Stress, Perceptual Distortions & Psychological Factors in Deadly-Force Shootings

Stress, Perceptual Distortions & Psychological Factors in Deadly-Force Shootings


It is extremely important in today’s world to have a genuine understanding and empathy for those in high-stress dangerous fields of public work and others in stressful situations. Whether that is an emergency room physician, an astronaut, a firefighter, an airline pilot, a police officer, or an individual carrying a concealed handgun for self-defense. Whether their skin pigmentation is white, black, brown, red, or yellow should be of no consequence for work performance, situational or job results, and even the very existence of jobs and their funding. All skin colors are represented in all of the above jobs. ALL jobs and ALL individuals matter! ALL jobs and their situations involve perceptions, distortions, our personal emotional reality, the actual reality, some degree of stress, and false optical and auditory illusions that affect our behaviors, recollections, memory, and results.

In her research and writings about psychological issues and stress in deadly-force encounters, Dr. Alexis Artwohl gives these examples of the psychological and physical effects of people involved in actual lethal shootings and guns:

  • “If it hadn’t been for the recoil, I wouldn’t have known my gun was working. Not only didn’t I hear the shots, but afterward, my ears weren’t even ringing.”
  • “I told the SWAT Team that the suspect was firing at me from down a long, dark hallway about 40 feet long. I was shocked to discover that he actually had been only about 5 feet in front of me in an open room. There was no dark hallway.”
  • “When I got home after the shooting, my wife told me that I had called her on my cell phone… just prior to the shooting. I have no memory of making that phone call.”

Our Perception is Our Reality

The scientific research and understandings about stress, behaviors, perceptual distortions, and the human mind are extensive. Still, there is little empirical research and conclusions about how the brain works, cognitive factors, decision-making, memory, stress, and their direct applications to deadly-force encounters and shootings. Certainly, how information is received and processed by our brain determines our perceptions, stress level, performance outcomes, behaviors, and the subsequent memory of an event. Many varied personal psychological, and inherited, controllable, and uncontrollable factors influence our perceptions, stress, recollections, actions, and memories of critical incidents.

NOTE: We do know from behavioral research conclusions that our unique individual perception is reality for each of us… albeit often inaccurate, distorted, and incomplete. We all behave in a way that makes sense to ourselves in the perception of our world of reality.

TIPS:

One’s reality may NOT be the actual reality. Even though “Everyone behaves in a way that makes sense to themself,” this is often a distortion of what actually happened in a situation, especially in a stressful life-and-death lethal encounter.

It is highly likely that there exists erroneous perceptions and distortions in a given deadly-force encounter. Perception (right or wrong) dictates our actions and behaviors. So, “We do not know what we do not know,” and distortions occur. Thus, we may make false assumptions, expectations, conclusions, bad decisions, and take incorrect and even damaging actions… even unintentionally.

Perceptual Distortions Will Occur

Over the years, I recall from my organizational psychology studies, Air War College teaching, and police academy work that the research tells us that traumatic events will definitely result in some degree of perceptual distortion and memory impairment. And that the greater the stress and anxiety from an incident, the greater the distortion and impairment, e.g., the use of a weapon in a deadly-force, life-and-death encounter, the surgeon performing delicate brain surgery, a pilot landing an airplane in a hurricane with many onboard passengers, or a firefighter rescuing someone during an intense emergency fire that he is extinguishing.

Changes in the Brain and Senses Apply to Civilians, Military Members, and Cops

The literature and research shows there are several REAL and ACTUAL changes in both the brain and the sensory systems when any human (or animal) experiences a threatening or stressful situation, like a life-threatening encounter involving the use of a deadly force weapon. While much of the literature and research is focused on law enforcement and deadly-force encounters, the changes in the brain and senses and related results can also be applied to civilians and the military in deadly-force encounters.

Individual behaviors, perceptions, and reactions are significantly and genuinely influenced and naturally distorted for anyone. Drs. Roland and Honig of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department published their research results in The Police Chief, which indicated that 90% of officers involved in 348 shootings experienced some type of perceptual distortion or emotional disturbance. There were real, actual distortions in vision, hearing, memory, the recollection of events, and time that occurred for the officers… that were not made up or exaggerated. Other research studies support these types of results. 

