Distractions and aggressive subjects — what a new study and past experience tell us
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Researchers from the University of Kentucky confirmed recently what skillful cops have known for years: well-timed, well-crafted distractions can derail difficult suspects from violent intentions.
The researchers tested this theory with drunks, but according to behavioral scientist Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center, their findings are relevant to a wide variety of tough-to-handle subjects, including the drug addled, the mentally ill, and the emotionally distraught or irate. Lewinski teaches distraction techniques in the law enforcement program at Minnesota State University-Mankato.
“Distraction works well if you can pitch it right,” he says. And in an interview with Force Science News, he offers some practical guidelines for doing so.
[Please note the opportunity at the end of this report to share distraction strategies that have worked for you and that could be helpful to other officers.]
First, the Kentucky study:
With an assistant, Dr. Peter Giancola, a psychology professor at U.K. in Lexington, recruited 48 healthy male social drinkers between 21 and 33 years old, to test the hypothesis that well-timed distraction can help curb violence associated with intoxication.
As LEOs well know, “acute alcohol consumption is [often] related to aggressive behavior,” Giancola states, with “alcohol involved in about 50 per cent of violent crimes.” According to a psychological theory called the attention-allocation model, drunkenness narrows a person’s field of attention so he or she “can really only focus on one thing at a time.” In hostile situations, drunks who are inclined toward violence tend to focus on provocative, aggression-facilitating stimuli rather than on inhibitory cues, Giancola says.
Of course, not everyone becomes aggressive when they drink, he explains. “Many people become sleepy and happy. So, this theory only works for people who already have traits that put them at risk,” such as impulsiveness, irritability, and a personal acceptance of violence (the belief that “beating my wife and kids is a good thing, because it keeps them in line,” for example).
“Alcohol doesn’t make you do different things,” Giancola says. “It just allows what is already inside you to come out. It takes the brakes off.”
Giancola and his associate used a laboratory computer-game simulation to determine whether distraction might help defuse volatile, alcohol-fueled conflicts, such as bar brawls, by diverting drunks away from provocative cues. He claims this was “the first systematic test of the attention-allocation model” as it relates to intoxication and aggression.
Half of the Kentucky test subjects were given alcohol-spiked orange juice that brought their average BAC reading to 0.10. The other half were given a placebo drink and remained sober. All engaged in what they thought was a computer game that measured their reaction times against those of an unseen “competitor.” When the test subjects supposedly “lost” a speed drill, they received a mild electric shock. When they “won,” they could deliver a shock to their opponent. A subject’s physical aggression was determined by the intensity and length of shock he chose to deliver.
To simulate distraction, half the drunk subjects and half the sober group were told to perform an “important” memory test during the game and were promised a cash reward if they did so successfully. This involved remembering the sequence in which small squares randomly appeared on the computer screen and clicking on them in the proper order.
Both the intoxicated and sober groups experienced a decline in reaction time when they had to tend to the memory-task distraction. However, the sober subjects “had sufficient attentional resources to attend to both the distracting and the provocative stimuli.” They showed about the same level of aggression as sober subjects who were not distracted by the memory test.
There was significant difference, though, between the distracted and the nondistracted drunks. The former exhibited far less aggression than the latter. Giancola concluded that being mentally diverted left the drunken subjects with “less cognitive space [in their attention capacity] to house and process hostile cues.”
With further testing, the researchers found that the degree of distraction is important. If the attempted diversion is too mild, it won’t attract enough of the subject’s attention. If it’s too intense or confusing, it “might engender more aggression due to frustration,” Giancola reported.
Lewinski concurs that distraction can be a valuable tool in curbing aggression. “On the street, it can work not only with drunks but with sober people who are emotionally aroused,” he says. “If you can capture their attention and pull them away from whatever is stoking their agitation, you may be able to get them to work with you instead of blowing up on you.”
Distractions come in 2 varieties, he explains: physical and psychological.
In the physical realm, Lewinski recalls a veteran Minneapolis officer who wore a powerful lifeguard’s whistle on a thin thread around his neck. When he walked into a heated domestic or a bar fight where the players were “intensely emotionally engaged” and paying no attention to him, he’d let loose a shrill blast of the whistle and yell, “Everybody out of the pool!”
“People couldn’t intentionally ignore him when that sudden, loud whistle blew,” Lewinski says, “and he added a little humor with the pool command. Together, they were enough to break through the subjects’ emotional barrier and get attention focused on him and off the escalating agitation.”
Similarly, officers sometimes find that flicking room lights on and off during a nighttime domestic, for example, can be “a powerful attention-getting technique,” Lewinski says. “Subjects are distracted from their battle temporarily, trying to figure out what’s going on.”
A physical distraction may even help you connect with delusional or hallucinating subjects. He cited a study conducted on psych wards in Michigan that discovered that attendants could often break through a patient’s psychotic shell by clapping loudly and simultaneously shouting at them “while maintaining a calm demeanor. The noise shifts their attention and the calm appearance suggests that someone non-threatening is there to work with them.”
Sometimes your challenge will be to eliminate physical distractions that compete with you for a subject’s attention. Examples:
- • “A loud radio can be especially distracting and agitating to people who are drunk or drugged,” Lewinski says. “Get it shut off, along with the TV.”
