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 Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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