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The Brain Relies on Schemas

The Brain Relies on Schemas

The college students in my study consistently made their shoot decisions based on stereotypes. I showed them pictures of a “bad boy” – a biker type – followed by pictures of either a weapon (handgun) or a non-weapon (cell phone or wallet). The weapon was shown 85% of the time, so the expectation that the bad boy had a weapon was reinforced. The students were given a modified airsoft gun as a response device. The gun was wired to an EEG (a machine that records brain activity) to time stamp shoot decisions in the brain activity recordings. I told them to shoot at the screen when a handgun popped up, but not to shoot when a wallet or cell phone popped up. They were further instructed to make their shoot decisions as quickly as possible and to always be accurate. I also showed them pictures of a “good girl” as part of the test, but her picture was almost always followed by a cell phone or wallet (a handgun followed only 15% of the time). The students rarely fired their weapon following the good girl picture even when a handgun was shown; they almost always shot the bad boy – it didn’t matter which item popped up after his picture.

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Benefit: Allows for Quick Assessment of a Situation

Schemas are mental structures in the brain that allow a person to quickly take in information from the environment and make sense of it. Schemas are almost always built through life experiences. In my research study, the students had schemas for the good girl and bad boy long before they walked into the laboratory. Our culture – through TV shows, movies, news articles, and connections within our communities – makes it clear that good girls can be trusted, but bad boys are bad! I just reinforced that stereotype with the ratio of weapons/non-weapons that followed each picture.

Stereotypes like this can be helpful. If one of your family members comes across the good girl and the bad boy, they should be more cautious of the bad boy. Doing so improves their chance of staying safe. That doesn’t mean that all bad boys deserve to be shot, like the students in my study tended to do, but getting that gut feeling to be cautious of a person can improve safety.

Schemas can also be built through training. For example, when you entered the academy, your schemas were based on your life experiences, just like those of my college students. You would have been more likely to shoot the bad boy too. As you progressed through training and became an officer, you built new, law enforcement-based schemas. You were trained to be cautious of everyone, even the good girl, and to evaluate and accurately identify a weapon regardless of what the person holding the weapon looked like. As you continue to progress in your career, your law enforcement schemas continue to change, becoming broader and more complex.

I invited veteran officers to participate in my study as well and found that the looks of the person – whether good girl or bad boy – did not affect their decisions to shoot: the officers always shot when a weapon appeared on the screen and refrained from shooting when a wallet or cell phone was present. And their response times were fast. The training they had received in the academy, and the continued training they received through in-service, seminars, and informal trainings with other veterans on the force, assisted in their building a new set of law enforcement schemas that replaced the more general, less developed schemas like those of my students. Having complex, well-developed schemas is important for a law enforcement officer.

Problem: Stereotypes and Implicit Biases Can Influence Behavior

Building schemas is genetically hardwired in the brain. We cannot get rid of schemas. And we shouldn’t want to rid ourselves of schemas, stereotypes, and biases. They keep us from making the same mistake over and over, like drinking orange juice right after brushing our teeth, or frying bacon while shirtless, or taking the ‘business route’ instead of the ‘bypass’ during rush hour. As an example, if you are complacent in your approach to a subject and get punched in the mouth, your schema for this behavior will be modified. The updated schema will remind you how important positioning and distance is, and will guide you to keep a larger reactionary gap on your next approach. Each experience we have adjusts the probability of how we will act in the future. But we should realize that schemas can also get us into trouble.

Before we discuss how schemas can get us into trouble, you need to understand where actions originate. All actions and behaviors are initiated in the subconscious mind. They bubble to the surface as urges and drives. It is then up to the conscious mind to either allow them through, override them, or redirect them towards a more appropriate response. A scientist named Benjamin Libet cleverly pointed out that free will is more appropriately referred to as free won’t for this very reason. Opportunities to act are continuously created in the subconscious brain; it is then up to the conscious brain to make adjustments as needed.

Here’s how schemas get us into trouble: schemas influence instinctive behaviors. The prompts and urges to act initiated in the subconscious brain are based largely on our experiences. If your experience has informed you that the ‘bad boy’ is dangerous but the ‘good girl’ is not, then your schemas will lead you to act differently depending on which one you encounter. And if your experiences – from being raised in your family and living in your hometown, and having the friends you chose, and watching the TV shows and movies you enjoy, and interacting with the variety of people you encounter – lead you to believe that one person is dangerous, or bad, then you will interact with that person based on those feelings, even if you don’t realize you are having those feelings. That is why such feelings are referred to as “implicit biases.” Biased feelings are buried deep in your subconscious, hidden away from your awareness.

Schemas cause you to respond to individuals in certain ways based on these hidden biases. And when the person experiencing the bias responds negatively? Well, that just confirms the original bias, so the stereotype is strengthened. Officer A’s biases cause him to act a certain way around people from Neighborhood B. The people from Neighborhood B have biases that lead them to expect Officer A to act in that particular way, so now their biases have been confirmed, causing them to react to Officer A in a specific way. Officer A expects people from Neighborhood B to react in that way, so now his biases are confirmed. It can be a vicious cycle that is difficult to recognize and change.

