Why are cops so mentally tough? It's genetic

The COMT gene — also known as the warrior/worrier gene — and its variations are involved with managing the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, which influences resistance to stress and pain

Editor’s Note: The content and opinions expressed in this article are presented by the author — Dr. Michael Asken — and do not necessarily represent the policies, opinions, or procedures of any organization with which he is associated. For further information on this topic, you can visit Asken’s website or pick up a copy of his book, MindSighting: Mental Toughness Skills for Police Officers in High Stress Situations

One of the most interesting recent developments in the study of mental toughness is emerging evidence of the role of genetics and physiology in mindset and elite performance across all areas of human response to challenge.

This evolving perspective seems to once again raise the chicken and egg question of whether it is biology or psychology, talent or training, which controls mental toughness and quality of performance in high stress situations. 

It is worth first looking at the accumulating information on the biological basis of performance and then asking if it replaces psychological factors, or how the two can be best integrated for optimal performance.

Compelling Research
As with other aspects of human performance, much of our understanding initially comes from athletic training. Genes have been identified that influence sport-relevant skills like speed and intensity of muscle contraction, changes in muscle tissue and formation of new blood vessels, body weight, blood volume, forearm length, sitting height, and speed of return to resting heart rate after exercise. 

Genetics affects skeleton size which relates to the amount of muscle that is supported and height of center mass relates to differences in improved running times versus swimming times. Genetic factors have been related to a predisposition to injury of tendons and ligaments. The importance of these factors in tactical police response should be clear.

Research has also suggested that there are genes that exert an influence on such things as risk-taking, enjoyment of novelty, even-temperedness, as well as anxiety and risk avoidance. Of particular interest is a gene tagged as COMT, also known as the warrior/worrier gene. The gene — and its variations — are involved with managing the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain which influences resistance to stress and pain. It may also be related to why some individuals seek out high-stimulation situations on a regular basis.

Leading the list of physiological factors that seem related to performance stress and its management is Neuropeptide-Y (NPY). This enzyme has been found in higher levels in special operations personnel compared to regular army soldiers. Higher levels of NPY have also been associated with better performance in high stress situations like hostage rescue and counter-interrogation training.  

Other intriguing findings about physiological factors and performance are that elite athletes’ nervous systems fire and relax up to 60 percent faster than those of average athletes. Heart rate variability and the ability to maintain high heart rate variability is associated with better performance under stress.

Such findings are fascinating and have potentially profound implications for understanding and training both physical and mental toughness. But before you run out and have your DNA — or your child’s — tested for career choice or athletic scholarship possibilities, there are a few considerations to keep in mind.

A Complex Equation
First, while we all like the simplicity of “scientific reductionism” — simple explanations like one gene for every characteristic or ability — the reality of genetic and physiological impact on performance is neither clear nor concise. 

While it would be nice if there was a ‘Detective gene’ or ‘SWAT gene,’ that isn’t the case. There are many characteristics where genetic causation is not yet known or is still murky. Further, more than one gene can account for a specific characteristic. There are reported to be more than 200,000 genes influencing one’s height.

Second, non-biological factors can influence whether a gene and its effects are “turned on or off” and can even change a gene for future inheritance. The field of epigenetics studies how genes and their expression are influenced by environment and behavior. The expression of a gene is not always absolute. 

Third, genetic physiological processes can also be subject to change by training and actions we take. For example, heart rate variability can be influenced by physical conditioning, certain types of music, certain types of relaxation techniques, and by direct heart rate or coherence training.

Nurture Your Nature
Perhaps the best model of the genetic-physiological basis of performance and mental toughness is that it forms an infrastructure that allows and limits ultimate levels of performance. It also dictates how much effort will be needed to achieve any gains in performance. Individuals lucky enough to have the right genetic code may be able to achieve the highest levels and do so much more quickly or effectively. 

But research shows even those without the ideal genetic and physiological gifts can perform at sufficient or even elite levels and under certain circumstance surpass those with the optimal genetic code. Everyone can make gains and improvements, though their genetic/physiological characteristics will likely dictate the ultimate performance levels, time needed to get there and effort required. Mindset and mental toughness will not only be influenced by these factors, it will also drive and sustain that effort and outcome.

A useful summary of the current status of genetics, mental toughness, and human performance is found in the oft quoted statement that:

Hard work beats talent that doesn’t work hard.

As our understanding of genetics, physiology and psychology continues to evolve there will be exciting and useful applications to the selection, training and performance of police officers. For now, we need to continue to maximize the physical, tactical and mental training. The future is near, but it is not now. 

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