Cell Phone Studies Shed Light on How Officers’ Memories Work in Shootings

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Are there similarities between a driver on a cell phone and an officer in a shooting?

You bet! claims Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. And 2 independent studies offer fresh insights into the parallels, which may help officers defend themselves in controversial force encounters.

Lewinski has long maintained that in any life-threatening confrontation an officer’s perceptions and memories are influenced more by what his attention is focused on during the conflict than by what actually passes before his eyes. Investigators, review boards, prosecutors and others assessing the officer’s decision making and later recollections need to take this into account, Lewinski insists, rather than expect infallible judgment and comprehensive recall and then suspect criminal culpability when shortcomings emerge.

Research findings reported recently at a meeting of the American Psychological Assn. in New Orleans support this position. “The fact that the studies involve drivers using cell phones is not what’s important here,” Lewinski stresses. “What matters most are the principles involved, and those can reasonably be applied to officers in shooting situations.”

One study involves a series of experiments conducted by psychologist David Strayer and others at the University of Utah, who sought to learn more about the relationship between cell phone conversations and the phenomenon called “inattention blindness”–not seeing things you look at because your brain is more intensely focused on something else.

Strayer and teammates monitored male and females subjects in a sophisticated driving simulator and recorded how their performance while engaged in conversation on a cell phone compared to their “driving” without any cell-phone distraction.

First let’s look at the findings, then we’ll relate them to a shooting situation.

Among other things, Strayer’s research confirms:
  • Drivers are much more likely to rear-end the car in front of them when talking or listening on a cell phone in heavy-traffic situations. This is because their perception of and reaction to vehicles braking in front of them are slowed when they’re on the phone. Drivers in the study tended “sluggishly” to hit the brakes later and, if a collision was avoided, to hold the brake pedal longer than they did when not occupied with a cell conversation. Indeed, a twenty-something’s reactions when engaged with the phone equated to what would normally be expected of a 70 year old.
  • Cell phone use significantly impairs memory. As the subjects “drove,” digital billboards appeared beside the simulated roadway. In a surprise quiz afterwards, drivers were able to recall more thoroughly and accurately those signs they had passed while they were not having a phone conversation. As the researchers put it, cell phone chatting induced “failures of visual attention”–that is, inattention blindness–to objects encountered in the driving scene.
  • This is true not only for what passed in the subjects’ peripheral vision. Cell phone conversations “reduce attention to objects even when drivers look directly at them,” the researchers found. Billboards seen when the subjects were engaged in phone conversation were less than half as likely to be remembered than those that appeared when the drivers were not on the phone.

Because the cell phone involved in the Strayer experiments was a hands-free model, the documented interference with perception and memory could not have been caused by manual manipulation of the phone itself.

Instead, the researchers concluded, the significant “disruptive effects of cell phone conversations…are due…to the diversion of attention from driving to the phone.” That is, the brain makes a shift away from an external, visual focus related to driving to an internal cognitive concentration required for the phone conversation, with the result that much of what was “seen” did not actually register.

The brain has a limited capacity for attention, Strayer explained, so whatever is siphoned off by the cell phone is subtracted from attention to driving. He says that being engaged on the phone cuts in half a driver’s measurable brain activity in a key area of the brain needed for tracking traffic conditions.

While on a cell phone, drivers can be “as blind to a child running across the street as to a Dumpster beside the road,” Strayer says.

If a cell phone conversation is distracting enough to induce significant inattention-blindness, Lewinski observes, “imagine the distraction potential of suddenly being confronted with a situation in which your life is in jeopardy, as an officer in a shooting would be. If you are in that kind of emotionally driven scenario, focused on the threat and on saving your life, you will necessarily have a diminished capacity to take in and remember other details about the scene.”

Psychologist Paul Atchley of the University of Kansas, coauthor of the second study, agrees.

Atchley’s team is conducting a series of experiments designed to gauge how the emotional content of cell phone messages impacts on attention. In an early phase of this research, reported in New Orleans, subjects heard and responded to sets of words with positive connotations (“joy,” for example) as well as those with negative associations (“cancer” and “terrorist,” for instance).

Both word-sets caused distraction and a decrease in attention, Atchley told Force Science News, but a decidedly greater impact was caused by the negative words. He plans next to test the effect of full emotion-laden conversations. But his findings to date suggest that “threatening associations” take the most pronounced toll on perception and memory.

“If mere exposure to negative words produce this effect,” Atchley says, “without question law enforcement officers in a life-threatening situation will find their ability to attend to peripheral information to be significantly reduced.

“Officers have a tough situation in trying to grasp and retain everything that is happening” in a shooting situation because “when something doesn’t grab your attention you won’t have a memory for it. It simply is not in your brain at all.

“People think that when you have your eyes open, you see the whole world around you. But in fact the brain has the capacity to process only a limited amount of information from the environment.” In stress situations, the “window of attention” may be only about the size of your fist, or less.

Lewinski cites a case he was involved in as an expert witness in which an officer was struggling on the ground to control the hand of an offender that was digging into his waistband–going for a gun, in the officer’s snap judgment. A videotape of the incident revealed later that the officer’s partner at that moment seemed to be beating the suspect with a flashlight.

The first officer claimed he was unaware of this, and was fired for “lying.” From interviewing the officer, Lewinski contends that in reality he experienced inattention-blindness and legitimately could not report on his partner’s actions because he was so intensely riveted on controlling the perceived threat to his own life that his brain screened out whatever else was occurring.

“This issue of what officers are able to report on and testify to keeps surfacing over and over,” Lewinski says. “People are astounded by what officers insist they can’t recall.

“Investigators need to do everything they can to properly mine an officer’s memory after a high-intensity encounter. But they also need to realize that human memory has its shortcomings. It is unconscionable to hold officers accountable without taking science into consideration.

“Yet the disturbing truth is that cops are being charged, sued and fired because they can’t ‘see’ things their attention is not focused on. In other words, because they can’t do the impossible.”

The studies by Strayer and Atchley, he hopes, will help skeptics see the light.

[For more information on the cell phone experiments, consult the paper “Cell Phone-Induced Failures of Visual Attention During Simulated Driving” by David Strayer, Frank Drews and William Johnston, available at:


Atchley’s study has not yet been published. ]

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