Once Upon a Time

Cops love stories. Perhaps more than any other group in industrialized society, law enforcement officers tell stories. We call them war stories or dumb-criminal stories or life-behind-the-badge stories, but at the core, they're all stories. We not only tell stories, we listen to stories--every time we interview a witness or victim or interrogate a suspect (mostly fiction, those).

It's not just cops, of course, who like stories. Storytelling is hardwired into the human psyche. Long before Gutenberg invented movable type, long before the first scribe put pen to papyrus, long before the first ancient Egyptian chiseled hieroglyphics into stone, people told stories. As far back into prehistory as you care to wander, you will find evidence that people told stories. Probably the moment that humans moved past one-syllable grunts, somebody said, "Let me tell you about the time…"

Stories engage us in a way that mere information does not. Which would you rather listen to--a lecture about the use of investigative deception, or a tale of a suspect fooled by a colander and electrical wire into thinking a Xerox® machine was a lie detector? And I'll bet you wouldn't even have to take notes to remember the story.

One of the reasons scenario-based training is so effective is that it invites the participants to step into a story in progress. We are instantly involved with plot and characters and anxious to learn how it all turns out--particularly when, as the officer in the story, we are supposed to guide the outcome. But storytelling is not the only thing that makes scenario-based training work. Research has identified two other aspects of scenario-based training that make for highly effective learning:

  • Emotional impact
  • Decision-making

Emotional Impact

Remember where you were, a little after nine o'clock EST on the morning of September 11, 2001? Me, too. In fact, I'll bet you can remember who was with you and what they did. Remember your first high-speed pursuit? How about the very first call you responded to as a new officer? Or the first homicide victim you ever saw? These events sear themselves into memory in part because they are accompanied by strong emotion. Modern neuroscience has discovered that both learning and emotion activate the same parts of the brain. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes very good sense: those things you must pay attention to and learn quickly for your (and your species') survival usually involve strong emotions, such as fear (avoid a coiled rattlesnake) or anger (defend your family against attack).

Tactical instructors use the connection between memory and emotion to teach officers how to make entry and clear a room. The principles of room-clearing are nothing more than simple geometry. You can illustrate "slicing the pie" or "buttonhook entry" for example, with lines on a chalkboard. Understanding how it works is cognitive. But if you want officers to be able to apply these cognitive principles in real situations, you're better off to hide some bad guys with Simunition® guns in a real room. Going into the situation, the officer will already be in a state of aroused emotion--and if he or she lingers in a backlit doorway or neglects to clear a corner, the sound of gunfire and the sting of a marking cartridge will add an additional emotional wallop that drives the lesson home.

Scenario-based training always involves emotion because it mimics real life--and not just any reality, but one in which the police are needed. People don't call the police when everything is okay. They call when they are upset or afraid or angry (or someone else is). The actors in a scenario bring emotion to their roles, the officer brings a certain level of anxiety or at least intensity, and the interaction between officer and role players generates emotional content as well. Done properly, this emotional context can speed learning and deepen memory.

But you must plan your scenarios carefully and control your role-players, because if you don't, the emotional impact in learning can backfire. As an example, take our room-clearing exercise above. If you set up officers to be ambushed, so that even if they do everything just as they have been taught, the bad guys still "kill" them, emotion and memory will work against you. Instead of reinforcing proper tactical movement, the only lesson learned will be that entering a suspect room leads to death. The officer who "knows" on a visceral level that death is imminent and inevitable is not likely to perform well. The brain learns the lesson presented--it will not distinguish between the good lesson and the bad.


The other aspect of scenario-based training that makes it so effective is that it always incorporates decision-making. The officer has to make a series of decisions leading to a resolution of the call. From the outset, the officer has to decide where to stand, what to ask, whom to talk to first, and so on. Each decision moves the story in a particular direction, so no two officers will handle a given scenario in precisely the same way. Because the role-players also respond to each decision the officer makes, any scenario can branch in different directions.

Only recently has science begun to understand how decisions are made, particularly under time-pressure. Until just a few years ago, scientists assumed that high-stakes emergency decisions, such as those made by law enforcement officers, firefighters and military commanders, were made pretty much the same way as other important decisions, such as those made by CEOs of corporations. The military even came up with an acronym for the process: the MDMP, or Military Decision-Making Process, was taught to field commanders. The idea behind the MDMP is that the decision-maker generates a list of all possible courses of action and then chooses the best, based on available information.

Then one researcher, Gary A. Klein, decided to study how "expert" field commanders actually made decisions. He observed firefighters at a variety of emergency scenes. Guess what? They did not use anything like the MDMP. Klein discovered experienced commanders used an intuitive process he called the Recognition Planning Model. Instead of amassing a list of all possible courses of action, these decision-makers assessed the situation and picked one plausible course of action, based on their assessment. They mentally played out the probable outcome of that course of action, and if it seemed likely to work, they tried it, and then adjusted as needed.

Klein looked further into how these "experts" assessed situations and discovered two size-up strategies. If the decision-makers had encountered something similar in the past, they used a process called "feature-matching." In other words, they compared the known situation with the current, unknown one. If there were enough similarities, they responded with tactics that had worked in the past. If, on the other hand, the situation was novel and unlike anything they had previously encountered, they tried to imagine a course of events that would result in the situation--a strategy Klein called "story-building." In other words, they made up a story to match the facts and then chose a course of action that made sense with that story (somehow, it always comes back to stories).

Expert decision-making depends on becoming good at two skills:

  • Making accurate size-ups
  • Choosing effective initial courses of action

Scenario-based training builds both these skills, because (like real life) they provide immediate feedback to the officer. If you assume the call for a man down in the park is a passed-out drunk, but it turns out to be a heart attack victim, you learn to assess the situation more carefully. If you try bullying an obnoxious complainant and it just makes things worse, well, next time you'll try a different tack. Scenario-based training builds these skills, but--unlike real life--it also provides a safe learning environment. You can try things out, and if they don't work, there's no harm. As the saying goes, "Good decisions come from experience...and experience comes from bad decisions."

Even better, because scenario-based training so fully engages learners, the lessons learned will also be retained. Officers get a head start on gaining the experience they need to be effective and safe on the street. And of course, they'll also come away from the training with a good story to tell.