Of Gorillas and Cruel Intentions

I’ll get back to the unfolding Brexit car-crash in my next post but first I want to return to a story from a few months back-  the tragic death of the silverback gorilla, Harambe, who was killed after an infant fell into his enclosure. The media frenzy around this incident has passed but the outcome of the investigation conducted to assess the criminal responsibility of the mother was only delivered a month ago… and I think it deserves more attention.

Image by Angela N. (CCY BY 2.0)
Image by Angela N. (CCY BY 2.0)

Psychological research over the past decade has done much work in identifying various cognitive biases that influence human perception and reasoning. A one line summary of this vast research literature could be: we all have biases and they tend to result in us being kinder to ourselves in our interpretations and our actions than we are to others. A famous example of this general principle is the so-called fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias) which refers to the tendency for individuals to attribute the actions of others to fixed internal characteristics and dispositions rather than to external situational factors.

The furor surrounding the tragic killing of Harambe the gorilla in Cincinnati zoo after a four year old boy fell into his enclosure provides a recent dramatic illustration of this bias in action. This event quickly became worldwide news with the dominant reaction, particularly amongst online commentators, being to portray the parent(s) involved as uncaring and criminally negligent. That this would be the initial reaction to a story about a young child being able to gain access to a zoo exhibit without intervention is not surprising but some argued that the severity of the criticisms made were racially motivated due to the parents involved being black and thus fitting “neatly into established racial prejudices”. The Daily Mail (as ever) typified the worst of such tendencies, producing a long article that focused most of its attention on the “lengthy criminal history” of the boy’s father. The fact that the boy’s father was not present at the zoo at the time of the incident, and that the convictions were from over a decade ago seemed to be considered incidental facts by the Mail reporter.

Regardless of the race-baiting aspects, the broader connotation of the Mail piece and many similar pieces was that the child falling into the enclosure was not a freak accident that could have happened to anyone with a wilful young child but rather that it was due to these specific parents and their criminal and negligent dispositions. Reflecting this view a popular online petition, which received almost half a million signatures, explained that the accident could only have occurred due to parental negligence, that such “negligence may be reflective of the child’s home situation” and called for “an investigation of the child’s home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence”.

An emotional reaction to the brutal killing of a beautiful intelligent animal at a zoo, particularly an animal that is endangered, is understandable but as with most online campaigns based on public outrage it was remarkable how few took the time to examine the details of the event but were confident in stating that the accident would be impossible without criminally negligent parents. There were some who urged restraint, pointing to multiple eyewitness accounts (see below) that suggested that the boy had been too quick for anyone nearby to save him and that he had escaped from his mother while she was dealing with a crying sibling, but these were in the minority.

Eyewitness 1: “Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the little boy in the bushes past the little fence area. I tried to grab for him. I started yelling at him to come back. Everybody started screaming and going crazy. It happened so fast.”

Eyewitness 2: “I looked down, and to my surprise, there was a small child that had apparently, literally “flopped” over the railing, where there was then about 3 feet of ground that the child quickly crawled through! …  None of us actually thought he’d go over the nearly 15 foot drop, but he was crawling so fast through the bushes before myself or husband could grab him, he went over! … This mother was not negligent and the zoo did an awesome job handling the situation!”

The zoo itself also came under heavy criticism first, for having inadequate safety precautions and second, for being too quick to resort to lethal force to resolve the situation. With some of the loudest condemnations coming from animal rights organisation, many of which oppose the existence of zoos on principle. But were such criticisms justified?

Taking the safety issue first, contrary to widespread sentiment, the simple fact that an accident like this occurred is not incontrovertible evidence that a zoo was negligent, nor that it necessarily had inadequate safety precautions. This could be the case but to determine that would require an investigation by those with relevant expertise. If that sounds perverse consider that the same barriers had functioned without incident for 38 years, passed inspections by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and were described as “absolutely standard” by an independent zoo architecture expert.

The fact that a four year old could bypass a barrier with such apparent speed is definitely an issue, but it is worth noting that even after climbing the initial barrier, the child still had to clamber over to the edge of the enclosure and then leap down a 10-12 feet fall. That is not common behaviour for a four year old child. For a relevant comparison consider the safety barriers on large slides in kids parks. Most of these could also be bypassed by a sufficiently motivated four year old child if they didn’t fear the consequences of a large fall and yet that does not mean that the barriers are inadequate or that park authorities are negligent by not requiring that all slides are enclosed by solid barriers. At the very least, it would seem that if there is an inadequacy it is likely to be with general regulations than a problem specific to Cincinnati zoo.

