How Are 5%ers Created? By “Effortful Study,” New Report Says

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The cerebral game of chess would seem to be several light years removed from the rough-and-tumble world of the street cop. But a new report on the mental processes of chess players suggests that law officers and trainers have a lot to learn from the means by which amateurs become masters of the checkered board.

The same principles that enable a chess player to develop championship expertise can help a conscientious officer become what’s called a “5%er”–an exceptional performer–in the policing profession, says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

“A highly skilled chess player has total control over the game,” Lewinski observes. “He can see ahead to anticipate what’s going to happen, he knows the right alternatives to choose from many options, he acts with speed and confidence, and he beats the competition in a confrontation.

“Those same qualities describe highly skilled officers, and the officers acquire those qualities the same way master chess players do, through an approach called ‘effortful study’–ideally, with the help and support of trainers who also understand the essential principles of learning that are involved.”

Lewinski’s comments come in reaction to an intriguing report called “The Expert Mind,” by Philip E. Ross, appearing in the current [8/06] issue of Scientific American magazine. In the 7-pg. article, Ross, a contributing editor at the magazine, details how “[s]tudies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other fields as well.”

You’ll find the full article here:


Reviewing a century of psychological research regarding chess players, Ross identifies essential characteristics of top players that, as it turns out, have parallels among outstanding police officers.

“Of course,” Lewinski points out, “life on the street is a lot more varied, unpredictable and dangerous than sitting at a chess board. But the way skills are acquired and the thinking processes involved in being exceptionally successful in both activities have a lot in common.”

Master chess players, for example, make their decisions with far less analysis than weaker players. “When confronted with a difficult position, a weaker player may calculate for half an hour, often looking many moves ahead, yet miss the right continuation, whereas a grandmaster sees the move immediately, without consciously analyzing anything at all,” Ross notes. In “the first few seconds of thought,” a master can size up the position of pieces on the board and see where the game is headed.
To the extent that a master does analyze a situation, he does “not examine more possibilities, only better ones,” Ross explains, and then more often than not adeptly chooses the best move “in a flash.”

Lewinski cites examples of this quality at work in law enforcement:

  • A rookie patrol officer and a highly skilled drug interdiction officer independently approach a vehicle on a traffic stop. The officer with seasoned criminal patrol skills will likely pick up immediately on cues of a drug transport through items that are visible in the car, the way the driver answers certain calculated questions, and the body language he exhibits. However, the rookie (or an unmotivated officer, for that matter) might see nothing beyond the initial traffic violation or if he does notice telltale clues may need to spend considerable time assessing what they might mean before reaching a conclusion.
  • A highly skilled officer approaching a group of subjects on a street corner might readily notice furtive movements indicating that an attack is brewing, whereas a less seasoned officer might not quickly grasp the implications of subtle early warning cues (and end up getting injured or killed by a surprise assault).
  • In a confrontation with a suspect who’s resisting arrest, an officer with less experience and training may cast about desperately along the force continuum, trying to find something that brings compliance. An officer who’s highly experienced and trained in dealing with resistant subjects will quickly read what he’s up against and promptly and confidently select the level of force necessary to swiftly control the situation.

In chess (and analogously in policing) this kind of instant recognition is possible because, through experience and study, a master player has accumulated a vast storehouse of knowledge about chess games and chess positions. During a game, he can quickly tap into this “well-organized system of connections” and “manipulate” it to meet the challenge at hand.

Indeed, measurements of brain activity have confirmed that while novices are analyzing and trying to reason out what moves to make, experts are retrieving information from their long-term memory about “positions and associated strategies” and using that to address the problem. “This finely tuned long-term memory appears to be crucial to expertise,” Ross states.

And it’s not a matter of experts having a superior memory per se, but rather a memory that retains professional information differently.

Again comparable to certain law enforcement situations, the memory of chess masters is specifically “tuned to typical game positions,” Ross points out. In a revealing experiment, “players at various skill levels were shown positions on a board from actual games and positions obtained by randomly shuffling pieces. After observing the positions briefly, the players were asked to reconstruct them from memory.”

The masters and grandmasters were “only marginally better at remembering the random positions” but they were “significantly better than weaker players at recalling the game positions.

“Beginners could not recall more than a very few details” of an actual game position, Ross writes, even after having examined the board for 30 seconds, “whereas grandmasters could usually get it perfectly, even if they had perused it for only a few seconds.” Also grandmasters were significantly better at recalling “all the moves in a game” they had played.

“This difference tracks a particular form of memory, specific to the kind of chess positions that commonly occur in play. The specific memory must be the result of training, because grandmasters do no better than others in general tests of memory,” including the random-placement tests Ross describes.

Here Lewinski sees a direct link to research recently conducted by FSRC in England regarding police driving.

[See Force Science News transmission sent 7/21/06, found by clicking here]

As we reported, Dr. Jonathan Page, the FSRC Technical Advisory Board member conducting the research, discovered that officers trained as highly skilled pursuit drivers were able to recall remarkably greater detail about what they had seen after watching videotaped pursuits than were untrained drivers. However, on memory tests not related to pursuits the trained and untrained subjects scored about the same.

