Malcolm Gladwell
Contributed by Shemika Thormahlen
Chapter 6

Amadou Diallo, a Guinean worker, lived on Wheeler Avenue in the South Bronx. On February 3, 1999, Diallo stood outside his loft building, staring at the road, while four casually-dressed police officers drove past his apartment. Upon seeing him, they believed that he might be a burglar attempting to break into the condo building, supposedly due to the manner in which Diallo kept staring at the building. Furthermore, Diallo supposedly fit a detailed description of a rapist who had reportedly been seen in the area. Naturally, the officers stopped their vehicle and approached him. Diallo, who stammered and had little knowledge of the English language, did not react immediately, but did subsequently flee into his own apartment and away from the police. The officers shouted for Diallo to stop running, which he obviously did not. The officers ran towards the apartment, pursuing him. One of the cops reports that Diallo appeared to convey an item that looked like a gun, yet he was actually reaching for his wallet. Naturally, the cop responded by firing his own. There were other officers on duty that day; when they heard gunfire, they thought that their partners were being attacked — and they, too, opened fire at Diallo, eventually killing him.

The most widely recognized types of snap decisions people make are those about other individuals because people are skilled at reading facial cues as well as picking-up on any subtle display of emotions. Unmistakably, the four casually-dressed officers who shot at Diallo made a progression of awful snap decisions: they judged Diallo to be a criminal; trusted that he was going to shoot at them with a weapon; and so on. A jury eventually absolved the four casually-dressed police officers on the premise that they had committed something terrible, but excused them for errors in judgment that night. The jury’s choice offended numerous individuals who saw Diallo’s death as a typical case of police prejudice.

Gladwell argues that to understand the death of Diallo, it is important to first comprehend Paul Ekman’s and Silvan Tomkin’s “affect theory”. Tomkins was a professor at Harvard during the 1920s and 1930s, at which he developed the affect theory. It explains that human beings display innermost emotions via subtle expressions on their faces. Years later, Silvan Tomkins became Paul Ekman’s mentor, who shared Tomkin’s fascination with facial expressions and hidden language. Together, Ekman and Tomkins researched facial expressions by videotaping different subjects from all over the world. Progressively, both researchers found a refined way of analyzing facial expressions.

The author met with Paul Ekman, who was in his late sixties, to talk about the facial expressions taxonomy. Ekman explained to Gladwell that there were nearly forty-three distinct units of action — or, in simple words, forty-three different muscle movements of the face. These units of action can be used together with hundreds of distinct ways to generate dissimilar emotional affects. For instance, the normal effect of human fear is a mixture of different action units: outer and inner brow raised, dropped jaw, raised eyelids, wrinkled nose, and a hard-pressed upper lip. Tomkins and Ekman’s study has many applications — for instance, the “Toy Story” movie animators utilized an action unit study to draw animated characters with expressions that were realistic.

In order to comprehend why police officers killed Diallo, one has to understand the way autistic individuals live. Many adults suffering from autism can live normal lives (e.g. they work and have families). However, autistic individuals are usually not able to read facial cues. In a psychological experiment, Peter, an autistic person, watched a movie while a machine tracked the movement of his eyes across the screen. He picked up the verbal cues in the movie but failed to pick up the gestures and expressions from the characters. For example, when a character in the film mentioned the painting on a wall, individuals would easily tell the painting being referred to due to the position of the body and the eye direction of the character. However, Peter reacted to the words and not the facial cues of the character in the movie — which led him to look at (or reference) the wrong painting.

Generally, Peter paid attention to physical objects and words, rather than to gestures and faces of people. The author speculates that Peter’s condition — specifically, the inability to pick up facial cues — is not rare. Therefore, it may have been possible that the police officers involved in Diallo’s case encountered some form of temporary autism, which made them oblivious to his facial expressions. Another crucial factor in the death of Diallo was the extreme, high-stakes conflict nature — especially where the firing of guns was concerned. Although TV shows and movies portray gunshots as a usual occurrence for federal agents and police officers, more than ninety percent of these officers retire without firing a single shot at a person.

The author hypothesizes that police officers who kill innocent people — for instance, the ones who killed Diallo — lose cognitive abilities due to such scenarios. The casually-dressed officers experienced a high-stakes situation when the suspect decided to run into the apartment; they panicked and lost their capability to think vividly, and — subsequently — their ability to interpret the facial expressions of Diallo, which ultimately led to his death.

For a clear illustration of the facial cue-reading limits, that author presents the case of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, who penetrated a crowd of people moving closer to Reagan and shot him point-blank, hitting his lungs. The mystery surrounding Hinckley's crime is the means by which he managed to get near Reagan, taking into account that the President had bodyguards in close proximity. The appropriate answer is that all bodyguards have a difficult job — as they have to continuously examine the surrounding congregation to figure out which individuals are dangerous. During the attempt on Reagan’s life, not even his bodyguards had sufficient time to read and understand the threatening facial cues on the face of Hinckley. Gladwell postulates that individuals become temporarily autistic in circumstances where there is not sufficient time to figure things out.  

In a psychological investigation, participants were “prepared” with a picture of a black face, and were asked immediately afterwards to distinguish whether they saw an image of a wrench or a gun. When the participants were given time to do it on their own, they identified the gun somewhat more rapidly than they distinguished the wrench, possibly reflecting bigoted stereotypes about crime and African American people. However, when the participants were compelled to go through the exercise more quickly, they began to make striking errors by confusing the wrench with the gun. The research indicates that when individuals are compelled to make decisions about people in little time, they are more likely to be affected by convenient stereotypes.


The final chapter of the book is about understanding facial cues, a basic form of snap decisions that people make. The author argues that the death of Diallo was largely due to poor snap decisions and mistakes in facial cues interpretations — and not conscious racism, as many people would assume. The author reverts to a provoking argument, claiming that people do not normally decide what actions to consciously take; however, they are conditioned to just act involuntarily. Instead, he indicates that freedom happens to be a consistently-shifting blurred line— which, based on the circumstances, an individual’s actions are both voluntary and involuntary in varying degrees.

Tomkins and Ekman’s research reiterates certain themes Gladwell presented in Chapter One, specifically when he talks about Gottman’s research. Like Tomkins and Ekman, Gottman concludes that the body of every human speaks a subtle-but-essential language — that is, how facial expressions send different types of messages and can sometimes communicate information a person is hiding. The three researchers also developed their rapid cognition abilities by researching for many hours and videotaping people’s expressions. Ekman has most likely gone further to break down facial cues into different recognizable expressions. But the surprising revealation about his research is that the average human already understand facial cues, despite having researched it or not. Ekman’s research has a broad range of applications which the author fails to explore in-depth.

Finally, the author suggests that the officers who shot Diallo were not consciously attempting to hurt him; they lost their natural facial cues intuition, and thus failed to understand his panic and fear. In addition, Gladwell revisits the issues surrounding IATs, suggesting that individuals — even though they are tolerant and non-racist — can sometimes be affected by stereotypes and make bad decisions. Sometimes, people do not always choose their own course of action.

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