Police Officers Fire Prematurely When in Anxious Situations

According to a new study led by Arne Nieuwenhuys, of Human Movement Sciences at VU University in Amsterdam, police officers who are in a high anxiety scenario shoot at nearly 20% of unarmed suspects. “Anxiety is known to be of great influence on our cognitive and perceptual-motor performance,” said Nieuwenhuys. “Although most people will only experience anxiety occasionally, there are several professions in which the experience of extreme pressure and anxiety is an inevitable part of the job.” First responders, professional athletes and surgeons are among some of those who face high anxiety situations on a daily basis. That type of pressure can diminish one’s attentional control, causing them to form biased perceptions. “In general, it is well established that one of the main consequences of anxiety is that the attentional system gets biased in favor of threat-related stimuli,” said Nieuwenhuys.

For the study, Nieuwenhuys enrolled 36 police officers in trials that involved GUN or NO GUN scenarios. All of the officers were experienced, and each completed 48 trials designed to elicit high levels (HA) and low levels (LA) of anxiety. They found that the officers under in the HA condition had more incorrect shots than the LA officers. “In fact, the percentage of incorrect responses almost doubled, increasing up to almost 20%, and implying that in every five cases a surrendering suspect was shot. These findings are in line with results observed in weapon identification tasks and indicate that under anxiety, police officers have more difficulty to inhibit emotion-congruent (threat-related) responses.” The study also revealed that the HA police officers experienced a 5% decrease in shot accuracy. Nieuwenhuys added, “It is important that future studies try to improve our understanding of these phenomena, and explore the extent to which reality-based training interventions may help people to execute more control over their decisions under stressful circumstances.”

Nieuwenhuys, A., Savelsbergh, G. J. P., & Oudejans, R. R. D. (2011, October 24). Shoot or Don’t Shoot? Why Police Officers Are More Inclined to Shoot When They Are Anxious. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025699

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • V.Wilson


    October 27th, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    While stress and anxiety is inevitable in certain professions,the presence of stress and anxiety can often deal a big blow in those professions.That is an inconvenient fact and we must deal with it.The people in those professions should be specially trained to be able to handle stress better than most of us and only then can we expect to fix the gap.

  • Rod


    October 27th, 2011 at 4:09 PM

    So this is not an article that makes me feel at all good about law enforcement and my safety on the streets! I don’t know about you but if I see a situation where someone might have a quick trigger finger then I am certainly going to head in the opposite direction!

  • Bradley Franklin

    Bradley Franklin

    October 28th, 2011 at 12:05 AM

    RUBBISH! I’ve seen plenty of stories about policemen shooting people who are down, in cuffs, with their hands on their heads, with absolutely no threats anywhere. Most of the time said police officer loses a few vacation days and doesn’t seem to get any other punishment. Anyone mind telling me what will make you anxious about someone in handcuffs who isn’t named Houdini?

  • Jeff Woods

    Jeff Woods

    October 28th, 2011 at 12:22 AM

    @Bradley Franklin: There was an incident at Oakland recently where police threw something at a man named Scott Olsen due to the Wall Street Protests, and he is now in a coma and could die as a result.

    What makes this really bad as if it wasn’t already shocking? Scott Olsen is a two-tour veteran of Iraq, and a Marine. Anyone who knows a Marine knows that if you wrong one of them, you have wronged all of them. Protests of that size and scale can be a very tense situation. If any of the police officers are anxious, they don’t need to be there.

  • LaurenWright


    October 28th, 2011 at 12:32 AM

    It’s funny how if a single cop does a bad thing, it’s all over the news and everyone wants to strip their guns and throw them to the wolves of the courts as well as seeking the maximum penalty, but when a cop does a good thing, everyone says “It’s their job, so what?”. Such a double standard and bias I’m seeing everywhere on the internet!

  • Charles T.

    Charles T.

    July 20th, 2016 at 11:00 AM

    I believe that that is complete rubbish. Police always get commendations and media attention when they do something brave, heroic or helping the public. Our local news channels put this front and center in my home town. They don’t get paid much, and that is a shame. If they did, the career would appeal to more of the general public, and not to the people that were rejected by the military. At the same time, police shouldn’t act like every encounter with the public is about to become the O.K. Coral. Most of our police look like they just walked out of a SWAT convention. They are not crack military troops, nor should they pretend to be. I am proud of most of our police and realize they have a tough job, but something is broken. The police are not above making mistakes. The difference is that if I shoot a person in my garage at 3:30 in the morning, and I am facing criminal charges for manslaughter if not worse. The police officer who mistakenly shoots a man in broad daylight while making a traffic stop gets a pat on the back, and the shooting review board clears him of any responsibility. Often after the fellow officers close ranks. Every officer works with people that they know should not be in uniform. Ultimately, it boils down to accountability. If the police think that the public, which they must interact with, must be held accountable for their actions, then they should be held accountable for their actions as well. Shooting some guy with a cell phone in his hands would make you or I a criminal (even if it was unintentional). It makes the officer a criminal too.

  • vb


    October 28th, 2011 at 12:44 AM

    Did anyone see the news reports today that Google’s refusing to take down videos that show police brutality? For once big G is doing the right thing. We need more transparency.

  • J.Jones


    October 28th, 2011 at 12:53 AM

    @Lauren – You are absolutely right, bravo for speaking up! Only bad cops are deemed newsworthy apparently and yet thousands of them do an honest job every single day that most of us wouldn’t have the balls for. I guess being upstanding and protecting the innocent isn’t sensationalistic enough for the media to cover.

    It leaves a bad taste in my mouth that they all get tarred with the same brush because of a few rotten eggs. Support your local police dept because some day, you may need their expertise! I hope and pray you folks never will.