The problem is compounded when on-duty law enforcement officers act based on schemas. Law enforcement officers are charged with enforcing laws and keeping order in our communities. They make decisions that affect peoples’ lives, so they should be fair and objective. If an officer’s decisions are based on stereotypes and biases instead of the facts at hand, they can do more than merely cause someone to have a bad day; at the extreme, they can ruin a person’s life, or even take a person’s life based on a stereotype or bias.

Today, nearly every decision of consequence made by a law enforcement officer is scrutinized by the public. And not just those in the public that happen to be on scene at the time; cell phones and YouTube have changed the formula forever. Simply by clicking a link on their computer, people from around the world can see nearly every difficult, critical interaction a law enforcement officer has with the public. And I don’t have to tell you this, but things look a lot different when viewed on a computer screen in your living room than they do when at the actual scene of action. More often than not, public opinions of these interactions are harsh.

Schemas are our general understanding of how the world works, what we can expect in any given situation, and how others will react in those situations. Schemas are housed in the subconscious, next door to where our actions originate. Schemas influence actions based on expectations, stereotypes, and biases. Schemas are a tremendous benefit when it comes to quickly understanding a situation and knowing what to expect during an event. But because schemas influence behavior, they can also get us into trouble.

Solution: Build Appropriate, Broad-Based Law Enforcement Schemas

Hopefully you don’t now think that schemas are bad, because they are not. Even for law enforcement officers. In fact, schemas can provide a tremendous benefit to law enforcement officers. Training should take advantage of the fact that schemas influence behavior. Knowing about schemas, and that they influence behavior on the subconscious level, affords law enforcement the opportunity to structure training that will build tactically-sound schemas, leading to safe and professional behaviors. A “training blueprint” can be created to guide their construction.[1]

If you are a law enforcement trainer, or design your own training content, you need to understand and think about schemas when building your curricula. Make sure your training is based on broad safety concepts and that your trainees have a wide range of appropriate and tactically-sound actions in their subconscious repertoire from which to draw. Ignoring schemas and automatic behaviors simply perpetuates the unprofessional and biased behaviors that we too often see. This must change.

In my study, police officers responded quickly and appropriately to the objects that popped up on the screen following the good girl and bad boy. They didn’t make the same errors my students made. Their behaviors were based on training, not on stereotypes. Other researchers have arrived at the same finding. When there is no real threat of harm associated with a task, officers perform appropriately. The officers in my study were not experiencing survival stress, so their training could guide their behaviors to ignore the person (good girl or bad boy) and simply respond to the object (weapon or non-weapon).

But research has also shown that when stress is added to the task, officers’ responses are influenced more by their biases and not driven by their training.[2] Their “cop” brains revert back to “people” brains. When stress is present, especially survival stress with its threat of harm or threat of life, schemas seem to carry more weight and exert a larger influence on officers’ actions. Under survival stress, the conscious brain does not have the resources needed to override or redirect inappropriate behaviors bubbling up from the subconscious.

Effective training doesn’t get rid of biases, effective training builds broad-based schemas and automates appropriate, tactically-sound actions that keep an officer ahead of the action/reaction curve. Staying ahead of the curve grants officers the time they need to decide and take action rather than simply react to events. Reactions are too easily influenced by schemas, stereotypes, and biases. Staying in control is what enables officers to act professionally regardless of their schemas and biases.

The key is to stay ahead of the game. Use training scenarios to build schemas and automatic actions that will allow you to quickly take in information, make sense of it, and act in an appropriate, tactically-sound manner. Stay in control so that you can decide and take action.

Until the next article in the Brain Principles series, stay safe and professional.


[1] Cognitive Command™ Training has created structured training blueprints to build tactical brains through schemas and automatic actions. See www.c2expert.com for more information.

[2] For a more detailed overview of how stress influences decisions, see my NeuroCop article, “Can stress and fatigue affect officer bias and decision-making?” (https://www.policeone.com/use-of-force/articles/8686228-Can-stress-and-fatigue-affect-officer-bias-and-decision-making/)

About The Author

Dr. Jonathan Page

Jonathan Page, PhD is a cognitive neuroscientist and President of the Cognitive Command Group. For more than a decade, Jon has been researching and studying human perception and action. His research on physiological responses to stress, and how stress influences behavior, led him to pursue new and more effective ways for law enforcement officers to manage stress and stressful situations. The knowledge and data that Jon acquired in the laboratory and while collaborating in field research with law enforcement and military agencies in the US and abroad provided him with the information he needed to develop Cognitive Command Training™. C2 Training is a new instructional methodology that makes training more efficient and more effective by building automatic patterns of behaviors in the subconscious to help officers maintain control of their cognitive functions. Being in Cognitive Command enables officers to systematically assess their environment, de-escalate, make better use of force decisions, and remain calm during critical incidents. Jon has published his findings in professional scientific and law enforcement journals and presents at conferences and delivers trainings. You can reach Dr. Page at- jon@c2expert.com.

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