Another popular criticism was based on claims that Harambe appeared to be protecting the child from the panicking crowd, with a number of commentators pointing to previous similar incidents where young children had been retrieved from enclosures without any harm befalling the gorillas. Such comparisons are superficially compelling but there are clear differences in the circumstances. The most significant of which is that in neither of the previous events did the gorillas involved behave aggressively with the infants. By contrast in the Cincinnati incident both the video evidence and eyewitness reports document how Harambe on a few occasions dragged the boy violently by his leg and threw him after becoming agitated. It is true that in images shortly before he was shot Harambe did appear calm and also that during the incident there were times when he did appear to behave protectively towards the infant. But behaving protectively and acting out aggressively are not mutually exclusive behaviours for an agitated gorilla.

Gorillas are intelligent social primates not mindless beasts but they are also immensely strong and not used to interacting with human infants. Thus, whether from intentional aggression or unintentional accident it was clear that the infant’s life was in severe danger throughout the incident. This was a point echoed by the vast majority of relevant experts. The well known primatologist Jane Goodall, for example, was widely cited as being critical of the zoo’s actions but her responses in an interview session discussing the incident showed that, in fact, she agreed with the zoo’s decision:

“The only thing that can be known from the video is that a 450 lb animal had hold of a small child. Harambe could have hurt the child even without intending to cause harm. And it would be difficult for even people familiar with Harambe himself, researchers or keepers who may have spent hours with Harambe, to ascertain his intentions from a distance in as short a time as it would take to do irreparable harm.”

Goodall’s take was representative of the response from most experts who were understandably deeply saddened by Harambe’s death but recognised that the zoo staff had been forced to act swiftly to resolve the situation as the situation could have easily resulted in the child’s death. Frans De Waal, another leading primatologist who wrote compassionately about the event, acknowledged that it was “a horrible dilemma” and that while he was uncertain of what he would have decided, “a decision like this needs to be taken in a matter of minutes: there is no time to hear different opinions or look at video evidence… [and] all alternatives had big IF’s attached to them.”

As these responses indicate there were nuanced responses to the tragedy, especially amongst experts, but it was equally apparent that the more common reaction amongst the public and the media was to ascribe the tragedy as being the result of some inherent flaw in the character of the parents of the child or an institutional failure by the zoo and its staff. The alternative possibility that it was just a tragic accident that occurred despite the best intentions of all involved received little traction.

Part of the reason the alternative account is unsatisfying is due to quirks in human psychology which has been fine tuned by evolution to be sensitive to the actions of other agents who might wish us harm. This means that when people perceive some serious misfortune they have a tendency to try and identify some intentional actor(s) who are responsible. You can see how this would be an evolutionary adaptive tendency to have as identifying agents that could cause us harm and taking adequate precautions against them in the future is likely a good way to stay alive longer. But it also means that evolution has bequeathed us with serious biases that make us prone to over detecting agency and bad at objectively assessing the causes of events, especially those that involve harm.

The news cycle inevitably moved on but in the wake of the event there was, as many had called for, an investigation to assess the parent’s responsibility. The outcome of this received much less attention than the initial event and this would seem to be partly due to the fact that the conclusion reached did not validate the outrage. Instead, at a press conference announcing that there would be no charges brought against the mother, the Hamilton County prosecutor stated “This happened so quickly… there’s nothing the mother could have done,” and “if anyone doesn’t believe a 3-year-old can scamper off very quickly – they’ve never had kids. They can, and they do.” Furthermore, subsequent coverage detailed that the infant’s mother, Michelle Gregg, worked at a preschool and rather than being neglectful was described by one parent whose children she looked after as a very ‘caring’ woman:

“All the negativity I see online – that’s not her,” she said. “She’s not a neglectful woman. She’s caring. It’s not about her not paying attention or not caring. Things happen.” … “She takes good care of my kids. It’s the best daycare I’ve had.”

In summary, the fundamental attribution error appears to have been in full effect in many of the responses to the Harambe tragedy, leading people to strongly endorse the erroneous conclusions that the event was caused by the deep personal character flaws of the parents of the child or the zoo staff. But the outcome of the independent investigations did not support this interpretation and instead emphasised that it was just a terrible accident based on a confluence of unlikely circumstances that could have happened to any unlucky parent with a sufficiently energetic child. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the modern media cycle few will have maintained interest in the event long enough to see this outcome and to potentially reconsider their willingness to automatically attribute dispositions from evidence that in the end was remarkably situational.

"Ya, a trained corvid would do better"

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