Roland and Honig’s Research Studies of Distortions and Disturbances

Here are some of Roland and Honig’s documented and proven distortions and disturbances for police officers in the shootings from their studies. The same distortions and disturbances apply to civilian shootings as well. The percentage and number given below after each of the distortions and disturbances indicate the percent and the actual number of the 348 individuals that experienced that factor in this one statistically valid and reliable study:

  1. Sounds were quieter: 51% or 178 individuals
  2. Tunnel Vision experienced: 45% or 157 individuals
  3. Time slowed down: 41% or 143 individuals
  4. Noticed increased attention to detail: 41% or 143 individuals
  5. Sounds were louder: 23% or 80 individuals
  6. Memory loss experienced for part of the incident: 22% or 77 individuals
  7. Time sped up: 20% or 70 individuals.

Artwohl’s Research Studies of High Stress and Distortions in Shootings

Dr. Alexis Artwohl, psychologist, lecturer at the Force Science Institute and at the New Scotland Yard in London, UK, and author of the 2019 book “Deadly Force Encounters, Second Edition,” focuses on what is necessary to prepare both cops and civilians to mentally and physically prepare for and survive a deadly force encounter. She gives civilians ideas about what they can “realistically expect when perfectly imperfect humans are required to confront sudden and unrestrained violence.”

Dr. Artwohl says that it is very important for the courts and people to understand the “Totality of Circumstances” in both the internal and external contexts in any deadly-force encounter, so as to “not harshly, inappropriately, and falsely judge people based on normal human behaviors.” Both “police and civilians are involved in real, perceptual distortions,” which dictate actions, performance, and how people behave under extreme stress in lethal situations. This really exists. The layperson does not recognize, understand, nor genuinely accept this, but instead relies on their personal norm of reality and the normal behaviors and actions they expect.

False Optical and Auditory Illusions Occur

“What people think are real and are happening in the physical world (of the deadly force encounter) are not, and there are all kinds of optical and auditory illusions that occur which are not real,” according to Dr. Artwohl.  She says the brain is constantly giving us these illusions that we think are real, but they are not, especially in a high-stress deadly-force encounter.

TIP: Sometimes, we are too quick to blame and judge someone for an inappropriate action, like a police officer in a deadly-force encounter or an emergency room physician taking quick life-saving steps. We jump to false assumptions, make wrong decisions, or take incorrect actions, because of our naturally-occurring and personally-unrecognized distortions and false perceptions, when under stressful situations, memory loss, and distortion blended with our uncertain and incomplete set of facts and our idealistic reality.

Dr. Artwohl says, “that research has shown that people do not have accurate memories of events and get a lot of details wrong.” People have “overtly false memories where they sincerely think things happened, but they didn’t happen.” We have all kinds of optical and auditory illusions and misperceptions, she says.

Artwohl’s Research Results

Here are some of Artwohl’s distortions that actually occurred for different percentages of civilians and police officers who were under stress, in the deadly-force situations from her studies:

  1. Diminished Sound: 84%
  2. Tunnel Vision: 79%
  3. Heightened Visual Clarity: 71%
  4. Slow Motion Time: 62%
  5. Memory Loss for part of the Event: 52%
  6. Memory Loss for some of your action: 46%
  7. Dissociation: 39%
  8. Memory Distortion: 21%.

The Nature of the Job Affects Distortions and Performance

Without any doubt, these intrinsic emotional influences in the context of any stressful job requirements directly affect judgment and performance. There are resulting distortions to be expected in many factors in high-stress jobs, like that of a police officer.

Although changing, today, the majority of the training concealed carriers of handguns, military members, and law enforcement officers receive is NOT on understanding and handling stress and distorted perceptions, cognitive decision-making, and the use of lethal force in encounters. The primary focus is on the quality of an individual’s handling of his or her weapon… the loading, unloading, drawing, malfunctions, parts, safety rules, carry methods, and the fundamentals of shooting, like sight alignment, sight picture, grip, stance, breath control, movement control, and trigger control.

Less Training Focus on Cognitive and Perceptual Impairments

While people do experience cognitive and perceptual impairments, like tunnel vision, memory loss of an event or action taken, and dissociation (disconnect with event) during deadly-force encounters, less or no training attention is usually given about what role they play in the decision to use deadly force and outcomes. So, in the absence of this lack of attention and rigorous scientific conclusions, psychologists and criminal defense attorneys are dubious of using stress in defense of those who have killed someone. And while researchers agree that stress can distort perception, there is not much peer-reviewed objective, empirical research, and criteria connecting these distortions with the decision to fire a lethal weapon and related training. This is true, although the above research by Dr. Artwohl and research by Dr. Bill Lewinski, Director of the Force Science Institute, says that perceptual distortions are commonly reported by those involved in deadly-force encounters… and that these distortions give reasonable grounds for pressing the gun’s trigger.

