Bruce Burleson -- June 14, 2020



The police killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks have touched off riots on a level not seen since the 1960s.  Black Lives Matter emerged as a large organization after the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, and their message has recently become mainstreamed in the news and on social media.

It’s tempting to adopt a reductionist view of riots and those who engage in them.  Are these people evil?  Are they part of a larger globalist conspiracy to ruin America?  While those notions cannot be ruled out, there’s a bigger psychological picture we need to paint about rioting.

For three quarters of a century, cognitive theory and the therapeutic approach known as cognitive behavioral therapy have become the dominant paradigm in psychology, and quite rightly so.  The interaction between thinking, emotions and behaviors is now widely explored in therapy as people suffering from a variety of psychiatric illnesses seek to achieve stability and improved mental health.  My own practice is heavily influenced by cognitive theory as well as the practice of Mindfulness—getting into the Moment, that junction of time and space where positive self regard and mood stability can be achieved.

But in recent years, cognitive psychology has also been informed by the neuroscience of the brain.  In particular, the interaction between the frontal cortex—where reason and logic are possible—and the amygdala have been shown to be of great importance in understanding the development of behavioral responses to stimuli.

Neuroscience-informed cognitive behavioral therapy often focuses on fears and phobias and their interaction with the “Fight, flight or freeze” response generated primarily in the amygala.  When someone breaks into your house in the dead of night, for example, the amygdala kicks in and your immediate response is to freeze in fear, escape through the back door, or engage in conflict with the intruder.  These responses happen in the blink of an eye and are not necessarily informed by thoughts that take place in the frontal cortex.

Along with cognitive behavior therapy is a therapeutic method known as exposure therapy.  If, for example, someone has a phobia of driving a car, the therapist will put their client behind the wheel.  As the client engages in the process of starting the car, putting it in drive and pressing on the accelerator—and it can take a number of therapy sessions for this to occur—gradually the anxiety and fear around driving subside.  Why?  Because the amygdala can learn.  Stored in the amygdala is the notion for this client that driving will bring her or him harm.  As the process of actually driving unfolds, however, the amygdala learns that the stimulus associated with the fear—the idea of driving a car—isn’t a source of danger after all.  After several therapy sessions the client is able to drive with minimal anxiety response.

The amygdala is programmed by external stimuli.  For our purposes we may include the mainstream media and social media and its narrative that police are dangerous, evil, and cannot be trusted.  We are constantly hammered by the 24-hour news cycle and a smorgasbord of tweets and Facebook posts often carrying the message that “all cops are bastards.”  The message:  You are in danger.  You have to do something—anything.  You have to fight.

It makes little difference that the media narrative that police are systematically slaughtering innocent Black people is based on falsehoods and irrational assumptions—ideas that psychologists refer to as cognitive distortions.  For example, a common cognitive distortion is overgeneralization.  The neighbor’s dog is dangerous, therefore all dogs are dangerous.  A relative handful of cops kill black people, therefore all cops are racist bastards and we must defund—or even abolish—the police.  (In reality, comparatively few black people are killed by police; blacks comprise 12.7% of the population or about 40 million people.  Out of that number, as we see in the chart below, the number of black people shot to death by police each year ranges in the low 200s.  Mathematically, that amounts to 0.000005 of the entire black population in America, or five percent of one percent of one percent.  Far more black people die in car accidents or from chronic health issues, but you never see people rioting about those causes of death.


 Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/585152/people-shot-to-death-by-us-police-by-race/

On June 13, 2020, a scuffle broke out between Atlanta police officers and Rayshard Brooks in the parking lot of a Wendy’s.  Brooks had been found passed out behind the wheel and had failed a field sobriety test.  As police were arresting him, he allegedly grabbed a taser from them and ran.  As police pursued him, he turned around and pointed it at police, who then shot him to death.

The facts of the case are still being put together and an investigation is under way.  But before the incident report had even settled onto the Atlanta mayor’s table, she publicly stated that she did not believe the Brooks shooting was justified.

Was this a rational cognitive response taking place in the mayor’s frontal cortex, or an example of fight, flight, or freeze?  Probably freeze, because she neither engaged in a fight or ran from her office screaming about police brutality.  Likely, her amygdala kicked in and she acted instead of weighing the facts of the case first.

