Police Psychology | Processing Under Pressure
A Book Review
I am probably the largest distributor in the world of two books, my own Keeping It Simple and Matthew Sharps’ book Processing Under Pressure. When a person comes into my office, there is a bookcase on the right with hundreds of books on policing. Topics like Chinese gangs, Mexican gangs, shooting well, booby-trapping, Intelligence, counterintelligence, etc. Keeping it Simple is a natural since I wrote it and is always there. I had bought back the rights in the late 90’s because the publisher could keep it in stock and get it to me when I was on the road doing speeches. Cops always pick it up and keep it, which is fine. They should. Processing Under Pressure is the other book everyone picks up and starts to read when I make my hourly trip to the bathroom and then they say “Can I borrow this book? I’ll bring it back.” Cops never bring it back. They talk about it non-stop for three or four sessions, but it never sees my office again. That’s not fine as I have to buy those copies.
How does Processing Under Pressure grow legs or wings or whatever? Well, the cops that take it, don’t want to give it up. The book is extremely engaging, explains a lot that cops see in everyday life, and it makes good common sense. I would say if you were only going to read one other book in policing, Processing Under Pressure is the one I would chose. How does one think, what do they miss, what are they likely to say when the situation goes bad, all things covered by Processing Under Pressure. It doesn’t matter whether you are a boss, dealing with a boss, you’re an ES guy dealing with an operation, a military man sizing up a mission, you are a shrink dealing with a client, or a guy or girl scoping out a Saturday night date (I know I am aging myself, young people don’t date anymore), this applies to your life. So read on, I have 900-1000 words to get you to read this book sooner rather than later in your life.
So, the first two chapters are about stress. You can get that a lot of places and probably have. These chapters talk about the brain and how it functions in high stress and acute stress and frankly Dr. Sharps does a great job but you are probably mostly aware of these things. Then you get to the third chapter the book moves so fast, you need a seat belt. He starts getting into what happens in eyewitness testimony. Dr. Sharps talks about how Bartlett showed an abstract picture of “an Easter Egg crossed with a football” and it changed into a human face as people drew and re-drew it from memory. Barlett repeated it several times with several pictures. Then Dr. Sharps talks about other manipulations by the individual of memory. He ends with “memory is not static, eternal or unchanging.” Dr. Sharps goes on to say it changes through brevity, loss of detail and personal belief. Wow! Think about that sentence, essentially everything that happened, that we relive, that we listen to from others, will get changed according to some general principles. That’s saying a lot.
Dr. Sharps wasn’t done there. He goes on to show experiments that memories change by situation, context, light source, costume, race, conformity, age and a bunch of other variables. And that things change predictably sometimes. And forget when there is a gun involved. The weapon focus is tremendous in disturbing people’s attention to details like how someone looks. If I were training lawyers, they would read Chapter 3 the first day of class and once a week afterwards. This is tremendous. In fact, I think every cop and psychologist should read and understand this chapter well. It explains why lineups are not very accurate, why people see things differently and the need for multiple corroboration, in fact how two people can hardly ever come up with the same story unless one of them changes it, which often happens, because of conformity. And you are only 75 pages into the book.
I once had a cop who had been in a shooting and he remembered he shot the person because he was nervous but wasn’t sure why he was nervous. The person went down. He remembers he took a few steps back and shot the person again while he was trying to get up. He was having a hard time with the shoot and figured he would get killed by IAB and the newspapers and would probably lose his job at least, if not get charged. It was in a store with a video camera going. We sat and watched the video. The perpetrator was threatening his partner whose head was turned away, with what look like a gun, he double tapped his trigger and the guy went down. End of story. Nothing he remembered had happened. Dr. Sharps does the best job of explaining this of anyone I have ever read. It all makes sense after reading Processing Under Pressure.
Dr. Sharps goes on to explain the difference between Gestalt and Feature Intensive Processing and how each leads to errors but have good characteristics also. He explains that they are on a continuum in reality but people do not always take them that way. Gestalt is the perception of the whole and feature intensive is the impression of the pieces of a situation. Through historical events he shows how people can best use the understanding of cognitive processing to help them have stronger memory and get better information. He talks about the Washington Sniper, the North Hollywood Shoutout, General Patton in the relief of Bastogne, the Battle of the Bulge, The Amadou Diallo shooting, even Custer’s Last Stand all to show his points about the understanding of cognitive processing. It’s a damn history lesson like you’ve never had where history comes alive through psychology! This book is fun. He talks about tactical situations which can also be improved if people in law enforcement gain the knowledge in this book. And I have to tell you, he makes a very convincing case.
A book review couldn’t be complete without some comment about the writing. This book is extremely informational, but written in a very interesting manner. Dr. Sharps has a wit and a sense of humor that is dry but nice and it reads well. Much of it is written in first person which is also nice as you tend to be on a journey through the material. You will not be able to absorb this book on first reading, as I read many paragraphs a couple of times because the information was so compelling. A lot of the research is by Dr. Sharps and his students, and that is what makes it compelling. You’re not going to get this anywhere else without reading thousands of studies and being a strong consolidator of information. This is a real gem and everyone in law enforcement should read it.
Sharps, Matthew, J. Processing Under Pressure: Stress, Memory and Decision Making in Law Enforcement. Looseleaf Law Publications, Inc (September 28, 2009). New York. Amazon Link: http://www.amazon.com/Processing-Under-Pressure-Matthew-Sharps/dp/193277789X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1460580873&sr=8-1&keywords=processing+under+pressure
Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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