To shoot or not to shoot? Police officers must sometimes make potentially lethal decisions on the use of force very quickly while under great pressure.
Researcher Harri Gustafsberg and his colleagues simulated such extreme incidents with police officers in order to analyse what happens to people’s cognition in stressful situations and how mental resilience can be improved. Gustafsberg will defend his doctoral dissertation at the University of Tampere in February.
In his study, police officers were divided into two groups. The intervention group were taught about what happens to people in stressful situations. In addition, this group conducted exercises on mental images, concentration and breathing. The control group was not coached.
Both groups were told to wear full gear before they were taken to simulated crime scenes, such as a domestic dispute and an abandoned warehouse. Trained actors, lightning and sound effects were used to make the situations as realistic as possible, and the incidents the officers encountered were extremely stressful, since the scenarios involved people threatening the lives of others.
The results were quite obvious. The coached officers clearly identified more dangerous situations in their environment than officers in the control group. They were also able to make better decisions.
“When the skills to regulate one’s physiology and emotions are added to technical and tactical skills, the overall result is highly effective,” Gustafsberg says.
Even though Gustafsberg and his colleagues investigated mental resilience in police work, he believes that the majority of workplaces would benefit from the results.
“In the future, those who understand what’s happening in themselves in relation to the environment will have an advantage,” Gustafsberg explains.
Ten years ago, Gustafsberg worked in the Police National Special Intervention Unit as a coach and operative commander. The Unit wanted more information on stress and pressure tolerance and the enhancement of mental resilience. However, no good coaches or scientific knowledge on the topic could be found in Finland or internationally.
“There was no empirical research on how situational awareness and decision-making ability can be improved in high-pressure situations. There is talk that armies around the world have done such studies, but if they have, the results have not been published. That is why I decided to start studying the topic myself,” Gustafsberg says.
In 2013, Gustafsberg was invited to join the first projects at the University of Toronto. The exercises and other good practices Gustafsberg had already tested in his job underwent research scrutiny.
“When the method was studied and found to be effective, it was actually quite surprising,” Gustafsberg says.
The iPREP method developed by Gustafsberg and his colleagues was introduced to police training in Finland in 2016.
“As soon as the first research results were in and we saw their effect, the iPREP method was included in basic police training at the Police University College in Finland. That is how I think research should be conducted: the need to investigate a certain topic arises from working life and the study is conducted in order to test the hypotheses. If a positive effect is discovered, the results should be considered to benefit working life,” Gustafsberg explains.
The same method has been used to train police officers in Canada, Iceland and the state of Illinois in the United States.
Even though circumstances are rarely as extreme or dangerous as they are in policing, stressful situations can potentially hinder work performance and distort decision-making in other fields, too.
One employee might find a noisy work environment stressful, another might find constant change taxing, while a third might find constantly juggling several tasks at the same time challenging. Stressful situations cause physiological symptoms, such as an accelerated heart rate.
According to Gustafsberg, the reactions of the mind and body in stressful situations must first be understood. Next, workplaces should draft a plan to reduce the employees’ stress loading. Change requires commitment from both the employees and the management.
“In order to effect change in the workplace, the work culture must change. This depends on how skilled the supervisors are at explaining things to employees,” Gustafsberg points out.
Would it pay off to bring breathing, concentration and mental exercises to the workplace, or is doing them a private matter?
“They would definitely pay off if you want to increase well-being, productivity and efficiency in the workplace. If those things are important, employees should be offered all possible help in order to make working both productive and pleasant,” Gustafsberg says.
The power of concentration grows gradually
Forty minutes of writing followed by a break. This was Harri Gustafsberg’s recipe for writing his doctoral dissertation whilst also being engaged in coaching, giving presentations and conducting other studies.
“I put away all stimuli – phones and e-mails – and just concentrate on writing. I am still unable to do more than three or four such writing stints a day, but that is enough to produce a few good pages,” Gustafsberg says.
When Gustafsberg started his research seven years ago, he found it difficult to concentrate on reading or writing for more than twenty minutes. He has gradually developed his ability to concentrate.
“The more stimuli there are in the environment and the more the pace accelerates, the more important it is to focus on what you do. However, learning that should be a gradual process. It’s not enough to just say ‘now you must focus, damn it!’” Gustafsberg says.
• Finnish researcher, coach and trainer who previously worked at the Police’s National Special Intervention Unit.
• In February 2018, Gustafsberg will defend his doctoral dissertation on improving mental resilience at the Faculty of Management, University of Tampere.
• The dissertation is part of the large International Performance Resilience and Efficiency Program research project.
• In March 2018, Gustafsberg will start work on a joint research project between the Police University College and the University of Toronto on managers’ situational acumen, with the aim of improving decision-making abilities.
• Andersen Judith P & Gustafsberg Harri: A Training Method to Improve Police Use of Force Decision Making. A Randomized Controlled Trial. SAGE Open, April-June 2016: 1–13. DOI: 10.1177/2158244016638708
Text: Mari Valkonen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall