Force Science Presents to the IACP Police Psychological Service Section

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This Force Science News continues the summary of Dr. Bill Lewinski’s presentation to the Police Psychological Services Section at the 2023 International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in San Diego.

In Part 1 of this article, Accelerated Heart Rates and Elite Performance, we explored the myth that high arousal levels will always impair performance.  We explained a Force Science study in which officers seemed to use their intense visual focus to regulate their emotional response during advanced pursuit driving training.  We introduced Dr. Vickers‘ concept of the “quiet eye” and her thinking that a strong visual focus positively affected athletic proficiency and emotional arousal regulation.  We challenged the belief that negative police performance under high stress (e.g., lower perceptual, cognitive, and motor performance) could be predicted by simply noting the officer’s heart rate.  Instead, we provided examples of athletes performing with pulse rates up to and over 200 beats per minute.  We proposed that officers can learn to perform under high stress with enhanced practical skills training and emotional regulation—and that elevated arousal can facilitate and, at times, be necessary for expert performance.

Good Stress / Bad Stress

In this article, we note that in the 1970s, Dr. Hans Selye, the “father of stress” and a researcher at McGill University in Canada, introduced the concepts of distress and eustress.  Distress is the stress that negatively affects performance, and eustress is the stress that energizes and motivates for better performance.  Selye noted that a performer’s appraisal of the situation (“cognitive appraisal”) and their skill level made a difference in how a stressful situation affected them and how they resolved it.

Skiing is a useful example of how cognitive appraisal can impact an experience.  Although skiing can be perceived as dangerous, its popularity is evidence that many also perceive it as stimulating and challenging.  Professional downhill skiers, who appear to perceive their run as a challenge, can hit a pulse of 200 bpm while operating with tremendous tactical planning and sophisticated motor skills.

Similarly, in the police world, officers can work very effectively under high levels of stress.  In a study published in 2023 in the Journal of Motor Behavior, escalating arousal levels were tracked as officers engaged in a 15-minute-long scenario. 

After a briefing on the scenario, officers were equipped with training gear, a body camera, eye tracking cameras, and a heart monitor.  When these officers entered their police cars, they had an average pulse of 120 bpm.  As the scenario evolved, officers accelerated their responses, and pulse rates increased.  When the simulated event was reported as becoming more violent, officers were expected to activate their lights and sirens, increase speed, and navigate a challenging serpentine course.  Arriving at the scene, officers had pulse rates over 135 bpm.  These pulse rates increased to 145 bpm as officers left their police cars to assess the scene.  The training scenario escalated to a deadly force encounter, during which the average pulse rate was 165 bpm.  Sixty-eight percent of the officers ranged from 149 to 181 bpm when the deadly force decisions were made.  Most were not overwhelmed by perceptual distortions, nor were they in cognitive collapse at that high level of arousal.

Officers in our study responded as athletes might.  Those who judged their situation as within their capability and who had a sense of what, where, when, how, and from whom the threat would evolve had a high level of arousal and continued to exercise good tactical judgment.  They anchored their gaze on the primary assailant, which they identified early.  They rapidly scanned to other points of interest (persons or actions) to gather information and then rapidly returned to their visual anchor point on the primary targets.  Their perceptual and cognitive appraisal of themselves and the situation led to very effective tactical positioning so they could respond effectively even when the assailant in the scenario eventually assaulted them and others with a handgun.  These officers responded as if the situation was a challenge.

Some of the officers were ineffective.  Eighty percent of the ineffective group had no tactical training or military experience.  Their eye scan was fast and erratic, consistent with confusion, cognitive disorganization, and poor visual information processing.  They often focused on irrelevant or innocuous actions or persons.  They positioned themselves in tactically disadvantageous positions.  The implications of disorganized perceptual-cognitive malfunctioning in an actual incident would mean the officers would be ineffective in identifying and resolving the crisis, be poorly positioned to handle it tactically if it became dangerous, and be vulnerable to an assault.  It also means the officers’ perception of the incident would be vastly different than any video.  These officers’ behavior was consistent with their perception of the situation as a novel threat.  Their emotional arousal fueled motoric, cognitive, and perceptual disorganization and failure.

