Page 3 of 3


Performing under pressure: Gaze control, decision making and shooting performance

of elite and rookie police officers




3.12. Quiet eye duration


Normally the QE is located on only one location, but since both the assailant’s weapon and the officer’s weapon were fixated during fixation six it was important to determine how long both locations were fixated before the trigger pull. Since it takes at least 350 ms for an officer to aim and fire accurately at a target (Bumgarner et al., 2006; Tobin & Fackler, 1997) a viable QE should be close to this value on one location or another. QE duration was analyzed using an Expertise (E, R) x Location (assailant’s weapon/cell, officer weapon) factorial ANOVA. Significant differences were found due to location, F(1, 98) = 10.63, p < .0002, g2p = .10, and the interaction of expertise by location, F(1, 98) = 6.61, p < .01, g2p = .06, as shown in Fig. 8. The E group had a longer mean duration on the assail- ant’s weapon/cell (318.33 ms ± 27.72 ms) and shorter on their own weapon (121.00 ms ± 14.41 ms). Comparable QE durations for the R were M = 265.33 ms ± 33.50 ms on the assailant’s weapon/cell and M = 242.04 ms ± 11.28 ms on their own weapon. Contrast of means showed the E and R differed in durations to their own weapon, F(1) = 4.87, p < .03.

3.13. Discussion


At the outset we expected the elite officers to shoot with greater accuracy during the gun condition and make fewer decision errors during the cell condition, while the rookies would exhibit less control over their gaze resulting in lower shooting accuracy and more decision errors. These expectations were met on the three combined measures of shooting performance accuracy, shot speed, and decision making during the cell trials. The E officer’s met the criteria for high performance on 75.0% of all trials compared to 52.9% for the R. Most noticeable was the high percentage of R (61.5%) who made a decision error and fired during the cell condition, compared to 18.2% for the E. These differences in performance could not be attributed to differences in the duration of the motor phases, as E and R did not differ in the time it took them to draw, aim and fire. How- ever, the R performed all three actions in the last second compared to the last 2.5 s for the E (see Fig. 3). The E’s significantly earlier motor onsets were indicative of their greater anticipation and prior programming which contributed to their firing before the assailant and R on most trials. The E’s significantly earlier draw, aim and fire phases were also preceded in the first seven seconds of the trial by significantly more fixations on locations where a weapon could be hidden and to unholstering almost immediately, while the R had a lower percentage of fixations on non-weapon locations and off target and did not prepare their weapon to draw and fire until the assailant was near to the end of his attack.


Our expectation that both the E and R officers would employ a weapon focus during the first seven seconds of the trial was upheld, but for the E only, who focused a higher percentage of their fixations on locations where a gun could be hidden, while the R looked more at non-weapon locations or to locations outside the immediate location of the assailant. E and R did not differ in the percentage of fixations on the assailant’s face which was visible for only three seconds as he entered, or on the receptionist. Fixation durations averaged about 500 ms per location, therefore both E and R had enough time to identify both individuals.


During the final two seconds we also found differences in weapon focus that have not been reported in the literature previously. During the final six fixations the E increased the percent of fixations on the assailant’s weapon/cell from 18% to 71%. During hits this percentage increased the duration to 86% revealing a remarkable degree of focus and concentration under fire. The R did not show the same funneling of their gaze on the assailant’s weapon or cell, but instead allocated 39% of their final fixations to their own gun and only 34% to the assailant’s weapon/cell. Most disruptive for the rookies was a saccade to their own weapon prior to the final fixation on 84% of trials, compared to 23% for the E. Since during saccades information is suppressed (Bridgeman, Hendry, & Start, 1975) these results show that on a high percent of trials the rookie’s ability to maintain their focus on the assailant was seriously compromised. Indeed, on 50% of trials they took their gaze off the assailant completely as they fired (see Fig. 4). The rookies shift of gaze from the assailant to their own weapon suggests a vital re-allocation of attentional resources, which given the time pressures of the encounter, was unsuccessful in a high percentage of trials.


Fixations durations also differed for E and R as the assailant drew and began to pivot spinning rap- idly toward them over a distance of about 2 m, moving laterally from the officer’s left to right. This presented the officers with a rapidly moving target which the E fixated using a series of six fixations that ranged between 250–350 ms. This sequence of fixations allowed the E to quickly read the significance of the assailant’s raised elbow and pivot, which signaled the onset of the attack (see Fig 4A) and anticipated the appearance of the gun or cell. Often the E shifted their gaze to the location of the gun or cell phone before it first became visible (see Fig. 4B), giving them more time to make the decision to aim and fire, or alternatively suppress the shot. The R also had six fixations during the final two seconds, but the first two were too long to enable them to keep up with the spinning lateral action of the gunman. They appeared to take too long to process the significance of the raised elbow and pivot making them late in fixating the gun or cell when they first became visible. This combined with the costs of programming a saccade on 84% of trials signaled a re-orienting of their attention to a second goal – that of fixating the sights on their own gun which was successful in only 39% of trials. Corbetta et al. (2008) provided fMRI evidence showing the re-orienting of attention is a time consuming process as the ventral system is activated requiring cognitive processing, whereas the dorsal system is faster and allows actions to be controlled continuously and automatically. Combined with the rookies late shift of gaze to their own gun as they drew, aimed and fired, this meant the rookies whole visuo- motor system was pressured to the breaking point leading to lower accuracy in the gun condition and poor decision making in the cell trials.


