How two modes of decision-making influence deadly force encounters

Neuroscientist explains how brain anatomy and physiology influence decision-making in the stressful situations police officers regularly face


Improving decision-making in high-stress environments, such as deadly force encounters, starts with understanding how neuroscience directs decision-making.  

During a Police1 learning event, Melis Yilmaz Balban, Ph.D., a Harvard-trained neuroscientist with expertise in the neurobiology of the fight or flight system, detailed the two modes of decision-making: the habitual mode and the situational mode.  

The habitual mode or the emotional brain is the limbic portion of the brain that makes quick fight or flight decisions when we are under stress.

“This mode (of decision making) biases our decisions toward ending the conflict rather than resolving it,” Balban said.   

The situational mode or the cognitive brain serves a different purpose such as making important decisions that involve ambiguity, strategic thinking and using memory. 

“At any decision point, only one of these modes is dominant,” Balban said. “You can’t have both of them acting at the same time.” 

David Blake, Ph.D., a retired California peace officer and court-certified expert on human factors psychology and police practices/use of force, provided real-world context to the neuroscience presented by Balban.  

“The limbic system tends to take control when we are in an anxious state. Subsequently, we may lose our ability to think analytically,” Blake said.  

Blake explained that anxiety, caused by stressful situations, has been correlated in simulation research with mistake-of-fact shootings, decreased firearms accuracy, perceptual distortions and motor skill deficits.  

“Since the brain always operates based on the perceived threat, we can modulate it and our behavioral responses to threats,” Balban said. Unfortunately, as Balban explains in this short video, law enforcement officers don’t have the option to freeze or flee. Instead, the job requires LEOs to have situational awareness, use conflict resolution skills and de-escalate potentially violent suspects.  

To learn more about the physiology of the stress response, how to modulate the perception of threats with high-fidelity simulation training, and how to make better decisions in the situational mode in high-stress environments, like the encounters police officers regularly face, watch the full conversation between Balban and Blake

Read more: Balban and Blake answer key questions on decision making from attendees of their Police1 learning event 

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