In Some Instances, Profiling is Adaptive and Rational

To never profile is a prescription for suicide.

Posted Mar 08, 2012

Suppose that you were about to walk down a dark alley on your way home, which of these two scenarios would trigger greater vigilance in you, a group of four young men approaching you, or a group of four young women? I suspect that most men and women would state that the four young men would instill greater concern. Does this make you sexist? After all, your feeling is strictly based on the biological sex of the two groups. Clearly, of all young men, only a tiny minority might have a criminal bent. Hence, is it not unfair to be castigating all young men under a criminal light when so few are truly dangerous? What if the two groups were now four young men versus four elderly gentlemen? If you again state that the four young men might trigger greater fear, ah ha! You are ageist. What if you now have the choice between four young black men dressed immaculately in expensive suits versus four young white men sporting the accoutrement of skinheads? Most people (irrespective of their race) would likely find the white men much more intimidating. Would this be a manifestation of racism albeit in this case against whites?

Let's move on to two professions where profiling is a foundational tenet of the trade. If a partnered woman is violently attacked and/or murdered, statistically speaking, her male partner is the likely culprit (see one of the foundational books of evolutionary psychology titled Homicide by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson). Should we now proclaim that of all men who are in relationships, only a very small minority will ever commit violence against women and hence it is unfair to focus on the male partner as the likely perpetrator? The FBI behavioral profiling unit (rendered famous in the 1991 classic movie The Silence of the Lambs) is rooted in the recognition that statistically speaking, specific crimes are much more likely to be perpetrated by individuals possessing a particular profile. For example, serial killers are much more likely to be white. Does this make the FBI a rabidly racist organization? Let's next proceed to an applied mathematics field whose raison d'être is to profile. Can you guess the field in question? Actuarial mathematics applies tools from probability theory and statistics to quantify risk. Oftentimes, actuaries work in insurance companies since these firms are in the business of creating profiles of customers based on their risk scores (e.g., young men are much more likely to drive recklessly; smokers are much more likely to succumb from lung cancer). Bottom line: Profiling is the definitional assumption of the whole field! Should we accuse actuaries of being racists, sexists, ageists, [fill-in other unsubstantiated insults here]?

The human mind has evolved to detect statistical regularities in the relevant environments in which it navigates. A shadow of a large animal will frighten us even though ostriches and emus are much less dangerous than hyenas and tigers (relatively speaking, all of these animals are large). Our brains are "frequentist" counters and not rigorous Bayesian machines that rely on a sophisticated probability calculus (cf. Gigerenzer & Hoffrage, 1995). The brain has not evolved to spare the feelings of a group of individuals/organisms that might be "offended" if we profile them.

This brings me to two recent profiling episodes that have happened to me. Last spring, I was invited to Clarkson University to speak about my recently released trade book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature. I drove from Montreal to Potsdam and accordingly crossed the American border in upstate New York. My wife and then two-year old daughter accompanied me. The border officers asked me to pull over to a designated area, and asked us to follow them inside. We were held for well over an hour. The officers were confrontational and rude with me, even after I explained to them repeatedly who I was and what the purpose of my trip was. After completing all of the necessary searches and obviously finding nothing, the officers conjured some trumped up excuse that they could refuse me entry into the United States as I was "taking a job away from an American citizen." Could you imagine how insulting (and illegal) this is? I am a middle-aged Canadian professor who was invited by an American university to discuss my work in the evolutionary consumption area, and in particular my recently released book (and I was only being reimbursed my travel and lodging expenses and hence generated income was not even an issue). Why do you think this happened? Is it because I have green eyes? Perhaps it is my gray hair that had them worried? Let's come back to this case in a moment.

The second episode happened more recently in early August, as my family was flying to Southern California for a one-month vacation (and a few professional engagements that I had to attend to including a Reason TV interview and a talk at the Economic Science Institute at Chapman University). As we approached the security area at the Montreal airport, we were informed that our two-year-old daughter had been randomly chosen for a more rigorous security screening. Hence, in the bizarre and suicidal world driven by "progressive" political correctness, all individuals are just as likely to be security threats and hence a random mechanism is the "fairest" way to single out travelers.

Is someone who possesses my profile as likely to be a security threat as a two-year old little girl? The FBI has a list of its most wanted terrorists (see here). In looking at the list, it seems impossible to detect any statistical regularity. Can you? I certainly can't. This leads me to think that the officers who were rough with me must have received word that overweight Canadian middle-aged professors who are accompanied by their families must have a greater likelihood of being security threats. I hate the fact that they used my weight to profile me. I suggest that they receive sensitivity training regarding the fact that the "pleasantly plump" are people too. Anything short of that would be "fatist."

I will be crossing the border on several occasions in April including to give talks at Cornell University, Hampden-Sydney College, the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society Workshop, and the NorthEast Evolutionary Psychology Society Meetings. Luckily I am currently on an effective low-carb protein diet. Once I lose the requisite weight come April, I am hopeful that the border patrols will cease to focus on men like me.

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