The Attention Study: A Study on the Presence

of Selective Attention in Firearms Officers



  William Lewinski, PhD, Force Science Institute




Perception, or the acquisition of information through the senses, has been a focus of philosophy and psychology for millennia. Phenomenological philosophers recognized that we were not simply passive absorbers of information but actively interact with our environment to perceive, process, and interpret this information. The philosophers’ perspective simply expressed is that there is no such thing as an objective reality. The very act of perceiving is dependent upon the direction and quality of the senses of the perceiver, and this varies on an individual level based on the nutrition, fatigue, experience, interest, etc., of the observer. Further, they questioned whether the very act of observing changed in some fashion the elements of what was being observed. If that were true, it would further distort the reality of that which is being observed. For instance, a cell under a microscope is neither seen nor functions as it would among other cells in a body. The very act of observing changes the dynamics of that which is observed. Subsequently, there was and is no such thing as a pure, objective reality. Similarly, there is no such thing as a pure, objective viewer.


Not all philosophers held this phenomenological view. Even Augustine and Descartes argued for the “rational man” model of human behavior (Damasio, 1994). They saw human beings as objective and rational and as essentially bringing an unbiased perspective to their perception of the world. This “rational man” worldview was extremely appealing at that time in the evolution of the understanding of human behavior. Unfortunately, although humankind has significantly advanced, primarily through research, in its understanding of human beings and their subjective interpretation of the real, residue of the “objective, rational man” continues to pervade Western culture.


For example, Descartes’ ideas about human information and decision making had and still have a powerful influence over many areas of study on human behavior. His dichotomization of the soul (mind) and the body (emotions) into two separate parts and his powerful but chilling notion that issues of truth (including perception and memory) could be decided in light of reason alone became historically prominent in philosophy and then psychology and was very appealing to both the fields of theology and the law for centuries. In many countries, the field of law still has components that consider the human being as only a factual information-processing machine and a rational decision maker. Appeals to the heart or the influence of emotions had no place in Cartesian science. The thought that emotions could influence perception even at a subconscious level would have been ludicrous for them to consider. Yet, research done in the 1950s on “the smiling face in the crowd” (Hansen & Hansen, 1988) proved this very point. This research demonstrated that emotions even influence perception before that perception occurs! Even research in the 1940s indicated that hungry rats saw less and subsequently learned less in a maze than non-hungry rats. The hungrier the rat, the more the rat was “tunneled in” on getting to the food, and the more they missed important clues about how to get there—the next time. The Cartesian view of human beings just didn’t stand up to the research conducted by today’s scientists, whether that research is in the perceptual, cognitive, or biological areas.


But Cartesian philosophy had an impact on at least some areas of psychological research and, as stated, remained influential up to the 1950s. Even in the 2000s, courts have been noted to report that there is little research on perceptual distortions and have subsequently questioned the validity of the effect of human emotions and perceptual limitations on perception, information processing, and memory.


However, this dualistic (mind/body or passions versus reason separation) approach has been swept aside in psychology, in fact in all branches of science, since the 1950s. Leading theorists and researchers in psychology, such as the noted Jerome Bruner, have argued for over half a century that the deeper question is not whether emotions influence our perception, judgment, and memory but how they do so (Niedenthal & Kitayama, 1994). Well-known psychological researchers in memory, such as James McGaugh (2003), have understood the impact of emotional reactions on attention and memory and literally have spent their entire careers examining this influence. McGaugh’s work even examined the impact of emotions on perception and memory formation when the emotionally arousing event occurs before, during, or even after the incident was recorded in our memory. Current neuropsychological giants such as LeDoux (2002) and Damasio (1994) argue that our brains actually are constructed in such a fashion that we are not thinking beings that happen to feel as Descartes proposed but actually the reverse. We are hard wired as feeling beings that think. The impact of this information on understanding the value of memory recall in the criminal justice system is and should be profound.



Further, an important question in psychology since the 1950s has been “What is the extent to which what humans see in the external world is driven by their need to seek out factual information that is simply registered in the storage device of our memory or whether there is something more?” The question simply put is, “How does our attention get focused on something?” Recently, considerable research has focused on our capacity to direct our attention to something of interest to us or, phrased another way, how our own cognitive and affective interests leads us to seek out information in the environment. This is a logical way of understanding the direction of attention and our ability to perceive and then process information in our environment. But it is only a limited explanation for understanding how attention is directed. Cartesian Science and this approach to research cannot explain the seductive nature of modern advertising and its capacity to draw our attention toward such things as an advertisement. The overt, attention-seizing aspect of an external stimulus apart from anything we might be thinking about at the time has been an interesting problem for cognitive and neuroscientists. The research indicates that certain elements in our environment have an amazing capacity to draw our attention and do so in an automatic or unconscious manner. An everyday example would be an advertisement whose color, topic, action, or some other feature seizes our attention, almost unwillingly, yet it does so precisely because of the soundly researched principles of visual cognition and attention.


