Decision Fatigue and Why It Should Be Understood by Law Enforcement Leadership: Can Science Provide Insight into How Officers Make Decisions

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Have you ever wondered why at the beginning of the day it is so easy to make decisions but, by the end of the day, even the simplest task seems arduous? This effect rings true for most people, even law enforcement professionals—they might come home from a shift and lack the energy to decide on even the smallest things, such as what to have for dinner. The answer lies in understanding the biological functioning of the human brain. Law enforcement has long known that understanding what is happening to the brain when it is exposed to stress is important to police operations. Not only what is happening during high-stress situations can affect police performance, but also everyday human factors. Simple daily habits might be affecting officers’ brains in a way that compromises their ability to perform their best on the job.

What Science Tells Us

Decision fatigue is a well-understood scientific phenomenon that explains that there is a finite amount of energy available to the human mind for decision-making each day. One of the studies documenting this phenomenon was actually done within the criminal justice system. Studies on the likelihood of an inmate receiving parole have been conducted to assess what factors affected the decisions contributing to the denial or granting of parole. While many details that could have influenced these decisions were explored, the study’s results indicated that factors like race, crime type, or time already served had little or no impact on the parole board’s decision. In fact, persons with similar cultural backgrounds who committed almost identical crimes had very different results with the same parole board based on one thing—the time of day the individuals had their parole hearing. Prisoners appearing for their hearing in the early morning hours received parole approximately 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared later in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.1 Even if the background of the subject and the crime were almost identical, this variation in result was seen. Science suggests the reason for this lies with understanding decision fatigue.

Every decision a person makes is processed by the brain in the same way. An individual considers the situation, weighs the options, and selects the course of action most likely to produce a favorable result. As this behavior is repeated throughout the day, people’s minds expend energy each and every time they make a decision. Just like the muscles in the body, the brain can become fatigued after a certain amount of use. While the body sends clear and obvious signals when the muscles of the arms, legs, or back are overused; the signals sent when the brain is fatigued are subtler. As decision fatigue sets in, people can become irritated when asked to make a decision. This irritation might be one of the first warning signs that an individual’s decision-making energy is almost depleted; it is a gentle message that should warn individuals that they are approaching decision fatigue. When this progresses to a state of mental exhaustion, the previously subtle signs begin to become more obvious.

When decision fatigue has set in, individuals are likely to act in one of two ways.2 One potential effect is impulsive behavior. This is because the brain does not have the energy reserves to think through the consequences of the person’s actions. It would be easy to argue that marketing and advertising people who run infomercials during the late evening hours have known about this science for quite some time. The other potential effect of a fatigued mind is for the person to lock down and become unable to make a decision. A mild form of this is the dinner situation mentioned earlier that is so familiar to police professionals. Another example is the desire to stay in the “magic chair” (post-work decompression spot) at the end of a difficult day as discussed by former officer and behavioral expert Dr. Kevin Gilmartin.3 In police work, officers make important decisions throughout their long shifts, so the parts of the brain responsible for these functions are exhausted by the time the law enforcement professional gets home. This decision fatigue certainly has an impact on the officer’s family and influences how the officer behaves after work. However, it is important to ask what potential impact this can have on officers while they are still on duty, as well. Is it possible that decision fatigue is a factor that can compromise a police officer’s ability to make good decisions?

Making the right decisions is at the core of many of the heated discussions present in the law enforcement field today. Is it possible this scientific understanding of the impact of making multiple low-level decisions can help law enforcement leaders understand how to create an environment where good decision-making is more likely to occur? Without even realizing it, law enforcement supports this science in many ways—many decisions have already been removed from the equation. Officers do not have to decide what to wear or which car to drive. Most officers are assigned a specific beat to patrol and what time to take their meal break. While uniform regulations and area assignments might not have been looked at as a way to help save officers mental energy for the more important decisions they might be called upon to make during their shifts, the new science explains that police protocols are doing just that.

How Much Is Too Much

As law enforcement leaders, it is important to provide officers with all the tools they need to do their job. If those tools are not provided, the consequence could be severe. However, with each new tool provided, the officer has an additional decision to make. When many of the people who lead the industry now began their career, there were only two options for emergency lights in a squad car—lights on or lights off. Now squad cars routinely have four or more options of lighting combinations that can be activated. Overhead lights, lights in the grill, directional arrows, or any combination thereof might be activated when responding to an emergency situation, and giving officers the option of choosing what lighting combination was appropriate for the situation seemed like a good idea. Does the science of decision fatigue tell us this could actually diminish the officer’s ability to make a good decision in a critical moment later in their shift by bogging them down with all of these options? Science suggests the answer might be yes.