And before the investigation into Brooks’ shooting even began, people began to riot.  They incinerated the Wendy’s restaurant where the police had pulled the intoxicated Brooks out of his car.  (By the way, it’s quite likely that black people were put out of work by the loss of the restaurant, but that didn’t seem to matter to rioters!)  They then proceeded to block highways and spray paint anti-police slogans. 

Although it has been proven to be untrue that police systematically murder black people (or any other people for that matter), it hasn’t stopped groups like Black Lives Matter or Antifa from using the few killings that do take place as a pretext to stir up anger and rage against police in general—and America as a whole.  We could discuss the massive amounts of money given to Black Lives Matter by the fascist George Soros, but that’s an article in and of itself.

Black Lives Matter began as a fringe group, but in recent weeks has gained endorsements by corporations (as evidenced by the many TV ads we’re seeing) and high-level politicians.  As a hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter has gone absolutely viral on social media.  In other words, the organization and its ideas are being mainstreamed and pounded into us constantly by news outlets and social media posts. 

The results?  Stimulus-response.  The amygdalas of thousands—if not millions—of uninformed Americans have been imprinted by this message:  Police are bad.  Evil.  We have to get rid of them.  The amygdala doesn’t care about facts, logic or reason.  It waits for a stimulus such as a social media post or news report of a police killing of a black person, and boom!  It responds.

Unfortunately the response has taken the form of rioting, looting, and incineration of businesses in multiple cities across America.  Many of these businesses, ironically, are black-owned and employ people of color.  But again, facts don’t matter when impulsivity takes over.

So, what are we to do? We have a mess on our hands.  People are being driven by cognitive distortions, influence by Antifa and other left-wing groups, and are responding in amygdala-driven impulses to riot.  The interplay between the cognitive distortions about systematic police killings of black people and the impulse to riot is crystal clear.  And this destructive pattern will take place until several measures are taken.

Firstly, government must put an end to the riots.  Just because people have overactive amygdalas does not mean we do nothing about their destruction of our cities.  Local politicians and governors have hesitated to use police or the National Guard out of fear of being perceived as being opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement and being labeled racists.  In other words, political correctness prevents them from taking rational action to put an end to the destruction.  We can safely call this a freeze response.

Secondly, the media narrative must shift from “police are systematically killing black people” to a factual and rational message such as “some police commit evil acts but the vast majority are just out there doing their jobs.”  In other words, yes, there are bad apples in the police barrel but it is irrational to extrapolate from that fact that “all cops are bastards” and that the solution is to shrink police budgets or even abolish police entirely.

As the narrative shifts back into rational territory, its impact upon people—their amygdalas, their fight-or-flight response, their anxieties, their worries and their cognitive distortions about police—will become more positive.  It will provide an atmosphere of dialogue, discussion, and debate instead of the knee-jerk riot response.

Thirdly, leftist groups feeding into the false narrative about police need to be dealt with effectively by the federal government.  President Trump often tweets about “law and order” and declaring Antifa a terrorist organization, but talk is cheap.  The president has to take the lead in actually restoring stability to the country.  This involves dealing with Antifa and Black Lives Matter leaders who routinely use violent rhetoric on social media to fuel the rage that feeds into rioting.  When someone is lighting fires, you find that person and make them stop.  And we’ve got a huge fire going on.

Finally, our education system needs to be overhauled.  For decades, young people have been taught falsehoods that contribute to the violence on the streets.  They’re taught that America is a racist country, that police are racist and cannot be trusted, and even that some sort of socialist revolution is needed to solve all of society’s problems.  Getting back to neuroscience, is it any surprise that college-miseducated young people are exploding in rage despite a paucity of factual information to justify it? Is it any surprise that critical thought has been thrown out the window and replaced by a mob mentality? Activists are being driven by fears that are unfounded, and need a societal version of exposure therapy to counteract those fears.  That exposure therapy needs to take the form of education based on facts and actual science, and not Marxist propaganda and revisionist history.

It’s time to get back to the frontal cortex, where cooler heads may prevail.  People need to learn to use it to weigh facts and draw rational conclusions.  In other words, exposure therapy and cognitive behavior therapy—being exposed to the truth and replacing distortions with reality—must become part and parcel of the socialization of each succeeding generation.  Only if people learn to think before they act can they keep the destructive impulses of the amygdala in check.

And we’d better make these changes quickly or the very foundations of our society will be in jeopardy—the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.