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Columns : In My Sights

Cops and Psychology

The science of the mind can improve performance, but a lot of soft scientific research is biased nonsense.

June 12, 2013  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

Illustration by Sequoia Blankenship.
Illustration by Sequoia Blankenship.
One of my favorite topics has always been the psychology and science of human performance and ways to use these disciplines to enhance our odds of winning on the street. Having coached numerous sports and trained hundreds of cadets and literally thousands of crime fighters, I have always prided myself on my "yearning for learning," but some events in the past couple of years have forced me to go back and double-check some of my references and sources.

My doubts began when I read "The Production of Knowledge" by William Starbuck. He argues that soft sciences need more rigor since researchers could eventually prove whatever they wanted by manipulation of data or the instrument used to measure the data. In fact, Starbuck was approaching the end of his illustrious career doubting nearly everything he had thought were solid maxims in organizational behavior and other soft sciences.

It seems more and more distinguished scientists, especially research psychologists, have been fudging their data to prove whatever they want to prove. Many of these studies are based on the various prejudices or expectations of the researcher. Other "false" studies have been based on the premise that "other primates act as ethically as humans" and other such nonsense, often to discredit our species, our faith, or our values.

Cops should be most concerned about flaws in studies involving PTSD. Post-traumatic stress wasn't even recognized as a disorder until 1980, and then suddenly it was everywhere, caused by everything and happening to everyone. By the mid-'80s some articles were saying 80% of cops suffered PTSD after a shooting and 40% would experience ED...yep, erectile dysfunction.

I did a reference check and discovered the author of that statement had found a survey where the men who had been involved in a shooting reported that 40 percent of them had had a time when they had suffered a mission failure. Then I went to the general literature on the topic and found 75% of average males who hadn't shot anybody had reported that at least twice they had suffered an equipment failure.

So what should we infer? Does shooting someone improve male sexual performance by 35%? Nonsense. But then so much of psychology is just that: nonsense, conjecture, or fraud.

When anyone tells you how you will react to anything step back and ask yourself, better yet ask them, how do they know? No creature is more unpredictable than a human: Look how the "science" of profiling has failed us in such high-profile cases as the Beltway Snipers.

Today, research tells us only about 2% of cops actually suffer PTSD. That is the disorder, not the effect of extreme trauma on human beings, such as a nightmare or two or a couple of weeks of being pretty tense during the activity that precipitated your crisis. I once had a tree fall on me when I was working in the Forest Service, and it knocked the heck out of me. The next tree I felled caused me to shake like a leaf, then scream in victory when that big bugger fell...joyous! Much of the research tells us we can even inoculate ourselves against PTSD by training, by faith in our cause, and by strong camaraderie.

So what should you think about the soft sciences? Well, I think you should look at them with something of a jaundiced eye, especially if they are telling us something our anecdotal life experiences say isn't true. Much of our training insight comes from the harder science of cognitive psychology and will often be easier to verify. Such things as how well mental rehearsal works, or the fact that tactical breathing controls stress responses, have true scientific method behind them; but whether you will suffer this or that ailment, and what the cure for it will be, often involves more art than science. A brief review of some of the horrors psychology has used as treatment over the years would truly give you PTSD.

The word "psychology" dates from 1653 and originally meant "study of the soul." Perhaps we should reclaim that terminology since treating mental issues is truly as much art as science. For us the challenge is to find ways to take the best of sports and performance psychology, adding ways to flourish from the rest of psychology, and using our intuition and caring to help make each other safer, stronger, and healthier.

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.

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