Observable Cues

Over at NewsBusters the token conservative at MSNBC, former Florida congressman Joe Scarborough, is quoted as blaming conservatives for Trayvon Martin’s death:

Al Sharpton and Lawrence O’Donnell are not the only ones on MSNBC cynically exploiting the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. On his Morning Joe program today, Joe Scarborough said that conservatives are “somehow suggesting that he deserved getting shot in the chest with a 9 millimeter.”

Let’s examine Scarborough’s statement in slightly more depth and ask the question, did Trayvon Martin play a role in his own death? Did he “deserve” to get shot? Was Martin’s hoodie (now becoming symbolic of racial injustice) part of the issue?

It is a tough question to ask – did an article of clothing play a part in a teenager losing his life? It is an even more difficult question to honestly answer without being tagged as a racist – but consider these salient facts: black inner-city youths have been conditioned since the late 80’s to affect a lifestyle characterized and popularized by rapper Tupac Shakur, the outward representation of which was the wearing of hoodies (with the hood shrouding the head and face) and sagging pants. This “style” is said to have risen in the 70′s via prisoners in California state penitentiaries. The Mexican/Spanish/Black gang members who were imprisoned there used their belts as weapons and given the limited budget of the prison systems, their belts were simply taken away – the result was sagging pants, which in turn, became somewhat of an identifying mark of a former prisoner on the streets upon release.

But why would young people glorify and seek to emulate ex-cons?

Published in Sociological Forum, Vol. 16, No. 4, December 2001, Dalton Conley and Miriam Ryvicker related their research in this essay titled Race, Class, and Eyes Upon the Street: Public Space, Social Control, and the Economies of Three Urban Communities”:

In addition to the social processes described above, the ways in which the authors’ subjects make meaning out of their everyday lives also function as mechanisms of social control. For the youth in Anderson’s book, meaning revolves around the need to gain the respect, as well as fear, of one’s peers. While the code of the street has developed largely out of a sense of alienation from mainstream society, an individual’s participation in the street code represents a strong oppositional stance toward mainstream culture. Adoption of the code means that one could distinguish one’s self from those who have presumably sold out, thereby bolstering the participant’s self-esteem. He can continue to increase his sense of power by proving himself in fights and stickups. He can also reinforce his self-esteem by acquiring expensive fashion items that serve as status symbols and that allow him to emulate the image of the drug dealer, and possibly by moving his way up in the drug economy.

So dressing up as a drug dealer became all the rage for these teenagers. Then Madison Avenue took over and created a “style” that spread to more kids as the popularity of rap music and the “gansta” culture grew and crossed cultural, economic and racial boundaries.

From the research of Robert Garot of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Jack Katz of UCLA: “Provocative Looks: Gang Appearance and Dress Codes in an Inner-City Alternative School” (2004, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 33(6):735-766):

Social commentators have often bemoaned that so many inner city youth pay so much attention to and money on clothes (Anderson, 1999; Holloman et al., 1996; MacLeod, 1995), used as status symbols to transcend the appearance of poverty. Whatever their implications for signaling where one stands socially and with what kind of people one naturally associates (Blumer, 1969), clothes have vibrant implications in the everyday interactional lives of high school aged youth.

So Trayvon Martin was only doing what many teenagers do as evidenced by this research.

Why does that matter?

It matters because of a behavioral principle called “observable cues”.

When a person faces a new or different situation, they seek to define it so that they can understand it. In many cases we can search for and find enough information for our brains to process it and place it in context for us to manage or understand. In the cases where there is simply not enough information, we look for these “observable cues” to help us define and understand.

A common example used as a teaching tool in business schools is the McDonald’s restaurant parking lot case.

McDonald’s managers are trained as a matter of process to keep the restaurant parking lots and store fronts clean, litter free and neat. Why would anyone care what the parking lots look like? Well, while the consumer can’t see into the restaurant as they drive by, they can see the parking lot. A clean parking lot becomes a proxy for the inside of the restaurant – a clean kitchen, clean restrooms and a clean eating area. The observable cue of a clean parking lot registers in the mind of the hungry driver that this is likely to be a clean place with safe food. The same goes for the opposite. If the outside is dirty, trash filled and unkempt, we extrapolate that the inside is likely to be the same.

These are generalizations to be sure – but that doesn’t make them wrong.

The same observable cues are applicable to humans.