  • Hanna


    October 28th, 2011 at 4:28 AM

    I am the daughter of a police officer, and I firmly believe that this has things all wrong. I feel like this paints police officers who give so much of their time and energy to protecting others in a very negative light and I am sorry to say that this is all wrong. These are men and women who risk their lives daily to protect and serve. There are not that many other professions out there that can claim the same thing. Yes there is a lot of anxiety and stress that comes along with being a cop, but most of them are able to focus on the job at hand and not let being anxious or nervous hurt the lives of someone else. There does need to be on going training involved for them as is the same with any given profession, but to say that they are doing a bad job is quite the insult.

  • Charles T.

    Charles T.

    July 20th, 2016 at 11:21 AM

    Hanna, first of all, I am with you on most of it. I am glad the police are there. I also agree that most police are good people (like 99% in my opinion). The problem is that the bad ones aren’t going anywhere. They pull their 25 years until retirement, just like the good ones. Few ever get removed, and are allowed to continue with a job they have no business doing. Even when they are on video they often walk. When you or I would serve 12-20 with time off for good behavior, they are not held accountable. Last I heard, the law applied to everyone equally in this country (at least, it is supposed to). The U.S. Constitution guarantees it. Violating anyone’s rights, even a habitual criminal, is still a crime. A badge is not a license to do what you want. Also, the study above states statistical facts. If you don’t agree with it then that is perfectly reasonable. Find a reason like, the the questions were biased or they did not take into account another factor. That position is supportable. The position that “my dad is a great guy” so this must be wrong is emotional and adds little to the conversation.

  • Johnathon Kaufman

    Johnathon Kaufman

    October 28th, 2011 at 3:09 PM

    I call rubbish on that as well, Bradley. I remember a story around a year ago where a fourteeen year old boy got into a fight at a bus stop, and was shot by a police officer of the school district. Don’t we have a federal BAN on guns in schools? And that boy was unarmed, and more shockingly, he ran and hid, and the policeman tracked him down and effectively murdered him. What exactly is threatening about that?

  • Charles T.

    Charles T.

    July 20th, 2016 at 11:33 AM

    I completely agree with stories like the one you cited. This does happen. I do believe that the public’s mistake is painting ALL officers with this broad brush. In the case you cited, it goes even further than the police. The D.A. doesn’t want to prosecute police who screw up. It looks like they are soft on crime. They want to be reelected. The school board doesn’t want the liability, and the elected board does not want to admit their police screwed up. They need to show that they deserve to be reelected. The city government has the same idea. This officer belongs to their department. Now, that kid’s family has the entire local government closing ranks in an uphill battle for justice.

  • LauraCamacho


    October 28th, 2011 at 3:24 PM

    @Johnathon-That happened in San Antonio right? Didn’t that cop have an internal record and reputation for breaking the rules? He’d been repeatedly suspended as well as being right on the verge of being fired for insubordination if I remember right.

    I doubt these police are anxious at all-they just know what they can get away with and stop caring about the consequences. I didn’t know the kid but from his name it’s a fair bet he was Mexican.

  • Lyall Snider

    Lyall Snider

    October 28th, 2011 at 6:54 PM

    If this is the case we might actually have to start disarming the police for the safety of the public! We should be protected by the law, and if a criminal throws down his weapon and surrenders, then he should be guaranteed safety at the hands of the police. When Americans fear the police, then the constitution is dead.

  • Lance Nicholson

    Lance Nicholson

    October 28th, 2011 at 8:02 PM

    @Lyall – I don’t agree with disarming them but I think that if they break the rules a certain number of times, then they should be immediately dismissed: no exceptions. I’m talking dismissed on the spot the same day they break the rules for the last time. 20% is an unacceptable number-we did not put millions of dollars of research into flashbangs and rubber bullets for it to be ignored.

  • Mike


    October 29th, 2011 at 6:36 AM

    Police officers are under an enormous amount of job stress. Add to this the maount of stress that some then have to juggle at home with worried familes, etc and this can be a nightmare of a life that they are expected to live. I am not giving this as an excuse, because it is their job to stay calm and to maintain order. But it is just that everyone makes a mistake on his or her job from time, but we don’t expect that cops could or at some point will do the same? That is unrealistic. The reality is that we are all going to do this, but granted many of us do not have jobs where such a mistake could have such dealy or hurtful consequences.

  • Charles T.

    Charles T.

    July 20th, 2016 at 11:43 AM

    Yes, Anne I agree with you, and I have done my share of hijacking in here. I do have doubts about your mental stability program idea. What officer do you know that would agree to something that makes him/her look like they have emotional or mental issues? From what I have seen, it is a rather macho profession. Having mental/emotional issues is a liability to their fellow officers. Our current justice system looks at the ratio of money to “boots on the ground”. Not lower numbers but higher quality officers on our city streets.

  • A.Brennan


    October 29th, 2011 at 11:29 AM

    If the anxiety is causing them to go crazy with guns, we need to rethink who can and cannot be a police officer. Despite all the paperwork they have to go through if they as much as undo the safety on a gun, every innocent killed among the approximately one million police officers just makes the entire country look bad. We need better cops who can keep their cool at all times. IF you’re not protecting the people, you don’t deserve the job.

  • anne fraser

    anne fraser

    October 29th, 2011 at 11:22 PM

    hmm…this topic really has been hijacked by a related-but-not-required discussion…we are talking about how depression and anxiety can influence the cops and not about whether they are right or wrong or who should be recruited for these jobs…

    on topic-if the officers are more prone to shooting quicker if they are depressed then we should get programs designed specifically for them so that they are more in control of themselves and do not make any quick decisions due to anxiety.

  • Jason B

    Jason B

    October 30th, 2011 at 5:41 AM

    would love to see what other professions have these same issues

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