New Study: Mental Imagery Boosts Shooting Accuracy Under Threat

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A new study showing that simple mental imagery can help LEOs to keep their shooting skills from deteriorating in high-threat encounters has been reported by researchers in the Netherlands.

At that country’s national police academy, university scientists in the disciplines of human behavior and human movement science conducted before-and-after firearms performance tests on 66 officers.

After an initial shooting exercise to establish a baseline, some officers were exposed to a seven-minute session during which they imagined themselves shooting with unfailing accuracy even when under the stress of an attack, while a control group merely listened to unrelated audio input.

When then exposed to a simulated gunbattle, the mental imagers consistently out-performed the others, whose targeting skills under fire tended to erode significantly from their “normal” level of accuracy.

This finding has led the researchers to recommend that imagery exercises not only be incorporated into “regular” police training and practice but that officers “use mental imagery whenever they have a spare moment” to improve their performance in what may be life-or-death situations.

A report of the study, titled “Positive Effects of Imagery on Police Officers’ Shooting Performance under Threat,” appears online prior to publication in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. A brief summary can be found free of charge clicking here, where the full seven-page report can also be accessed for a fee.

ANXIETY FACTOR

In the researchers’ article, team leader Laura Colin, a faculty member of Human Movement Sciences at VU University in Amsterdam, notes that in real-life deadly force encounters, LEOs typically hit what they are shooting at only 15-50% of the time. This is “substantially worse than during annual shooting tests,” Colin points out, when “almost all officers are able to hit well over 90% of the targets.”

The culprit, other researchers have suggested, is “anxiety” that stems from the possibility of being shot in real gunfights. This threat causes officers to “reduce goal-directed attention, speed up their shot execution, and shoot with considerably less accuracy,” Colin writes.

Mental imagery has been widely and effectively used in high-stress sports to improve motor performance, Colin knew. If the imagery accurately reflects real-world conditions, it appears to work because it activates “the same neural networks that are involved” in the actual movements imagined and thus “strengthens the neural pathways needed to perform the intended action in real life.”

Mental imagery has been applied anecdotally in law enforcement since it was introduced as “crisis rehearsal” in the Calibre Press Street Survival (R) Seminars in the 1980s. But, Colin writes, little has been documented in scientific studies “about imagery’s potential to help…officers’ shooting performance.”

The primary goal of her group was to “investigate whether imagery can help to prevent negative effects of anxiety” when officers are shooting under threat. “[O]ur aim was not to reduce stress and anxiety” for the officers but to allow them to learn to shoot accurately “despite higher levels of stress and anxiety.”

SHOTS FIRED

The 53 males and 13 females who volunteered as subjects from the team’s experiments ranged in age from 19 to 55 and had between one and 30 years’ police service. Pre-experiment testing confirmed that none had any inherent predisposition to elevated levels of anxiety.

The participants were randomly divided into three groups, which were balanced in terms of their demographics. Then one at a time they entered a room at the academy and, at a distance of about 16 feet, confronted a firearms instructor who was suited up in protective gear.

Each officer first shot at him a total of 16 times from various positions, aiming for marked areas on each leg and on his chest. They fired a Walther P5 9mm semiauto identical to their duty weapon except that it had been modified to shoot Simunition marking ammunition.

For this part of the experiment, the “suspect” had an “imitation handgun” with no trigger, which could not actually fire, “making performance in this condition a relatively harmless experience” (“low threat”) for the volunteers.

After that shooting bloc, there was a rest period during which two of the groups went through a mental imagery exercise while the third (control) group was instructed to listen “carefully” to unrelated news reports. All participants were reminded that they would be in another shooting confrontation shortly, this one under “high-threat conditions.”

IMAGERY “INTERVENTION”

The imagery groups, seated comfortably in a quiet room with their eyes closed, were instructed on iPods to imagine their performance in the upcoming encounter. However, the scripts that guided these two groups were somewhat different.