We, therefore, can see that attention is both internally directed or driven to something, or externally attracted to it, and the process is both a conscious and an automatically unconscious one. A law enforcement example of this is an officer’s attention in a conflictual situation such as when a subject draws or points a gun, knife, or club at an officer. That motion instantly attracts the officer’s attention even if the officer was not even thinking about the incident having any potential for becoming violent. This illustration now provides us with two ways that an officer’s attention can be drawn to something. Their training, experience, and/ or information leads them to conclude that they need to visually search for something in their environment or something in the environment grabs their focus of attention.


Regardless of the reason for the officer’s focus of attention in a rapidly evolving, dynamic, and high-stress encounter, research and logic both inform us that the officer’s attentional focus is going to significantly influence what the officer is able to then perceive and remember. Generally speaking, if something is not perceived, it cannot be remembered. To reiterate, it is the focus of attention and not the operation of the senses that determines what information is perceived and then acted upon or remembered (Weltman, Smith, & Edstrom, 1971).


Attention has been extensively studied in a variety of areas in psychology. One area of study has been the singular, limited nature of a specific focus of attention and the information that is both acquired and discarded because of this. Another related area of study has been our ability to split our attention and multitask so we can accomplish a variety of tasks at the same time such as drinking coffee, talking on a cell phone, listening to the radio, and driving. Other areas of study have been on the effect of stress or threat and time compression on attention, as well as the catastrophic failure of attention when subjects panic.


Regardless of the data from research, even from our own experience, we are aware that it is possible for us to multitask and have a soft focus of attention over a number of items at the same time. Most of us multitask many times over the course of the day. However, we have also experienced that once our attention is driven or drawn toward an object, we have a limited capacity to attend to any other task. This usually has not been a controversial topic, except when law enforcement officers are apparently incapable of reporting on everything that occurs at a scene of what for them would have been an emotionally intense incident. This process of attention tunneling or a narrowing of attention and its opposite attentional blindness have been well-researched for decades. Derryberry and Tucker in The Heart’s Eye (Niedenthal & Kitayama, 1994) note that attentional narrowing is an adaptive adjustment that serves to limit the processing of less important sources of information and to promote focused, effective responding in emergency situations; it is essential that the individual avoids distraction by irrelevant input, quickly narrows down the potential avenues of escape, and establishes a tight coupling between threat signals, relief signals and related response. . . . The general description suggests that the combined effects on orienting and focusing help to guide worrisome thought toward an effective solution or plan. (p. 189)


For example, it is not unusual for a driver of an automobile to listen to the radio, drink a cup of coffee, and drive at the same time—multitasking. We should note, though, that if the driver were to spill the hot coffee on their lap, for some brief period of time the driver’s attention to the management of the vehicle and to the songs being played on the radio might be very limited and perhaps these would not be attended to at all.


Dr. Marcel Just, a psychology professor and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh, conducted a study seven years ago that provides illumination into the limitations of the attentional processes (Just et al., 2001). Just et al. had participants in this study focus on language tasks and then on spatial tasks. By using brain imaging with an fMRI, Just was able to roughly compute the total amount of attentional resources used to intently focus on one task at a time. When he had the subjects attempt to work on two tasks at the same time, he found that the brain then allocated a certain amount of its total resources to each task. Interestingly, the total amount of attention given to both tasks roughly approximated the total amount of attention given to one task when the person focused entirely on that one task. Further, the relative amount of attention given to each task varied with the importance allocated to or difficulty involved with that task. For instance, in his study, if the spatial organization was more difficult than the linguistic task, the percentage of attentional resources dedicated to spatial organization were higher than the amount dedicated to linguistic tasks. However, regardless of how the attentional resources were divided up, the total amount of attentional resources did not exceed the total amount of attentional resources available, regardless of their distribution.


From this study and others, it seems that we have a limited amount of attentional resources, and these can then either be divided up in some limited way among many tasks or directed solely to one task with little or nothing left over for anything else. It should be noted that a significantly large and growing body of research in the area of visual cognition informs us that our attentional focus is what both permits us to acquire and then remember information. The opposite also has also been confirmed. That is, when we intently attentionally focus on something, we can literally be attentionally blind to something else, even if it is directly in front of us. Further, because we were incapable of noticing it at that point in time, we will not be able to report on it later, simply because something else has occupied our attention. This is true for information processed in both high- and low-stress conditions. To become inattentionally blind, one only has to intently focus on something else. The reader might be aware of times when they are commuting, and while doing so, they were focused intently on a conversation or were deep in thought and subsequently became inattentionally blind to some very prominent background noise or music.


