A look at “Shared Cognition” as a concept and theory in Law Enforcement

A look at "Shared Cognition" as a concept and theory in Law Enforcement

In a critical incident involving law enforcement, shared cognition refers to the collective mental processes and communication among officers involved in the incident. While shared cognition can enhance decision-making and coordination, it also has limitations that officers must be aware of. The idea of shared cognition applied inappropriately may be contradictory to the Objective Standard. Meaning, that based on the concept of shared cognition, it may be assumed that because an officer responded or behaved in a particular manner that it was an error based on the theory of shared cognition, especially as we view it in hindsight. It is important to note that just because a behavior is unexpected or different than expected or is deemed wrong based on a comparison to a policy or practice, it does not necessarily mean that the behavior is reasonable or unreasonable, it may just fall outside of the expected response. It is crucial to consider all factors and not jump to conclusions when analyzing critical incidents.

A very important element is to be aware of the terms associated with use-of-force; reasonable, unreasonable; necessary, unnecessary; and excessive, necessary, proportional. It's important to avoid labeling an officer's behavior during a critical incident as unreasonable solely because it doesn't make sense to you as an analyst or investigator, remembering the associated terms. This is the importance of a thorough investigation and analysis with an understanding that each individual, regardless of the level of shared cognition, whether it is shared cognition developed in training, in call details, or in a real-time assessment of the scenario. Here are some of the key limitations:

1. Limited Information Sharing: In the chaos of a critical incident, there may be barriers to effective information sharing among team members. Factors such as stress, noise, and time pressure can impede the transmission of critical information, leading to gaps in situational awareness and decision-making.

2. Incomplete Situational Understanding: Each team member may have a different perspective and interpretation of the unfolding situation based on their position, role, and sensory inputs. This diversity of viewpoints can result in a fragmented understanding of the overall situation, making it challenging to coordinate actions and responses effectively.

3. Overload and Cognitive Tunneling: During high-stress situations, officers may experience cognitive overload, where they become overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of information. This overload can lead to cognitive tunneling, where officers focus narrowly on specific aspects of the situation while neglecting others. As a result, critical information may be overlooked, leading to suboptimal decision-making and performance. Each officer involved in a critical incident has their own parameters and capabilities regarding cognitive load. Shared cognitive information does not mean an officer has more capability regarding the cognitive process.

4. Differences in Experience and Expertise: Officers may have varying levels of experience, expertise, and training, which can influence their cognitive processes and decision-making strategies. Differences in knowledge and skill levels can lead to disparities in situational awareness, communication effectiveness, and decision outcomes.

5. Communication Barriers: Effective communication is essential for shared cognition, but it can be hindered by factors such as language barriers, radio interference, time constraints, and incompatible communication protocols. Miscommunication or misunderstanding can occur, leading to errors, delays, and confusion during critical incidents.

6. Groupthink and Confirmation Bias: In group settings, there may be a tendency towards groupthink, where responding officers prioritize consensus and conformity over critical thinking and independent judgment. Groupthink can suppress dissenting viewpoints and lead to flawed decision-making processes. Additionally, confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out information that confirms preexisting beliefs or assumptions, can further exacerbate cognitive biases within the group.

7. Fatigue and Stress: Officers involved in critical incidents may experience physical and mental fatigue, as well as acute stress reactions, which can impair cognitive function and decision-making abilities. Fatigue and stress can degrade attention, memory, and judgment, leading to errors and performance decrements.

8. Cultural and Organizational Factors: Organizational culture, leadership style, and team dynamics can influence shared cognition within law enforcement agencies. Positive organizational cultures that prioritize open communication, trust, and collaboration can enhance shared cognition, while negative cultures characterized by hierarchy, mistrust, and secrecy can impede it. While shared cognition is a valuable aspect of team-based decision-making in critical incidents, it is not without limitations. Officers and investigators must be aware of these limitations. Keeping in mind that no level of training in any given scenario alleviates an individual perspective in a rapidly evolving and unpredictable environment. Each individual officer relies on their own perspective regardless of shared cognition. By understanding the constraints of shared cognition, law enforcement agencies can improve their analysis of these critical incidents effectively and adaptively.

