The Psychology of Armed Confrontations Author: Jon Cole

The basic elements of an armed confrontation are the armed combatants, of which one emerges as the winner. Winning the fight may appear so obvious that it is hardly worth discussing, however success is in the eye of the beholder. Success for an offender will depend upon the purpose of the armed confrontation and that can vary from escape through to suicide. Ultimately the key to success will be the decisions made and therefore understanding these decisions affords the opportunity to make the correct tactical decisions to counter the threat posed by the offender. The most effective way of communicating the psychological processes at work is to examine predator-prey interactions. Predation is different to normal aggression and is characterised by extensive preparation, the search – ambush/chase – kill – feed cycle. The predatory cycle makes massive energy demands of the predator due to a sustained high level of arousal, the physical exertion of what may be a prolonged high-speed chase, the act of killing (during which the predator must overcome defensive behaviour), and scavenger threats. Predation is powerfully reinforced in mammalian carnivores (including humans) by a set of linked conditioned auditory, visual, olfactory, tactile, gustatory, and visceral stimuli. In order to survive, the prey has to counter this threat and this creates an arms race between predator and prey that shapes the evolution of species. These adaptations will be genetically hard wired into the brain as they are transmitted across generations. Therefore, in order to understand and improve tactical decision making we must understand how the brain operates in (simulated) armed confrontations.

The key to understanding defensive behaviour is fear. Fear is the emotion that keeps you alive and everyone has it. It can be argued that human aggression is largely defensive in nature and is thus driven by fear. This proposition may appear a little odd as aggression and violent behaviour are often seen as instrumental (i.e. a means to an end). In this sense it is used offensively to dominate the victim(s). However, looking below the surface it becomes obvious that domination is actually defensive as its ultimate aim is to reduce the risk of attack through deterrence. Rational actors will seek to use threats to coerce their competitors as aggression and violence are risky strategies. Historically humans have adopted “offence dominant” strategies to defend themselves because of the asymmetry between our weak physiques and the weapons that we developed. Individuals will invest a great deal in developing reputations for disproportionate response to threats as a deterrent against attacks. The most oft cited reason for warfare is vengeance and this no doubt influences strategic decision making. So, the proximate reason for violence may be offensive but the ultimate reason will be defensive.

Defensive behaviour occurs in the presence of threat and it utilises resources to keep the organism alive (i.e. non-defensive behaviours are inhibited). This basic premise means that the changes that are often seen in combat are not abnormal, rather they are normal and we should expect to see them. Our research over the past 7 years has found that there are changes in brain function that occur during simulated armed confrontations. On some tests of cognitive function police officers are operating in the top 10% of the population. During some (high end) simulated armed confrontations there is an improvement in cognitive function and this improvement depends upon the situational demands present. At the moment, the best way that I can articulate these changes is to describe the brain as a limited capacity system and under threat this system allocates resources to the parts of the system that are needed for immediate survival. The human is a predominantly visual species so a lot of processing power is devoted to the visual system. The focus of attention will shift to the source of threat, which in armed confrontations appears to be the face and the hands (particularly if concealed or carrying a weapon). Our working hypothesis is that the face transmits the pre-attack indicators that inform defensive decision making. The narrowing of attention onto the source of threat frees up processing power for responding to the threat and reduces the distractions caused by non-essential peripheral information.

By focusing our attention on defensive behaviour and its role in armed confrontations we are able to make some predictions about tactical decision making. The first is that behaviour during armed confrontations may be predictable based on our understanding of predator-prey interactions. The ultimate purpose of defensive behaviour is to stay alive and therefore defensive aggression is one of the last resort tactics. The predominant tactic will be hiding or flight to avoid the fight. The variable that determines this decision will be the distance between the predator and the prey. Each of these defensive responses is genetically hard wired and can be elicited by electrical stimulation of specific brain areas. There are, in effect, triggers in the brain that release the behaviour. A question is how we activate those triggers.

It is important to remember that both combatants will experience these changes in brain function and therefore there is a clear need to train in order to work with the expected changes in the brain. Our research has found that brain changes are dependent upon the demands of the simulated armed confrontation. Where standard operating procedures are being utilised there is a shift to using long-term memory (i.e. training) but this is determined by the pattern matching of the unfolding incident to what has been trained in the past. In novel scenarios that are not that well rehearsed there is a shift to using working memory (i.e. making decisions as you go). It is highly likely that routine policing is best served by the training of standard operating procedures (e.g. traffic stops and armed containment of barricaded suspects) under realistic conditions. Training for low frequency high threat incidents (e.g. school shooter or terrorist attack) may require a different approach, one that emphasises making unfamiliar tactical decisions.

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