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.
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.
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.
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.]