How Are 5%ers Created? By “Effortful Study,” New Report Says

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The cerebral game of chess would seem to be several light years removed from the rough-and-tumble world of the street cop. But a new report on the mental processes of chess players suggests that law officers and trainers have a lot to learn from the means by which amateurs become masters of the checkered board.

The same principles that enable a chess player to develop championship expertise can help a conscientious officer become what’s called a “5%er”–an exceptional performer–in the policing profession, says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

“A highly skilled chess player has total control over the game,” Lewinski observes. “He can see ahead to anticipate what’s going to happen, he knows the right alternatives to choose from many options, he acts with speed and confidence, and he beats the competition in a confrontation.

“Those same qualities describe highly skilled officers, and the officers acquire those qualities the same way master chess players do, through an approach called ‘effortful study’–ideally, with the help and support of trainers who also understand the essential principles of learning that are involved.”

Lewinski’s comments come in reaction to an intriguing report called “The Expert Mind,” by Philip E. Ross, appearing in the current [8/06] issue of Scientific American magazine. In the 7-pg. article, Ross, a contributing editor at the magazine, details how “[s]tudies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other fields as well.”

You’ll find the full article here:


Reviewing a century of psychological research regarding chess players, Ross identifies essential characteristics of top players that, as it turns out, have parallels among outstanding police officers.

“Of course,” Lewinski points out, “life on the street is a lot more varied, unpredictable and dangerous than sitting at a chess board. But the way skills are acquired and the thinking processes involved in being exceptionally successful in both activities have a lot in common.”

Master chess players, for example, make their decisions with far less analysis than weaker players. “When confronted with a difficult position, a weaker player may calculate for half an hour, often looking many moves ahead, yet miss the right continuation, whereas a grandmaster sees the move immediately, without consciously analyzing anything at all,” Ross notes. In “the first few seconds of thought,” a master can size up the position of pieces on the board and see where the game is headed.
To the extent that a master does analyze a situation, he does “not examine more possibilities, only better ones,” Ross explains, and then more often than not adeptly chooses the best move “in a flash.”

Lewinski cites examples of this quality at work in law enforcement:

  • A rookie patrol officer and a highly skilled drug interdiction officer independently approach a vehicle on a traffic stop. The officer with seasoned criminal patrol skills will likely pick up immediately on cues of a drug transport through items that are visible in the car, the way the driver answers certain calculated questions, and the body language he exhibits. However, the rookie (or an unmotivated officer, for that matter) might see nothing beyond the initial traffic violation or if he does notice telltale clues may need to spend considerable time assessing what they might mean before reaching a conclusion.
  • A highly skilled officer approaching a group of subjects on a street corner might readily notice furtive movements indicating that an attack is brewing, whereas a less seasoned officer might not quickly grasp the implications of subtle early warning cues (and end up getting injured or killed by a surprise assault).
  • In a confrontation with a suspect who’s resisting arrest, an officer with less experience and training may cast about desperately along the force continuum, trying to find something that brings compliance. An officer who’s highly experienced and trained in dealing with resistant subjects will quickly read what he’s up against and promptly and confidently select the level of force necessary to swiftly control the situation.

In chess (and analogously in policing) this kind of instant recognition is possible because, through experience and study, a master player has accumulated a vast storehouse of knowledge about chess games and chess positions. During a game, he can quickly tap into this “well-organized system of connections” and “manipulate” it to meet the challenge at hand.

Indeed, measurements of brain activity have confirmed that while novices are analyzing and trying to reason out what moves to make, experts are retrieving information from their long-term memory about “positions and associated strategies” and using that to address the problem. “This finely tuned long-term memory appears to be crucial to expertise,” Ross states.

And it’s not a matter of experts having a superior memory per se, but rather a memory that retains professional information differently.

Again comparable to certain law enforcement situations, the memory of chess masters is specifically “tuned to typical game positions,” Ross points out. In a revealing experiment, “players at various skill levels were shown positions on a board from actual games and positions obtained by randomly shuffling pieces. After observing the positions briefly, the players were asked to reconstruct them from memory.”

The masters and grandmasters were “only marginally better at remembering the random positions” but they were “significantly better than weaker players at recalling the game positions.

“Beginners could not recall more than a very few details” of an actual game position, Ross writes, even after having examined the board for 30 seconds, “whereas grandmasters could usually get it perfectly, even if they had perused it for only a few seconds.” Also grandmasters were significantly better at recalling “all the moves in a game” they had played.

“This difference tracks a particular form of memory, specific to the kind of chess positions that commonly occur in play. The specific memory must be the result of training, because grandmasters do no better than others in general tests of memory,” including the random-placement tests Ross describes.

