Too Often, “Personal Responsibility” is a Cop-Out

by Joseph Shieber

You can’t start training them too early.

Optimism about the miraculous speed with which researchers were able to develop and test extremely effective anti-Covid vaccines is beginning to sour as vaccination rates slow down. These slowing rates raise worries about whether the United States will be able fully to defeat Covid-19, since a full return to normalcy would require high levels of vaccine compliance — much higher levels than we’re currently witnessing.

The challenge, as I’ve pointed out before, is that pandemics force us to recognize that our behaviors have implications beyond our own lives. Without sufficient vaccine uptake, we won’t be able to return to work, school and leisure activities with the same maskless nonchalance with which we pursued them in 2019.

This fact gives the lie to the framing of the vaccine on some media sites, framing that suggests that vaccine deniers are simply exercising their “personal freedom” in choosing not to get vaccinated. In a very real sense, my freedoms — my freedom not to have to wear a mask when I lecture in the classroom, to be able to send my children to school in an environment in which they don’t have only 10 minutes in which to eat lunch … no talking allowed! — depend on others’ willingness to get vaccinated.

Our dependence on others’ compliance with public safety rules and vaccination can lead to feelings of powerlessness. And these feelings of powerlessness can lead to frustration — and to an attempt to focus on individual behaviors as the source of that frustration. This is undoubtedly one of the causes of the recent social media spats about outdoor mask-wearing. (Other causes, admittedly, include the baroque and overly complicated new CDC guidelines on mask-wearing.)

I’m troubled by the emphasis on personal responsibility as a way of dealing with large scale social problems. In the case of battling Covid-19, the biggest problem with mask- or vaccine-shaming is that it’s not an effective persuasion method. However, at least in the case of the pandemic, it IS in fact true that others’ personal behavior impacts public health outcomes. 

Unfortunately, in the case of many of the other trials we face, the link between individual behavior and societal outcomes is far more tenuous. In those cases, focusing on personal responsibility is not only a bad rhetorical strategy; rather, it blinds us to the real solutions to those problems.

One example of this was a recent study on the effectiveness of training to reduce bias in police officers’ shooting decisions. In a study published in the journal Social Cognition, researchers from Colorado University Boulder, McGill University, and the University of Chicago investigated whether anti-bias training benefits were robust under conditions of increased cognitive load. (There’s a useful write-up of the study, by Sarah Kuta, here.)

The study involved a test of police officers’ and college students’ performance in a first-person shooter game in which the researchers measured the test subjects’ reaction time in choosing to shoot armed white or Black figures in the game and their accuracy in distinguishing between armed (handgun) and unarmed (cellphone) white or Black figures in the game. 

The researchers tested the participants’ performance under three different conditions. In the low cognitive load condition, test subjects simply played the game while an audio recording of a voice reciting single-digit numbers played in the background. In the medium cognitive load condition, players had to indicate whether the numbers they heard were greater or less than five, by shouting “Low” or “High”. In the high cognitive load condition, the players had to indicate whether the numbers they heard were greater or less than the previous number they heard, again by shouting “Low” or “High”.

What the researchers found was that, under low cognitive load, police officers, trained video game players, and novices all demonstrated bias in reaction time: they were quicker to shoot armed Black figures in the game than to shoot armed white figures. However, police officers and trained video players displayed no bias in accuracy: they were equally accurate in distinguishing armed from unarmed figures, whether those figures were Black or white.

Introducing high cognitive load, however, actually erased the benefits of police officer training or training on the video game. What the researchers discovered was that imposing a high cognitive load actually reintroduced bias in accuracy among police officers and trained video game players. Under high cognitive load, they demonstrated racial biases in their ability to distinguish armed from unarmed figures, where those biases hadn’t existed in low cognitive load conditions!

The problem, as the authors note in their paper, is that

If training reduces bias only in optimal test conditions, it may not be adequate. This raises the disturbing possibility that discrepancies in actual police shootings (Ross, 2015) reflect the fact that police must make these decisions in challenging, exhausting, and frightening conditions that tax their cognitive capacity, nullifying any prior training that could have improved their ability to override or ignore racial stereotypes.

Now here’s my problem. Although the authors note that they “recognize that [their study] seems to challenge the value of practice and training in the first place”, they quickly retreat from that conclusion and suggest that instead practice and training should better imitate real-world conditions.

While I recognize that there are some situations that call for armed interventions, and therefore that there will be a role for training individuals to carry out those interventions, the emphasis on such training in the case of police officers strikes me as tragically misguided.

Rather than emphasizing a narrative according to which it is part of the job description for police officers regularly to face life-or-death decisions, we should instead push back on that narrative as itself posing an obstacle to attempts to encourage police officers to de-escalate potentially violent situations.

As the criminologist Michael Sierra-Arévalo from the University of Texas at Austin notes, in an article by Jennifer Mascia and Chip Brownlee:

“What my ethnographic work shows is that police are systematically socialized to understand their work as predominantly dangerous, and to understand that the public is the key driver of that danger,” said Sierra-Arévalo. “So police are trained that there actually is no such thing as a routine traffic stop, there is no such thing as a routine call for service. Instead, they are trained to view the world as full of infinite threats, and to approach a situation as if it might devolve into a fight of their lives at any moment.”

What would make even more of a difference in the prevalence of biased policing outcomes, however, would be structural changes removing police from the equation altogether. One of the most effective changes would be to decouple policing and traffic enforcement. (Tyler Cowen, here, refers to this as “unbundling the police”.)

As a recent summary in The Week noted, “Traffic stops are the most common interaction between citizens and police, with some 50,000 drivers pulled over daily — about 20 million stops a year. Police have a huge amount of discretion in deciding whom to pull over, and people of color are often singled out for scrutiny and harassment.”

Furthermore, there is no reason why these sorts of interactions can’t be eliminated. Again, as the authors of The Week summary point out,

Municipalities [could] create a separate agency responsible for traffic issues, staffed by unarmed agents without the power to arrest or conduct searches. Cameras [could] be used to target violations like expired registrations as well as speeding and red-light running. Last year Berkeley, Calif., became the first city to approve such a plan. Such an approach would do much to alleviate the racial injustice around traffic enforcement, said Jordan Blair Woods, a University of Arkansas law professor who’s studied the issue. “Removing police from traffic enforcement,” Woods said, “could also eliminate key reasons traffic stops escalate into violence.”

Attempts to alleviate climate change also suffer from an excessive focus on personal responsibility. For example, a recent BBC article titled “Who is really to blame for climate change?” spent hundreds of words addressing this question, thereby completely burying the significance of this little nugget: “Fossil fuel firms clearly play a major role in the climate problem. A major report released in 2017 attributed 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions over the previous two decades to just 100 fossil fuel producers. An update last year outlined the top 20 fossil fuel firms behind a third of emissions.”

When faced with seemingly intractable challenges of such complexity, it is understandable to try to reduce those challenges to simplistic solutions like calling for greater personal responsibility. We need to recognize, however, that those simplistic answers often blind us from taking more effective action. Working toward systemic change, forcing government and large corporations to move in directions that address the actual causes of biased outcomes or climate disasters, is our collective responsibility.