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June 17, 2013
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Duane Wolfe The Warrior's Path
with Duane Wolfe

Rush to judgment: Brain processes with, and without, stress

Part three of a five-part series

In part one of this series, we looked at jumping to conclusions and making statements about other officers’ performance without having all the facts.

In part two, we discussed the interaction between the eye and the brain and how that affects an officer’s perception during a critical incident. We also looked at how it colored our perception watching an incident on video. 

Your hindsight bias coupled with the in-focus, wide angle view of a video camera allows you to see a video situation from a perspective that the officer on scene could not and would not have.

As a reminder, before we get into part three of this five-part series, here it is the video footage we’ve been using as our example for the purposes of this discussion.  

Raw Surveillance Video 

The Question of “Why?”
I asked you to think about the questions that came to mind when you first watched the video. The biggest question that came to my mind was, “Why is the officer getting out of a moving squad?”

Is he abandoning his partner? Is this an act of cowardice? Why would you place yourself at such a disadvantage of falling to the ground, with no cover, risking injury in the middle of a confrontation?

Don’t worry, it wasn’t an act of cowardice or abandonment, but those are possible conclusions that officers could jump to, based only on the information provided by the video. 

This brings me to what I believe is one of the most important points that we need to understand when judging other officers actions and our own in critical situations. The big question in a lot of cases is WHY? 

Why did that officer do that or why did I do that? That question comes up when the action that is taken is less than the perceived desirable, tactical, or optimal choice.

This is one of the key points, so read carefully. 

Under stress the brain doesn’t process information the same way as when it is in a low-stress event. When you’re at a low level of stress, you have the time and the ability to make decisions by analyzing and weighing your options in order to come to the best resolution to whatever the problem is. 

Two Completely Different Games
It’s like playing ‘Texas hold-em’ poker. You see your cards and the cards turned face up on the table. From there you make your decisions based on weighing the odds of getting a winning hand. 

As each successive card is turned you can reevaluate the odds you have of winning against the cards that are showing. At each turn of a new card you can change your strategy by staying in the game, checking or raising your bet or folding. A single hand can last a long time, based on how many decisions have to be made by each individual player. 

These brain processes are done in the logical center located in an area sometimes called the fore brain.

Add stress (kick into survival mode) and the brain’s activity shifts to the mid-brain analysis of options. Because time doesn’t allow for deliberation, the brain grabs hold of the first viable option, which unfortunately may not be the best, safest, most-tactical option. 

Let me repeat that: Under stress, officer’s abilities to make deliberate, rational decisions can be dramatically reduced. Because of the time-compressed nature of critical incidents — when every fraction of a second counts — we are likely to take the first viable option. 

It’s like the card game ‘Slap Jack’ where the players have a pile of cards which are facing down. Each player in turn takes the top card and turns it face up in the center of the table. This is done at a fast pace. The object of the game is to be the first to slap your hand down on any jack that is turned up. Whoever does this wins the pile of cards. Whoever gets all the cards wins the game. 

Frequently, due to the speed of the game and anticipation on the part of the players, the wrong cards get “slapped” because a card is misread. If time had allowed, that mistake might not have been made, but that isn’t how the game is played (or won!). 

Under stress, decisions are made in a split second by a different part of the brain that functions completely differently than the part of the brain we use to judge officer’s with after the incident. So, when we fail to take into account those changes, it’s like playing ‘Texas hold-em’ with one player required to play at the speed of ‘Slap Jack’ — given only a quarter of a second to make their decisions — while everyone else can deliberate their next move at the pace of Texas hold-em.’

Both games are played with cards, but the similarities pretty much end right there.

Well, I Would Have...
When you judge another’s actions that took place under stress, you judge from a calm, calculated, fore-brain, versus of someone acting under the influence of the survival brain. 

You probably already knew that. But that knowledge doesn’t stop some people from continually second guessing officers’ actions with the words, “Well if it was me, I would have…”

Maybe you would have, but you will never know, unless and until, you’ve been through the exact same situation. Absent that experience, it’s all speculation on your part.

Use this knowledge to learn from the videos you watch. Train at a level of stress that will hopefully (there are no guarantees) engrain that training so the brain grabs it under stress. In the next article, we will look at how the media’s coverage influences our perception of an officer-involved situation (and the implications that go along with that).


About the author

In February 2014, Duane Wolfe retired from his career as a Minnesota Peace Officer after more than 25 years of service (beginning in 1988). During his career he served as patrolman, sergeant, S.R.T., Use of Force and Firearms Instructor, and is currently employed by the Parkers Prairie Police Department. He is also a full time instructor in the Law Enforcement Program at Alexandria Technical College, Alexandria, Minnesota. Duane has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Bemidji State University, and a Masters Degree in Education from Southwest State University. Duance has previously published articles on Calibre Press and IALEFI and served on the Advisory Board for Lt. Col. Dave Grossmans book, On Combat. Contact Duane Wolfe





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