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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.

Tags: Officer Psychology, PTSD, Mental Training, Police Humor


Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

Robert Vine @ 6/13/2013 7:03 PM

I could not agree more. Psychology is like any other business and tends to lend itself to trends, fads and even engages in hard nosed sales tactics every few years trying to sell the latest and greatest. The truth should not be, and is not, hard to sell or enlighten much less prove with information that doesn't require a doctorate to comprehend. We should strive to be like the Bereans in scripture and "search whether ot not these things be true" and not take everything that rolls off of the psychology conveyer belt as gospel.

Thomas Rees, Jr. @ 6/17/2013 5:26 PM

I agree too Dave. I've often wondered about the psychologists who seem to be able to string some folks along, at several hundred dollars an hour. Lots of people can be manipulated after a critical incident, at least for a while. But I also believe that experiencing a critical incident can change your life. My beliefs and attitude, my threshold for stupidity all changed a couple of notches after my shooting in 1984. It changed again in 2004 when my 21 year old daughter died in a car wreck. I didn't fall off the face of the earth, but there are obvious shifts in my attitude that are long-term. Each time I settled at a "new normal". It's the mental equivalent to a physical injury - say having a finger cut off. It heals over and a scar is left, but there is forever a difference. So I think that there are some aspects of psychological studies that is quite valuable, but at the same time there are wolves within the psychological studies that are in it to pad their pockets.

LadyCop @ 6/18/2013 10:56 PM

Thomas Rees, Jr. I agree with you. I am a 16 year cop with a Masters Degree in Psychology. While everyone doesn't get PTSD, and in fact, it's the exception rather than the rule, it is real, and some people are affected by it. Each person responds to traumatic events in a different way. The author of the article is quick to discount the majority of psychologists as quacks, and agreed, there are some who manipulate data and take advantage of clients, but there is alot to be learned from respected studies in the field.

Ima Leprechaun @ 6/30/2013 6:13 PM

I don't normally disagree with Dave but even though the phrase PTSD wasn't around prior to 1980 the problem was. It has had many names but its been the same problem Shell Shock, stressed out and even cowardice. The problem of PTSD was masked by alcoholism over the past 200 years in Law Enforcement and labeled as something else but it was still PTSD. The only thing that changed recently was the name of the disorder. It's like denying cancer existed prior to 1700 because it didn't have a name. I think there is far more PTSD than we realize in Law Enforcement and it isn't always caused by events on the street. Embattlements with out of pace Police Administrations is to blame for considerable stress in Law Enforcement. My worst nightmares are over internal policies and procedures in a rapidily growing small Police Department. Being ordered to use broken radar equipment when you know its not working right because its own internal calibration test is wrong. Being ordered to violate people's rights when you know it is an illegal order. Being humilitated by under trained supervisors too stupid to even know the rules. Having a Lieutenant use the departmental "bug" by hiding it in a cruiser to listen in on officers on patrol. Supervisors taking Comp Time so they can follow their shift officers around and spy on them while using his personal car. Those are far worse nightmares that still haunt me to this day. So no matter what its called, by whatever name, it's been around for thousands of years and it is not something new.

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