault,” I told Emmie. JetBlue wasn’t the kind of thing that we could call a “motherfucker.” It was incapable of the act—too abstract to be blamed or cursed.

Recent findings in cognitive psychology indicate that we blame at an individual level, using mental systems adapted for life in small groups. It is psychologically difficult to blame large, abstract entities—like government agencies or corporations—in a meaningful or satisfactory way. Ideologies and conspiracy theories occupy this vacuum, but they offer coherence at the expense of nuance and accuracy.

Corporations, prisons, tech giants, school systems, industrialized agriculture, state bureaucracies, insurance companies, and media conglomerates: the influence of these large-scale institutions are growing, and with that comes an increased ability to cause us harm. Our inability to blame them in an intelligent or consistent way plagues our political discourse, and the solution is neither clear nor easy.

Your brain on blame

Your brain blames like it lusts: intuitively, automatically, and ostensibly for the greater human good. This is the dominant view in social and cognitive psychology, at least, based on evidence that we have evolved subconscious mental “inference systems” which silently channel a sensory deluge into steady streams of consciousness. Inference systems aren’t perfect. They can over-fire, like when we impose faces onto objects. More significantly, bad inferences can produce cognitive biases like racial prejudice.

Our blame inference system seems to be socially motivated, driven by a desire to defend communal rules against cheaters who might game the system. When something bad happens, our impulse is to ferret out the responsible party and prevent them from causing further harm. To accomplish this, our psychological inclination is to blame based on character. (If a cookie has gone missing, it’s easier to spot the guilty kid than to trace a trail of crumbs.)

In a study published in the Cornell Law Review, professors Janice Nadler and Mary-Hunter McDonnell observed that people are more likely to think of an action as blameworthy when they are confronted with a person who they think has bad character, even if character has nothing to do with the action at hand. For Nadler and McDonnell, this has serious implications for our criminal justice system.

Millions of years of evolution have produced a human brain fine-tuned to blame at the individual level. When a bad thing happens we instinctively look for the responsible person or persons and then size up their motivations. But what happens when this ancient inference system meets the modern world?

What a subway step can teach us about Ferguson

Watch filmmaker Dean Peterson’s short video of a New York City subway stairwell:

When the video was posted three years ago, it prompted this jewel of an observation by Metafilter user James Bording:

“On its own, when you see one person slip, you automatically assume that person slipped, was clumsy or not playing attention. But when you look at the aggregate, you realize that the failure isn’t on the individual at all, rather the structures that cause certain people to fail with almost no fault of their own. And yet, without this data, they will very quickly ascribe the mistake to themselves.”

In the case of this subway step, it would be inaccurate to solely blame each individual for tripping. Only by observing the aggregate can we see how a social structure—here, the design of a stairwell—is a more powerful cause of what seem like individual errors.

Scaling up, the same could be said of Ferguson, Missouri. Ferguson made national news after police officer Darrell Wilson shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. The media immediately focused on individual blaming, pitting Wilson and Brown against each other with conflicting accounts of each person’s character. As a nation, we were too impatient to follow the crumbs—we wanted to punish the bad person.

During the months after Brown’s shooting, attention turned to Ferguson’s social ills—high poverty, low employment, oppressive policing, and bad schools, all asymmetrically distributed across racially segregated neighborhoods. Yet even as media shifted its focus to social causes, they blamed collective individual choices rather than social systems. For example, many pointed to “white flight,” a sum of individual decisions by white families to move away from their African American neighbors.

For Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, individual-oriented explanations like white flight are “too partial, and too conveniently excuse public policy from responsibility.” In a major report for the EPI, “The Making of Ferguson,” Rothstein documents how metropolitan segregation, and the differential distribution of resources between segregated communities, was the explicit intent of federal, state, and local governments through most of the 20th century.

In St. Louis, for example, government policies included the segregated zoning of residential and commercial real estate, tax favoritism for private institutions that practiced segregation, urban renewal plans designed to shift black populations away from central cities, and the federal subsidization of suburban developments on the condition that they exclude African Americans.

In short, this wasn’t just racist individuals fleeing neighborhoods. This was an entire system designed to promote segregation and economic favoritism.

When I spoke with Rothstein on the phone, he underscored the long-term effects of this last policy. During the 1940s and 1950s, suburban subdivisions were built in St. Louis, and throughout the country, using federal loans stipulating that no homes be sold to African Americans. Priced at about $125,000 in today’s dollars, these were affordable—with a mortgage—to working class families, black or white. Yet black families were prohibited from purchasing them.