The script for one group (designated as EI, for “execution imagery”) concentrated only on guiding the officers “through the shooting exercise…pointing them specifically to successful shot execution.” For example:

“…You see his clothing and the white targets attached to it. You look at his arms and see that he points the gun at you. You also aim your weapon, you focus on his left leg, you shoot and it’s a hit. You feel the recoil of your weapon in your hand. You aim at his right leg and hit again. Then you look at the target on his chest, and you fire twice; both hits!…”

Officers in the second group (EEI: “execution-emotion imagery”), were guided through the same shooting exercise, but that script also included “the threat of being hit and effectively dealing with the stress and anxiety that this typically evokes,” so that the researchers could judge whether injecting emotion and sensory perception into the imagery might affect the outcome. Here, the narration included:

“…You see that he aims the Simunition weapon at you. You know he can hit you, so you feel the nerves rush through your body. You try to remain calm and aim at his left leg. BAM! He fires and you feel the pain in your leg. You…recover, concentrate on his left leg, shoot and hit. You aim at his right leg and hit again. Then you look at the target on his chest, and you fire twice; both hits!!…”

Each script, about three minutes apiece, was repeated twice, with a minute’s pause in between.

When the scripts, the newscast, and the rest period were over, the officers once again came face to face with the suspect–only this time, he was armed with a pistol that he used to fire Simunition rounds back at the volunteers. “Being hit with these cartridges produces a sensation of pain, the threat of which was known to cause an increase” in the participants’ anxiety, Colin explains.

RESULTS

Through various testing mechanisms, the researchers were able to confirm that the average anxiety level, heart rate, and mental effort expended were significantly and uniformly higher among all the groups during the “high-threat” portion of the experiment.

Where the groups differed significantly was in shot placement. During the first (low-threat) shooting exercise, all three groups scored about the same, with an accuracy rate of about 40%. But in the high-threat exercise, the control group’s performance deteriorated markedly, dropping to nearly 30% accuracy on average.

Both imagery groups, on the other hand, “were able to maintain their shot accuracy” level during the stress of the high-threat exercise. In fact, the researchers found, “they even showed a slight but non-significant increase in their accuracy.”

This superior performance “was not accompanied by lower levels of anxiety,” the team reports. “[R]ather than reducing anxiety, the imagery interventions…helped participants to maintain shot accuracy despite higher levels of anxiety” (italics added).

Interestingly, the EEI group who had received the emotion-infused imagery, “did not significantly outperform the EI group…. On the contrary, the EI group performed slightly (but non-significantly) better than the EEI group…,” leading the research team to conclude that “focusing on successful shot execution is pivotal…. Although it does not harm performance, adding emotional statements does not have additional value.”

RECOMMENDATIONS

The researchers note that the imagery “interventions” in this study “were implemented on a single day and lasted only 7 minutes.” The fact that even this minimal exposure to mental imagery can “reduce negative effects of anxiety” holds “important practical implications” for more extensive use in police training and practice.

“[P]olice trainers may want to incorporate imagery interventions into their shooting practices to help officers get more” out of their training, Colin writes. “Imagery may help new and inexperienced officers to achieve a higher level of performance more quickly [and] officers who imagine their shooting performance may learn to maintain a more goal-directed focus of attention…when circumstances are stressful….”

On top of regular practice, officers with proper training “may use mental imagery whenever they have a spare moment,” and even employ it as they rehearse various what-if scenarios en route to potentially dangerous calls.

The researchers acknowledge that their experiments were limited in scope. Still, they consider their findings “promising” and hope that they will stimulate further study of this potentially powerful and life-saving training aid.

In their study and its bibliography, the authors reference Force Science research conducted in Northern Ireland by Dr. Bill Lewinski and Dr. Joan Vickers, which compared the performances of novice and elite shooters.

Lewinski told Force Science News: “Our research showed that really great shooters have the ability to focus their attention with laser precision on what needs to be done to stop a threat. Pain, fear, and anxiety are overcome by this intensity of focus.

“Usually this ability is developed through extensive practice, but the Netherlands study suggests that imagery, conducted properly, could have a positive effect in aiding this attentional focus, saving training cost and time while improving performance.”

Our thanks to Chris Lawrence, faculty member for the Force Science Analysis certification course, for alerting us to this study. For a detailed description of the essential elements of an effective mental imagery exercise, the researchers recommend “The PETTLEP Approach to Motor Imagery,” which can be accessed without charge by clicking here.

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