The Zimmerman Verdict and the Mouse on Mars

Rock formation on MArs that resembles a rodent

What does this picture of a rodent like creature on Mars have to do with the Zimmerman verdict and the public reaction afterwards?
Image from nasa

There have been a couple of photographs making the rounds of the internet lately, both showing signs of animal life on mars. The first, shown to the left, purports to show a rodent-like creature on a Martian plain. The mouse appears to be crouched between two rocks, his tawny coat allowing him to blend into the orange brown dirt. The second, shown below, seems to have captured a lizard or reptilian creature basking in the weak sun of a Martian day. He appears to be in motion, moving across the desert, his tail dragging in the dust behind him.

Obviously, neither of these creatures exist, nor were they photoshopped into the images. (Both images, by the way, link directly back to the full sized version hosted by NASA.) In reality, they are just a collection of rocks and shadows and our eyes ‘fool’ us into seeing a mouse. In the larger picture, if you look closely, you can see that the rodent eye is actually the shadow of a very small pebble sitting on the ground right behind the larger rock making up the ‘body’ of the mouse.

rock formation on Mars resembling a lizard

image from NASA


So what does this have to do with the Zimmerman trial and verdict? Well, to be a little blunt, I’m sick and tired of all the name calling going on between the Trayvon supporters and the Zimmerman supporters. (And no, I’m not going to discuss the event, the trial, or the verdict except to say that the 6 women on the jury are the only ones who heard all the facts and were privy to all the discussions during the deliberation. To pretend to know more about the facts of the case or the conduct of the trial is sheer arrogance. They were there; they reached a unanimous verdict. Period.) Everyday, on the internet and in the real world, I hear folks from both sides putting down folks on the other side. Zimmerman supporters call Trayvon supporters stupid for not recognizing the facts of the case. At the same time, Trayvon supporters call Zimmerman supporters bloodthirsty racists for not condemning the shooting of Martin. And both sides are smugly self satisfied about their own virtue and just as smugly certain that the other side is filled with moron and idiots who can’t see the simple facts in front of them.

Like a picture of a mouse on Mars.

Here’s the thing. Our brains are hardwired to recognize and process patterns. We take in information, see the pattern and file it accordingly. When we see images in clouds, our brains are taking in the flow of visual data and trying to fit it into a pre-designed slot. When it finds a shape that fits, we feel a sense of recognition. “Why yes, that cloud does look like Aunt Erma’s butt!” And then we go about our business. Our brain has found a slot for the image and no longer has to process it as a separate entity.

The same process is at work when we process other types of information, particularly about new things, like people. We even have a saying about it. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” First impressions are crucial and set the tone for every interaction that follows. Job interviews, dating, first days at work or school, in each case, the first meeting sets the tone and all future expectations.

Not only are these impressions formed rapidly, they are durable and exceptionally hard to change. This is even more true when emotions are involved during the formation of the initial impressions. While our rational brains may continue to process new information and try to change our responses and expectations, our emotions are stubbornly locked into our initial response patterns.

Now, with this perspective, let’s go back and look at our initial exposure to the Zimmerman case. We were presented a picture of a 14 year old Trayvon Martin, complete with glowing praise from his parents and people in his community. Trayvon was a good kid, who never did anything wrong, who was polite and respectful, etc. We were told that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin, engaged in an altercation, and shot him.

That was our first impression, and it was reinforced repeatedly by multiple news outlets. Only later did we find out that the picture was inaccurate in several respects. The police call was deceptively edited to make Zimmerman look like he was motivated by racism. Information about 17 year old Martin slowly came to light, including multiple suspensions, drug use, fights, and that he was the aggressor in the physical assault that resulted in his death. We learned that the police didn’t charge Zimmerman, not through racism, but because the evidence did not support charges. We learned that the special prosecutor withheld evidence from the defense and then fired the attorney in her office who leaked the information.

We learned all of this and more, but in most cases, we never changed our minds.

I had a short discussion with my mother in law about the case the other day. She believes that Zimmerman should have been found guilty because he attacked Martin. When presented with the facts, her response was typical of most people. “I have my opinion and you have yours. I don’t want to argue about it.” Of course, I wasn’t stating an opinion, just relaying facts, but the brain resists changing information patterns and will react by ignoring or deprecating new information, and our emotional response is to get defensive or angry.

The important takeaway is that none of this has anything to do with stubbornness or stupidity. The blind spot that we can so easily see in our neighbor is not a choice; it’s the way our brains are built. It takes work to change our perceptions, hard work and a lot of effort. I changed my stance on the death penalty years ago from pro to con, but I still find myself thinking that some crime or another was so heinous, the perp deserves the death penalty. Changing out minds is hard work. But if we don’t do the work, we will keep seeing things that aren’t there.

Like mice on Mars.

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