• Flashing red lights on your squad car “often have the same effect. If you can turn them off without jeopardizing your safety, that may help you gain and keep a subject’s attention.”
• Dogs and little kids “are terrible distractions when you’re trying to work with parents. Getting them into another room or into the care of a neighbor or some other responsible person will help free the adults to concentrate on you.”
The key to psychologically shifting a subject’s focus is hitting on a distraction that is important to them, “something that’s enough to influence them,” Lewinski says. “Otherwise, you may confuse them, anger them, and make the situation worse. You will appear to be uncaring or not listening to what’s concerning them.”
Say you’re in a private residence, trying to deal with a mother whose son has been caught up in troubles with the police. She’s becoming “more and more agitated about what you’re doing to her child. Allowed to continue working herself up, she could become violent.
“If you see athletic trophies in the room or pictures of the son in a sports uniform, you might acknowledge these mementoes and try something like this as a distraction: ‘We’re talking about the trouble your son’s in. I know he’s also been a good boy. Can you tell me about that?’
“This is something important to her. It may deflect her from her agitation and help you establish enough rapport to get back to the problem on a more logical and influential basis. Certainly it’s likely to be more effective than trying to distract her by talking about your bowling scores, which have no importance in her life.”
In contacts that eventually erupt in violence, “officers often miss that the subject is escalating emotionally through self-agitation. They’re not sensitive enough to recognize this and proactively intervene to ease the situation and it just gets worse.
“Good officers, by contrast, start reading the level of a subject’s emotional intensity from the beginning of the encounter and are always looking for cues to psychological strategies that might help control the situation.”
For example, if you’re dealing with a drunk who’s starting to get worked up but is still at a relatively low level of agitation, you might tell him that you need to know all the addresses where he’s lived for the last 5 years, Lewinski suggests. “This can be a challenging intellectual task for someone in an altered state, and may fully consume his diminished mental capacity.”
On the other hand, subjects displaying a high emotional intensity—a couple bent on tearing each other apart in a domestic dispute, for instance—“may require a distraction that’s much more visceral. You might say, ‘Just a minute. I know you have children. Before we get into your situation, can you tell me if your kids are safe and where they are?’ This distraction is likely to be important to them and offers an opportunity to calm them a bit while they respond.”
One officer, sensing that an agitated suspect was building toward a physical attack on him, diverted the suspect by asking him how he thought other kids would taunt his children at school the next day if got himself on the news that night for assaulting a police officer.
“There are many reasons people may want to cooperate with you,” Lewinski observes. Sometimes an apt distraction at the very beginning of a contact can keep the interaction on an even keel throughout. Lewinski offers these real-life examples:
- When officers in one Canadian province stopped individual bikers from a gang known to be troublesome, they found that they encountered less hostility when they started their face-to-face contact by admiring the violator’s motorcycle and getting him to discuss its attributes a bit—including its ability to “go really fast.” Often they could segue to this pertinent question: “How fast do you think you were going just now?” “By then, they’d built enough rapport to defuse the situation a bit.”
- When Lewinski worked with Arizona patrol officers on a project involving the mentally ill and homeless, he always carried water and fruit in his car. “Drinking mostly alcohol and caffeine, these subjects are usually dehydrated, and they don’t eat much,” he explains. “You can distract them by asking if they’re hungry or thirsty, and while they’re engaged in eating they’re calming down. You come across as a caring individual, and when you start talking about the problem they’re having or presenting, you’re seen as less threatening.” Similarly, in cold climates “you can frisk them and then invite them to sit in your car and warm up for a few minutes, then engage in the problem that brought you to the scene.”
Obviously, such ploys should be reserved for times when they seem to be strategically to your advantage; your job isn’t social work. And in some situations, there won’t be time to attempt distractions; immediate physical intervention may be necessary to establish control.
Remember, too, that distractions don’t always work. Lewinski recalls a case in which officers were dispatched to a house where a man was randomly firing a deer rifle from the screened-in front porch. Later it was learned that he was experiencing an emotional meltdown over the recent death of his father.
Once the officers persuaded the distraught suspect to put the gun down, they gathered around him and worked at calming him down. Noticing an magnificent elk’s head mounted on the porch wall, one officer directed the subject’s attention to it and asked him about it, thinking to distract him from his grief. Turned out it was a prize bull the dead father had bagged and probably the most iconic relic he’d left behind. The subject went ape all over again.
“Sometimes, it’s just the cut of the cards,” Lewinski admits. “But good distractions have proven successful enough that they’re worth trying in appropriate circumstances. Just be prepared with other options in case they fail. Nothing works perfectly all the time.”
Note: We’d like to hear about successes and failures you’ve had with distractions. Your experiences could be helpful to other officers in critical situations. Just shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll print a representative sampling in a future issue of Force Science News.
For another summary of the University of Kentucky study, see “Distraction Can Defuse Drunken Violence” [Read it now.] A full copy of Dr. Giancola’s study, “Alcohol and Aggression: A Test of the Attention-Allocation Model,” is available for a fee in the July 2007 issue of Psychological Science, archived here.