“Even among the trained police drivers,” Page told Force Science News, “the more training and experience they had the more they were able to recall about pursuits they watched on videotape. It’s a steadily increasing continuum–some training helps recall but even more training produces greater results.” The same incrementally increasing relationship between skill and recall is charted in the Scientific American report for chess players.

Page suggests: “When you train more under actual field conditions, you develop interpretations and expectations of how things will be. You begin to grasp contextual patterns rather than individual bits of information that have no particular meaning. In a way, you see a story that makes sense and is more readily remembered.

“This distinguishes the expert from the novice, who may struggle to decode each individual element of a scene before him and may simply be overwhelmed with a seemingly unrelated mountain of information.”

In his report, Ross asks: “[H]ow do the experts in various subjects acquire their extraordinary skills? How much can be credited to innate talent and how much to intensive training?” And then he provides answers that carry important implications for every officer and LE instructor, Lewinski says.

“The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build” the expert mind, either in the realm of chess or in another discipline, Ross states. In the process, “motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability…. The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates” that professionals with outstanding skills, in short, “are made, not born.”

Research indicates that the key “is not experience per se but ‘effortful study,’” according to Ross. Such study involves learning and practice that entail “continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence.” In other words, Lewinski explains, as you gain in ability, “the bar is constantly moved higher so that your skill level must keep stretching and improving to reach it.”

It’s possible, Ross says, for people to “spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level.” Yet a student who trains properly “can overtake them in a relatively short time” and keep on improving. Interestingly, the quantity of time spent playing chess, even in competitive tournaments, “appears to contribute less” than effortful study to a person’s progress. “The main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study,” Ross says. (Similarly, Lewinski points out, that can be a major value of debriefing after a policing confrontation.)

At first, everybody involved in something new generally engages in effortful study, “which is why beginners so often improve rapidly” in a given undertaking, Ross notes. “But having reached an acceptable performance most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement.”

In contrast, those who achieve exceptional skill “keep the lid of their mind’s box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields,” Ross says.

Each accomplishment strengthens motivation. Thus, “success builds on success” for the outstanding performer.

Lewinski further frames these findings in a law enforcement context. “In law enforcement, we typically train to competency, not to proficiency,” he says. “In effect, competency means that someone determines on a basis not related to science that if you pass a certain test you are skillful enough to carry a gun and make deadly force decisions, for example. Proficiency requires the application of effective techniques to a variety of relevant situations with a high degree of skill and accuracy of judgment.

“When you are proficient you may not technically be an expert equivalent to the chess grandmasters but you are very, very good at what you do. You’re the best that you can be. And the method by which you attain that skill level is the same method the expert uses–practicing to the end of your limits and then, with correction and motivation, practicing to the end of your new limits, over and over again.”

So-called 5%er officers, the highly motivated individuals who become expert in police practices, Lewinski believes, “could be made less rare by changes in training. Too many trainers see their job as merely to teach a technical skill. The true challenge is to inspire officers to learn the skill, practice it, and pursue it with vigor and enthusiasm.

“We need to establish high standards that challenge officers to grow beyond a minimum level of competence, to be enthusiastic about getting better at what they do. How likely is that in departments that require an officer merely to shoot a thousand rounds in basic firearms ‘training’ and then to ‘qualify’ 3 or 4 times a year–period?

“In that environment, there’s no real training, no improvement, no one challenging you but yourself. If you try to improve on your own, you may run into barriers: you can only go to the range if a supervisor is there, but the supervisor is always too busy, or you have to pay for any extra ammunition you use.

“Instead of departmental policies and priorities that encourage mediocrity, we need a training philosophy that encourages, nurtures and guides the development of expertise. It’s what the community expects and deserves.”

If you have the burning drive of a 5%er, determined to maximize your skills regardless of obstacles, understand that “in the early stages, effortful study is very difficult,” Lewinski says. “Pushing your limits inevitably involves a lot of failure. When you fail, you need to back off a bit, learn to correct your weaknesses, and build your way back up.

“To get really, really good takes time. Be patient with yourself, because you need that time for your training and experience to evolve into mastery.”

Leave a Reply


  • Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy

Effective date: January 06, 2019

Force Science Institute, Ltd. (“us”, “we”, or “our”) operates the https://www.forcescience.org/ website (hereinafter referred to as the “Service”).

This page informs you of our policies regarding the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data when you use our Service and the choices you have associated with that data. Our Privacy Policy for Force Science Institute, Ltd. is based on the Privacy Policy Template from Privacy Policies.

We use your data to provide and improve the Service. By using the Service, you agree to the collection and use of information in accordance with this policy. Unless otherwise defined in this Privacy Policy, the terms used in this Privacy Policy have the same meanings as in our Terms and Conditions, accessible from https://www.forcescience.org/

Information Collection And Use

We collect several different types of information for various purposes to provide and improve our Service to you.