The point being that if you dress like an ex-con or drug dealer (sagging pants and a hoodie pulled over your face), affect the walk, the talk, the attitude and personality of that class (aggressive and adoptive of the “street code”) and are present in a situation and environment (say a dimly lit street or a back alley in the inner city) that yields no other opportunity for informational search or context and no other definition, the observable cues will lead the observer to conclude that the individual is exactly what their outward appearance demonstrates them to be. That is to say that the context assigned will be the context observed.

Observable cues in ambiguous situations can also be very wrong. The most often quoted examples are how men are prone to misreading cues in situations of sexual attraction. Quoted from an abstract of a research report by Carin Perilloux, Judith A. Easton, and David M. Buss of the University of Texas at Austin is this:

Sexual interest must be inferred from observable cues, but the cues people use to estimate sexual interest may be ambiguous.

There are several reasons for such ambiguity: Direct signaling risks damage to the signaler’s mate value if he or she is rejected (Symons, 2005); explicit sexual signaling can hinder the signaler’s future mating success by fostering a reputation for sexual promiscuity; ambiguous signals can evoke additional courtship behavior and thereby lead to more accurate assessments of the target’s sexual interest; and evaluating the escalation or de-escalation of sexual signals allows people to recalibrate their own demonstrations of sexual interest.

Compared with women, men are more likely to overperceive sexual interest (e.g., Abbey, 1982; Farris, Treat, Viken, & McFall, 2008; Henningsen, Henningsen, & Valde, 2006; Maner et al., 2005).

So just like thinking that because a hot girl (or guy) looked at you at a party for a half a second longer than you expected means that she wants you or everybody wearing Mossy Oak camouflage shirts at the Super Wal-Mart in New Albany, Mississippi at noon on an November Saturday has been in a deer stand that morning, observational cues can be misleading – but they also can be correct – maybe she (he?) did want to have sex with you and it is a sure bet that at least some of those folks at the Super Wal-Mart were hunting that very morning. In truth, we all use observational cues – they are important because they are used to make decisions every day.

Does this mean that Trayvon Martin “deserved what he got”?

Absolutely not, no one deserves to be shot simply because of the way that they are dressed or look – but does this mean that George Zimmerman’s actions may have been influenced by the manner in which Martin was dressed or acted in that environment?

Yes it does.

That doesn’t make Zimmerman’s actions justifiable any more than it makes Martin responsible for his own death. What it does mean is that Zimmerman’s motivations could be based purely on the observable cues telling him that he was in danger from a threat and he was not prosecuting an act of racial homicide as many would have us believe. Trayvon’s hoodie could have been perceived as the urban camouflage it was, causing him to be perceived as part of a group that he didn’t belong to (just like the people at the Super Wal-Mart). Limited definitional information in a charged atmosphere is a recipe for disaster.

The American public, black and white, conservative and liberal, need to see the full evidence first before we all make decisions based on the limited observable cues we have at our disposal.

William Jacobson at Legal Insurrection has a similar take.

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39 thoughts on “Observable Cues

  1. Question: if we switch sides for a moment and assume that Zimmerman and the reported witness who allegedly confirmed Zimmerman’s story both told the truth and Martin did break Zimmerman’s nose, knock him down, jump on top of him and was beating his head into the cement when Zimmerman finally shot him, would that change anything – or would we still want to hang Zimmerman for “murder?”

    One more: why are we assuming that the media – a media known to lie and fabricate stories – is telling us the truth? Doesn’t this imply that the local LEO’s and State Attorney would have to be racist or incompetent or something deserving of equal scorn for not having arrested Zimmerman?

    Or is it possible – just maybe – that we don’t have all the information necessary to draw a correct conclusion and, therefore, are letting ourselves become part of the intentional effort to make this case into a reason for national violence. I sense the general assumption of guilt on the part of Zimmerman in America when – in truth – the best any of us can honestly say is “We do not know the truth of what happened.”

    My fear now is this: that the local authorities originally made the correct call, but now, due to national media coverage and the growing threat of violence, Zimmerman may be charged and railroaded when he might not be guilty just because of the storm that has been constructed around this case. If that happens, there will have been an injustice done alright – TO ZIMMERMAN!

    • Assuming for the moment that Zimmerman is innocent, a fact yet to be determined, due to the involvement of the media and the race hustlers (including Obama), he will forever be guilty to a segment of our population, just as Trayvon Martin will be. It is disgusting how easy and casual the liberals and their famous (or infamous) enablers find the perversion of justice. It is all wrapped up in our discussions of post-modernism. It isn’t about truth, it is all about their truth and they will do everything possible to bend their reality until it fits.

