New research on vision and emotional regulation for effective performance

Intentionally driving the visual processes – choosing what to look at and when – could benefit information processing and decision-making for police officers


Originally published on the Force Science Institute website. Republished here with permission.

By Dr. William Lewinski

Recent developments in cognitive, perceptual and performance psychology may provide insights into how officers can improve decision-making, performance, and emotional effectiveness during critical incidents.

A robust body of vision-related research has continued to affirm its impact on performance.
A robust body of vision-related research has continued to affirm its impact on performance. (Getty Images)

In 2010 Force Science presented its findings from eye scan research conducted with Dr. Joan Vickers. [1] In our research, we observed that, when compared to novice shooters, the experts perceived critical cues faster and more accurately during a scenario-based shooting event. Unlike the novice shooters, the experts consistently demonstrated a controlled focus, which allowed them to predict what, where, when, and how the incident would unfold with a high degree of certainty.

As early as the first seven seconds of the incident, the expert’s eye scan indicated they were consciously looking for and identifying critical cues missed by the novice. This ability to effectively read the environment proved to be a crucial element of excellent performance.

A robust body of vision-related research has continued to affirm its impact on performance. This research has shown that intentionally driving the visual processes (i.e., choosing what to look at and when) could benefit information processing, improve the detection of critical information, and simultaneously facilitate the emotional regulation necessary for high-performance.

This article will consider how officers can benefit from “focused perception” research to increase available information and improve emotional regulation for better decision-making and performance during critical incidents.

Beyond Fight, Flight, Freeze

Walter Cannon usefully categorized survival emotions in animals as fight, flight, or freeze. But the vast diversity and usefulness of human emotions are not neatly captured within these categories, and this is especially true when the emotions are intentionally or purposefully driven. 

Emotions not only make our lives richer but can be purposefully used and regulated (up and down) for effective performance. Neurophysiological studies affirm the benefits of “purposely driving” human emotions. For example, athletes have learned various techniques to relax before an event, including positive visualization, verbalization and breathing. They have learned how to “psych up” before competitions that require explosive action. And, they have learned to regulate and focus their emotional intensity for precision performance during time-compressed comeback attempts. The heightened and often enjoyable emotional experiences of challenging competitions are difficult to fit into one of Cannon’s categories.

Like competitive athletes, a police officer’s performance can benefit from the effective use and regulation of emotional intensity. I would pause to note that regulating emotional intensity can be distinct from regulating heart rate.  Although heart rate and performance can be related, excellent performance and decision-making can occur at high pulse rates. Consider that a motocross rider can race with a pulse over 180 beats per minute (bpm). A supercross rider might run an entire race at over 190 bpm, and a Formula One driver can run a two-hour race with a pulse between 160-180 bpm, with peaks up to 220 bpm. The negative influence intuitively expected from these high pulse rates can be mitigated by focused perception and the resulting cognitive regulation of emotional and physiological arousal.

Focused Perception and Police Performance

A SWAT officer carrying a 40-pound load can hit a pulse of 180 bpm by simply running up two flights of stairs on their way to an urgent incident. Similarly, the first officer through the door during a high-risk warrant service will likely be operating with a 160-180 bpm pulse.

After consulting with over 3,000 officers who have made deadly-force decisions (including some of the most elite tactical police athletes), it is clear that intense visual and attentional focus also played a significant role in their successful performance. This observation is backed by research that identified advantages to remaining “externally and acutely visually focused.”

In a study of mixed martial artists, athletes were evaluated to determine which would result in hitting the bag harder: focusing on hitting a bag as hard as they could or focusing on the “process” of hitting the bag as hard as they could. The results were clear and robust. Athletes who had achieved “automaticity” (i.e., no longer consciously aware of “how” they were moving) and remained externally focused (i.e., just hit the bag) hit harder than those who focused their attention on the process of hitting.

The benefits of an external focus (particularly an acute visual focus of attention) are more easily realized when the skill is performed automatically and the athlete (or officer) maintains optimal emotional arousal. Consider firearms training. Range instructors may recall officers who have yet to develop their firearm failure drills to the level of automaticity. These shooters frequently let their focus fall off the threat as they look intently at their gun to execute an unsure and somewhat fumbling response.

Vision and Performance

Dr. Joan Vickers was the first to experimentally document one of the most significant components of elite performance. While studying Olympic-level biathlon athletes, Dr. Vickers observed that several performed exceptionally well under high physiological and psychological stress levels. Dr. Vickers observed that these experts held their visual focus longer before making their shots. Conversely, choking under pressure was associated with changes in visual attention and a fractured and disorganized gaze pattern. Dr. Vickers hypothesized that a relationship exists between visual and attentional focus, emotional regulation, and performance in high-stress situations. Visual dominance appeared to facilitate emotional effectiveness.

Your Brain at War

Neurophysiological research from various areas continues to affirm that directed attentional and visual focus facilitates emotional regulation, decision-making and performance in elite athletes.

Directed visual attention is controlled by the part of the brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex. This part of the brain directs the eyes to seek out the information that composes the what, where, when, and how of expertise. High-tech brain measurement of athletes performing at high exertion levels indicated a competition between the orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala (that part of the brain associated primarily with emotional responses).

The orbitofrontal cortex is activated as committed athletes rationalize pushing through pain. It drives their motivations and “will to accomplish the task.” The amygdala competes with the orbitofrontal cortex by encouraging athletes to stop whatever is causing their pain.

When the orbitofrontal cortex starts to shut down, the amygdala convinces the athlete to quit.

From Athletes to Officers

Athletes who perform well under stress have a well-practiced set of skills that allow them to perform automatically and focus on the desired outcome without getting distracted by the process.

Experience arms these athletes with a deep understanding of the game, allowing them to maintain an external focus of attention on the most relevant and critical cues for fast and accurate decision-making and performance. They use their visual system to focus their attention on critical tasks and goals while simultaneously regulating their emotional arousal during their performance.

Even more than athletes, officers must regulate their emotional response without interrupting their decision-making and performance. They must focus on objectives, visually search for critical cues or threats, and read the often fluid and dynamic environment. These tasks require directed attention and focused visual processes as the officer drives to perceive, evaluate, and effectively respond to the incident. 

The goal is to train officers to identify relevant tasks and then externally focus their vision and attentional resources on these tasks – and not on the distracting processes or internal messages of failure, defeat, or pain. Officers who can expertly “read the play” and then direct their attentional resources through what they choose to perceive visually (i.e., their visual process) can facilitate emotional regulation, expert decision-making and elite tactical performance. 

Reference

1. This police-related eye scan research was presented to an International Conference on Eye Scan Research at the University of Rome and published in the top-ranked journal, Psychological Science. 

NEXT: 'Lost in transition': How science can help inform evidence-based de-escalation practices

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