Types of Data Collected

Personal Data

While using our Service, we may ask you to provide us with certain personally identifiable information that can be used to contact or identify you (“Personal Data”). Personally identifiable information may include, but is not limited to:

  • Email address
  • First name and last name
  • Phone number
  • Address, State, Province, ZIP/Postal code, City
  • Cookies and Usage Data

Usage Data

We may also collect information on how the Service is accessed and used (“Usage Data”). This Usage Data may include information such as your computer’s Internet Protocol address (e.g. IP address), browser type, browser version, the pages of our Service that you visit, the time and date of your visit, the time spent on those pages, unique device identifiers and other diagnostic data.

Tracking & Cookies Data

We use cookies and similar tracking technologies to track the activity on our Service and hold certain information.

Cookies are files with small amount of data which may include an anonymous unique identifier. Cookies are sent to your browser from a website and stored on your device. Tracking technologies also used are beacons, tags, and scripts to collect and track information and to improve and analyze our Service.

You can instruct your browser to refuse all cookies or to indicate when a cookie is being sent. However, if you do not accept cookies, you may not be able to use some portions of our Service. You can learn more how to manage cookies in the Browser Cookies Guide.

Examples of Cookies we use:

  • Session Cookies. We use Session Cookies to operate our Service.
  • Preference Cookies. We use Preference Cookies to remember your preferences and various settings.
  • Security Cookies. We use Security Cookies for security purposes.

Use of Data

Force Science Institute, Ltd. uses the collected data for various purposes:

  • To provide and maintain the Service
  • To notify you about changes to our Service
  • To allow you to participate in interactive features of our Service when you choose to do so
  • To provide customer care and support
  • To provide analysis or valuable information so that we can improve the Service
  • To monitor the usage of the Service
  • To detect, prevent and address technical issues

Transfer Of Data

Your information, including Personal Data, may be transferred to — and maintained on — computers located outside of your state, province, country or other governmental jurisdiction where the data protection laws may differ than those from your jurisdiction.

If you are located outside United States and choose to provide information to us, please note that we transfer the data, including Personal Data, to United States and process it there.

Your consent to this Privacy Policy followed by your submission of such information represents your agreement to that transfer.

Force Science Institute, Ltd. will take all steps reasonably necessary to ensure that your data is treated securely and in accordance with this Privacy Policy and no transfer of your Personal Data will take place to an organization or a country unless there are adequate controls in place including the security of your data and other personal information.

Disclosure Of Data

Legal Requirements

Force Science Institute, Ltd. may disclose your Personal Data in the good faith belief that such action is necessary to:

  • To comply with a legal obligation
  • To protect and defend the rights or property of Force Science Institute, Ltd.
  • To prevent or investigate possible wrongdoing in connection with the Service
  • To protect the personal safety of users of the Service or the public
  • To protect against legal liability

Security Of Data

The security of your data is important to us, but remember that no method of transmission over the Internet, or method of electronic storage is 100% secure. While we strive to use commercially acceptable means to protect your Personal Data, we cannot guarantee its absolute security.

Service Providers

We may employ third party companies and individuals to facilitate our Service (“Service Providers”), to provide the Service on our behalf, to perform Service-related services or to assist us in analyzing how our Service is used.

These third parties have access to your Personal Data only to perform these tasks on our behalf and are obligated not to disclose or use it for any other purpose.


We may use third-party Service Providers to monitor and analyze the use of our Service.

  • Google AnalyticsGoogle Analytics is a web analytics service offered by Google that tracks and reports website traffic. Google uses the data collected to track and monitor the use of our Service. This data is shared with other Google services. Google may use the collected data to contextualize and personalize the ads of its own advertising network.You can opt-out of having made your activity on the Service available to Google Analytics by installing the Google Analytics opt-out browser add-on. The add-on prevents the Google Analytics JavaScript (ga.js, analytics.js, and dc.js) from sharing information with Google Analytics about visits activity.For more information on the privacy practices of Google, please visit the Google Privacy & Terms web page: https://policies.google.com/privacy?hl=en

Links To Other Sites

Our Service may contain links to other sites that are not operated by us. If you click on a third party link, you will be directed to that third party’s site. We strongly advise you to review the Privacy Policy of every site you visit.

We have no control over and assume no responsibility for the content, privacy policies or practices of any third party sites or services.

Children’s Privacy

Our Service does not address anyone under the age of 18 (“Children”).

We do not knowingly collect personally identifiable information from anyone under the age of 18. If you are a parent or guardian and you are aware that your Children has provided us with Personal Data, please contact us. If we become aware that we have collected Personal Data from children without verification of parental consent, we take steps to remove that information from our servers.

Changes To This Privacy Policy

We may update our Privacy Policy from time to time. We will notify you of any changes by posting the new Privacy Policy on this page.

We will let you know via email and/or a prominent notice on our Service, prior to the change becoming effective and update the “effective date” at the top of this Privacy Policy.

You are advised to review this Privacy Policy periodically for any changes. Changes to this Privacy Policy are effective when they are posted on this page.

Contact Us

If you have any questions about this Privacy Policy, please contact us:

  • By email: support@forcescience.org
  • By visiting this page on our website: https://www.forcescience.org/contact
  • By phone number: 866-683-1944
  • By mail: Force Science Institute, Ltd.