Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a BART police officer while allegedly resisting arrest.
Police were responding to reports of a fight on a crowded train when they detained Grant and several other passengers. The incident, in which a police officer shot an unarmed Grant, was captured on digital footage and cell phone cameras. It was released to the media and has been watched by millions.
The next day brought protests. The officer involved in the shooting was later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
A recent study in the journal Emotion investigated the effect of anxiety on police officers’ shooting decisions (August, 2012). Here’s what they found.
Anxiety has a great effect on our cognitive functioning, our bodies, our actions and our ability to perform certain tasks.
In certain professions, anxiety is an inevitable part of the job. Surgeons, police officers, firefighters and world-champion athletes all face situations where pressure to perform is at a peak. In these kinds of professions, at that one critical moment, making the right decision is crucial.
There is a large body of research indicating that when we are anxious, we are more likely to notice threats in our environment and less likely to take in nonthreatening stimuli.
In other words, when we’re anxious, possible threats get our oversized attention.
For police officers, this can mean that they shoot faster when anxious. It can also mean that threats irrelevant to the current crisis are more likely to get their attention when under stress.
In the Emotion study, 36 police officers performed a low- and high-anxiety test that required them to make rapid decisions about whether to shoot at suspects. Some suspects in the test had a gun, while others had no gun and surrendered.
This simulated test manipulated anxiety levels by shooting plastic bullets at the police officers during testing. During higher levels of anxiety, officers were more likely to shoot, which meant that they were more likely to accidentally shoot a suspect that was surrendering.
Not only were officers more likely to shoot when anxious, they were also less accurate. If the suspect had a gun — whether they were threatening with it or not — officers shot faster.
These findings — that officers’ incorrect responses nearly doubled under pressure — are in line with other studies on weapon identification. And they are not entirely surprising. It is extremely difficult not to act on your anxiety when you’re in potentially life-threatening circumstances or otherwise under excessive amounts of stress.
Because police officers are human and experience extreme pressure and anxiety as central to the work they do, it is essential to gain better understanding of how this pressure affects their ability to think clearly and make decisions.
When anxious, anyone will anticipate a threat. A businessperson anxious about an upcoming meeting is more likely to interpret a benign comment by a colleague as threatening. Police officers are not immune to this phenomenon.
Exploring how anxiety affects decision-making allows us to create training interventions that help people exert more control over their decisions in stressful circumstances.