      I don’t know if Zimmerman shot the kid in cold blood because he hated blacks any more than I know that Martin tried to beat him but the fact remains that nobody else but Zimmerman and the few eye witnesses do either. Neither of the oft quoted sources, the girlfriend listening on the phone and the 911 operator, know either – they weren’t there, they only have one sense, hearing, to help process the situation.

      Sharpton, Jackson, Spike Lee and the rest should just sit down and STFU until the process takes its course. A rush to judgement won’t bring Martin back and justice delayed is NOT justice DENIED. There is a reason that we have due process – but I guess I shouldn’t expect any of the Martin backers to have actually read and understood the Constitution, should I?

      • Utah,

        Apparently, Zimmerman has black friends defending him – even saying he mentors young black children.

        But then, the “facts” in this case have been so deliberately confused that none of us can be sure of anything now. Throw in the one fact we do have — that we cannot trust either the media or our President on these sort of issues — and the situation not only gets hopeless, it starts the take on the feel of having been intentionally created.

        Personally, I not only expect this case to get worse, I expect to see more of them (while cases where the skin color of the victim is reverse continue to go unreported – at least not with this level of passion).

  2. The wearing of the hoodie might have had nothing to do with Martin attempting to fit into the “gangsta” look, it might have simply been a way to protect him from the rain that could have been falling that evening………..but I doubt it.
    If Zimmerman misread the situation because he thought he was seeing a “gangsta”, and that helped cause the unfortunate death of Martin, I think you are stupid if you allow your teenager to leave the house looking like that.

  3. No offense, but this hoodie thing with the saggy jeans seems to be a popular trend with young folks. Personally, I wouldn’t think twice if I observed a black, white or asian child walking in my neighborhood wearing this attire. I don’t think of these kids as hooligans. Oh, and I suppose I’m screwed because not only will I stare at a fella, I’ll chat it up. So now I’m giving the wrong signals? Well, I reckon every daddy from the school fair this morning will sum me up as a slut, then? Oh, brother!

    The last sentence of your article is the most pertinent. Leave it to a jury. I would argue with B.’s point (his last paragraph)because Zimmerman will (if he wants) get a kick-ass lawyer. I promise you most attorneys would c—- their pants for this one….

      • Well, you’re slick, Rick. But the fact, I mean, the FACT is that the first image appears to be from a clothing ad campaign. The second image appears to be of some silly boys hamming it up for the camera. Have you never hammed it up for the camera? I’ll concede that they used vulgar images, but I have the habit of grabbing breasts in pics. Speaking on habits, I won’t tell you what I did when I played Sister Maria or Sister Amnesia for the pics, but I can assure you it was all in good fun…..

        • So what you are saying is that context matters. You assumed that the first picture is from a catalog – I actually have no idea, it is a random picture that I pulled off the internet. I don’t know that whether it was or it wasn’t but the important thing is that in absence of more information, the cues told you that it was, likely because you have seen similar catalog pictures before. There were gaps and your mind and its experience filled them in.

          You just proved my point about Trayvon Martin and the hoodie.

          • No, I didn’t. When have you ever seen kids “pose” like the top pic? If I go up to a bunch of kids and say to them, “Here, let me take your picture” that this is the position they would naturally form? I deduced my conclusions because of the obvious: It’s a “posed” shot.

          • I’m looking at one right now from my daughter’s University of Michigan yearbook…and unless UM was just bought by Abercrombie and Fitch, it ain’t a catalog.

            Like I said, unless you have actually seen it in a catalog, you don’t have evidence that it is from one – all you can say it that it looks like it came from there.

            You absolutely did prove my point.

      • Utah,

        Kells isn’t alone in her reflexive action to deny truth and reality when she is confronted by them. To concede your point – and you HAVE made your point – would be for her to admit her world view is flawed. Most people cannot do that. It leaves them feeling adrift and, rather than accept reality as it is, they would choose to stay tethered to a sinking ship.

        Unfortunately, in the case of America, those clinging to the Titanic this time are the leaders of our govt. and social institutions and they darn well mean to drag us into the abyss with them.

        Otherwise, they’d have to admit conservatives AREN’T so stupid and they are…
        ;-)

        • Okay, Mr. Smarty Pants. I will be very curious as to the source of the pics as I believe my assessment of them to be correct. So please tell me how, exactly, I am denying truth and reality.

          I don’t think you can face truth and reality because I’m actually on your side. The basic problem lies in the fact that I can see gray where you can only see black and white. Unfortunately, you’ve currently got me seeing red!

    • There is no gray in the outcome. Martin is dead and Zimmerman shot him. There is no exception to that conclusion.

