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You Were Not at a Mass Shooting

What was it like to be in a situation we never expect but understand too well?

 Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels
What did you see at that baseball game?
Source: Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

You are watching your favorite baseball team on a warm summer night when you hear three loud popping sounds. You don’t know what they are right away, and think first that there might have been some machine backfiring in the stadium. It is not until you see people fleeing the bleacher seats closest to the sound—people scrambling desperately, climbing over the backs of the seats behind them, and sprinting away—that you begin to think you heard gunshots.

Large groups of people in the stadium around you start walking towards the exits. You look at the premium seats behind home plate, where VIPs often sit. It is completely cleared out. You look into the dugouts, and you do not see any of the players or coaches on either team. You still don’t know for sure what is happening, but you tell your partner that you want to leave now.

On the stairs up, people sitting and waiting for the next half-inning to start ask if you know what is going on. You admit that you do not. They suggest it might be gunshots, but seem skeptical. They stay with their beers, trying to start a chant of “play the game.” You get to the concourse, where people are walking quickly to the exits. Your partner asks if you really want to leave. You see a gate attendant talking to another fan, telling them there were gunshots. She thinks they were in the park.

 Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels
How do you make sense of an ambiguous situation?
Source: Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

Then you hear two more gunshots. The concourse surges. People are shouting to get down. You just want to get you and your partner out, so you dash for the open gate, feet away. You are through, but when you turn around you are alone. People are screaming and running. Some climb over blocked gates rather than put themselves back into the concourse for even a moment to get to the nearby open gates.

You look back at the concourse. It is completely empty. The only thing you can see are people crouched behind the bar and concession stands on the side closest to the seats. You yell your partner’s name repeatedly, eyes unable to find them among the people hiding. You look behind you again. You are sure you would have found each other if they had run out of the stadium. You are standing by the gate, not quite fully exposed. Judging from the crowd, you begin to suspect a shooter may be somewhere on the concourse, or able to target the concourse.

You remember that you could call your partner. You hope they will somehow notice the incoming call. They pick up. You both ask where the other is. You see them then, the person in a crowd huddled across from you who pulled out their cell phone. You see groups of people making periodic dashes across the concourse safely. When you see a group running, you tell your partner to run across to you. They do so. It worked, and you take your partner’s hand and start walking briskly away from the stadium, many around you doing the same thing.

You go behind a local restaurant by the waterfront. Your only clues as to what may be happening, what may be coming next, are the groups of people spread out all around you. If they are walking, not running, that suggests there is no immediate danger in that area. You walk back towards your car. You had struggled to find parking, and ultimately ended up in a quiet neighborhood a short walk from the stadium. You are glad of being further away now. As you walk, you see police cars streaming to the scene. Overhead, you see a helicopter with a searchlight headed for the stadium.

You end up next to a man who asks if you know anything. You do not, and you ask him the same. He tells you he was with a friend who is a journalist and who stayed inside to find out what was going on. His friend said that shooters sometimes will try to cause a commotion to flush targets out into the open. The implication is that the people rushing out of the stadium could have been those targets.

You make it to the car. You take some lost and confused people home in your back seat and trunk, everyone eager to get away from the scene as fast as possible. They are looking for news on their phones. You will later confirm that the shooting was not in the park. Two cars near the stadium shot at each other. Three people were hit, including one uninvolved fan who was outside the stadium. No one was killed. There was no shooter on the concourse. There was never a shooter in the park.

In the psychological literature, there are many examples of perception being shaped by knowledge, expectations, and history. We do not just passively process sense data. Our minds pick out patterns that are given meaning through our experiences of the world. Chess masters can rapidly memorize complex board positions that occur in games because they have seen and studied so many different board positions. Their minds are ready to rapidly see and understand chess boards.

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Perception is shaped by experience and evolution.
Source: Photo by Flickr on Pexels

In the U.S., hearing gunshots at a crowded public place might bring to mind a particular set of referents: a gunman shooting people in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. A gunman shooting concertgoers in Las Vegas. A gunman shooting people out at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. These referents could change your perception.

Further, our minds were evolved to weigh risks adaptively. It is better, from the standpoint of survival, to take a low probability threat seriously than ignore it. If you overreacted, you have merely exposed your body to extra stress. If you underreacted, you could end up putting yourself or your family in harm’s way.

Humans evolved in groups, and compelling theory and evidence now suggests that our success is built on sharing information through cumulative cultural evolution. People learn how to survive and thrive in their world by learning from and watching others to find out which strategies work best in their environment. In the stadium, the highest prestige individuals—the players and the VIPs watching the game—left immediately. Humans’ natural prestige bias would lead them to follow their example.

You were not at a mass shooting. You are safe. You were never, as it turns out, in harm’s way. Yet in the coming days, you will close your eyes and remember moments on the concourse. You will flinch unexpectedly at a loud noise. You will live in the world that your experiences and culture have prepared you to perceive.