Shoot or don't shoot? Why police officers are more inclined to shoot when they are anxious

Emotion. 2012 Aug;12(4):827-33. doi: 10.1037/a0025699. Epub 2011 Oct 24.


We investigated the effect of anxiety on police officers' shooting decisions. Thirty-six police officers participated and executed a low- and high-anxiety video-based test that required them to shoot or not shoot at rapidly appearing suspects that either had a gun and "shot," or had no gun and "surrendered." Anxiety was manipulated by turning on (high anxiety) or turning off (low anxiety) a so-called "shootback canon" that could fire small plastic bullets at the participants. When performing under anxiety, police officers showed a response bias toward shooting, implying that they accidentally shot more often at suspects that surrendered. Furthermore, shot accuracy was lower under anxiety and officers responded faster when suspects had a gun. Finally, because gaze behavior appeared to be unaffected by anxiety, it is concluded that when they were anxious, officers were more inclined to respond on the basis of threat-related inferences and expectations rather than objective, task-relevant visual information.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety*
  • Decision Making*
  • Eye Movements
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Firearms*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Police*
  • Video Recording
  • Visual Perception