Thin-Slicing, Experts, and the Power of the Human Brain Help Capture Suspect Two Alive

The police in Watertown responded magnificently. But the most brilliant strategic move gets little notice from the press.

hannebery boat

For about sixteen hours, hundreds of law officers, FBI agents, helicopters, and satellites scoured a relatively tiny area of Boston suburbs for one wounded terrorist. At the same time, they kept the public relatively safe, off the streets, and out of the way of their manhunt.

But they didn’t find their man.

By seven o'clock, Col. Timothy Alben admitted they didn’t know where Dzhokar Tsarnaev was. They believed he was still in the Greater Boston area, but they couldn’t know for sure.

So authorities lifted the “shelter in place” request, allowing people to leave their homes with a powerful admonition: remain diligent.

Col. Alben made clear that there was no “all clear.” The world is a dangerous place, but Watertown, Massachusetts was beyond dangerous. Somewhere in that quiet neighborhood lurked a dangerous, desperate, wounded animal who knew how to shoot a gun, build a bomb, and throw a grenade. Tsarnaev had means and motive to kill anyone he encountered, and Col. Alben warned people not to give Tsarnaev the opportunity.

Lifting “Shelter in Place” Led To Tsarnaev’s LIve Capture

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the human brain’s “thin-slicing” ability in Blink. Experts can spot tiny anomalies that technology, to date, cannot.

We often think of experts as highly trained, long experienced professionals. In truth, though, we’re all experts on something, and David Hanneberry is the world’s leading authority on the boat in his backyard.

Hanneberry’s mind had mapped every bulge, roll, and slack of the tarp covering the boat, which his step son described as Hanneberry’s greatest love, after his wife. When Hanneberry’s eye glimpsed a little flap of the canvas, he knew immediately something was wrong.

That one little ripple of canvas, which no algorithm on the world’s most powerful computer could have detected, led to a bigger problem in Hanneberry’s mind: blood where blood shouldn’t be.No doubt the blood lit up Hanneberry’s amygdala, the little almond-shaped nodes in the brain’s limbic system that triggers the flight or fight or freeze response.

Alert, curious, and cautious, Hanneberry spotted a cut line that held the canvas in place. Not torn or worn through, but cut clean with a knife.

He lifted the canvas and exposed the wrong of all wrongs: bleeding man in his beloved boat.

The Limits of Technology and The Power of People

Had the “shelter in place” ordered remained in effect, it’s very possible that Tsarnaev would have died in David Hanneberry’s boat. All the helicopters and algorithms never would have told authorities that the canvas was flapping wrong. Big data didn’t know how that canvas was supposed to flap; only Hanneberry’s brain knew that.

By lifting “shelter in place,” the police exponentially increased the computing power available to spot something wrong. It worked. Keeping people off the street was a great tactical move. Lifting the order when they did seemed to be perfect timing.

I doubt the police lifted the order to increase the number of eyes searching for Tsarnaev. But it worked brilliantly. And we now know the real power of crowd sourcing, thin-slicing, and the human brain.

How the Establishment Wins

A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an awesome article for The New Yorker:  How David Beats Goliath.   Read it after you read this. The story encourages and frustrates at the same time.

Encourages because we learn Davids can, occasionally, beat Goliaths.  Frustrates because Goliaths tend to change the rules just before the epic battle.

lucy-football

That’s how the establishment wins—by establishing the rules. And changing them as necessary. Not exactly fair,  but fairness isn’t in the rule book.

Insurgents win by rejecting the establishment’s rules.

The reason conservative insurgents struggle is our good, middle class upbringing.  We believe in established customs, established manners, and even established music.  Then we get upset when the establishment serves itself first, leaving us the leftovers.

If we’re to overcome our manners and execute Gladwell’s strategies for defeating Goliaths, then we we better understand how the establish wins.  And I’m going to tell you. I’ll at least try.

The establishment wins by laying down the rules. And charming us into accepting them.

In Gladwell’s story, an unlikely girls basketball team used the full-court press to disrupt the established basketball giants in Silicon Valley.  Until the championship game.

By then, the establishment had gotten together and convinced the referees to fight against the girls.

The refs called foul after foul.  The insurgent team lost to the establishment.

And the slaves lived happily ever after.

In con games, the con artist gets the mark to accept some rule, some stipulation.  “If I can do x then you will do y.”  The mark always loses his shirt.

Why?  Because the con artist knows the game and creates the rules in his favor.

In elections, the establishment follows the same pattern.

  • Applaud the insurgents
  • Pretend to be an insurgent
  • Lay down the rules for insurgency

Establishment candidates have cash and the power cash brings. They can buy prominent endorsements. They can intimidate potential donors of the opponents.

Because cash, and the power of cash, is their strength, they establish a rule early:

  • Thou shalt not discuss money

When the insurgents stop talking about money, the establishment places the next subject off-limits.  Say the establishment candidate worked to save a RINO.

  • Thou shalt not discuss my endorsements

And so on.

Eventually, the insurgents are left with nothing.  The rules have changed. The game the insurgents thought they were playing is over, and a new game begun.

Down the road, the rules changes that preserved the establishment this time will haunt them. But they’re the establishment; they’ll change the rules again.

The reason the Tea Party happened wasn’t because Barack Obama was elected or because TARP passed.

If the Tea Party is to reassert Constitutional Conservatism, then we cannot live by the establishment’s rules.

The Tea Party happened because the establishment blinked in the presence of the insurgency. Lehman Brothers fell.  TARP failed in the House.  We caught them.  And we’ll never fear them quite the same way again.