Science also explains that the more options a person has, the less likely it is that the person will make the right choice.4 However, if the person responsible for making the decision takes certain steps, such as being exposed to consistent training to help ensure at the moment a decision needs to be made, then certainty can be brought to the process. Increasing training efforts in this area can improve the probability that officers will make the correct choice, even when many options are available. While these studies were not done within the criminal justice system, the applicability of the principle is universal. Simple math confirms this science is true. If there are two options to choose from, then there is a 50 percent likelihood a person will make a correct choice. If there are four options, that likelihood drops to 25 percent. To apply this rationality to policing, if an officer carries three less-lethal weapons, there is a 33 percent chance the officer will select the correct tool in a situation that requires the deployment of less-lethal weapon. If the number of options is reduced to two, the percent increases to 50 percent. It follows then, that if an officer carries only one less-lethal option, there is a 100 percent likelihood the officer will “select” the “correct” tool to address the situation. Training is still key, even with less options, of course. Having only one tool available still requires one decision—whether or not that specific tool is applicable to and appropriate for the situation at hand. To improve an officer’s likelihood for making the correct decision, they need to train to the point where these choices become instinctive.

Can this possibly be the true? Can law enforcement professionals create a situation in which administrative policy decisions can increased training on use-of-force decisions can increase the likelihood of officers in the field making the right decision? If increasing the frequency of training regarding use-of-force decisions is not possible because of time, staffing limitations, or budgetary constraints, is another potential option to consider reducing the numbers of tools their officers carry? Do the complexities of the profession require the wide range of options officers are accustomed to carrying as a necessity? The answer to this complicated question is not at all clear.

After years and years of trying to find additional tools to help police officers do their job more effectively, it is time to realize perhaps what should have been occurring is an effort to reduce the options and simplify decision-making. The science behind making decisions explains that, by giving people fewer options, people will be more likely to make the correct choice. What would this theory look like if it was applied to law enforcement professionals? If this is something to explore, would we be helping or hindering our officers by offering them fewer choices? Are the parameters of the situations officers encounter distinct enough to clearly be able to train them to know which tool is correct in each situation? Would limiting tools help the officers by improving the probability that they will apply the correct tool or would it potentially compromise g their ability to perform (and, possibly, safety) by not offering them options that should be available?

Science explains that all humans go through the process of sequential elimination (weighing the choices and potential outcomes) in their subconscious each time they are called upon to make a decision. If this is the reality, should reducing the number of options (e.g., tools provided to officers) be considered in order to attempt to simplify the decision-making process? Would this approach help or would it create more risk by removing tools that could be effectively applied to help resolve an escalating situation?

Less Is More

Like it or not, it is a fact that decisions are less complicated when there are fewer choices. Imagine going to an old-time ice cream shop. They have two flavors: chocolate or vanilla. It would probably take only a short moment to make a choice. Now imagine a person at the modern-day ice cream parlor. There are so many choices—how does one decide? Certainly, law enforcement officers are not doing something as simple as choosing ice cream flavors; it is absurd to even make that comparison. Nonetheless, this simple ice cream scenario demonstrates how choices become simpler when there are fewer options.

Maybe a better demonstrative point would be to envision an officer wearing more than one firearm on his or her duty belt: a 9 mm and a 45 caliber. If a deadly force situation arises, which gun should the officer use? What factors should the officer consider when making that choice? Should he or she be looking at his or her comfort level with the weapon, his or her history of accuracy at the range, the difference in stopping power, maybe some combination of all these factors? This situation as presented is as equally absurd as the ice cream scenario. Police leaders would never do that to their teams. Officers are given one choice, one handgun. They are expected to become proficient with the weapon. If a deadly force situation arises, that is the tool they use. This concept can be applied to another scenario that is a little more realistic for law enforcement personnel:

An officer responds to a call for domestic battery. The offender is making verbal threats and is presenting with his fists up, ready to fight. After arriving, the officer tries to verbally de-escalate the situation without success. The agitated subject begins to throw household items toward the officer—first a shoe, then a dish, and finally, a TV remote. The victim is on location, and the injuries are obvious. The offender needs to be taken into custody, and the officer has to manage his or her personal safety and place the subject under arrest. What is the next right action?

An officer with an electronic control weapon (ECW) and a handgun on his belt would easily identify this as a situation where the ECW is the correct use-of-force tool to use for this situation. There is an active resistance situation and aggressive actions toward the officer have been taken. Despite the aggression, this is not a deadly force situation. It is also not a situation where the officer would want to use hand-to-hand combat. The ECW is deployed, and the subject is taken into custody without any injury to the officer or the offender. Good choice made, right action taken, and desired outcome achieved.

