Thin-Slicing, Experts, and the Power of the Human Brain Help Capture Suspect Two Alive

The police in Watertown responded magnificently. But the most brilliant strategic move gets little notice from the press.

hannebery boat

For about sixteen hours, hundreds of law officers, FBI agents, helicopters, and satellites scoured a relatively tiny area of Boston suburbs for one wounded terrorist. At the same time, they kept the public relatively safe, off the streets, and out of the way of their manhunt.

But they didn’t find their man.

By seven o’clock, Col. Timothy Alben admitted they didn’t know where Dzhokar Tsarnaev was. They believed he was still in the Greater Boston area, but they couldn’t know for sure.

So authorities lifted the “shelter in place” request, allowing people to leave their homes with a powerful admonition: remain diligent.

Col. Alben made clear that there was no “all clear.” The world is a dangerous place, but Watertown, Massachusetts was beyond dangerous. Somewhere in that quiet neighborhood lurked a dangerous, desperate, wounded animal who knew how to shoot a gun, build a bomb, and throw a grenade. Tsarnaev had means and motive to kill anyone he encountered, and Col. Alben warned people not to give Tsarnaev the opportunity.

Lifting “Shelter in Place” Led To Tsarnaev’s LIve Capture

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the human brain’s “thin-slicing” ability in Blink. Experts can spot tiny anomalies that technology, to date, cannot.

We often think of experts as highly trained, long experienced professionals. In truth, though, we’re all experts on something, and David Hanneberry is the world’s leading authority on the boat in his backyard.

Hanneberry’s mind had mapped every bulge, roll, and slack of the tarp covering the boat, which his step son described as Hanneberry’s greatest love, after his wife. When Hanneberry’s eye glimpsed a little flap of the canvas, he knew immediately something was wrong.

That one little ripple of canvas, which no algorithm on the world’s most powerful computer could have detected, led to a bigger problem in Hanneberry’s mind: blood where blood shouldn’t be.No doubt the blood lit up Hanneberry’s amygdala, the little almond-shaped nodes in the brain’s limbic system that triggers the flight or fight or freeze response.

Alert, curious, and cautious, Hanneberry spotted a cut line that held the canvas in place. Not torn or worn through, but cut clean with a knife.

He lifted the canvas and exposed the wrong of all wrongs: bleeding man in his beloved boat.

The Limits of Technology and The Power of People

Had the “shelter in place” ordered remained in effect, it’s very possible that Tsarnaev would have died in David Hanneberry’s boat. All the helicopters and algorithms never would have told authorities that the canvas was flapping wrong. Big data didn’t know how that canvas was supposed to flap; only Hanneberry’s brain knew that.

By lifting “shelter in place,” the police exponentially increased the computing power available to spot something wrong. It worked. Keeping people off the street was a great tactical move. Lifting the order when they did seemed to be perfect timing.

I doubt the police lifted the order to increase the number of eyes searching for Tsarnaev. But it worked brilliantly. And we now know the real power of crowd sourcing, thin-slicing, and the human brain.

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