Officers are like good athletes.  When trained or experienced, their assessment of a situation and their confidence in managing it can significantly regulate and facilitate their arousal.  They have confidence in their competence.  They identify problems as challenges, not as unmanageable threats.  When they do this, they focus on identifying critical cues that point to problem identification and resolution.  This then influences how they view and use their emotional arousal.

Visual Focus

When we visually focus and seek critical environmental cues, we use the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.  Activation of this cortex, which directs visual search patterns, can play a pivotal role in mediating fear and judgment in clear and ambiguous situations.  It has a bidirectional connection to the emotional centers of the brain, so it is both influenced by and mediates (uses) arousal from the emotional centers of the brain.

Seeking critical cues is more than a helpful problem-solving process.  It can regulate stress in the middle of critical incidents.  The good athlete “gets up” for the game and uses their emotion for effective performance.  Similarly, a good officer who actively and visually seeks information can regulate and use their emotional arousal.  It can add to their confidence and improve their performance.  

Threat or Challenge

The cognitive appraisal of threat or challenge also creates profoundly different physiological responses.  When the officer perceives a situation as challenging, the sympathetic response produces arousal that supports decision-making even in ambiguous situations and enhances perceptual, cognitive, and motor performance.  This is very different than the sympathetic response associated with a threat appraisal. 

Threats and challenges should not be viewed as separate and distinct approaches.  They are interactive combinations and can be present simultaneously and at different levels in the same person.  The extent to which an officer perceives an event as a threat or challenge can impact their perception of the incident, their ability to problem-solve, and their physical skills.

Too often, police receive minimal training in using their tools and even less in decision-making.  Pre-service training for state and local police involves an average of only 70 hours on handgun skills and a few hours on assessment and decision-making.  Most testing of handgun skills requires only basic competency and not a higher level of proficiency.  In basic training, officers are ordinarily trained and tested on a range.  They and the targets are not moving, and no one is “shooting” at the officer.  Despite the confidence that recruits might graduate with,  Force Science testing on academy skills (six months after graduation) indicates the skill sets based on limited instructional time and immediate post-instruction testing can result in the illusion of learning.  At graduation, many officers are only 10 percent better than untrained civilians in shooting accuracy at common threat distances.

Inexperience Leads to Distress

It is reasonable to expect that subjecting an inexperienced person to a challenging situation will result in diminished performance, especially as the stress increases.  When officers are tested in the field or in research and perceive that they do not have the necessary skills, they might reasonably interpret the situation as a threat rather than a challenge.  Their cognitive appraisal and the resulting emotional arousal would be expected to impair their performance.  But, in the Force Science study, Gaze Control and Tactical Decision Making, 2023, officers with training and experience (like good athletes) performed effectively under high arousal levels. 

Performing Under Stress

When performance is impaired by elevated arousal, it is too often the lack of relevant and appropriate training that is responsible.  The good news is that the arousal/performance challenge can be answered with adequate training in emotional regulation, assessment, decision-making, and performance under conditions that approximate the challenges faced in the operational environment.

Learning to perceive critical incidents as challenges and to actively identify and remain visually focused on critical cues are keys to high performance.  These skills are not secondary to motor skills training, they are fundamental for effective officer performance and emotional control.

1 Response
  1. William Lewinski

    Thanks to all for the support on this report on FS research. I am so glad there was neither surprise or negative feedback to the absence of Walter Cannon’s simplistic classification of humans’ emotional responses in high stress situations as only fight, flight, and freeze. I have been puzzled for decades by the acceptance of these as the only responses humans can have despite the complexity of human emotions in other domains.

    Further, I am also pleased there was no comment about FS NOT suggesting or inferring that in the brevity of time of the assault, perceptual, cognitive, motoric, and emotional responses could be controlled by regulating pulse or breathing. Instead, the regulating action noted was “cognitive appraisal” directly connected to the perception of the incident and the immediate decision making resulting from that.

    As a profession we need to grow in our understanding and application of the depth of the last 70 years of cognitive research on emotional regulation and recognize the complex and holistic nature of human response to challenging situations.

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