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Intuition on the street, Part 2: Rationalizing the irrational

By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)

Part 2 of a 4-part series

Read Part I: Harnessing the power of the sixth sense

The many responses to last month's P1 Survival Newsletter article Intuition on the street: Harnessing the power of the sixth sense were much appreciated. Veterans, as well as less experienced officers, offered their own insights about the phenomenon addressed, rapid unconscious processing.

Everyone who responded not only agreed with the general assessment of the article (that instinctive communication is not innate "reptilian brainstem" perception, but rather involves processing unconscious thought at lightning speed); but also provided their own examples of how the unconscious processing of stimuli has played a part in their own survival as law enforcers.

Acting Chief Michael Hunter of Nelsonville, Ohio, makes this astute observation:
I cannot say how many times in my career that early recognition of a situation prevented trouble. As an aggressive anti-DUI trooper, I ran into many difficult people and situations. Teaching younger troops, then as a troop and later as a supervisor, was always eye-opening in terms of what they did not see, and as to those things they did not take seriously. I saw people telegraphing serious danger, and officers just standing there vulnerable.

The kind of instinctive communication police officers rely on every day doesn't come from the prehistoric "reptilian" part of our brain, but rather involves a cognitive function of that processes unconscious thought at lightening speed. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

A friend who ended up shooting a guy that was trying to kill him told me of all the dangers signs he failed to see up until the actual attack. He said that even then he tried to deny what was happening after the guy had taken his weapon and tried to discharge it into his belly and had bitten his nose almost completely off.

Joel F. Shults, director of the Department of Public Safety at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colo., who also holds a doctorate in education, addressed the interesting phenomenon of "cognitive dissonance" as it relates to acting on feelings derived from the processes of the unconscious. Coined by Social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, cognitive dissonance means having two conflicting thoughts at the same time or engaging in behavior that conflicts with one's beliefs or reality.

Cognitive dissonance is actually counterintuitive; in effect, it's the rationalization of the irrational.

Mr. Shults writes:

You touched on the fact that officers sometimes ignore the gut feeling. I'd suggest that officers often do more than that — they do find explanations, but they are explanations of convenience that take away the tension brought about by the uncomfortable feeling that intuition presents. I'm not a psychologist, but I believe the concept of "cognitive dissonance" is the appropriate label.

How many times have we talked to a witness or victim after the fact and they have described suspicious behavior that they did not initially report? "Why didn't you call the police?" we ask. The answer usually begins "Well I just figured..." and then they explain their interpretation of the event. One of the reasons I fell in love with police work was a ride-along I did in high school. The old cop on midnight shift saw so many things that I didn't, and he attached meaning to people's behavior that I never considered. It was fascinating.

I learned early on that this difference between civilians and experienced police officers was how they interpret events. When a civilian sees somebody stalking through a parking lot looking into cars, something goes off in their mind that makes them uncomfortable. It seems odd but they don't know why, so some anxiety occurs. The mind hates ambiguity and begins to process a conclusion that reduces the anxiety. "That guy must have forgotten where he parked his car so that is why he is looking around like that." The conclusion, probably wrong, still satisfies the anxious mind and allows the witness to go about his or her business with no further obligation to act in ways that would also be uncomfortable — confronting the person, calling the police, maybe wrongly accusing an innocent person, having to make a statement and so on.

Police officers must be trained to recognize that cognitive dissonance — the "something's not right" — is that "gift of fear" that signals them it's time to do their job. Their job then is to discipline themselves to articulate what is making them come to that lightning conclusion. No court will accept that you had a "hinky feeling" about somebody, and the phrase "acting suspicious" (besides being grammatically flawed) should never appear in a report unless followed by a description of behaviors that would lead a judge or jury to the same conclusion.

As mentioned last month, trusting your instincts is, at times, difficult. Immediately recognizing — consciously — what is being processed by the unconscious is almost impossible. Well, at least it is impossible if there is no understanding of the process. Training in communication cues verbal as well as and nonverbal is essential. Post examination of any incident or situation is just as important.

Marshall Plumer, U.S. Park Ranger with the Isle Royale NP writes:

An edgy suspect is often telegraphing his intent. Knowing how to pick up on these signals and deal with the situation is key to safe police work.

After an incident, if one sits down with you and interviews you (or even during self-examination from time to time) one can sometimes "retrieve" facts/pieces/observations from the unconscious mind that were processed in a blink of an eye. … This revisiting and then fleshing out of some details that otherwise would go unrecorded help you build cases, stay safe and share valuable pieces of information with fellow officers. So the next time your partner says "Did you feel that? Wow that was weird talking to that guy," sit down and see whether you can figure out some of the particulars that set that off.

Next month we are going to examine pre-attack indicators in detail. But let’s examine one right now.  


In the Street Survival Seminar we have numerous video examples of subjects scanning prior to an attack on an officer. Scanning is best described as the paying attention to the surrounding area rather than the officer. Someone who is scanning may be answering questions, listening to orders and may be even complying to commands, but all the while the scanner’s head is moving and his eyes are searching. There is little to no direct eye contact. The suspect will scan a complete 360 degrees. He will look past the officer, look to the left and right, and even turn around to assess the environment.

The scanner literally appears as though he is looking for something, and he is:  He is looking for the officer's back-up, witnesses, escape routes or perhaps even his own compatriots. What, exactly, a suspect is looking for doesn't matter — as far as you're concerned, it's all bad. However, there actually is good news in this scenario: The scanner is telegraphing his intent, and a savvy, observant and aware police officer will pick up on this signal and deal with the situation at hand. How is it to be dealt with? There are many answers, but I believe in keeping it simple.

If you are dealing one-on-one with a subject and he begins to scan the area, address it. Asking, “What are you looking for?” is a straightforward and effective tactic. Coupling such a query with direct eye contact and an authoritative and confident tone communicates to the would-be assailant that you are a professional crime-fighter who is tactically sound and personally prepared. Such a communication tactic will in most cases alter the contemplative thought process of the scanner.

As mentioned, next month we will address more signals of nefarious intent that leak out through the unconscious of the criminal mind — signals that need to be cataloged in the conscious mind of those engaged in law enforcement activities. If you have any examples that you wish to include, please write me direct at jgltd@aol.com. I look forward to your contributions.

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