Police Psychology | Are You Cooperative or Competitive?

Posted: September 24, 2015 in Motives and Opportunity
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Police Psychology | Are You Cooperative or Competitive?


This question resonates for all police psychology from testing to operational to consulting to working with the officer in a therapeutic role.  Are you cooperative or competitive? In order to understand this question better, we need to understand the specific Police psychology, competitivedifferences between these two mental attitudes. Cooperation is when people act together for the mutual benefit of all involved parties, so that all of them can obtain a specific goal. Competition is when an individual acts for his own personal benefit so that he can obtain a goal that is of limited availability. So when you are playing a board game with only one winner, chances are you will feel a sense of competitiveness, because the goal (ie. being the winner) is of limited availability, what with only one spot available. Yet when you are working on a team project, chances are you will tend to exhibit cooperative behavior because the goal (getting a good grade) is not awarded to only one person in the group.

Game Theory

In this post I want to discuss something known as game theory, specifically the prisoner’s dilemma,and how it realates to something we all want—Trust. The prisoner’s dilemma is based on a hypothetical case in which you have two prisoners (prisoner A and prisoner B, creative huh?) taken into custody and placed in separate interrogation rooms. In order to convict these individuals, the police needs a confession from at least one of the prisoners. Obviously each prisoner has two options: he can either confess or not confess. The outcome depends on how each of the prisoners respond. If both prisoners remain silent and do not confess, they are charged with a misdemeanor. If both prisoners confess, they will be charged with a felony, but recommended for a moderate sentence. If prisoner A confesses and prisoner B remains silent, prisoner A will have his charges dropped and prisoner B will be charged and receive the maximum sentence (and vice versa). To make this a little clearer, let’s examine a chart. The numbers used for sentencing in the chart below should just be seen as placeholders representing any range of larger sentencing.

police psychology, game theory

Obviously the best option for each prisoner is to confess while the other remains silent, because then they do not get punished at all in that case. In other words, each prisoner gains the most if they choose to cooperate while the other prisoner competes. However, it is likely that both prisoners will weigh their options and come to this same conclusion, leading to a scenario where they both decide to confess (hoping the other stays silent), thus causing them to both serve a moderate sentence. However, there is a better option for these prisoners: if they both remain silent and do not confess, they will only get charged with a misdemeanor, a slight offense with very low consequences. It would make the most sense for the prisoners to mutually agree to just stay quiet.

The Power of Trust

But studies in which people were placed in this type of situation show that most individuals choose to compete. Why? I can suggest two possible reasons. One, each person is trying to look out for their own best interests, which would fall into the category of confessing and hoping the other person does not. Another reason is that the individuals don’t trust each other. In the prisoner’s dilemma, the police count on this: they are hoping each person confesses, or at the very least that one person confesses, so that they can get their conviction. They are counting on the fact that the prisoners won’t trust their partner, and they will get the conviction they need.  Police psychology must be aware of this because psychologists are dealing with people who must trust their partners everyday in very different ways.

There are many other examples of cooperation and competition that crop up in the media. One recent example came from a teacher at the University of Maryland. The teacher included a very controversial question on his final examination for the semester:

“Here you have the opportunity to earn some extra credit on your final paper grade. Select whether you want 2 points or 6 points added onto your final paper grade. But there’s a small catch: if more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points. Your responses will be anonymous to the rest of the class, only I will see the responses.”

Obviously the best option for each individual student is to select the extra 6 points (and hope most of the class doesn’t pick this too), but if every student makes this judgment call, then no one will receive the extra points. In this case, cooperation is really the only way that the class can benefit…but cooperation requires trust, and trust is hard to come by. (In case you are curious, more than 10% of the students selected 6 points, and so no one received the extra credit.)

Studies like these suggest a very simplistic idea: cooperation is better than competition. And yet in practice, cooperation requires something elusive and often lacking: trust. If only people trust each other more, everyone can benefit from something that is of limited availability.

Bottom Line

So where am I going with this you may ask. If you never get arrested, you have no dilemma, right? Not so quick Speedy Gonzales!   Not at least in police psychology.  If you are your kid’s favorite parent, what is your spouse? You can either allow this acclamation from your child or confront it. “You don’t need to pick a favorite, just say we are both your favorites.” Kid will learn quickly that mom and dad are together, and trust it. Or the kid will learn he or she can split their parents and raise the roof as a teen. Believe it or not, adult bosses do the same thing, in fact, it is one of the techniques used in gaining power in the workplace. “Boss, you shouldn’t have favorites, but thank you for liking my work this week. We work as a team though,” is better than revealing in being your bosses favorite. It is hard to gain trust back after you have lost it, and setting yourself apart through this kind of manipulation gets around and divides an office. Trust comes when you let people know your work will set you apart, not other people’s feelings about you.  If trust is broken in a police relationship it can be deadly.

And what happens when you come across that person who says they will be silent but talks to save themselves? The damage they do to anyone who sees this act will be ten times the sentence you will receive. You will come out ahead.

Trust me on that one!


Police psychology: simple steps3 Attitudes that Gain Trust

  1. Deflect the credit – Allow your teammates or the people close to you share in the credit. Don’t allow individual praise split your team. “I am the hero today, someone else will be tomorrow,” is the attitude you need to endorse. Many people fake this attitude, but you should live it. People will know who did the individual work, you don’t need to tell them.
  2. Consistency – This one should go without saying. You can be spontaneous in other parts of your life, but in areas where trust is needed you have to respond consistently. People that depend on you need to have some idea how you are going to respond. There is some taking advantage of people who are predictable, but consistency is the major builder of trust.
  3. Always Be the One Who Remains Silent — If you have a cooperative agreement, you must remain the silent one, the one that sticks with the agreement. People who don’t can’t often live with themselves despite the outcome. Don’t allow what others are doing affect your personal belief system and your soul. It may take time, but you will be a lot better off taking the punishment, than living with the broken promise.

Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.

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