Surveillance Cameras Catch a Cold-Blooded Killer
I’m in the middle of writing a long essay on the psychology of security. One of the things I’m writing about is the “availability heuristic,” which basically says that the human brain tends to assess the frequency of a class of events based on how easy it is to bring an instance of that class to mind. It explains why people tend to be afraid of the risks that are discussed in the media, or why people are afraid to fly but not afraid to drive.
One of the effects of this heuristic is that people are more persuaded by a vivid example than they are by statistics. The latter might be more useful, but the former is easier to remember.
That’s the context in which I want you to think about this very gripping story about a cold-blooded killer caught by city-wide surveillance cameras.
Federal agents showed Peterman the recordings from that morning. One camera captured McDermott, 48, getting off the bus. A man wearing a light jacket and dark pants got off the same bus, and followed a few steps behind her.
Another camera caught them as they rounded the corner. McDermott didn’t seem to notice the man following her. Halfway down the block, the man suddenly raised his arm and shot her once in the back of the head.
“I’ve seen shootings incidents on video before,” Peterman said, “but the suddenness, and that he did it for no reason at all, was really scary.”
I can write essay after essay about the inefficacy of security cameras. I can talk about trade-offs, and the better ways to spend the money. I can cite statistics and experts and whatever I want. But — used correctly — stories like this one will do more to move public opinion than anything I can do.