By Means, Randy
Law & Order , Vol. 60, No. 7
Unconscious reactions can cause behavioral changes.
The way we think about and label people and events affects the way we feel about those people and those events. The way we feel about people and events often affects the way we behave toward those people and those events. Behavior based on negative feelings toward people can be extremely dangerous, physically and legally. Officers should seek to identify the source of emotion and its usefulness or validity. This kind of awareness leads to more appropriate decision-making.
Human beings constantly judge people, things and concepts. We often make evaluations and judgments in a few seconds or less and very often without conscious effort or awareness. The process is automatic, natural and a powerful influence on how we respond. In some circumstances, this process is good. For example, it sometimes can help us with appropriate threat perception.
But suppose an officer has developed a strong belief that wearing pants in a way that reveals half of one's underwear is a strong indicator of a person's likelihood to commit crime and engage in bad behavior more generally. Suppose further that this same officer is investigating a dispute over who is at fault at a traffic accident; one driver has observable underwear and the other does not.
The officer's conscious, rational mind knows that underwear display is not evidence of poor driving or untruthfulness. The officer's unconscious and less rational brain may not agree and may cause him to decide the driver with the "bad pants" is more likely to be at fault and more likely to be lying in his account of the incident.
Whether this dynamic is based on confirmation bias, implicit bias, the Pygmalion Effect, emotional response or just simple stereotyping, it is important and dangerous; this same phenomenon can infect more critical decision-making as well. Research from many branches of psychology and other sciences is now demonstrating that behaviors and actions are often affected by factors that are not obvious to the person involved. These factors color perceptions, influence decision-making, and change behavior.
Much human behavior, especially in stressful situations, is driven by emotion rather than logic. The release of stress chemicals (the "adrenaline dump") can reduce the influence of the rational part of our brain on what we do or say. During the prelude to extreme emotional arousal, there may be an opportunity for the individual to consciously force rational thinking into their response and self-regulate their feelings and behavior. But if the rational brakes are not or cannot be applied, an individual's use of reason can become so impaired that they are subject to serious mistakes in decision-making.
In the selection and development of today's professional police officer, increasing emphasis is placed, very correctly, on attributes definitive of what is now called emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence includes both interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to understand other people as to what motivates them, what makes them behave as they do, and how to influence and work cooperatively and positively with them. Intrapersonal intelligence includes the same abilities, but applied to oneself.
The more able we are to manage our own emotions, the more able we are to control our own behavior(s) - to make sure we are acting rationally, in our own interests and the interests of the public we serve. The more able we are to manage the emotions of others, the more able we are to communicate with them, investigate successfully, and de-escalate high-risk or potentially high-risk situations. This is good for everybody, with the possible exception of some criminals.
Self-awareness is a good thing generally and a huge help in police work but becoming aware of, understanding, and managing personal attitudes and motivations can be a hefty challenge, especially when they are "unconscious. …