Force Science News

Force Science #122: New study links multi-tasking capacity to good or bad shooting decisions

In this issue:

I. New study links multi-tasking capacity to good or bad shooting decisions

II. Update on active-killer stats shows predictable consistency

III. “If I had panicked, he would have killed me!”

IV. Editor’s clarification

I. New study links multi-tasking capacity to good or bad shooting decisions

Officers who have a greater capacity for multi-tasking are less likely to make errors in shooting decisions, even when emotionally aroused, according to a new study from psychology researchers at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

“The study is an important, seminal work,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, “because it directs attention to human behavior factors in deadly force encounters, instead of focusing on race, environment, or alleged officer bias as so much previous research has done. We know from our own scientific investigations that factors of biology, physiology, and psychology are by far the most critical elements in lethal confrontations, and yet to date they are the least studied.”

The new study has limitations, including a small sample size, less than ideal testing conditions, and a lack of any immediate practical training applications. “But it should be viewed as a ground-breaking good start. It surfaced valuable information that now cries out for more thorough exploration,” Lewinski told Force Science News.

The GSU research team, headed by assistant psychology professor Dr. Heather Kleider, set out to determine how differences in officers’ “working memory”—the capacity of the brain to temporarily store and manage information needed to carry out complex cognitive tasks—might affect “judicious shoot decisions” in threatening, stressful situations.

As a psychologist, Kleider in the past has worked with issues of eye-witness accuracy, memory, decision-making, and cognitive processing, especially as related to the court system. In discussions with colleagues, she became curious about how an individual’s cognitive capacity and ability to multi-task might relate to decision-making in aggressive circumstances. With 2 other researchers, she decided to explore WM and the decision-making of LEOs in threat situations, “something that hadn’t been looked at before,” she told Force Science News.

TESTING. The team’s volunteer subjects were 24 urban police officers, 8 of them female, with a median age of 38 and an average of about 10 years on the job.

During personal 90-min. laboratory sessions, they first were given standard computerized number-and-letter memory and problem-solving tests to determine their individual working memory (WM) capacity; in effect, “their ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.”

Next, “to put them in a ‘field-ready’ mind-set,” they were shown a 9-min. video of an actual vehicle stop during which an officer was shot and killed. This was “designed to simulate a threatening in-field situation that might elicit negative affect and arousal,” Kleider explains. The officers’ negative emotional reactions were assessed by measuring changes in their facial muscles and their stress level was tracked by monitoring heart and pulse rates.

Finally, each officer was shown a sequence of 80 slides for less than 1 second apiece on a computer, in an attempt to “partially recreate realistic police shooting decisions.” Each slide pictured a male holding either a gun or a “neutral” object, such as a cell phone. The officers were told to press a “shoot” or a “don’t shoot” key “as quickly as possible in response to armed and unarmed targets,” as they would in the field. Points were awarded for “correctly” shooting an armed target and deducted for “incorrectly” shooting an unarmed target, shooting too slowly, or not shooting an armed suspect.

FINDINGS. The researchers found that watching the officer get murdered did increase evidence of negative emotions in the test subjects but did not result in significant physiological arousal. Nor was there any indication that WM capacity or negative emotionality affected speed or produced a bias in the officers that caused them to automatically favor an impulsive “shoot” decision over a “don’t shoot” response.

What careful analysis of the data did show, though, was “a significant positive relation” between WM capacity and accurate decision-making, Kleider states. Specifically, officers who had low levels of WM capacity and who responded to the stimulus video with relatively high levels of negative emotionality had an “increased likelihood of shooting errors”; that is, they had “a greater likelihood of shooting unarmed targets and a failure to shoot armed targets.”.

On the other hand, officers who had high levels of WM capacity scored much better even though their emotionality was high. They shot significantly fewer unarmed subjects and more armed suspects.

These results suggest that “high WM capacity seems to buffer officers against the negative effects of a threat when making shooting decisions,” the study says. It may be that “heightened arousal creates a ‘load’” that “usurps a substantial amount of available working memory capacity.”

Officers with high WM capacity may be able to accommodate this load and “keep more things ‘in play’ at one time.” But in those with lower capacity, it seemingly “impairs cognitive processing ability” and results in poorer decision-making.

Bottom line: “When threatened and experiencing highly arousing negative emotion, police officers with limited working memory capacity are at increased risk of shooting error,” Kleider concludes.

OBSERVATIONS. Lewinski points out that the low-budget study was conducted in a laboratory and did not place officers in an environment that approximates real-world conditions.

“The fact that the officers’ pulse rates did not increase significantly during testing is a strong indication that they were not really feeling threatened or stressed,” he says. “In some Force Science research involving highly realistic role-playing scenarios, officers’ pulse rates have more than doubled, for example.

“Yet even with little physiological arousal in Dr. Kleider’s study, the officers with lower working memory showed significant errors in decision-making, and that is an important finding that warrants further research.”

Kleider and her co-researchers, Drs. Dominic Parrott and Tricia King, agree that the study was short on realism. Clearly, Kleider states, “the key-press response in our shooting task is very different than aiming and pulling the trigger of an actual weapon or shooting at a real-life target.” Also, she notes, “the emotional intensity of the video may not have been enough to ‘load’ the working memory of high-capacity individuals.” Had they been more fully aroused, perhaps their decision-making advantage would have been lessened.

The research team has applied to the National Institute of Justice for a research grant that would permit a large-scale study which, Kleider speculates, might ultimately result in a testing protocol that LE agencies could use as part of their recruit-screening process. This might allow departments to identify applicants who need additional, specialized training to compensate for or overcome their decision-making limitations or who should be weeded out altogether.

