Brain science not bias training is key to changing performance under stress

What do cops and elite athletes have in common? The need to control their minds to perform under stress.


There’s been a big push for implicit bias training for police. I’d like to see a similar push for it for prosecutors and judges. When I was a prosecutor, I participated in what I initially thought was merely a sentencing exercise. It described different offenses and their perpetrators and had the reader fashion a sentence. After that, it asked what race, gender and age the reader had pictured the offenders. My stereotyped imaginings shamed me. It was a memorable lesson in my implicit biases. 

I think implicit bias training can change minds that are open. It’s not clear if it changes behavior. A study at the New York Police Department in which researchers tracked the effects of mandatory implicit bias training in 2018 suggests it may not.

In a 2020 interview, social psychologist Anthony Greenwald, who developed the implicit association test a quarter of a century ago, said,

I’m at the moment very skeptical about most of what’s offered under the label of implicit bias training because the methods being used have not been tested scientifically to indicate that they are effective. And they’re using it without trying to assess whether the training they do is achieving the desired results.

I see most implicit bias training as window dressing that looks good both internally to an organization and externally, as if you’re concerned and trying to do something. But it can be deployed without actually achieving anything, which makes it in fact counterproductive. After 10 years of doing this stuff and nobody reporting data, I think the logical conclusion is that if it was working, we would have heard about it.”

Joshua Correll, a university professor who has been studying implicit bias for more than 20 years agrees,

We don’t have any evidence that anti-bias trainings work (in general,) and we know even less about whether they work for police officers.”

And a program might look from the outside like it was causing changes in officer behavior – but only in situations where they have time to think their actions through.

“That’s cool,” Correll said. “But when someone jumps out from behind the bushes and pulls something from his waistband, that’s not the way the brain is working.”

Correll is correct. That’s why implicit bias training won’t work to improve decision-making in high-stress use of force incidents. Implicit or unconscious bias, according to brain science, is in the amygdala – the part of the brain involved in our emotions and motivations related to survival, such as fear, anger and pleasure, and our autonomic responses to those emotions.

Autonomic means involuntary, like “fight or flight” reflexes. The only way to change officers’ responses under extreme stress is to educate them on brain science regarding these reflexes and train them to control their minds.

Brain training that can change UOF performance

“Neuroscience can revolutionize modern law enforcement training,” urges Officer Mike Malpass in the subtitle of his book "Taming the Serpent." As he explains, “Within our brains is a dual processing system: the emotional and the cognitive.” Understanding how each of these work under stress and how officers can train to harness the power of both in use of force decision-making is what his book lays out.

I spoke to Mike by phone for a couple of hours. His passion and optimism for the future of policing based on neuroscience are infectious. His intelligence and articulateness are persuasive.

Mike first became interested in harnessing the power of the brain for peak performance under pressure as a competitive fighter. He is a five-time national kickboxing champion. He studied how elite athletes maximize peak performance under stress and practiced it in his own competition.

In law enforcement for over 24 years as a beat cop, tactical training and SWAT officer, Mike saw how the same brain science could apply to use of force decision-making and execution. He developed police training based on neuroscience.

Mike is a leader in a growing neuroscience-based movement for attaining peak physical performance and decision-making under stress – in sports, the military and law enforcement. He is conversant with the U.S. military’s testing of brain stimulation and mindfulness exercises to sharpen mental skills and the frontier science of “flow,” an optimal state of consciousness in which we perform and feel our best, as documented by Steven Kotler’s book "The Rise of Superman" – about elite athletes.

In "Taming the Serpent," Mike makes the brain science understandable for recruits and officers, applies it to use of force decision-making and tactics and provides a model for law enforcement training based on the science.

Mike is not alone. Scientific American is writing about how neuroscience-based training for cops’ brains could reduce suspect shootings. Former Seattle Police Chief Norman Stamper writes about neuroscience and police training in his book "To Protect and Serve – How to Fix America’s Police."

In Chief Stamper’s chapter “A Scared Cop is a Dangerous Cop,” he observes the profession doesn’t train cops to control their fear but rather the opposite. It teaches hypervigilance, that every encounter could be deadly. Recruits and officers are shown countless videos of officers being shot, bludgeoned, stabbed and run over. Under hypervigilance, he notes, a reach for a wallet can equal a reach for a weapon.  

Chief Stamper believes officers must be taught the dangers of the job, but that instruction needs to be placed in the context of facts and science:

  • Facts: Officers are assaulted in .09 percent of all interactions, injured in .02 percent and killed in .00008 percent.
  • Science: Officers need to be trained on how to control their fear and anger to best harness the emotional and cognitive systems of the brain.

Experts in the neuroscience of stress as it affects performance contend law enforcement’s traditional skill and scenario training is deficient if not combined with training on how the brain responds to stress and how to control that response. 

To boldly go

Jonathan Wender, a university sociologist, former police officer, and co-founder of Polis Solutions summed up for Scientific American one reform needed in policing,

Put plainly, when cops mess up, the explanations offered tend to be ethical and political, when the more empirically solid explanations are much simpler than that – they are basic failures of human performance under stress. We need evidence-based, human performance training that starts in the academy and continues across every career phase, so when you’re tired, scared or stressed, you still do the right thing.”

Read an excerpt from Taming the Serpent: How Neuroscience Can Revolutionize Modern Law Enforcement Training

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