JUL 20, 2015 09:59 AM PDT

Training Can Keep Cops from Trigger Errors

The news is full of stories of innocent people getting killed by the very people who are supposed to protect them. A new study funded by the U.S. Army Research Office places the blame on an attention problem (itchy brain), rather than the tendency to want to use the weapon (itchy trigger finger).
Itchy brain, not itchy trigger finger, is the culprit, is law enforcement shooting of innocent bystanders, study says.
According to Adam Biggs, a visiting scholar at Duke's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience who has been working in the lab of Stephen Mitroff, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, "Shooting a firearm is a complex activity, and when you couple that action with the conditions encountered by military and law enforcement personnel, firearms training can be even more complicated. Cognitive tests and training offer some exciting new methods for enhancing shooting abilities, and thereby avoiding some of the most critical shooting errors, such as civilian casualties." The study done by Biggs and his colleagues, published online in Psychological Science and reported in Futurity, says that "the tendency to squeeze the trigger in error can not only be predicted with cognitive tests but can also be overcome by training in response inhibition'" (http://www.futurity.org/civilian-shooting-attention-962662/?utm_source=feedly&utm_medium=webfeeds)

According to the article in Psychological Science, "Shooting a firearm involves a complex series of cognitive abilities. For example, locating an item or a person of interest requires visual search, and firing the weapon (or withholding a trigger squeeze) involves response execution (or inhibition)." The researchers in the study used a simulated shooting environment to determine whether there was a relationship between cognitive ability and shooting error. They found that weapons were fired because of "an individual's cognitive ability to withhold an already initiated response." The also discovered that active-response-inhibition training reduced simulated civilian casualties, which revealed a causal relationship and determined that there is potential for "using cognitive training to attempt to improve shooting performance to provide insight for military and law-enforcement personnel" (http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/07/13/0956797615579274).

In the study 88 young adults played a simulated shooting game (Nintendo Wii's "Reload: Target Down"), in which they were supposed to shoot armed people quickly and accurately while avoiding unarmed civilians. They then took surveys about their ability to pay attention, their motor impulsiveness, their potential for autism spectrum disorders and other characteristics. They also had baseline computerized tests of their ability to withhold responses and to do visual search. People with attention problems were more likely to shoot civilians in the simulation, but motor impulsivity did not have bearing on the number of civilian casualties. Participants also got cognitive training to determine whether it made a difference.

Biggs concludes, "This study serves as an exciting and important first step, and it opens the door to a wide variety of additional studies into shooting and cognition."
About the Author
  • Ilene Schneider is the owner of Schneider the Writer, a firm that provides communications for health care, high technology and service enterprises. Her specialties include public relations, media relations, advertising, journalistic writing, editing, grant writing and corporate creativity consulting services. Prior to starting her own business in 1985, Ilene was editor of the Cleveland edition of TV Guide, associate editor of School Product News (Penton Publishing) and senior public relations representative at Beckman Instruments, Inc. She was profiled in a book, How to Open and Operate a Home-Based Writing Business and listed in Who's Who of American Women, Who's Who in Advertising and Who's Who in Media and Communications. She was the recipient of the Women in Communications, Inc. Clarion Award in advertising. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Ilene and her family have lived in Irvine, California, since 1978.
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