Policing in New Zealand

Reading the online version of my local paper today, I was struck by the differences between New Zealand and the United States. The top story – so I presume it’s on the front-page of the dead tree version – has the headline “Armed police brought in to arrest man in Christchurch.”

This obviously wouldn’t be newsworthy in United States or other countries with highly militarized police forces.  American officers routinely carry pistols and, if TV shows like Cops are any indication, are willing to get them out at every opportunity. Down here, the police don’t carry firearms and the use of the Armed Offenders Squad is relatively rare.

I think this is a major factor in the general professionalism and reasonableness of New Zealand cops. While there are bound to be a few sociopaths in any police force, police brutality and arrogance seem much less common here than in the States.

Compare and contrast:

To my knowledge, no reliable measures of police misconduct exist, but I don’t think this is just denominator-blindness: pointing guns at, tasing, pepper-spraying, or handcuffing people not posing any immediate threat seems to be common practice in the US, but is very rare here.

Guns and tasers give cops a greater sense of authority and dominance. It’s a cliché, but power does corrupt. I challenge anyone to watch video of the Stanford Prison Experiment and maintain that it’s possible to give person power over another without it being abused:

A bunch of normal young guys were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or guards in a mock prison. The experiment was due to run for a week, but had to be called off early after the guards became increasingly cruel – with situations eerily similar to those in Abu Ghraib – and the prisoners increasingly accepted the dominance of the guards. Normal people became either sociopaths or cowering messes depending simply on the roles they were assigned.

There are frequent calls to arm the New Zealand police, especially after an officer is killed or injured on the job, and the use of tasers is becoming more common. Needless to say, I think this is a very bad idea. Arming the police might make them slightly more capable of fighting genuine crime, but it’s almost certain to make them into a group to be feared by innocent New Zealanders.

Opposition to an armed police force isn’t based on nostalgia, as some would claim, but an understanding of human psychology. Citizens should not be afraid of their police, and police should definitely not be pointing guns at citizens without a very good reason for doing so.

The McGurk Effect: Cool Auditory Illusion

Watch the video below. You’ll hear either “ga-ga” or, more likely, “da-da.” Now, close your eyes and listen again. You’ll hear it as “ba-ba.”

This is known as the McGurk effect, and works by offering inconsistent auditory and visual information. The audio of “ba” is placed over video of someone mouthing “ga.” Faced with this conflict, the listener will hear the intermediate phoneme “da.” The illusion was identified by Harry McGurk and John MacDonald in a 1976 Nature paper. Before then, speech perception was viewed as always and everywhere an auditory phenomenon.

Cool, huh?

Power Corrupts Rational Thought

Wray Herbert reports research showing that a sense of power gives people the illusion of control over random events:

One recent study may offer some insight into the connection between power and hubris and delusional thinking. Stanford University psychologist Nathanael Fast actually started off exploring the positive effects of power. His idea was that power creates a false sense of control over life’s events, and that this feeling of control in turn boosts self-esteem and optimism. But his findings apply just as well to prideful overconfidence. Here’s the experiment:

Fast and his colleagues used a well-tested laboratory technique to prime some volunteers’ sense of power. Then they used a clever test to see if these feelings of power influenced their sense of control over random events. They had all the volunteers play a dice game to see if they could win a prize, and they were allowed to either roll the dice themselves or to let someone else roll the dice. A roll of dice is random, no matter who rolls them, so those who chose to roll the dice were displaying an unrealistic sense of control over random events.

The results were unambiguous. As reported in the journal Psychological Science, each and every one of the volunteers who was primed for power (compared to controls who were not) grabbed the dice. They had the delusional belief that, by rolling the dice themselves, they could control the outcome.

Herbert suggests this as an explanation of political corruption: due to a higher sense of control, people in positions of power see themselves as more able to evade detection and punishment. While that’s probably true to a certain degree, I suspect the the impact of illusions of control are much greater on well-intentioned policy.  A false sense of control will turn even the most altruistic rulers (though power does corrupt morally, as well) into men of system apt see society in easily-influenced, mechanistic terms.

How Sincere are Anti-abortionists?

I find this video [hat tip: Francois Tremblay] confusing. Anti-abortion protestors are asked whether abortion should be illegal, and answer in the affirmative. When asked what the punishment should be, however, most say they haven’t thought about it and will not endorse time in prison, or any punishment at all. 

In addition to having a strange conception of what “illegal” means, these people  have something morally very strange going on. At one level they think abortion is murder, yet at another level they clearly see that it’s not. It’s as if they happily see abortion as murder at an abstract level when there is little at stake, but back off once they start to think about the practical consequences of what they propose. They are only being asked about punishment, however, and so there is still nothing at stake. Seems plausible to me that the punishment question puts them in a consequentialist state of mind. 

In one sense, this is heartening for those with liberal values: people aren’t really that willing to impose penalties on women who have abortions. In another sense it’s very worrying: with an appropriately framed policy platform, a political candidate could gain popular support for banning abortion, punishment and all, even if few people actually support punishment. 

The degree to which I favour anarchism just increased by at least .1, though it’s still slightly below .5. A couple more videos like this could well push me over the edge.