Police officers refer to this narrowing of attention as tunneling and, subsequently, use the terms tunnel vision or tunnel hearing. Although these terms are understood in the academic world and have been used in research articles since the 1950s a more accurate term for this process is selective attention. Selective attention refers to something that the person is attentionally focused on and includes the use of all of the senses and attentional processes and not just vision and hearing. The research, particularly in visual cognition and selective attention notes that once someone selectively focuses on something, the person is then said to be inattentionally blind to anything else. This means that regardless of whether the attentional process is internally directed toward something or externally drawn toward it, once we intently focus on something, we have, according to Just et al.’s (2001) research, a very limited capacity to notice anything else.


In the 1970s, Dr. Robert Nideffer theorized that selective attention could be further subdivided (Nideffer & Sharpe, 1978). He hypothesized that normally we direct our attentional resources to one of four types of attentional focus. He asserts that we have an external focus of attention, which is drawn or driven toward something outside of ourselves, and an internal focus that is directed toward something inside of us, either our body and the movement of our body or our thoughts. He further divided external attention into broad or narrow. A broad external focus of attention would be seeing a forest, while a narrow, or specific, focus of attention would be seeing or focusing on only a specific tree or leaf in the forest. He also has divided the internal component into both broad and narrow as well. An internal narrow focus of attention would be a specific focus on something experienced inside of yourself such as the tactile feel of a bat or pen in your hand. An internal broad focus might a whole body movement toward something, a limb movement such as swinging a bat or golf club, or a general awareness of feeling happy. Nideffer’s division is so commonly experienced and so easy to notice that anyone working in a garden can easily experience all four of the attentional components. The gardener could shift their focus of attention to an external specific target such as a particular bug on a plant. They could have an external broad focus such as the overall aesthetic appearance of the garden. They could have an internal narrow focus by having their attention drawn to a painful knee when squatting down, or they could have an internal broad focus by experiencing a sense of satisfaction with a job well done in the garden. It is possible of course for the gardener to have a soft focus over all four attentional foci at the same time, but once the gardener’s attention is strongly drawn to one of the foci, it becomes difficult for them to attend to other foci. For instance, attempting to identify a potentially damaging insect on a plant’s leaf is going to significantly narrow the gardener’s attentional focus and reduce their capacity to notice and then report on other elements in their potential attentional foci.


If we summarize the research it means that once our attention is driven or drawn toward an internal or external focus of attention, either broadly or narrowly, we then have a limited capacity to note and, subsequently, remember anything else that may be going on to which we are not attending.


Research on the impact of perception and attention on performance has been conducted for well over half a century, but so has research on the impact of emotions on the effectiveness of this perception and attention on performance. The research focusing on the impact of attention and emotion on performance also supports the research on attention and memory. Easterbrook (1959) noted that the pressure to perform well distracted performers from paying the appropriate attention to the main elements of their success on their task. Further research in the 1970s and 1980s confirmed an ancient belief—that is, that choking in a high- stress performance is the result of the performer becoming self-conscious and/ or too concerned with the step-by-step execution of the task (Baumeister, 1984, 1985). This means that not only is an external narrow focus of attention important for success, but it has to be the correct external narrow focus. Even the famous Asian philosopher Bruce Lee noted this concept in many of his movies prior to and including Enter the Dragon (Heller, 1973). Lee often noted the effect of the right “mind” or focus on performance. Self-focused attention (either internal narrow or broad) disrupted the automatic process that is so necessary for the skilled performance of a task just as much as the incorrect external focus of attention.


Gray (2004) used an innovative way of measuring the impact of an athlete’s focus of attention on his or her performance. Gray observed that expert batters had periods of both high and low levels of success at batting and predicted that expert batters would make more judgment errors about the angle their bat was held in when they were in a good phase of batting performance and fewer errors in judgment on their bat angle when they were in a batting slump. His logic was that the batters who were externally and narrowly focused on the game and responding automatically would not be paying attention to the angle of the bat and so would not remember it. Expert batters who were in a slump would have an increase in their self-focused attention, would be paying more attention to their own behavior, would be responding less automatically, and would remember the angle of their bat more often. Wulf (2007) also noted that, regardless of the causal factor, it is interesting to see that good athletic performance is associated with less attention directed to the details of the performance and most of the attention directed externally to the outcome of the performance. The author would like to add that the process Gray used of using recall memory to note the athlete’s attentional focus is a simple and effective tool for demonstrating the memory benefits of both selective attention and the memory impairment associated with inattentional blindness. Simply stated, besides noting the benefit of an external focus of attention and automaticity on great performance, Gray’s study also indicated that the more an athlete was focused on something, the less they were able to remember about anything else that occurred during this focused phase. This research study will use a like process of post-event reporting to assess a constable’s focus of attention.


