Shooting Mishaps Caused by 'Itchy Brain' Not 'Itchy Trigger Finger'

A new study exploring the causes of civilian shooting casualties has found that mistakes arise from problems with attention — an “itchy brain” — rather than an “itchy trigger finger.”

“Shooting a firearm is a complex activity, and when you couple that action with the conditions encountered by military and law enforcement personnel, firearms training can be even more complicated,” said Dr. Adam Biggs, a visiting scholar at Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.

“Cognitive tests and training offer some exciting new methods for enhancing shooting abilities, and thereby avoiding some of the most critical shooting errors, such as civilian casualties.”

For the new study, researchers recruited 88 young adults who played a simulated shooting game on Nintendo Wii called “Reload: Target Down.” The objective is to shoot armed people as quickly and as accurately as possible, while avoiding unarmed civilians.

The decision to not shoot is called “response inhibition,” which is what soldiers in war experience when they’re about to pull the trigger and then realize that their target is a civilian or an ally or when a law enforcement officer realizes that a person they thought was armed and dangerous is actually an innocent bystander.

After playing the game, the participants then took surveys that assessed their ability to pay attention, signs of motor impulsivity such as finger tapping or restless behaviors, features of autism spectrum disorders, and other characteristics. Individuals also took baseline computerized tests of their ability to withhold responses and to do visual search.

The scientists found that the more attention problems a person had, the more likely he or she was to shoot civilians in the simulation. Motor impulsivity, in contrast, did not predict the number of civilian casualties, according to the study’s findings.

The study also included some cognitive training to see what might make a difference, the researchers noted.

One group underwent training designed to prevent civilian casualties by enhancing response inhibition through a series of computer-based exercises. The other group underwent cognitive training unrelated to the shooting task to show whether any kind of training sessions would make a difference. Each group completed three hour-long sessions over the course of three days.

On the last day of the study, all of the participants played the shooting game again. The researchers found that people who had completed response inhibition training shot fewer civilians than they did before training. In contrast, the control group’s performance was unchanged, according to the study’s findings.

One potential concern about response inhibition training was that participants were simply trained to shoot less.

“That answer is a definite no,” Biggs added. “The people in response inhibition training shot more of the right targets and fewer of the wrong ones during their post-training simulations.”

In addition, the more attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms a person reported, the more likely he or she was to improve with response inhibition training. That was not true for the group that had training in visual searching as an experimental control.

The researchers now hope to determine which aspect of the response inhibition training made the difference. They will also try to see how long the training might last.

“This study serves as an exciting and important first step, and it opens the door to a wide variety of additional studies into shooting and cognition,” Biggs said.

The study was published in Psychological Science.

Source: Duke University