For a layman like me, a general understanding of brain function can be simplified as consisting of a lizard brain, linking brain, and logic brain.
We know the lizard brain from “flight-or-fight” fame. The logic brain does our conscious decision making. The linking brain (limbic system), in the most general terms, processes emotions and participates in the brain’s primary objective: avoiding things that are a danger and attracting things that maximize reward.
It’s this part of the brain that has the most impact on officer safety.
If Only Logic Always Prevailed
The emotional filter that colors our observations can create a drain on needed resources for decision making. Even at low emotional arousal levels, executive decision making can be impaired. One of my personal linking brain dangers — a hot button — is the emotional response that comes from someone doubting my competence or authority.
In a field encounter with a citizen, being insulted can spiral very easily.
As I process the insult, the effects turn to the physiological. The adrenaline associated with this threat to my ego — a threat that is treated by the lizard brain as a survival threat — now makes me more confident and simultaneously clouds my logic brain. This focus also creates a potentially-deadly awareness gap of threats from other stimuli.
In short, while I’m mentally recalling all of my programmed responses to having my authority challenged, I may miss vital danger cues or other persons becoming a threat and put myself at risk.
The “Profiling” Effect
Similarly, an officer may have a subconscious response to previous stereotypes of race, gender, types of attire, or some more subtle characteristic.
For example, I recently enjoyed lunch with a new friend from church but left with a feeling that I didn’t really like him. After some reflection, I realized he had the same kind of laugh and similar dentition to a colleague who had always grated my nerves for his shallowness and self-centeredness. Once I realized the false connection, I could resume enjoying the new friendship.
The same thing can happen with what our civilian critics call “profiling”. Profiling is nothing more than a linking brain template that we associate with danger from whatever experiences we’ve had or have had conveyed to us through family, friends, or media. Like any emotionally-laden thought, the guy who shares characteristics with the dirtballs you’ve arrested over and over is going to light up some danger neurons.
That might be a good thing if you can make the shift to your logic brain and do a quick inventory of that person’s behavior to justify any contact. Articulated behavior is a lawful basis for establishing cause for contact — gross characteristics such as race or vehicle type obviously is not.
The opposite problem is documented, however. Studies show that while profiled groups are asked for consent searches more frequently than majority populations, all groups have a similar percentage of contraband found as a result of consent searches. What that means is that more white males and females get away with criminal behavior than minority groups.
That’s not just a civil liberties or public relations problem; that’s an officer safety problem.
Don’t let a good or neutral emotional connection to your observations — “that guy could be my dad” or “nice looking chick” — prevent you from being alert for danger.
Switching Back to Logic Brain
There are three techniques I use for clearer thinking.
Technique #1: learning to be aware of lizard brain and linking brain responses. When I feel a rush of adrenaline — assuming I have time to redirect my thoughts and I’m not too busy shooting or running — I have learned to mentally run my fingers from the base of my skull at the back of my neck up and across the top of my head to my forehead. This symbolizes bringing my thoughts to the prefrontal cortex — my logic brain.
If you are on scene and see a colleague starting to inappropriately react to a situation using the linking or lizard brain, you might consider this motion as a signal to him or her. The problem is that you will have a hard time getting his or her attention subtly because of their tunnel vision.
Technique #2: Label the emotion being projected onto your perceptions by the linking brain. With practice, I can recognize when my ego is challenged.
I consciously think to label it: “That’s my pride — ignore it.”
I can now deal with the emotion rationally. I know I’m prone to that kind of thinking and I can tell myself to shake it off and refocus.
Technique #3: Instead of interpreting your emotional response, reframe the circumstances. If I can view this encounter as an opportunity to learn about this person and what kind of danger he might actually be, or to ask myself to define the real issue at hand, or to accept this as a threat encounter and not a battle of wills. Then I can be a better and safer policeman.
Research shows that the more self-aware we are — the better we know our own thinking processes — the better our decisions will be. In our business those decisions can mean everything.