The Difference in the application of Shared Cognition in Critical Incidents and in the sports arena

Shared cognition in a professional sports setting differs from that in an officer-involved chaotic critical incident primarily due to the context, goals, and dynamics of each environment. This includes the unpredictability of the environment, the lack of consistent team rules adhered to by officers and suspects during the encounter, and the individual discrepancies in officers experience and ability.

Here's how shared cognition differs between the control of the arena in sports and the chaos of consequences and danger in the real world:

1. Context and Environment: • In a professional sports setting, shared cognition occurs within a structured and controlled environment, such as a stadium or arena, where teams have clear objectives, rules, and roles. While there may be elements of unpredictability during a game, the overall context is well-defined and familiar to the participants. Everyone is playing the same game by the same rules with known objectives and goals. • In contrast, an officer-involved chaotic critical incident unfolds in dynamic and often unpredictable environments, such as crime scenes, accidents, or active shooter situations. Officers must adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, navigate complex terrain, and respond to unexpected threats, creating a high-stress and volatile atmosphere. The officers don't know what rules the suspect is playing by, what the goals and objectives of the suspect are.

2. Goals and Objectives: • In sports, the primary goal of shared cognition is to achieve competitive success by executing strategies, tactics, and plays effectively as a team. Team members work together to anticipate opponents' actions, exploit weaknesses, and capitalize on opportunities to score points or win matches. • In critical incidents, the goals of shared cognition are centered around ensuring the safety and security of individuals involved, including officers, civilians, and potential suspects. Team members must coordinate their actions to assess threats, minimize risks, and resolve the situation with minimal harm to all parties. This is different from incident to incident.

3. Levels of Uncertainty and Unpredictability: • While sports events may involve elements of uncertainty, such as changes in momentum, injuries, or weather conditions, the overall predictability and control over the environment are higher compared to chaotic critical incidents. Coaches and players often rely on pre-established game plans, strategies, and training to guide their decision-making. • In chaotic critical incidents, uncertainty and unpredictability are much greater, with factors such as unknown threats, hostile environments, and limited information complicating decision-making. Officers must navigate ambiguity, make rapid judgments under pressure, and adapt to evolving circumstances with limited time and resources.

4. Communication and Coordination Challenges: • In both sports and critical incidents, effective communication and coordination are essential for shared cognition. However, the nature of communication differs between the two settings. In sports, communication tends to be more structured and routine, with predetermined signals, plays, and team strategies.

• In critical incidents, communication is often more fluid and dynamic, with officers improvising and adapting their communication methods based on the exigencies of the situation. Officers must convey critical information, coordinate tactical movements, and maintain situational awareness amidst chaotic and rapidly changing conditions.

Perspective, Expectation, Unpredictability, Mindset

Perspective, expectation based on mindset, and unpredictability are critical factors that influence shared cognition in an officer-involved critical incident. Here's how each of these elements affects shared cognition:

1. Perspective: • Perspective refers to an individual's point of view or interpretation of a situation based on their unique experiences, beliefs, and biases. In a critical incident, officers bring diverse perspectives shaped by their backgrounds, training, and past experiences to the situation. These are always different, and the information related to this component establishes the "mindset" of the officer. Although the general goals and objectives may be shared, the pathway is often very different for each officer.

• Shared cognition involves integrating multiple perspectives within the team to form a collective understanding of the incident. Effective communication and collaboration allow officers to share their perspectives, insights, and observations, contributing to a comprehensive situational awareness.

• However, differing perspectives among team members can also lead to misinterpretations, conflicts, or misunderstandings if not properly addressed. Officers must actively seek to understand and reconcile differing viewpoints to enhance shared cognition and decision-making.

2. Expectation Based on Mindset: • Expectation based on mindset refers to preconceived notions, beliefs, or assumptions that individuals bring to a situation, which can influence their perceptions and interpretations of events.

• In a critical incident, officers' expectations and mindsets are shaped by factors such as training, cultural norms, organizational culture, and prior experiences. The varying abilities are a major element in these cases; moreover the officers view of their own abilities. These expectations can affect how officers assess threats, interpret behaviors, and decide on appropriate courses of action.

• Shared cognition involves recognizing and managing the influence of mindset on decision-making within the team. Officers must be aware of their own biases and assumptions and be open to challenging or revising them based on new information or perspectives shared by team members.

3. Unpredictability: Unpredictability refers to the dynamic and uncertain nature of critical incidents, where circumstances can change rapidly and unexpectedly. Factors such as the presence of weapons, the behavior of individuals involved, and environmental conditions contribute to the unpredictability of the situation.

• Shared cognition in a critical incident requires officers to adapt and respond flexibly to unfolding events in real-time. officers must continuously reassess the situation, anticipate potential threats or hazards, and adjust their tactics and strategies accordingly.

• However, unpredictability can also introduce challenges to shared cognition, such as information overload, cognitive overload, or decision paralysis. Officers must remain vigilant and resilient in the face of uncertainty, relying on effective communication, training, and teamwork to navigate unpredictable situations successfully.

Officers receive sensory input for interpretation from a unique perspective, with unique expectations based on mindset and environment unpredictability, this is based on the primary variable; the suspect's intentions and unpredictable behavior.

These interconnected factors shape the global interaction between an individual officers knowledge and shared cognition between officers in officer-involved critical incidents. Effective communication, collaboration, and situational awareness are essential for integrating diverse perspectives, managing expectations, and adapting to unpredictable circumstances within the group. By acknowledging and addressing these factors, officers can enhance shared cognition and decision-making effectiveness in high-stakes situations.

In a rapidly evolving critical incident, time constraints can significantly impact communication among team members, potentially hindering shared cognition. Here's a brief overview of how time constraints affect communication:

1. Limited Time for Exchange: Time constraints restricts the amount of time available for officers to convey information, share updates, and coordinate actions. Rapidly evolving situations require quick decisions and responses, leaving little time for extensive communication exchanges.

2. Pressure to Act Quickly: In high-stress situations, officers may feel pressured to act quickly to address immediate threats or hazards. This pressure can lead to rushed or abbreviated communication, as officers prioritize action over thorough information exchange.

3. Difficulty in Processing Information: Time constraints can make it challenging for officers to process and interpret incoming information effectively. Officers may struggle to filter relevant information from the noise, leading to misunderstandings or misinterpretations that impede shared cognition.

4. Risk of Miscommunication: Under time pressure, there is a higher risk of miscommunication, incomplete messages, or ambiguous instructions. Officers may omit critical details, use shorthand or jargon that is not universally understood, or fail to confirm understanding due to time constraints, leading to coordination errors or suboptimal decision-making.

5. Increased Stress and Cognitive Load: Time constraints exacerbate stress levels and cognitive load, making it more difficult for officers to communicate clearly and effectively. Stress can impair cognitive function, attention, and memory, further complicating communication and hindering shared cognition.

Time constraints in rapidly evolving critical incidents place significant pressure on communication among officers, compromising shared cognition in real time and on the scene of the incident. Effective communication strategies, such as clear and concise messaging, prioritization of essential information, and frequent updates, are essential for overcoming the challenges posed by time constraints and promoting shared understanding and coordination within the team.

The "Shared Cognition" concept and theory is being seen more and more in the review, analysis, and assessment or evaluation of officers behavior and decision making processes during critical incidents. These decisions sometimes occur under time constraints while facing the consequences of life and death. It's important to remember that the calculus for objective reasonableness is based upon the individual officer responsible for the decision in the use of force scenario and that officer's perspective in the incident and in the moment. If you have been to one of CIR's enhanced force investigations courses, you will be familiar with the associated terms related to these investigations. Perspective is directly related to the observations, what those observations meant to the officer in the moment, and the resulting decision and action. This observation and orientation is based on myriad elements such as context, task environment, skills and ability, confidence, competence, and other components unique to each officer and that officer's decision in a critical incident.

Please look for Force Science and their latest study where shared cognition is looked at. Please join us at CIR for one of our core courses soon. https://criticalincidentreview.com/

Thanks to all of you for what you do to keep officers safe. To our officers; stay safe and stay engaged.

Sgt. Jamie Borden (Ret.)
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Monday, 22 July 2024

The CIR Team has logged thousands of hours of continued and focused education in the field of Human Behavioral Sciences as it relates to law enforcement and has also logged thousands of hours of documented instruction time with multiple law enforcement entities as instructors, lecturers and authors.