NOTE: To determine whether an expert witness’s testimony is based on sound scientific reasoning, judges often use what is known as the “Daubert Standard.” It is named for a 1993 Supreme Court case in which a family sued a pharmaceutical company for birth defects they believed attributable to a prescribed medication. For scientific testimony to meet the Daubert Standard criteria, it typically must be based on peer-reviewed empirical research that is widely accepted by the scientific community. Sadly, the research used in defense of police and civilian shootings too often fails to meet this threshold, since few cases are available relating the stress and distortions to the decision to fire a gun.

Implications for Those Involved in High-Stress Lethal Situations

In a life and death encounter, individuals who are not focusing on their weapon may not even be able to tell whether or not the weapon was drawn and when or if it was fired, according to several psychologist researchers. When someone focuses on what they perceive to be a threat, the individual gains a lot of information about what he’s focusing on. But because he is doing this, he pays a very high price for focusing on something specific. Psychologists say this loss is the loss of a lot of other critical information that may later prove valuable. There is tunnel vision and memory loss that almost always occur, in addition to other distortions and incorrect perceptions.

NOTE: There are a lot of details in a lethal encounter that do not get the full attention by the individual and subsequently will not be remembered, says Dr. Bill Lewinski, a psychologist with the Force Science Institute, who researches and studies human dynamics in high-stress, deadly-force encounters. 

You May Not Be Aware If Your Weapon Was Fired

And as Dr. Alexis Artwohl’s research concludes, what an individual is not focused on is suppressed by the sensory systems and the brain. Because of this, the “things he is not focusing on could literally disappear from his awareness.” Like not even being able to tell whether or not his weapon was fired. The individual usually is not faking this recollection. This is not conjecture, but reality, and may be difficult for some to understand. At the time of the threat, there were other things more important to focus on, and other factors are not remembered. There is “perceptual tunneling” and “perceptual blockage.”

So did the individual really do what others “perceived” he did…. or because of the high stress and life-or-death deadly-force encounter, did the individual’s own (false) perception dictate his actions and behavior, based on his incomplete memory, restricted tunnel vision, and other distortions beyond the individual’s control. For example, did the police officer really on purpose harm a criminal while restraining or arresting him?

Anyone involved in high-stress jobs and encounters of any kind and, of course, shootings and deadly-force situations, definitely experience a lot of increased emotional reactions, pressures, distortions, feelings, and behaviors, as the research supports. Then there is a very high level of uncertainty, misinterpretations, and the unknowns of each unique life-or-death situation.

Do We Ever Give Public Servants A Pass?

Along with the above given, altered perceptions and high-stress environment, and given the immediacy of resolving the emergency confrontation quickly for a win-win result, which minimizes damages and injuries for everyone, how much weight do we give these uncontrollable factors for our public servants? And how do we even evaluate their decisions in uncertain, stressful, and complex situations, given their incorrect perceptions and actual distortions which do exist?

Do we forgive mistakes made by our public servants, like police officers, in light of all these uncontrollable factors, uncertainties, distortions, and misperceptions? While we do not give them carte blanche, complete freedom to act as they choose in any deadly-force situation, this author believes that we give our well-intentioned public servants, like police officers, the leeway to REASONABLY ADAPT to each unique and complex encounter within existing laws, while understanding the above factors. We should accept the premise that cops, generally, are good and well-intentioned… recognize the influences of the above variables, carefully interpret the situational facts, and be very understanding in their use of deadly force in encounters against verified criminals breaking the law.

Do Cops Make Mistakes?

As former Sheriff David Clarke, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, says, “Cops are not perfect, but they don’t have to be perfect, they have to be excellent in many difficult circumstances. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Cops are like everyone else; they make mistakes. But no profession works harder to correct its mistakes. If you listen to mainstream media, self-serving politicians, and activists, police are villains of events, not their heroes.” But, why is it this way? Do others make mistakes? Do supposed “victims” make mistakes which are deadly? 

Did the Citizen “Victim” Comply with a Lawful Police Command?

Sheriff Clarke said:

“THE IDEA THAT A LAW-ABIDING CITIZEN HAS TO FEAR THE POLICE IS A TERRIBLE AND DESTRUCTIVE LIE.” Cops are the good guys!

