When we have been victims of crimes, or accused of criminal behavior, we hope that careful investigation by police will resolve the situation and bring justice. A careful and thorough investigation may include witness interviews, crime scene assessment and photography, surveillance of various types, and searches through data bases, documents, and social media. This is a very resource-intensive procedure, and with the press of time, other cases, and budget limitations, investigations are conducted and concluded as quickly as possible, while still being thorough and getting at the truth.
Our brains have a number of decision-making tools that we use to come to conclusions and speed up decision-making. Called heuristics, we use experience, prior understanding, education, and other factors to focus in on the correct decision quickly. In most cases, such as reaching into the closet when we are getting dressed for work, this speedy decision-making is automatic and helpful. When a situation or decision becomes more complex, however, the limitation of our decision-making shortcuts become evident.
Called cognitive bias, these shortcomings in the way we make decisions quickly can be especially problematic in a complex and multilayered situation such as often surrounds a crime. The most common cognitive biases that come into play include an anchoring bias and confirmation bias. We tend to believe the first piece of reasonable information that comes to us, and then we let additional information confirm our point of view, without digging deeper. In addition, the availability cascade is a cognitive bias that suggests the more we repeat a theory in public, the more we believe it, and the more plausible it becomes. When time pressures are added to our decision-making, these cognitive biases can cause any of us to reach a conclusion, and then hold firm to that conclusion–we want an answer, and quickly.
Unfortunately, sometimes we end up on the short end of the decision-making stick, when a situation needs more detailed understanding and investigation. Especially in situations in which our safety or freedom may be in jeopardy, the wrong thing to do is accept a quick, but incorrect, conclusion.
What a private investigative team can bring to this situation is careful, detailed, and thorough assessment and fact-gathering, without the pressure of making a quick decision. By investigating without a preconceived idea of guilt or responsibility, information gathered through careful investigation can shed new light and understanding on motives, opportunities, communications, and other human interactions that can change the understanding of a criminal act.