In summary, some generally accurate statements from all of the research on attention are as follows:


• Attention, particularly under high stress, has a single, undifferentiated, limited capacity and reduces our ability to process information. This is termed selective attention.


• Wecanmultitaskorscanaslongasanythingwearedoingisnottoocomplicated or requires a rapid shift in attentional focus.


• Once we focus our attention, the perceptual narrowing involved leads to an increase in information from that on which we are focused and a reduction in information that is processed in the peripheral areas of our attention (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic, spatial, etc.).


• Perceptual narrowing that occurs under these conditions results in more information being processed about that which we are attending to (selective attention), but it significantly restricts or blinds us to information that we are not paying attention to. This is called attentional blindness.


• Attentional narrowing, while being necessary for great performance, can also impair performance (depending upon its direction). It can also significantly enhance or impair memory as well.


• Attentional processes can be enhanced or impaired by our emotional responses.


Rationale for the Study


In the movie The Last Samurai (Cruise, 2003), the actor Tom Cruise was held captive in the camp of the samurai leader Katsumoto. As he was recovering from his wounds, Cruise’s character began to train with the bokan, a Japanese wooden sword. As the movie evolves and Cruise develops his skill with the bokan, he was still being soundly beaten by a rival. At a significant point in the movie, when his rival is once again beating Cruise’s character, one of the samurai comes up to him and says “too many minds.” Cruise’s character understands this to mean that his attentional focus (i.e., self-consciousness, focus on the use of the skill and not the conflict, etc.) is impairing his automaticity and causing him to not do well. He then loses his “too many minds” and fights his rival to a draw. The effect of attentional focus on performance has been the topic of philosophical musings and “practical” research for thousands of years among warrior cultures. Some of the most productive thinking has been from studies conducted by the practitioners of Yoga, Zen, and the martial arts (Ratti & Westbrook, 1973). This fertile work came to the attention of the Russian space industry at the end of the Second World War (Garfield, 1984).


Based on the philosophy of combat and human performance, in the 1940s, the Russians began to research the benefit of attentional processes on emotional control and performance. In the 1960s, the Western world began to learn of this research and by the 1970s, as noted earlier, Nideffer and others were speculating about and researching the benefit of specific types of foci of attention on performance (Nideffer & Sharpe, 1978).


The early research on memory, including that conducted by one of the pioneer researchers (Ebbinghaus 1885), noted that memory is connected to attention. Without some focus of attention, little environmental and personal information moves into permanent storage. It is important to note that memory is a product of information processing. That information processing may occur at all stages, or at any one stage of a behavior. For instance, first, the awareness might be at the beginning of the thought of initiating the behavior or being aware that the behavior started. Interestingly, even if the behavior is not completed, the memory of starting the behavior or even thinking of starting the behavior could lead the person to believe the behavior was completed—if they do not have any other memory of that behavior as it was occurring. Secondly, the behavior or act could be noted as it is happening and then it would be remembered as happening. Finally, even if the person had no knowledge of doing the behavior, if the outcome was observed, then it could be noted as having happened and would be remembered as such. Without an awareness of the behavior or act being initiated, observed while it is occurring, or noted as having happened, the behavior or act will not be remembered.


More subtle components of the behavior can also only be remembered if the person’s attention is directed to that component of the behavior as it is occurring. As Gray (2004) noted, behavior that is processed automatically is not remembered, only that it is occurring or did occur. Subsequently, the information about how it is specifically occurring is not processed. Miller, Galanter, and Pribram (1960) observed that a rich store of unconscious motor memory is available for the performance of acts of neuromotor skill. In this sense, a complete neuromotor program, including significant amounts of stored memory, such as pointing and shooting a gun or automatically moving while in the middle of a high-stress encounter, can occur without any conscious effort at all, except for the shooter’s decision to engage the correct motor program or the memory that the automatic motor program was engaged after it was over. The exact process by which it occurred as it was occurring will likely not be stored in the shooter’s memory. The reader may recall that when they are typing on a computer, knowledge about their striking any specific key during the automatic act of typing a sentence is impossible to remember. That it occurred and the specific letter connected to that key is in the word displayed on the computer screen informs the typist that they did strike that specific key; however, knowledge about striking that specific key at that point in the sentence is unavailable to the typist and never will be. Therefore, automatic behavior that we do every day is noted as having occurred, but we cannot accurately and with honesty report that we remember having done it. A similar process occurs with police constables as they engage in any type of automatic behavior, including well- trained behavior, in a wide variety of both low- and high-stress encounters.


