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Good memory helps police officers with split-second decisions

March 31, 2009 |  2:30 pm

CopsPolice officers who are adept at multi-tasking are less likely to shoot an unarmed person when faced with a potentially dangerous, split-second decision, according to a new study.

The study, conducted at Georgia State University, involved 24 urban police officers who completed a test of working memory capacity and then watched a video of an officer-involved shooting that resulted in the death of the officer. The officers' stress levels and emotions were assessed based on heart rate and sweat measurements. Following the video, the officers participated in a computer-based simulation during which they were required to make sudden decisions on whether to shoot or not shoot someone. Officers then pressed either a "shoot" or "don't shoot" button.

The study revealed that officers with lower levels of working memory capacity were more likely to shoot unarmed people. Officers who had higher levels of working memory seemed more buffered from emotional stress when making shooting decisions. "People with a higher capacity [for memory] are able to keep more things 'in play' at one time," said Heather Kleider, a co-author of the study, in a news release.

Previous studies on how officers make decisions to shoot have focused on ethnicity, stereotypes or neighborhood crime rates. But this study suggests that individual cognitive characteristics like memory and impulse control could be important in understanding and preventing unnecessary shootings. Psychologists say they don't know if police officers can be trained to have better working memory. They also want to study whether years of experience on the job influences shooting decisions.

The study will be published later this year in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

--Shari Roan

Photo credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times