Let's do an experiment.
It'll be fun. You get to be a behavioral scientist.
First, take three groups of officers or recruits and ask them to think about a current problem at work or the academy that is stressing them out, but is potentially solvable.
Then tell the groups that the goal of the experiment is to help them deal with the problem effectively. Give all groups the following brief instruction on problem solving:
It is important to think about the problem, learn more about it, think about what you can do, take steps to deal with it. Resolving it could reduce your stress, make you feel pleased with how you dealt with it, and help you grow from the experience.
Then release one group, the control group, and ask them to report back a week later.
Separate the other two groups. Instruct one of these, the event simulation group:
We would like you to visualize how this problem arose. Visualize the beginning of the problem, going over in detail the first incident. Go over the incidents as they occurred step by step. Visualize the actions you took. Remember what you said, what you did. Visualize the environment, who was around you, where you were.
Instruct the third group, the outcome simulation group, to:
Picture this problem beginning to resolve, you are coming out of the stressful situation. Picture the relief you feel. Visualize the satisfaction you would feel at having dealt with the problem. Picture the confidence you feel in yourself, knowing that you have dealt successfully with the problem.
Then ask both the simulation groups to spend 5 minutes every day repeating their mental imagery and to also report back in a week.
Which group of officers or recruits do you predict will do the best in coping with their problems?
Pop psychology misses the mark…
The answer to the experiment is counter-intuitive to modern pop psychology and the preaching of its ubiquitous self-help gurus. According to that school of thought, YOU have the power to attract what you want in life. It doesn't take work. You simply have to learn (by buying the self-help gurus' books, CDs or seminars) how to visualize the outcome you want and, SHA-ZAAM! You turn into a giant magnet and all these desired outcomes will fly to you.
Here's an example from How to Attract What You Want Into Your Life. (Web link below.) This program claims it:
Will help you to understand the fundamentals of proper visualization so that you can accurately visual what you want and release your mind to soar to new heights of vivid and emotional visualizations so intense the Law of Attraction will rush to bring what you visualize into your life.
While I've no doubt there are beaucoup anecdotal reports in support of the program's claims, and others like it, I have been unable to find any scientific evidence for them.
Not all mental simulations are created equal.
The experiment above is a real one. It was done with a group of UCLA students by Professors Shelley Taylor and Inna Rivkin. (See web link below to their article.) Their research is also discussed in the best seller book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
Contrary to the marketed outcome visualization of pop psychology, it was the event simulation group - the students who visualized how events unfolded rather than the desired outcome - that did better on almost every dimension. The gap amongst the groups opened up right away. By the first night, the event-simulation people were already experiencing a positive mood boost compared with the other two groups.
When the three groups returned a week later, the event simulators' advantage had widened. They were more likely to have taken specific action to solve their problems. They were more likely to have sought advice and support from others. They were more likely to report that they had learned something and grown. (Made to Stick, pp. 210-212.)
Great athletes get this. They may dream about standing on the Olympic medal stand or signing a multi-million dollar professional contract. But they visualize - over and over and over again - the events it takes to get them that desired outcome.
- The skier visualizes her break from the gate and every detail of every turn on the slalom course.
- The basketball player visualizes every bend of the knees and elbows, flick of the wrist and release of the free throw shot.
- The diver visualizes each measured step of the walk to the end of the board, the jump, landing, spring, arc and knife-like entry into the water.
Athletes place themselves in the event and rehearse it in their minds in explicit mental, emotional and physical detail.
Event simulation boosts officer safety and survival.
Officers who display peak performance in lethal force conflicts demonstrate the value of event simulation. Dr. Darrell Ross, chairman of the Dept. of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University, analyzed 86 high-profile, contested police-suspect confrontations.
The cops in Ross' study - 121 male officers, mostly patrolmen, from 94 agencies scattered across the U.S. - amassed an enviable record. While suspects were killed in 97% of these confrontations, all the involved officers survived. Of the civil suits that actually went to court (86%), all the officers and their departments prevailed, either through summary judgments or trial verdicts.
In almost all cases the shooting was the officer's first. What produced peak performances their first time out? One of the common factors Ross noted was that the officers practiced event simulation. As he reported,
En route to the scene, these officers usually began constructing an impression of what they'd be encountering. They generally had some limited information from dispatch. Often they'd been to the location before or knew some of the history of the people they were responding to.
More than 1/3 of the officers had formal training in mental simulation, and many others practiced it on their own. Ross added,
A number of the officers said they had mentally rehearsed being in the kind of situation they ended up in.
Academy trainers, in-service instructors and FTOs may need to help shape the mental simulations of recruits and officers who may be products of today's pop psychology and self-help movement.
Law enforcement can benefit from event simulation training beyond lethal force or other tactical encounters. Trainers and leaders can help officers and recruits
- Solve problems that may be stressing them out or
- Successfully perform any task that has eluded them
By taking them through event simulation instructions in Rivkin's and Taylor's experiment. Then instruct them to spend some minutes every day in the event simulation exercise. Finally, have them report back to you.
There is a big difference in visualizing outcomes and visualizing events. It may be a difference that you have to teach modern officers and recruits. Research and tested officers' experience indicates it is worth the effort and can be beneficial in a broad arena of problem solving and job task performance.