      What must be determined is who and what started the chain of reactions to an event and whether that event was sufficiently severe to warrant the outcome. It doesn’t matter that Zimmerman was allegedly following Martin after the 911 operator told him not to – simply following someone is not illegal. It doesn’t matter that Martin may not have liked it. What matters is this – did Zimmerman initiate the incident or did Martin -which one initiated the condition where one feared for his life or well being enough to attack? If it can be determined that Zimmerman caused Martin to attack because he was in fear for his life then he is guilty of manslaughter at a minimum and murder at most, even if Martin was banging his head into the sidewalk. If Martin attacked Zimmerman just because he didn’t like being followed, then Martin is guilty of assault and assault is sufficient to warrant self defense with deadly force if necessary. Zimmerman is then not guilty.

      There can be no gray in justice or justice is not served. It doesn’t matter if both are at fault in motivation, a crime was committed by one of them.

      • You sound like my husband. I will agree to disagree as I believe a crime was committed by both of them.

        I must’ve spent too long with you boys yesterday, because I dreamt last night that you were a preacher and B. was a pimp. I’m not going to tell you my role in the dream.

        I knew I shouldn’t have eaten red meat last night….

      • What must be determined is who and what started the chain of reactions to an event and whether that event was sufficiently severe to warrant the outcome. It doesn’t matter that Zimmerman was allegedly following Martin after the 911 operator told him not to – simply following someone is not illegal. It doesn’t matter that Martin may not have liked it. What matters is this – did Zimmerman initiate the incident or did Martin -which one initiated the condition where one feared for his life or well being enough to attack? If it can be determined that Zimmerman caused Martin to attack because he was in fear for his life then he is guilty of manslaughter at a minimum and murder at most, even if Martin was banging his head into the sidewalk. If Martin attacked Zimmerman just because he didn’t like being followed, then Martin is guilty of assault and assault is sufficient to warrant self defense with deadly force if necessary. Zimmerman is then not guilty.

        EXACTLY! And exactly what I have been saying this whole time.

        Now, all we as the public have to do is remain interested so the authorities do see this through, but stay out of their way and allow them to do the job they are paid to do. If we do not like the outcome, it is NOT an “excuse” for vigilante justice anymore than the OJ verdict was, it is a REASON to deal with the local authorities.

        Any other action is lawlessness and makes those who perpetrate that action as guilty of a crime as they want to make Zimmerman. Only, in such case, the whole nation will be witness to that crime – as in the BP and Sharpton actions.

      • I’m sorry but that is just silly…and patently wrong – “mutual guilt” doesn’t matter now that one of them is dead and the other isn’t. If Martin is proven guilty of assault, Zimmerman is innocent – he committed no crime – and Martin can’t be charged because he is dead. If he didn’t commit assault and Zimmerman just shot him, then Zimmerman is guilty and will pay the price – Martin’s innocence now only matters as proof of Zimmerman’s guilt. Whether he is innocent or not will not bring him back.

        The law allows justifiable actions in the protection of one’s person. If a guy walks up to you on the street and accosts you and you raise his voice an octave or two with a well placed kick to the crotch, will you be charged? No you won’t…but he will. You are not guilty of a criminal act even though both of you were involved…that’s how it works in cases like this, especially when one person kills another. The deceased individual either played a role in his own death or he didn’t, it is a simple as that – no gray area here.

        But in court, it isn’t about justice – it is about what can be proven.

        • I’m sorry but that is just silly…and patently wrong – “mutual guilt” doesn’t matter now that one of them is dead and the other isn’t. If Martin is proven guilty of assault, Zimmerman is innocent – he committed no crime – and Martin can’t be charged because he is dead. If he didn’t commit assault and Zimmerman just shot him, then Zimmerman is guilty and will pay the price – Martin’s innocence now only matters as proof of Zimmerman’s guilt. Whether he is innocent or not will not bring him back.

          Is it? Might I suggest that you are applying the logic behind my comment to narrowly. Suppose Zimmerman was assaulted and did act in PROPER self defense, but he did so with an illegal weapon or without a permit to carry? In an even such as that, then my comment stands.

          The purpose of my comment was not to speak to any specifics of this case as you and I have already pointed out that none of us can know them at this point. The purpose of my comment was to explain to Kells that right/wrong is always black/white. I’m sure that, were you to stop and think about it, even you can think of many examples where both parties to an incident committed some wrong (at least in the law’s eyes).

          But let’s take this case as an example and play a game of “what if” – just for the sake of example.