The purpose of this current study was to assess the validity and application of these observations to the behavior of police constables. The critic’s conclusion would be that well-trained armed response officers from the Metropolitan Police Service do not experience perceptual distortions. The scientist would say that perceptual distortions and, in particular, selective attention and inattentional blindness have been the topic of discussion among philosophers and warriors for thousands of years. Their presence in all humans, including expert athletes, has been researched for over half a century. Therefore, they will also be present in well-trained, armed officers from the Metropolitan Police Service. The question is not will they be present but, rather, to what extent.


The research presented here will focus on using the constables’ perceived memories to assess their focus of attention at the moment of conflict in a scenario involving a simulated armed encounter. Nideffer’s Quadrants of Attention (internal and external, narrow and broad) will serve as a way of categorizing the direction of attention and informing us about the presence of selective attention and inattentional blindness among the constables during the simulated encounter (Nideffer & Sharpe, 1978).


The research secondarily will examine different means of acquiring post-incident information from the involved constables. These methods involved either having the constables interviewed or having them write reports. Further, the constables were divided up into groups that conferred or did not confer prior to their writing the reports or being interviewed.




The goal of this study was to research the attentional allocation of firearms officers (constables) who were thrust into a simulated incident. The incident had to occur suddenly and be dynamic, rapidly evolving, complex, and symbolically life- threatening. To do this, the researchers had to create and then engage the constables in a realistic type of encounter.




The scenario the constables encountered had to be realistic enough to create a stressful event for them. It also had to involve decision making and action on their part such as would be required of them in a real life-and-death encounter. Further, it had to involve at least one other constable and several subjects so the researchers would to be able to assess the constable’s ability to note the behavior of others in the same scenario. It also had to be open-ended in that the constable’s response changed the nature of the encounter in a fashion that would be unique and noticeable by that constable. The scenario also had to be novel and unique enough that the constables involved would need to read the situation. This meant their attentional resources and scanning behavior would be notable.




The scenario occurred at the reception area of the gymnasium at the recruit-training center at Hendon. At this location, the entrance to the gymnasium building was altered to represent a reception area of a hospital ward. The benches at the site accommodated “waiting patients,” and the large front desk facilitated the appearance of a reception area. A side door to the left of the reception area contained a small room that hid the hostage and hostage taker until their “surprise” entrance into the scenario. A hallway further to the left of the main desk led to an area where the constables could be equipped with simunition handguns loaded with simunition blanks before they engaged in the scenario. Heart monitors and numbered vests were also placed on their chests, and they were also briefed on the upcoming incident. When they had been briefed about the scenario and were ready, they then entered the hallway that led to the “waiting room” and into the scenario.




The constables were grouped into teams of two or three. They were then instructed that the scenario they were about to enter involved their being posted as guards for a subject who had been wounded in an armed robbery and who was now being held in a locked ward in a medical facility. The ward was located upstairs from their briefing room and they had to walk through the lobby to get to the stairs and then to the assigned area. As they walked through the lobby with “waiting patients” sitting in the reception area, unbeknownst to them a staged conflict was developing at the reception desk between a brother of the wounded subject and the receptionist. As the constables passed the reception desk on their way to the stairs, they would intentionally be drawn into the conflict by having the arguing parties escalate their voices, use profanity, or by having the brother threaten physical harm to the receptionist who was preventing him from seeing his wounded brother. In post-incident interviews or reports, not a single constable was able to note anything about the relationship of the complainant at the desk to the wounded patient or of the communication content overall except that the complainant wanted to visit his brother.


After a brief period of time when the constables were sufficiently engaged in the conflict at the reception desk, the hostage taker, with his arm around the hostage and a double-barreled shotgun in his right hand, burst through the door to the left of the reception desk. The hostage taker fired the double-barreled shotgun twice into the floor, disengaged from the hostage, and pointed the shotgun at the constables. The constables immediately reacted and attempted to control or shoot the hostage taker.


Once the hostage taker was disabled, the scenario was halted and the constables were then ushered off to the staging room where they either conferred or did not confer and then were sent off to be interviewed or to write a report.