Cognitive Bias and Its Influence on the West Memphis Three

subpic3After 18 years in prison, three Arkansas men – better known as the West Memphis Three – were released in August of 2011. The Arkansas Supreme Court released the men after investigators concluded that there was no physical evidence to link the three men to the brutal killings that landed them in jail.

In 1993, the bodies of three 8-year-olds were found in a ditch stripped and tied up. It was also reported that the bodies had been mutilated, which led prosecutors to conclude that the boys had been the victims of a satanic cult. Fitting this theory, police arrested three teenage-friends, one of whom was a self-described Wiccan whose dress and appearance fit the profile of whom prosecutors believed killed the young boys.

One of the arrested teens admitted to the killings and implicated his two friends. However, the details of the confession did not fit the details of the crime. Ultimately, the confession was retracted.

Prosecutors moved forward with the case anyway, and the teens were convicted for the brutal murders of the children.

Cognitive Bias

What happened to the West Memphis Three may ultimately happen to countless defendants across the country: the investigators or prosecution develops a theory for what happened or a profile for whom they believe committed the crime, and focus on the facts that support this theory or profile. Even though evidence may indicate that the initial theory/profile is wrong and people are falsely arested, investigators or prosecutors shape new facts to fit their initial theory because, as the Los Angeles Times notes, it’s “what they expect to see.”

This rationalization of facts to fit what we want to see or believe is called “cognitive bias.”

Writing for the Huffington Post, Dr. Jim Taylor writes that cognitive biases “contaminate our ability to use common sense.” Dr. Taylor notes that some of the most common types of cognitive bias:

  • Confirmation bias – seeking facts, information or people that support our beliefs or ideas
  • Semmelweis reflex – rejecting new information or facts that are counter to or challenge our theory or beliefs
  • Bandwagon effect – thinking or acting in certain ways because the others in the group do
  • Causation bias – presuming a causal relationship between A and B (A causes B) when no such relationship exists

Cognitive bias is innate in all people. Therefore, if you are accused of a crime, seek out legal representation that is experienced in challenging the prosecutions notions and theories of what happened.