          Suppose Zimmerman has a permit for his weapon and follows Martin. No law broken. Now suppose Zimmerman calls to Martin from behind Martin’s back – to get his attention. Still no law broke. But Martin doesn’t stop, so Zimmerman reaches out and grabs Martin by the arm to stop and/or turn him around so he can ask Martin who he is and what he is doing. At that point, is is POSSIBLE that Zimmerman may have committed Battery. Or if Zimmerman had made threats to Martin, it is POSSIBLE he committed assault.

          Legal Definition Assault and Battery

          Now, suppose Zimmerman DID grab Martin by the arm to stop and/or turn him and Martin immediately turns and attacks Zimmerman. It will depend on how Zimmerman was acting as to whether or not Martin can claim he had reason to fear for his life. Simply because someone assaults you, that is not always sufficient cause to justify breaking their nose and pummeling their head into the ground. For example, a slap to the face is assault, but it will not provide you with a defense against your use of deadly force in return when you find yourself in jail.

          Now, here’s the point to all this “verboseness:” I just showed you how BOTH parties could have broken the law, yet Zimmerman not be guilty of murder or manslaughter. Zimmerman can break the law by simple assault by touching Martin in a manner that may have offended him but did not present a threat of imminent injury or death to Martin. Martin may have broken the law by over reacting and using deadly force where the law wouldn’t recognize it as justifiable.

          But the point still remains: we do not know and, until Zimmerman is charged and a jury says he is guilty, all we can do is trust the local authorities are following the law according to the system in place :-)

  4. Let me try to the best of my best ability to reason with you two boys…. I happen to own this stun thingy that my husband bought me. Now, were I to believe there was someone in my neighboourhood whom I thought was up to no good, I could’ve grabbed my stun thingy, thereby protecting or defending myself while not mortally wounding this suspicious person.

    Now, were I the suspicious person, I could’ve diffused the situation by not attacking, but rather, chatting.

    Are you with me so far? Do you understand the gray now, Pimp boy? Oh, and Preacher boy, your pic looks like your first one.

    • Kells,

      I personally know people who will walk right through your stun gun thingy and kill you by beating you over the head with your own stun gun thingy.

      You may need some more experience in the real world.

      • Oh, brother! This stun thingy I have attaches to your fingers like, um, those, finger thingy weapons ( I can’t remember their name. It’s what boys fight with. They are those thingys that you must insert your fingers into when you fight. They are similar to a glove that has had its fingers chopped off ….DAMN! There’s a name for them!)

        What the hello was I talkin about? Oh, yes. I seriously doubt your friend could deal with several shots from my stun gun finger thingy.

        I’m so pissed because I don’t know what to google to figure out the name of the weapon that I’m speaking about….I could swear I’ve spoken on it before, but now I’ve gone blank…..do you know what I’m talking about? (I’m referring to the weapon not the blankness, as I already know the answer to that)

        I wish to hell you silly boys would have to bleed for a week…..

          • Daddy is a Garrett, and he always knows what’s best. Unfortunately, he can also kick my ass.

            Oddly enough, dad takes a different route with me, (kicks my ass with kindness and love) because he knows how to break me. It’s an extremely cruel and unusual form of torture, but, for some strange and complicated reason, to which I cannot explain; I seem to come back for more of this abuse…..

    • Yep. You sure could have…and you would have been guilty of assault if the individual was committing no crime and you just “thought [they were] up to no good”.

  5. 31 comments on an incident that, if the race of the individuals were reversed, would just barely make the local news for one cycle while there are much more important issues afoot that we should be concentrating on.

    We have the SCOTUS deciding on the constitutionality of Obamacare and Obama caught on a “hot mic” telling the Russian President that after he is re-elected, he can make a “proper” deal on the missile defense program, essentially gutting American defense strategies in Europe and the Middle East. HitleryHillary Clinton is going ahead with the UN small arms treaty against the wishes of most of the American people. Progressives want to tax Americans out of prosperity and into the poorhouse, but the most important thing in the news is …did Zimmerman shoot Trayvon Martin in self defense or did he maliciously shoot him because he didn’t like the way Martin looked.

    I’m just sayin’

    • Just ask yourself “what does this get them,” then start thinking like an America-hating, Marxist revolutionary who has read Alinsky. I bet THEN you’ll understand…if you don’t already. ;-)

        • Blood in the streets is the excuse they need for the top to come down. It is the crisis they want because it will allow them to do things they ordinarily can’t do.

          Anybody else remember all this noise about suspending elections, or bypassing Congress and letting the President just do what needs to be done???
          ;-)

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