Cell Phone Studies Shed Light on How Officers’ Memories Work in Shootings

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Are there similarities between a driver on a cell phone and an officer in a shooting?

You bet! claims Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. And 2 independent studies offer fresh insights into the parallels, which may help officers defend themselves in controversial force encounters.

Lewinski has long maintained that in any life-threatening confrontation an officer’s perceptions and memories are influenced more by what his attention is focused on during the conflict than by what actually passes before his eyes. Investigators, review boards, prosecutors and others assessing the officer’s decision making and later recollections need to take this into account, Lewinski insists, rather than expect infallible judgment and comprehensive recall and then suspect criminal culpability when shortcomings emerge.

Research findings reported recently at a meeting of the American Psychological Assn. in New Orleans support this position. “The fact that the studies involve drivers using cell phones is not what’s important here,” Lewinski stresses. “What matters most are the principles involved, and those can reasonably be applied to officers in shooting situations.”

One study involves a series of experiments conducted by psychologist David Strayer and others at the University of Utah, who sought to learn more about the relationship between cell phone conversations and the phenomenon called “inattention blindness”–not seeing things you look at because your brain is more intensely focused on something else.

Strayer and teammates monitored male and females subjects in a sophisticated driving simulator and recorded how their performance while engaged in conversation on a cell phone compared to their “driving” without any cell-phone distraction.

First let’s look at the findings, then we’ll relate them to a shooting situation.

Among other things, Strayer’s research confirms:
  • Drivers are much more likely to rear-end the car in front of them when talking or listening on a cell phone in heavy-traffic situations. This is because their perception of and reaction to vehicles braking in front of them are slowed when they’re on the phone. Drivers in the study tended “sluggishly” to hit the brakes later and, if a collision was avoided, to hold the brake pedal longer than they did when not occupied with a cell conversation. Indeed, a twenty-something’s reactions when engaged with the phone equated to what would normally be expected of a 70 year old.
  • Cell phone use significantly impairs memory. As the subjects “drove,” digital billboards appeared beside the simulated roadway. In a surprise quiz afterwards, drivers were able to recall more thoroughly and accurately those signs they had passed while they were not having a phone conversation. As the researchers put it, cell phone chatting induced “failures of visual attention”–that is, inattention blindness–to objects encountered in the driving scene.
  • This is true not only for what passed in the subjects’ peripheral vision. Cell phone conversations “reduce attention to objects even when drivers look directly at them,” the researchers found. Billboards seen when the subjects were engaged in phone conversation were less than half as likely to be remembered than those that appeared when the drivers were not on the phone.

Because the cell phone involved in the Strayer experiments was a hands-free model, the documented interference with perception and memory could not have been caused by manual manipulation of the phone itself.

Instead, the researchers concluded, the significant “disruptive effects of cell phone conversations…are due…to the diversion of attention from driving to the phone.” That is, the brain makes a shift away from an external, visual focus related to driving to an internal cognitive concentration required for the phone conversation, with the result that much of what was “seen” did not actually register.

The brain has a limited capacity for attention, Strayer explained, so whatever is siphoned off by the cell phone is subtracted from attention to driving. He says that being engaged on the phone cuts in half a driver’s measurable brain activity in a key area of the brain needed for tracking traffic conditions.

While on a cell phone, drivers can be “as blind to a child running across the street as to a Dumpster beside the road,” Strayer says.

If a cell phone conversation is distracting enough to induce significant inattention-blindness, Lewinski observes, “imagine the distraction potential of suddenly being confronted with a situation in which your life is in jeopardy, as an officer in a shooting would be. If you are in that kind of emotionally driven scenario, focused on the threat and on saving your life, you will necessarily have a diminished capacity to take in and remember other details about the scene.”

Psychologist Paul Atchley of the University of Kansas, coauthor of the second study, agrees.

Atchley’s team is conducting a series of experiments designed to gauge how the emotional content of cell phone messages impacts on attention. In an early phase of this research, reported in New Orleans, subjects heard and responded to sets of words with positive connotations (“joy,” for example) as well as those with negative associations (“cancer” and “terrorist,” for instance).

Both word-sets caused distraction and a decrease in attention, Atchley told Force Science News, but a decidedly greater impact was caused by the negative words. He plans next to test the effect of full emotion-laden conversations. But his findings to date suggest that “threatening associations” take the most pronounced toll on perception and memory.

“If mere exposure to negative words produce this effect,” Atchley says, “without question law enforcement officers in a life-threatening situation will find their ability to attend to peripheral information to be significantly reduced.

“Officers have a tough situation in trying to grasp and retain everything that is happening” in a shooting situation because “when something doesn’t grab your attention you won’t have a memory for it. It simply is not in your brain at all.

“People think that when you have your eyes open, you see the whole world around you. But in fact the brain has the capacity to process only a limited amount of information from the environment.” In stress situations, the “window of attention” may be only about the size of your fist, or less.

Lewinski cites a case he was involved in as an expert witness in which an officer was struggling on the ground to control the hand of an offender that was digging into his waistband–going for a gun, in the officer’s snap judgment. A videotape of the incident revealed later that the officer’s partner at that moment seemed to be beating the suspect with a flashlight.

The first officer claimed he was unaware of this, and was fired for “lying.” From interviewing the officer, Lewinski contends that in reality he experienced inattention-blindness and legitimately could not report on his partner’s actions because he was so intensely riveted on controlling the perceived threat to his own life that his brain screened out whatever else was occurring.

“This issue of what officers are able to report on and testify to keeps surfacing over and over,” Lewinski says. “People are astounded by what officers insist they can’t recall.

“Investigators need to do everything they can to properly mine an officer’s memory after a high-intensity encounter. But they also need to realize that human memory has its shortcomings. It is unconscionable to hold officers accountable without taking science into consideration.

“Yet the disturbing truth is that cops are being charged, sued and fired because they can’t ‘see’ things their attention is not focused on. In other words, because they can’t do the impossible.”

The studies by Strayer and Atchley, he hopes, will help skeptics see the light.

[For more information on the cell phone experiments, consult the paper “Cell Phone-Induced Failures of Visual Attention During Simulated Driving” by David Strayer, Frank Drews and William Johnston, available at:


Atchley’s study has not yet been published. ]

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.