Cognitive Bias in Threat Assessment

In our daily lives, our brains constantly process a vast amount of information from multiple sources. To cope with this massive flow of information we process the information through a filter of our personal experiences and preferences. While this process is generally efficient, it can sometimes lead to errors in thinking. This is known as cognitive bias.

Cognitive biases are not all bad. They can serve as mental shortcuts that help us make quick decisions, however, they can also lead to errors, prejudices, and flawed judgments. These biases often lead to distortions in our perception, interpretation, and decision-making processes. They can affect various aspects of our lives, including how we form beliefs, make judgments, and solve problems. Recognizing and understanding these biases can help individuals and decision-makers become more aware of their thought processes and make more rational and informed choices.

In our personal lives or in a business setting unrecognized cognitive bias can lead to bad decisions. In the context of Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management, unrecognized cognitive bias can be deadly.

There are numerous cognitive biases that have been identified and studied by psychologists and behavioral scientists. Here are a few examples that are the most relevant to our work in Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management:

Confirmation Bias: This bias involves the tendency to seek out or interpret information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs or preconceptions while ignoring or dismissing evidence to the contrary.

Anchoring Bias: This bias refers to the tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information encountered when making decisions, even if that information is irrelevant or arbitrary. This initial information serves as an “anchor” that influences subsequent judgements and actions. In stressful situations such as threat reporting matters initial reports may be incomplete, inaccurate, or flat out wrong. Threat Assessment Teams must have a detailed intake protocol to receives threat reports and conduct prompt and thorough follow up investigation to verify the accuracy of these reports and gather additional information as needed.

Survivorship Bias: This bias is a cognitive shortcut that makes us ignore everything that did not survive some kind of filtering process. In a threat assessment context this means we only consider the information presented to us rather than look at what we do not yet know. If we are missing certain elements of data, we must ask why. It may be because the information does not exist or perhaps, we simply have not asked the right question of the right person.

Confirmation Bias: “I know His Family He Would Never Do Anything Like That.”

On January 10th, 2013, a California high school student came to school with a shotgun. After severely wounding one student he surrendered to a school supervisor. A year earlier the same student was the subject of a threat assessment after he was overheard threatening to shoot fellow students and bomb the school auditorium. The threat assessment team met, and a management plan was implemented.

Over the next year, there were multiple reports of escalating behavior from this student he made threatening statements, he drew images of school shootings, there was a rumor that the student had prepared a hit list, he posted a story of a psychopath who committed acts of violence, and he made stabbing gestures in class with a pencil.

Each time students and staff reported such behaviors of concern to the assistant principal who assured them that the matter was handled since the threat assessment had already been done. The assistant principal also advised people that she knew the student’s family and that she knew that he could not be violent. There were no additional threat assessment team meetings to analyze this new information that was reported.

It was later learned that the day before the shooting the student had warned several friends not to come to school since “something bad was going to happen.” They did not report this warning and did not believe he was serious because the assistant principal had told them for almost a year that the student would not be violent.

After the shooting and during the subsequent and inevitable civil lawsuit a jury found the school district and the school district employees involved in the threat assessment and management process to be 54% responsible for the $3.8 million in total damages awarded to the plaintiff. The school district was found to be more liable than the shooter.

In this case, the failures on the part of the school district were many but a significant factor in this case was the assistant principal’s confirmation bias. She had already predetermined the student was not a risk for violence and this flawed judgment precluded her from reassessing the student’s escalating risk over the following year.

Anchoring Bias – “He can’t be a white supremacist because he is not white.”

On May 6, 2023, a mass shooting occurred at Allen Premium Outlets, an outlet center in Allen, Texas. Nine people including the shooter were killed during the shooting, the youngest of whom was a three-year-old boy, and seven others were injured. The shooter, Mauricio Garcia, promoted white supremacist views online. In hundreds of social media posts the shooter shared writings with racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist rhetoric including neo-Nazi materials and material espousing the white supremacy according to an FBI bulletin obtained by the media.

In another incident on May 22, 2023, Indian national Sai Varshith Kandula slammed the truck into the White House gates in an attack targeting President Biden. Video from the scene shows that police recovered a Nazi flag with a swastika from the truck. According to court records, Kandula said he wanted to get to the White House, seize power, and be put in charge of the nation. He praised the Nazi’s strong history and their authoritarian nature, the theory of eugenics, and their goal of a one world order. Kandula praised Hitler and said he planned the attack for six months and would kill the President “if that’s what I have to do and would hurt anyone that would stand in my way.”

Both incidents were met with a strong dose of skepticism from political figures and other public figures active on social media with many attempting to link the attacks to illegal immigration or gang violence. Elon Musk went so far as to post on Twitter that these attacks government sponsored psychological operations designed to weaken right-wing political opposition. In both cases, critics claimed it implausible that a non-white attacker could embrace white supremacy.

Many of these politicians and public figures discounted these attackers’ links to right-wing extremism for political purposes. Threat Assessment Teams must also guard against such dismissive cognitive bias when conducting assessments. Threat assessments must be based on facts. In both cases ample facts supported these individuals’ links to right-wing extremism.

When discussing these cases in a recent media interview Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security stated this is a very complicated aspect of right-wing extremism, “we would assume that everyone is White in a Caucasian sense. But Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race so a lot of Hispanics might identify as being white.”

Garcia, the Texas shooter, posted cartoon images showing a Latino child at a fork in the road, with one direction labeled “act black” and the other “become a white supremacist.”  Garcia wrote a note on the cartoon stating “I think I’ll take my chances the white supremacist.”

There are several similar examples, Nick Fuentes, a well-known Holocaust denier and prominent voice in right-wing extremism extremist causes has a Mexican heritage. Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys leader who was recently found guilty of seditious conspiracy for his role in the January 6,  2021 insurrection at the US Capitol, claims to be Afro-Cuban. The Proud Boys adhere to a belief system of “Western Chauvinism” and openly espouse white supremacist beliefs. As a condition of membership, the Proud Boys demand members agree with the statement that “white men created western culture.” The

The Daily Stormer, perhaps the most influential neo-Nazi propaganda outlet in the world, began publishing in Spanish in 2017 seeking to expand recruiting opportunities within the Latino community.

Survivorship Bias – Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Take for example the scenario of a high-risk termination following workplace threats. The threat assessment team institutes a follow-up case management plan that involves contact with trusted third parties as well as reviewing public-facing social media accounts associated with the terminated employee. Often threat assessment cases in the management phase are deemed complete or successful when no additional derogatory information is uncovered. No news is good news sometimes means exactly bad and the threat has been mitigated other times no news means we are simply not questions or looking in the right places consider the example of an individual who was a prolific poster on social media who suddenly goes dark period has this individual simply stopped posting or have they migrated to a different social media platform that we are unaware of?

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