More work needs to be done before useful training lessons can be determined, Kleider acknowledges. More experiments need to be run to clarify the relationship between WM and “the shooting task” and to answer questions such as how WM capacity can be strengthened or emotional arousal regulated to produce better in-field performance.

Meanwhile, says Lewinski, the study as far as it goes “is right on target in focusing on the kind of human dynamics that researchers should be looking at.”

[A paper by the researchers on their study, “Shooting Behavior: How Working Memory and Negative Emotionality Influence Police Officer Shoot Decisions,” will be published later this year in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology and is expected to be posted soon on that publication’s website.]

II. Update on active-killer stats shows predictable consistency

With active-killer incidents seeming to dominate news cycles with increasing frequency these days, we revisited Ohio trainer Ron Borsch, who keeps statistics on these events, to see if the behavior pattern of these offenders is changing.

In the year since we first wrote about Borsch, who manages the South East Area Law Enforcement (S.E.A.L.E.) Regional Training Academy in Bedford (OH) [Click here to read it now]
, he’s added steadily to his database. But he reports that the m.o. of the typical active killer is staying consistent, reinforcing his belief in the value of immediate single-officer entry in response to these murderous calls.

Borsch tracks primarily instances of “rapid mass murder,” where 4 or more victims are intentionally killed in the same episode and location in no more than 20 minutes. “But in lower-body-count events,” he says, “this research may be valid, as well.”

From reviewing close to 100 active-killer outbursts, Borsch has found (in rounded figures) that:

    • 98% of the offenders act alone

    • 90% commit suicide, usually on-site (with most exceptions seeming to occur in cases with domestic-violence overtones)

    • 80% use a long gun (rifle, shotgun, or carbine of pistol caliber)

    • 75% bring multiple weapons to the scene, sometimes with hundreds of rounds of ammunition

    • the offenders typically are “preoccupied with a high-body-count plan, racing to complete it and avoid police”

    • increasingly, they are wearing body armor

    • they almost never take hostages and do not negotiate

    • they are “dynamic and quick,” finishing their slaughter in a post-Columbine average of 8 minutes.

Borsch has found only 6 mass-murder incidents that were successfully stopped in progress by LEOs. “The majority of these were initiated by 1 officer,” he says. Single, unarmed civilians have proven most effective at intervening, most likely because they were already on the scene when the attacks started and had the courage to take action. About half the successful interventions were by solo unarmed citizens, according to Borsch’s figures.

“Police are handicapped by both time and distance” on active-killer calls, he says. “These murderers are typically cowardly amateurs, not highly trained Rambos. The average officer should be in a superior response position. But the first responder needs luck to arrive in time to prevent further killing.”

The offender behavior pattern he has identified, Borsch told Force Science News, demands an immediate entry into the location, even if only one officer is present initially. “The incident may well be over by the time police arrive. But with some of these suspects attempting as many as 8 murders a minute, we don’t have the luxury of waiting before entering. These are extraordinary events that warrant an extraordinary response.”

He cites the case of a lone officer, Justin Garner, who earlier this spring acted alone in confronting an active killer who had slain 7 elderly patients and a nurse at a North Carolina nursing home. Garner’s chief had told his 6-officer force not to wait for backup “when there are many lives on the line.”

As the only officer on duty, Garner entered the home and encountered the suspect reloading his shotgun. When the killer refused to put his weapon down, Garner shot him once in the upper chest with his .40-cal. handgun, stopping the bloody rampage.

III. “If I had panicked, he would have killed me!”

In response to our reminder in Transmission #121 about the dangers of naked subjects, Force Science News member Deborah Wolf, a retired K-9 handler for the Washington (DC) Metropolitan Police Dept., shares this sobering account of her life-or-death encounter:

I was just leaving the precinct to start my 2300 to 0700 hour tour of duty and with my assigned K-9 when a man ran up to my cruiser in the middle of the street. He said he had just been assaulted by a naked man who was now up the street attempting to break into an apartment building. The radio was extremely active with an armed robbery, so I drove up to investigate without notifying the dispatcher.

As I pulled into the building’s circular driveway, I observed a naked black male beating the front glass door with a telephone receiver he had ripped from the wall. As I reached for the radio to call for backup, he turned and ran toward my open driver’s window. I’m not sure if I said anything to him but it seemed like he immediately dove through the window on top of me.

I pushed him away but he came through it again, this time trying to get my service weapon which I was lying on, on the passenger seat. Again I was able to push him away but by now I was getting tired.

He dove through a third time and started to strangle me. With all the strength I had left I pushed him off with my left hand. As I was doing this I was able to draw my gun and fire point blank, striking him once in the heart and again in the chest, killing him instantly.

He was later identified as a 23-year-old Nigerian national, address unknown. An autopsy revealed that he had ingested a large amount of PCP.

I speak a couple of times a year at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy about the use of deadly force to the recruits just before they graduate. I also have kept a tape of my radio transmission seconds after the shooting, showing that when you have an emergency your message must be understood in order to get the assistance you need. So many officers sound like one long scream, but if I do say so myself, every word I say can be understood.

From my experience, if I have one message to give other members in law enforcement, it is that you absolutely cannot panic when your life is at stake. If I had, he would have killed me. My street experience had a lot to do with the outcome, I’m sure, but I also believe there was something within me that really cannot be explained.

IV. Editor’s clarification

The quotes about tourniquet use that were attributed in Transmission #121 to the ER physician known as Doc Gunn in fact came from a discussion group that addressed the subject. Gunn passed the remarks along to the law enforcement community. He says he agrees wholeheartedly with the information conveyed, but wishes to clarify that the specific phraseology was not his.

Written by Force Science Institute

May 8th, 2009 at 5:49 pm

Posted in Force Science News