Here Lewinski sees a direct link to research recently conducted by FSRC in England regarding police driving.

[See Force Science News transmission sent 7/21/06, found by clicking here]

As we reported, Dr. Jonathan Page, the FSRC Technical Advisory Board member conducting the research, discovered that officers trained as highly skilled pursuit drivers were able to recall remarkably greater detail about what they had seen after watching videotaped pursuits than were untrained drivers. However, on memory tests not related to pursuits the trained and untrained subjects scored about the same.

“Even among the trained police drivers,” Page told Force Science News, “the more training and experience they had the more they were able to recall about pursuits they watched on videotape. It’s a steadily increasing continuum–some training helps recall but even more training produces greater results.” The same incrementally increasing relationship between skill and recall is charted in the Scientific American report for chess players.

Page suggests: “When you train more under actual field conditions, you develop interpretations and expectations of how things will be. You begin to grasp contextual patterns rather than individual bits of information that have no particular meaning. In a way, you see a story that makes sense and is more readily remembered.

“This distinguishes the expert from the novice, who may struggle to decode each individual element of a scene before him and may simply be overwhelmed with a seemingly unrelated mountain of information.”

In his report, Ross asks: “[H]ow do the experts in various subjects acquire their extraordinary skills? How much can be credited to innate talent and how much to intensive training?” And then he provides answers that carry important implications for every officer and LE instructor, Lewinski says.

“The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build” the expert mind, either in the realm of chess or in another discipline, Ross states. In the process, “motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability…. The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates” that professionals with outstanding skills, in short, “are made, not born.”

Research indicates that the key “is not experience per se but ‘effortful study,’” according to Ross. Such study involves learning and practice that entail “continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence.” In other words, Lewinski explains, as you gain in ability, “the bar is constantly moved higher so that your skill level must keep stretching and improving to reach it.”

It’s possible, Ross says, for people to “spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level.” Yet a student who trains properly “can overtake them in a relatively short time” and keep on improving. Interestingly, the quantity of time spent playing chess, even in competitive tournaments, “appears to contribute less” than effortful study to a person’s progress. “The main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study,” Ross says. (Similarly, Lewinski points out, that can be a major value of debriefing after a policing confrontation.)

At first, everybody involved in something new generally engages in effortful study, “which is why beginners so often improve rapidly” in a given undertaking, Ross notes. “But having reached an acceptable performance most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement.”

In contrast, those who achieve exceptional skill “keep the lid of their mind’s box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields,” Ross says.

Each accomplishment strengthens motivation. Thus, “success builds on success” for the outstanding performer.

Lewinski further frames these findings in a law enforcement context. “In law enforcement, we typically train to competency, not to proficiency,” he says. “In effect, competency means that someone determines on a basis not related to science that if you pass a certain test you are skillful enough to carry a gun and make deadly force decisions, for example. Proficiency requires the application of effective techniques to a variety of relevant situations with a high degree of skill and accuracy of judgment.

“When you are proficient you may not technically be an expert equivalent to the chess grandmasters but you are very, very good at what you do. You’re the best that you can be. And the method by which you attain that skill level is the same method the expert uses–practicing to the end of your limits and then, with correction and motivation, practicing to the end of your new limits, over and over again.”

So-called 5%er officers, the highly motivated individuals who become expert in police practices, Lewinski believes, “could be made less rare by changes in training. Too many trainers see their job as merely to teach a technical skill. The true challenge is to inspire officers to learn the skill, practice it, and pursue it with vigor and enthusiasm.

“We need to establish high standards that challenge officers to grow beyond a minimum level of competence, to be enthusiastic about getting better at what they do. How likely is that in departments that require an officer merely to shoot a thousand rounds in basic firearms ‘training’ and then to ‘qualify’ 3 or 4 times a year–period?

“In that environment, there’s no real training, no improvement, no one challenging you but yourself. If you try to improve on your own, you may run into barriers: you can only go to the range if a supervisor is there, but the supervisor is always too busy, or you have to pay for any extra ammunition you use.

“Instead of departmental policies and priorities that encourage mediocrity, we need a training philosophy that encourages, nurtures and guides the development of expertise. It’s what the community expects and deserves.”

If you have the burning drive of a 5%er, determined to maximize your skills regardless of obstacles, understand that “in the early stages, effortful study is very difficult,” Lewinski says. “Pushing your limits inevitably involves a lot of failure. When you fail, you need to back off a bit, learn to correct your weaknesses, and build your way back up.

“To get really, really good takes time. Be patient with yourself, because you need that time for your training and experience to evolve into mastery.”

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