“Today those homes sell for $500,000 or $600,000,” Rothstein told me. “The result is that white working class families that moved to suburban communities with a federal subsidy 50 or 60 years ago have gained over the course of the last half-century $300,000 or $400,000 in equity.”

White families could use this nest egg to send their children to college and provide for their retirement. Black families of the same economic class had, meanwhile, been relegated to living in ghettos. As a result, Rothstein told me, “African American family incomes are about 60% of white family incomes, but African American wealth is about 5% of white family wealth. And that difference is heavily attributable to federal race-based housing policy.”

It might be psychologically satisfying to blame unemployment on individual laziness, or segregation on prejudiced white homeowners, but this would miss the forest for the trees—or, better yet, the stairwell for the step. Continuing the subway staircase metaphor: in the case of Ferguson, Missouri, it would be a mistake to blame the one who trips.

“If we understand that segregation was created unconstitutionally by federal, state, and local government policy, rule, and regulation,” Rothstein told me, “then we’ll understand that we won’t be able to desegregate without equally aggressive, constitutionally required public policy remedies.” It’s time to stop pointing fingers and start fixing that step.

Blaming the multi-headed beast

It’s one thing to understand that a social system, like public housing policy, has power that can dwarf any individual. It’s another thing entirely to point blame at the monster. In the case of segregated housing, do we blame government officials, or voters, or bureaucrats? No single person could bear the weight of this fault, and many are long dead. Even my recent spat with JetBlue seemed less and less clear. How do you blame something so large and amorphous?

Seeking help, I called Bertram Malle, a professor of psychology at Brown University whose recent co-authored paper, “A Theory of Blame,” lays out one of the most ambitious attempts to grapple with blame’s cognitive underpinnings.

“We actually have a fine time explaining a small group’s behavior,” he said, “like a team or a string quartet.” Larger collectives, like government agencies or corporations, are where it gets tricky. “First of all, we don’t even know who is in the institution,” he continued. “Who is a member and who is not? Who plays what role? What causal contribution do they make?” These questions were familiar to me—I’d been asking them about Ferguson lawmakers and JetBlue customer service representatives.

“Institutions have power,” Malle continued. “They have an enormous influence, they can withhold goods or they can confer goods — and in your case, Jet Blue withheld the goods of you actually being able to take your flight. Now, we’d like to respond to these agents the same way we respond when individuals do things to us, and we use the same cognitive tools, but then we don’t know to whom to direct our blame, whom to ask for an explanation, whom to demand compensation from.”

I had called Malle with the goal of blaming institutions better. The problem, he seemed to be saying, is with blaming in the first place. Blaming an airline is disorienting because it applies a human-oriented inference system to an entity that simply doesn’t act like a person. So if we find ourselves blaming institutions, I asked him, are we already using a set of flawed psychological mechanisms?

“It’s not that we’re using flawed psychological mechanisms,” he responded. “We’re using the only psychological mechanisms we have.” When something bad happens and we look for someone to blame, our default will be to look for guilty persons. For Malle, we should be aware of this, so that we can “make slightly better use of the psychological mechanisms that [we] have and inevitably will use.”

One problem, two maxims

In our social universe, cause and effect occur across multiple scales. Individuals participate in groups, those groups create social structures like laws and values, and those social structures in turn affect individuals. Fault, too, travels in circuits. The violent protestor is to blame for his looting—however beleaguered his community—but the affluent home viewer owns a share of that fire.

We share a predisposition to blame individuals when a bad thing happens, and we instinctively do so by evaluating moral character. This works in many situations, but it fails us at airports, low-income neighborhoods, and other modern arenas of large-scale social forces. It is in our self-interest to improve upon this formula, at the very least so that we can navigate the world more effectively. To do so we can remind ourselves of two simple maxims.

First, take a view from the stairwell. Fault occurs at multiple levels, so we should scale up whenever we can and look for systemic and institutional causes. If that fails, keep your eye on the crumbs. Resist the cognitive temptation to quickly blame people based on character judgments, and focus instead on where the crumbs are leading.

These maxims don’t guarantee that you’ll always blame correctly, but they should be prerequisites for any self-assured statement of fault. For example, I withheld my own judgment of JetBlue and assumed larger possible causes, until they also cancelled our final flight home during Emmie’s and my return from Iran.

Now I can call JetBlue a motherfucker with confidence. And it’s all thanks to science.

*Note: Follow these links for full length interviews with Richard Rothstein and Bertram Malle.