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Can stress and fatigue affect officer bias and decision-making?

The media and pundits say that race affects an officer’s decision to shoot and with some recent police shootings, anecdotal evidence points in that direction as well — but what does science say?

Lab studies have shown that police officers do not consider race in their decision to shoot — officers instead focus on identifying a weapon. That probably doesn’t surprise you if you are a law enforcement officer, but it would likely be surprising to the general public. Let’s break down some interesting facts about the research in this area.

Joshua Correll, Ashby Plant, and other psychology and police researchers have consistently shown that in laboratory studies, police officers decide to shoot based on the identification of a weapon, not on race. However, that is not the case when people outside of law enforcement participate in those same laboratory studies. College students and community members consistently show racial biases. Even more interesting, minorities also show racial biases — even towards their own ethnic group. They do so because of the implicit biases in our culture. Implicit bias leads to stereotypes that influence our behaviors.

Since police officers are people too, researchers expected them to respond like the general public in “decision to shoot” tasks. In research studies [see below for references], officers did commit some mistake-of-fact shootings — although significantly less than community members — but they were just as likely to mistakenly identify a weapon in the hands of a white subject as they were in the hands of a black subject. That was not the case for college students and community members — they mistakenly identified a weapon in the hands of a black versus a white subject significantly more. The fact that police officers did not show the same racial biases as community members was attributed to training and job experience.

Scientific Study of Race, Gender, and Age
My research colleagues and I at World is Round LLC have found similar results in the laboratory using gender instead of race: college students were significantly more likely to misidentify a non-weapon as a weapon when the object was paired with a male face versus a female face; police officers did not show this same gender bias.

I was recently invited to attend a live-fire training with a sheriff’s department, and saw something similar on the range. Unbeknownst to the deputies at the training event, the trainers had replaced the standard posters of bad guys with posters of young kids and teenagers holding other kids hostage — as one may expect in a school shooting situation.

When the deputies rounded the plywood barrier and faced the posters, they “eliminated” the threats without hesitation. I asked several of the deputies if it was tough to shoot a minor. Every deputy gave the same basic answer, “I didn’t look at the age of the subject, I just saw the weapons and hostages and proceeded as trained.”

The overwhelming evidence from more than a decade of research shows that in the laboratory, police officers do not make their decision to shoot based on race, or as more recent evidence shows, on gender or age either. Cognitive control allows them to instead consciously focus on identifying and responding to a weapon.

Racial Bias in the Real World
That was the good news, but that isn’t the end of the story. Further research has shown that fatigue and sudden stress arousal — from threat-of-harm or threat-of-life, for example — may reverse the differences found in the above-mentioned laboratory research. Police officers that were sleep-deprived as part of a research study did show signs of racial bias in their decisions to shoot and performed similar to community members.

The same was true for officers under stress arousal and those with high cognitive loads (e.g., from multitasking). These situations made it difficult for officers to override their implicit biases and consciously direct their focus to identify a weapon. Fatigue and stress took away cognitive control of their attention and actions.

Findings such as these suggest that when officers are “on their game,” their decisions to shoot are not racially biased. However, if the officer starts to lose cognitive control, then biases may play a part in an officer’s decision to shoot. Scientific research has shown that cognitive control is the key.

Training to Maintain Cognitive Control
Most —if not all — officer-involved shootings occur under some type of stress arousal or threat of harm. In other words, real life is different from laboratory life. Stress arousal can rob an officer of cognitive control.

But there is good news. Research has also shown that there are effective ways to deal with stress and threat in the real world while maintaining cognitive control. Live-action training scenarios — or even high intensity video training that creates high levels of arousal — will help officers learn to maintain cognitive control and focus on important information during high-stake situations. Our research over the past several years specifically has shown the importance of mental mindset training for maintaining cognitive control.

I refer to it as Cognitive Command (or C2), and research into how C2 impacts use of force and decisions to shoot is overwhelmingly positive.

Training has effectively removed bias in the laboratory, but stress from threat or danger reverses these gains. Training must go deeper. We must continue to find ways to better prepare officers for what they may face on the street. Because as current scientific research shows, officers who are in cognitive control do base their decisions to shoot on identifying a weapon, not on racial biases.

Some of the information in this article was gleaned from the research of the following four articles:

Correll J, Hudson SM, Guillermo S, & Ma DS (2014). The police officer’s dilemma: A decade of research on racial bias in the decision to shoot. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8(5), 201-213.

Correll J, Park B, Judd C, Wittenbrink B, Sadler MS, & Keesee T (2007). Across the thin blue line: Police officers and racial bias in the decision to shoot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1006.

Plant EA, & Peruche BM (2005). The consequences of race for police officers’ responses to criminal suspects. Psychological Science, 16(3), 180-183.

Plant EA, Peruche BM, & Butz DA (2005). Eliminating automatic racial bias: Making race non-diagnostic for responses to criminal suspects. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(2), 141-156.

Jonathan Page is a professor, cognitive neuroscientist and co-founder of the World is Round, LLC. His extensive research on physiological responses to stress and how stress influences behavior led him to pursue new and more effective ways to deal with stress and stressful situations. Jon co-authored a training curriculum that is currently being used in law enforcement academies in the U.S. He also authored the book NeuroCop and has published his research in several professional journals.