Now place OC spray on the officer’s belt as another less-lethal option in this same scenario. Which is the appropriate tool to use? Is it the OC or is it the ECW? What does the agency policy say about which tool to use during active resistance? Which less-lethal option would be most effective in this situation? Is it possible that either one would work? If so is the choice up to the officer? What factors are the officer to use when making this decision?

It is possible there is no right answer. In one agency, the policy may direct the officer to use the ECW as the most appropriate option, and in another agency, the OC would align with the policy. Some agencies may let the officer choose which option to use. No matter what the policy says, the officers in that situation are forced to make a decision between the two less-lethal tools they have on their belt. This decision-making process takes time and energy, and any hesitation during a use-of-force incident has the potential of putting the officer at a greater risk of injury. Can the chance for momentary hesitation be lessened by making administrative choices that limit the options an officer has on his or her belt? If so, should this be done?

Almost more concerning than the time delay caused naturally by the decision-making process is what might happen if decision fatigue has set in for the officer. If decision fatigue has set in, the officer is likely to do one of two things: make a bad decision or make no decision.

If the officer makes a bad decision, it is likely caused by the officer being less likely to think the consequences of the decision through completely due to decision fatigue. This can result in the officer acting impulsively or emotionally. This could be very dangerous in a use-of-force situation where the appropriateness of the action could affect subject and officer safety—and will surely be scrutinized. It is possible this phenomenon might be part of the reason some officers have made poor use-of-force decisions in high-stress moments.

Science suggests that other thing the officer might do in this situation is to make no decision. The officer could freeze. If an officer is confronted with an active aggressor and is in a state of decision fatigue, the possibility of the officer taking no action is more likely to occur, which could result in injury or even death for the officer. As administrators, it is time to start looking at how policies and the choices available are affecting the officers on the street.

 

Maybe It Is Time to Streamline

By writing complicated policy and purchasing every new tool on the market in the spirit of giving officers more options, police administrators might actually have done more harm than good. New science suggests each time an officer is in a situation where a decision must be made, the officer draws from a finite amount of energy reserved for decision-making. When this is taken into consideration, it is clear that complicated policies that require officers to choose from a myriad of potential options might actually be working against the officer’s ability to effectively make decisions. In a field where good decision-making can mean the difference between life and death and where use-of-force decisions are at the forefront of media attention, this is something important to consider.

When considering the non-controllable elements of decision fatigue, there are many ways this information can be used to help improve operations in law enforcement. If an officer makes a poor decision, is it possible the situation is caused by decision fatigue rather than by a lack of training or intentional irresponsible behavior? If so, is there an action that can be taken to help reduce the likelihood of this occurring?

To improve decision-making in the law enforcement profession, leaders and policy makers should consider several things. Two of the most obvious elements should be clarity of policy and the right number of tools for each officer. A thoughtful conclusion needs to be made considering officers’ practical needs on the street, while also keeping options to a minimum. It is also important to bring understanding to every level of the agency that an officer has a greater risk to be affected by decision fatigue at the end of his or her shift than at the beginning. Many times, it is common practice for sergeants on duty to come into the station at the end of the shift to finish up paperwork, but this might be the time it is most crucial for them to be out on the street with the team. By bringing the awareness of the science of decision fatigue to the law enforcement profession, it is possible to make adjustments to daily work habits to support better decision-making.

Additionally, it is important that law enforcement leaders recognize the potentiality for contributing factors from the officer’s off-duty activities to spill over and affect his or her ability to make decisions at work. For example, having an officer report for a shift after taking a strenuous college test or promotional exam might create a significant level of decision fatigue, which could result in a situation where that officer demonstrates a compromised ability to make good decisions during his or her shift. If these factors are known to police administration, it might be possible to make adjustments that would allow for decision fatigue to be considered when assigning responsibilities for the shift.

There are many things to consider as law enforcement begins to understand decision fatigue and the implications it may have on officer performance. By exploring scientific research, insight can be gained into how the men and women working in the law enforcement profession are affected by the same human factors that exist in all people. By better understanding how the brain functions, administrators and leaders can start to apply this scientific knowledge to help improve operations within the law enforcement profession.

Notes:

1 John Tierney, “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?”  New York Times Magazine, August 17, 2011.

2 Ibid.

3 Kevin M. Gilmartin, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families (Tucson, AZ: E-S Press, 2002).

4 John Toon, “Too Many Choices Can Lead to Bad Decisions,” Futurity, February 6, 2015.