The elite officer’s final QE duration averaged 318 ms, which was barely within the time limits needed to accurately fire a handgun (Bumgarner et al., 2006; Tobin & Fackler, 1997), while that of the rookies was even lower, average 262 ms. The E’s longer QE duration was therefore similar to elite athletes in the shooting sports in being longer during high performance, while the R behaved like low- er skilled athletes taking less time to fixate the intended target. The longer duration of the E group supports previous QE studies showing the visuo-motor system needs a long duration of external task information to perform well. These results therefore join a growing number of studies that show a long duration QE on a critical locations prior to a final action is an important factor in the ability to perform under pressure (Behan & Wilson, 2008; Janelle, 2002; Mann et al., 2007; Murray and Janelle, 2003; Vickers, 2009; Williams et al., 2002).


Since the type of training a person initially receives often dictates how well they perform in the future (Schmidt & Lee, 2005; Vickers, 2007) our results suggest that firearms training should change from a process that inadvertently teaches novices to fixate the sights of their own weapon first and the target second, to a type of training that establishes the line of gaze on the target from the outset, followed by alignment of the sights of the weapon to the line of gaze. This change in gaze control would lead to a longer QE duration on the target prior to pulling the trigger and should contribute to better decision making and performance. If these changes in firearm’s training were implemented then the gaze control of novice officers should be similar to that of elite athletes and elite officers from the first day of training, thereby increasing the likelihood that they would be able to maintain visual control over any situation they encountered. This, in turn, should decrease errors in decision making and improve shooting accuracy and may help reduce the tremendous costs that ensue after all officer involved shootings (Dumke, 2009; Klinger, 2006).


Finally, our results also suggest that officer’s would benefit from training under conditions where the levels of pressure and anxiety are high. Recent studies have established the efficacy of this type of training for police officers (Nieuwenhuys & Oudejans, 2010; Oudejans, 2008; Oudejans & Pijpers, 2009, 2010). Not only did handgun performance improve compared to traditional forms of training, but practicing under conditions of high anxiety reduced choking and enhanced decision making under extreme pressure.


3.14. Limitations and Conclusions


While the current study sheds light on the control of the gaze during a lethal force on force encounter it has some limitations. First, the number of officers tested was low (N = 24). A greater number of officers need to be tested under a variety of conditions. Second, the officers tested may have been trained in specific ways that affected the results. For example, many forces do not allow or recommend the ‘‘hold’’ position used by so many of the E in this study. Third, while all other measures were precisely measured we did not assess the onset of trigger time but estimated it from previous research studies. Fourth, the results of the current study may be context or task specific and not apply to a greater range of police skills. More research will be needed to determine whether the gaze control strategies carry over into other situations that police officers encounter. Fifth, we did not interview the officers after the encounter therefore we do not know how much agreement there would be between their gaze control and what they verbally may have reported later on. Gaze control studies where the officers are interviewed before and after an in situ encounter would provide objective information. Six, our results suggest that both elite and rookie officer’s may be limited in the extent to which they act as eye witnesses once they begin the process of drawing, aiming and firing their weapon. Since the E maintained a weapon focus on the assailant’s gun or cell during the final seconds of the encounter they may have a reduced ability to identify faces and report on events that occurred outside of this narrow field of view. And rookie officers who attempt to fixate the sights on their gun prior to firing may not be able to report on the presence or absence of a weapon during the final seconds due to their use of a disruptive saccade that suppresses vision followed by very brief fixations on their own weapon a high percent of trials. More research is needed to determine if this is the case. Studies of this nature may also shed light on the veracity of eye witness testimony and determine the congruence between what is actually fixated during an encounter and what is reported later on. Finally, our results show that officer’s who have extensive training and experience as tactical team members have a superior ability to control their gaze and optimally focus their attention when under extreme stress thus leading to fewer decision errors in the line of duty. Whether this superior ability is present prior to training or emerges as a result of training cannot be answered by this study and requires further research.


In conclusion, we show that at the beginning of a deadly firearms encounter, elite officers fixate locations where a weapon is hidden significantly more than rookies, and do this earlier and for longer durations. Elite and rookie officers did not differ in the time it took to draw, aim and fire but the elite officers performed all three of these actions earlier. In contrast, the rookies were very late performing all three actions, indicating critical deficiencies in anticipation, cue detection, gaze control and decision making when under pressure. When the attack occurred (or appeared to occur) the rookies shifted their gaze to their own weapon in a failed attempt to sight their own weapon, while the elite officers never lost sight of the assailant’s moving weapon (or cell phone) before pulling the trigger. We therefore conclude that the significant differences in accuracy and decision making observed between the elite and rookie officers were due as much, if not more, to deficits in the gaze control and focus of attention of the rookies as to any limitations in their physical ability to handle the firearm.




Our thanks are given to the officers who volunteered for the study and the commanding officers who arranged for the testing and provided assistance during the data collection. We would also like to thank the research technicians and students who assisted with the study, Matt Scott, Barry Morton and Robert Vickers.


Appendix A. Supplementary data

Supplementary data associated with this article can be found, in the online version, at doi:10.1016/ j.humov.2011.04.004.




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