New Study: Many Officers “Blind” To Plain-View Threat

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

As a veteran officer approaching a traffic violator, would you notice a gun lying in plain sight on the dashboard of a vehicle you’ve detained for running a stop sign?

Before too quickly thinking “of course,” consider the findings of a new study of the phenomenon known as “inattentional blindness.” That term refers to the common human failure to notice unexpected objects or occurrences clearly within your field of view while your attention is focused on something else.

This cognitive lapse, which is studied in the certification course on Force Science Analysis in the context of officer-involved shootings, has been thoroughly documented in low-stress psychology lab experiments involving computer images and video recordings.

Now one of the leading researchers in this field, Dr. Daniel Simons of the psychology department at the University of Illinois, reports fresh findings that apply directly to LEOs in potentially life-threatening, real-world situations.

His results raise a vital question: What can officers and trainers do to enhance observational skills when police lives may be on the line?


Over a period of three years, Simons and his study co-author, Dr. Michael Schlosser, ran 100 police recruits and 75 seasoned officers (mostly white males) through a single, realistic, live-action scenario at the Police Training Institute in Urbana-Champaign, IL. (Schlosser is the director of that state academy.)

One at a time, the participants were told to approach an SUV they had just “stopped” for running a stop sign and to interact as they would on the job with the lone occupant, the male driver. They were to “use their discretion to decide” whether to issue a ticket or give a warning, Simons writes.

In some randomly determined cases, the driver, an experienced role-player, was “polite and friendly,” admitting fault, apologizing, and “immediately and appropriately” complying with all requests and instructions. A roughly equal number of other times, the driver was still compliant but displayed an “aggressive” attitude—“verbally hostile, agitated, and overtly upset,” complaining about “unfair treatment” and being stopped “to fulfill a quota.”

In all cases, an Airsoft pistol was conspicuously positioned on the dashboard above the glove box, “fully visible to [each] participant through the driver’s window” throughout the contact.

After experiencing the scenario, the subjects were asked a series of questions, including whether they noticed “anything that might have been a danger to you” and whether they saw “any weapons” during the exercise.


“Overall,” Simons writes, “only 52.6% of participants noticed the gun even though it was fully visible.”

  • Of the recruits, who had received four to eight hours of hands on training in vehicle-stop tactics, only 42% saw the gun.
  • While “experienced officers were substantially more likely to notice” the weapon (66.7%), “1/3 of them missed the gun as well…and proceeded to cite the driver” without taking any protective action.
  • Among the veteran officers, who averaged about 12 years in law enforcement, “neither patrol experience nor age was meaningfully associated with noticing.”
  • “A slightly larger proportion of both trainees and experienced officers noticed the gun” when the driver was calm and compliant than when he was aggressive, but the difference was “not statistically significant.”
  • When participants did notice the gun, “they always called attention to it and took appropriate measures (ranging from discussing it with the driver to drawing their own weapon and instructing the driver to exit the vehicle.)” Among experienced officers, many of those who noticed the gun did so “early in the interaction, often before asking for the driver’s license and registration.”

In summary, Simons writes, this study, believed to be the first of its kind, “provides clear evidence that experts performing a naturalistic task in their domain of expertise can miss a potentially dangerous unexpected object that would have direct consequences for them and the way they perform their task.

“Moreover, this failure of awareness occurred for a group of participants (police officers) trained to look for and assess threats.”

The fact that the driver’s demeanor had little impact on whether the gun was noticed tends to dispute “the idea that people will be more likely to notice threatening unexpected objects in contexts that are more stressful or potentially more dangerous,” Simons points out.


Most participants who missed the gun expressed surprise or chagrin at their failure. But Simons explains that “people often fail to notice unexpected objects and events when they are focusing attention on something else.”

Typically, this “inattentional blindness” is confirmed in laboratory experiments in which the unnoticed objects are unimportant to the person being tested and unrelated to that person’s primary task focus.

But in this case, the subjects involved have training that emphasizes “vigilance for possible dangers and threats” in their environment, and the presence of a gun on a real vehicle stop “would have direct and immediate consequences for the officer(s). It is [highly] relevant to their task.”

Logically, “the potential threat should override inattentional blindness.” Indeed, the subjects “expected that they would automatically notice something salient and relevant.” But as the data shows, that proved to be far from a universal occurrence.

“Given that the participants came from a wide range of jurisdictions,…we would expect the pattern of results to hold for trainees and experienced officers from most jurisdictions in the USA,” Simons concludes.


Simons offers two suggestions for trainers:

1) Actively dispel the misconception that all relevant and important objects and behaviors in view at a given scene will automatically be observed, and

2) Highlight how the nature of an interaction, whether cordial or hostile, “does not strongly predict whether or not an officer will notice an unexpected threat.”

Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, which was not involved in Simons’ research, adds these comments:

“Dr. Simons is without question the master researcher in the field of inattentional blindness. His confirmation of this phenomenon in law enforcement is very significant for investigators and for countering police critics who claim that officers are simply lying when they insist they did not see some important elements of a controversial incident.”

As to how to avoid or minimize the risk of inattentional blindness during citizen contacts, Lewinski offers these suggestions:

  • When possible, carefully scan the area you’re approaching before you engage in dialog or action in the encounter. “Once you’re tied up in dialog, it’s very difficult to simultaneously be aware of items or furtive movement in the surrounding environment,” he explains. (This is consistent with Simons’ finding that veteran officers who spotted the gun on the dashboard usually did so early in their approach.)
  • Train your professional skills to the point that they tend to be automatic, not requiring conscious concentration. “If you have to think about how to perform the routine elements of what you’re doing, you have fewer cognitive resources to apply to awareness and assessment,” Lewinski says. (Simons alludes to this in his study, speculating that the relatively inexperienced and poor-scoring recruits may have been so focused on the mechanics of conducting a proper traffic stoop that their observational skills were unduly compromised.)

Lewinski points out that the Force Science Institute is currently researching how instructors can more quickly and effectively build automaticity in officers to enhance their safety on the street in the time typically allotted to training.

Simons’ study, titled “Inattentional blindness for a gun during a simulated police vehicle stop,” appears in the publication Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications. It can be accessed in full, free of charge by clicking here.

Dr. Simons can be reached at: dsimons@illinois.edu. He is co-author of an excellent book, The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, which includes discussions of inattentional blindness relevant to law enforcement.

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.