Police Psychology | Mental Shortcuts
Lately police officers are are being accused of using a lot of shortcuts in their psychology and mental processes. Profiling, prejudice and discrimination are buzz words for mental shortcuts and they have been used with police personnel all too much. This is a major concern in police psychology and police stress. We all look for shortcuts, whether it is a shortcut to get to the closest coffee shop before we crash from being overworked (despite already consuming 5 cups today), or a shortcut to help us finish our paperwork faster before the boss come crashing in your door expecting you should work even more than there are hours in a week (okay I am feeling a little overworked lately, what gave it away). Shortcuts, when used correctly, can be extremely useful as they maximize the amount of output you get for your invested time and effort. This is the primary reason shortcuts are so highly revered—we are always looking for tips and tricks, the “cut to the chase” part, the “in conclusion” or “lesson”. We live in such a fast-paced world that we need these shortcuts to help us cope. (That’s one of the reasons I include 3 simple steps at the end of all my blog posts. You’re welcome.)
The Tale of the Dog Poop
In psychology, we have a word for mental shortcuts. It’s called heuristics, which are rules of thumb, or tricks we use to speed up problem solving. When you use a heuristic, you are speeding up the cognitive process by immediately jumping to the most likely conclusions and solutions. Often, when you implement heuristics, you focus on one aspect of a problem or situation and ignore everything else. For example, if you see dog poop on the sidewalk, without even thinking about it, you would walk around it. You wouldn’t bother to evaluate the situation and examine the poop to see if it really is poop. You wouldn’t stop to consider if walking over it or around it is the faster route to your destination. You wouldn’t stop and wait and see what other people are doing. Instead, without breaking stride, you would avoid the dog poop and not give it another thought. That’s what heuristics allow us to do: make decisions quickly and effortlessly. Using a heuristic to help you problem solve is like using the escalator for a four-floor incline instead of the stairs. Both things will get you to the top, but one will get you there a little faster and with much less effort on your part.
Heuristics, Errors and Police Psychology
Here’s an example: Jamal is 6’11’’ 20-something African American that looks very athletic. What is his career? Professional Basketball player or a lawyer? You probably answered the former because it is easier to picture a tall, athletic, African American basketball player than it is to picture the same individual as a lawyer. In reality, there are about 1.3 million lawyers in the US and about 500 NBA basketball players. This is because you typically watch basketball games on TV where you see some people like this, but it is rarer to watch lawyers sit around and debate on TV, so examples of tall, athletic, African American lawyers won’t pop into your mind as easily. Do we call that height profiling?
Another example of availability heuristics shows up in a different fashion. Studies show that after Shark Week, there are less people who go to the beach. This is because after watching program after program showing various shark attacks, it is relatively easy for you to associate the ocean with sharks and thus scare you away. As soon as some time passes and images of shark attacks become less available to your mind, you will stop associating the two things with each other. You are just as likely to be ‘shark sushi” after a few weeks as before, but it doesn’t feel that way so you use a heuristic.
The representative heuristic, which is when we make decisions based on how close an example matches to our ideal or expected vision, rather than based on facts or probability. For example, I am a balding greying fifty-nine year old man with absolutely beautiful 8-year old daughter who was adopted from Russia. People assume it is my granddaughter and some even say it, “Your granddaughter is beautiful.” When I respond, “that’s my daughter you idiot, so shove your heuristic up your butt,” they get a little embarrassed and sometimes even a little offended, but I GET ENTERTAINED. (okay, I only think it, I do not say it.) Mis-identification is one of the major problems with heuristics.
We also tend to use the confirmatory bias, or the base-rate fallacy when we use heuristics. If I were to give a jar full of 1000 jelly bean to a group of kids and say you could keep them if you guess how many. I would start off with saying 300, all guesses would be in that range despite there being 1000 jelly beans in the jar. As each child guesses closer to 300, it becomes hard to go outside that number. This would involve seeking out information that specifically supports an opinion or certain information you have, while ignoring examples or incidents that would suggest otherwise. More telling is the base rate fallacy in diagnosis. If you have a patient with some very specific symptoms that match an incredibly rare disease, it is still a much more realistic assumption for you to make that he has a more common disease, even if the symptoms don’t match that generic disease perfectly. That is when a heuristic become dangerous.
This is the main problem with using heuristics: it leads us to make many errors in judgment. At the same time, we need to rely on heuristics or else we would expend too much cognitive energy and resources on small problems, like how to avoid dog poop in the middle of the sidewalk. Heuristics help speed along the mental process, increase our efficiency, get our butts moving, and direct us where to focus—but they must be tempered, controlled and evaluated before we give them too much credence. Heuristics lead to prejudice, stereotyping, profiling and media reports of judgement errors that make us look like idiots. Heuristics are often automatic and subconscious, and we need to bring them into the consciousness to control them. And in the age of cell phones, body cameras, and people willing to criticize your every move or lack of filtering, there is less tolerance for our brain farts caused by an old heuristic.
- Educate Yourself. I know his sound a little too obvious to be in one of my steps, but heuristics is an important concept and you need to know the breadth of heuristics. There are social heuristics like imitating success, conformity and tit-for-tat, and personal heuristics like availability, representativeness and past going forward. You’ve got to understand how these heuristics affect your life in order to make a change. So the first step is to spend an hour reading on heuristics. Even Wikipedia has good articles at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heuristic and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_heuristics. Knowledge will give you the major tool you need to go to the next step.
- Recognize. You have to get yourself in the mode of seeing when you are using a mental shortcut in a situation. Prejudices, stereotypes and biases are sometimes good, but often lead you down a wrong path. Remember, the way people change is to first analyze what they are doing, then change while in the process. You must see yourself for what you are doing first, then you can move forward.
- Apply Filters. The last step is to apply filters to what you are doing. Think before your speak or act. Try to see the situation from a different angle. “Why is the person saying this?” “Will I get any advantage from adding my two cents at this point?” These kinds of things will slow you down, but may help you by not making a huge mistake. When solving a problem ask yourself, “how would _____ fix this?” the blank of course being someone you respect to handle the problem. The goal is not to end shortcuts, but to cause yourself to not waste words and energy in areas that could do you detriment.
Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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