Sheriff Clarke’s Responses to “WAS THERE COMPLIANCE WITH THE LAWFUL POLICE COMMAND” in the following incidents:

  1. When Officer Darren Wilson told Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, MO to get out of the middle of the street, as he charged Wilson – NO
  2. When Officers in Baltimore, MD told Freddie Carlos Gray to stop resisting arrest, as he was being arrested for possessing a knife – NO
  3. When Officers in New York City told Eric Garner to stop resisting arrest, when he was being arrested again for selling cigarettes without a tax stamp – NO

TIP: If a bad outcome wants to be avoided when dealing with a Police Officer, a simple rule must be followed: OBEY ALL LAWFUL COMMANDS OF POLICE OFFICERS, even if you disagree with them when on the street.

TIP: Whatever problem you are experiencing with the police when on the street, it is NOT GOING TO BE RESOLVED ON THE STREET. The street is not the proper venue to resolve problems and aggressively present complaints. Be respectfully disciplined to comply with lawful police commands when on the street and properly address your complaint later.

TIP: People with complaints should USE THE PROCESS, WHICH HAS BEEN ESTABLISHED for that purpose. Cops do NOT have the final say about the complaint, but they do have authority when their lawful commands are not followed on the street.

TIP: How a citizen reacts to lawful police commands can be a MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. Why take even a very small chance of something bad happening on the street?

Conclusions

We know from behavioral research conclusions that our unique individual perception is reality for each of us… albeit often inaccurate, distorted, and incomplete. We all behave in a way that makes sense to ourselves in the perception of our world of reality.

It is highly likely that there exists erroneous perceptions and distortions in a given deadly-force encounter. Perception (right or wrong) dictates our actions and behaviors. So, “We do not know what we do not know,” and distortions occur. Thus, we may make false assumptions, expectations, conclusions, bad decisions, and take incorrect and even damaging actions… even unintentionally.

False Optical and Auditory Illusions Occur. “What people think are real and are happening in the physical world (of the deadly force encounter) are not, and there are all kinds of optical and auditory illusions that occur which are not real,” according to Dr. Artwohl. Research has shown that people do not have accurate memories of events and get a lot of details wrong. People have “overtly false memories where they sincerely think things happened, but they didn’t happen.”

Sometimes we are too quick to blame and judge someone for an inappropriate action, like a police officer in a deadly-force encounter or an emergency room physician taking quick life-saving steps. We jump to false assumptions, make wrong decisions, or take incorrect actions, because of our naturally-occurring and personally-unrecognized distortions and false perceptions, when under stressful situations, memory loss, and distortion blended with our uncertain and incomplete set of facts and our idealistic reality.

Police and those in high-stress jobs should be aware of the possible distortions and false perceptions for the actions they take. They should focus on their oath to serve and protect and perform their job with integrity while following the laws.

Citizens should also be aware of their perceptual distortions and false optical and auditory illusions in understanding stressful deadly-force encounters. Everyone should follow lawful police commands in the street. And disagreements and complaints should be handled using established procedures and not debated or argued in the street. Citizens should NOT view police officers as the bad guys or gals for doing their high-stress complex job with the many uncertainties.

As some have stated, the idea that a law-abiding citizen has to fear the police is a terrible and destructive lie. If we disrespect those that enforce existing laws and do not obey lawful commands, then our society will quickly turn into a country of disorder, disorganization, and chaos due to the absence or non-recognition of authority and organization. Everyone will do solely what is best for themself, and the country may be ruled by mobs, warlords, like regions of Afghanistan and Somalia now, or by neo-Marxists, like in North Korea now.

We begin by accepting what is happening to our fine free country is an egregious war against freedom and American values. Some organized groups, movements, and well-financed special interest individuals want to see this turmoil, violence, and lawlessness without authority continue. That is the definition of anarchy, a lawless state of disorder due to the absence of authority. In our mature, well-developed country with established laws, disciplined citizens, and respected law enforcement, people can work together successfully for a win-win-win result for all involved, even at times agreeing to disagree.

I hope this article has given you some things to think about related to perceptual distortions, stress, and psychological factors in deadly-force encounters. And that you will be committed to restoring peace, getting rid of chaos, re-establishing discipline and organization, and following existing laws, for the sake of our great country. We are at a critical moment of reckoning at this very time for law, order, and peace. Violence and illegal actions are never the answer to any problem. Those who carry a concealed gun for self-defense should especially champion these ideas.

Continued Success and Be Safe Friends!

Photo by Author.

* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.

© 2020 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at [email protected].



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