Officers, you are (probably) not as good as you think you are…

Sorry, you are (probably) not as good as you think you are….

By: Eric Basek
Part 1 of 2

Let’s start with some facts as I see them…

First, we are not all the same.  Some of us are born sociopaths, some of us are born to be heroes. Some people are honest to a fault and some lie with every word that exists their mouth. Some people possess a level of talent that is almost fictional and others are so uncoordinated, simply surviving is a miracle.  MOST of us (the 99.8 Percent of the world in my opinion) fall somewhere in the middle.

Second, we ALL overestimate our own abilities.  Our ability to fight, survive, fix the problem, be the hero, stand up to the bully, make that three-point shot, throw the football to the streaking receiver or grill that perfect steak.

Finally, peer pressure overwhelmingly effects our entire lives, not just the formative years of our youth…..

How these observations apply to law enforcement and what we can learn from them, in my humble opinion, is what I hope to address in this blog.

Only a few years ago, Ki Suk Han was pushed onto subway tracks in New York City.  18 bystanders watched between 60 and 90 seconds before a train approached and killed him.  One photographer even shot a photo of Mr. Han’s last few seconds.  Six months earlier Patricia Villa was grabbed and thrown down upon the very same tracks.  Her friend and classmate Luis Polanco chased down the attacker and attacked him until Patricia’s screams motivated him to run back and help her off the tracks with a different group of bystanders.

Two identical scenarios, two different outcomes.  Why?  Because we are not all wired the same.  Lt. Col. Grossman refers to this as the Sheep, Sheepdog and Wolf paradigm.

Lt. Col. Grossman refers to the majority of society as sheep.  They go about their lives without causing too much of a ruckus, so to speak.  A very small percentage of society he refers to as the wolves.  They have a propensity for violence and feed off the sheep.  Finally, an equally small percentage of society he refers to as the sheepdog.  Like the wolf, they have a propensity towards violence but use this as a means to protect the sheep.  However, unlike animals, Lt. Col. Grossman does not believe these titles are black and white.  Instead, they are scalar and dependent on a number of factors like training, the environment and other societal influences.

Police officers and military personnel tend to have uber levels of confidence, bordering on ego and sometimes passing “ego” at 80 mph.  As a young officer, I fell victim to my own ego in many ways that now, as an older and maybe more wiser adult, I am embarrassed by.

A level of confidence is a good thing, nurtured by training, environment and success.  However,  we tend to overestimate our abilities.  We tend to think that, because we have a gun, a badge and a uniform, that either:

  1. Everyone will obey our every word or
  2. I am a trained expert and “I can handle it”.

Psychologists call this the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”.  This is the cognitive bias in which the “average” person suffers from illusory superiority.  Their study recognized that people:

  1. Tend to overestimate their own skill
  2. Fail to recognize skill in others
  3. Fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
  4. Can recognize and improve these inadequacies with training

Additional to the Dunning-Kruger effect is the “Normalcy Bias“.  Researchers for the “Journal of Fire Protection Engineering” noted that “Actual human behavior in fires is somewhat different than the panic scenario. What is regularly observed is a lethargic response”.

In a nutshell, our brain tends to ignore signs of danger, assuming that all is normal and predictable.  Ever watch a training video where a police officer is killed despite “obvious” warning signs from the violator.  Ever think to yourself “there is no way I would have missed those signs?”

For instance, in February of 2012, 3 snowboarders were killed in an avalanche.  16 of them (a group acknowledged by all to be too large in a dangerous area) ignored a “Continue at your own risk” sign and a “Considerably High” forecast for an avalanche.  In 1977, two 747s collided on Tenerife Island.  One of the 747s crash-landed and caught fire.  Rescuers estimate the nearly 400 people on board had several minutes to escape.  Paul Heck, one of the only 68 survivors, noted in an interview that many of the passengers were lethargic, acting as if the smoke and fire was not a problem.  Lastly, despite the warnings of an impending Class 4 Hurricane, why did so many people refuse to leave New Orleans in 2005?   Coincidentally, was it that recognition that killer storms were “more normal” that resulted in so many successful evacuations and so few deaths during Hurricane Sandy in 2012?

The truth is, Police Officers fall victim to this constantly.  Those of us who continue to train and seek new information are constantly inundated with dash cam photos of officers who “miss the warning signs”.  How many times do you show this to your coworkers and their reaction is “I never would have done that!” or “I can’t believe he let his guard down like that”.  Why is it that every officer believes he would have done it better from the comfort of their roll call table?  How dare they call the actions of an officer who died “stupid” when there are dozens of psychology studies done proving that we as human beings 1. Overestimate our own abilities 2. Tend to ignore what isn’t perceived as “normal” and 3. Tend to conform with the group

While I do not wish to turn this article into a novel, it is worth mentioning the Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram Studies.  In the Asch study, 7 participants were asked to choose a vertical line, out of three vertical lines that most closely matched the length of a fourth line.  The choice was obvious, yet, 65% of the test subject gave the wrong answer.  Why?  Out of the 7 people in the room, 6 of them were “undercover” participants, intentionally choosing the wrong line.  When the actual volunteer finally went, 75% of them willingly “went along with the group” and choose the wrong answer.  In the Milgram Study, Stanly Milgram set out to find out why the Nazis so willingly carried out orders killing so many people.  He asked volunteers to shock other “supposed volunteers” in a room every time they answered a question wrong.  Each wrong answer led to an increasing voltage administered and each shock led to the volunteer hearing pre-recording screams of pain.  65% of volunteers administered a potentially fatal 450 volts when told to do so by an authority figure, despite the screams.

To summarize:

It is a statistical fact that humans tend to conform with large groups, overestimate their own abilities, ignore what doesn’t appear “normal” and follow an authoritative figure.

We can mitigate all of these factors with training. 

So get out there and train!!!