The Effects of Hypervigilance on Decision-Making during Critical Incidents

Paul Junger


Every year police are involved in deadly force encounters that mortally wound citizens. Several high-profile incidents, like the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the fatal chokehold of Eric Garner by a New York City police officer, and the fatal shooting of James Boyd killed by an Albuquerque, New Mexico police officer, have propelled law enforcement’s critical incident decision making into the media spotlight and caused civil unrest.

It is not the intention of law enforcement to wound citizens mortally. Officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant while Grant was lying in a prone position at a public transit station.[1] Mehserle’s encounter began while responding to a disturbance that ended when he mistakenly shot Oscar Grant with a pistol, while intending to use his Taser instead. During Mehserle’s trial, a 31-year law enforcement consultant and forensic criminologist specializing in force testified that the officer’s confusion was evidence of the phenomenon known as hypervigilance. Hypervigilance, as defined in academic literature, is a panic-like state in which decision-making processes break down.[2] Officer Mehserle initially thought he had shot Grant with his Taser, not his firearm, implying he overreacted out of fear of being injured or killed by Grant, which resulted in his confusion between his Taser and firearm. Throughout this thesis, examples, such as the Mehserle shooting, are referenced by linking real-world examples of hypervigilance to its underlying constructs.

These examples highlight how hypervigilance can affect decision making in critical situations. It is important for law enforcement to understand this condition better to avoid deadly mistakes. Unfortunately, the misapplication of the term hypervigilance in courtroom testimony, media headlines, and police training during acute stress warrants the need to define it. In fact, police training often uses the terms vigilance and hypervigilance to describe levels of awareness in the survival mechanism. Law enforcement training describes hypervigilance as a desired state of increased awareness. This description is very different from the academic definition, which defines hypervigilance as a state of panic resulting in hasty decision making that can end with regrettable outcomes.[3] This disconnect can preclude law enforcement from understanding hypervigilance (the panic-like state) in police contexts, what accounts for the phenomenon, and what mitigation and training techniques may help to prevent adverse reactions.

This thesis conceptualizes the term hypervigilance. It examines relevant studies of anxiety, fear, and acute stress for interrelated effects on decision making by conducting a rigorous literature review. Existing research is analyzed to examine whether training or personnel selection can mitigate the adverse effects of hypervigilance.

This thesis finds that current literature on hypervigilance fails to consider how expertise and overconfidence, created during training, affects decision making. This thesis suggests a transformation in law enforcement training as a foundation to optimize intuitive decision making based on expertise while maintaining an analytical approach. After a review of the literature, a more appropriate teaching method is recommended, as rote training, without stress exposure and cognitive conditioning, can contribute to overconfidence in officers’ ability when using force.

This thesis recommends exploring real-world experiences and theoretical applications of how appropriate training can diminish improper critical decision making and may lead to less susceptibility to hypervigilance. Perfecting the ability to differentiate when it is inappropriate to apply a learned response in training similar to the officers’ current situation is critical, or if the officers need to take better appraisal of the situation because of novel or ambiguous circumstances. It also recommends changing the training curricula to those built on cognitive conditioning through exposure training to enable better, more efficient intuitive decisions grounded in relevant experience and expertise.

Cognitive conditioning through an awareness of officers’ stress responses can shape automated responses (intuitive) based on their higher skill levels (expertise). The more officers make decisions during stressful environments, the more familiar they become with their decision-making processes and performance during a crisis (expertise) until they do it without deliberatively thinking (intuitively).[4] Research on expertise-based intuition serves as the foundation for cognitive conditioning through officers’ awareness to stress. Salas and colleagues define expertise-based intuition as, “The intuitions occurring at these later stages of development where the decision maker has developed a deep and rich knowledge base from extensive experience within a domain.”[5] The objective is to enable officers to make optimal intuitive decisions, while being familiar with high-stress reactions, thereby making them less susceptible to hypervigilance.

This thesis also suggests future research on if receiving a radio-call primes officers’ responses before getting to the situation. It suggests that the comments made by a dispatcher during a call may serve as an anchoring effect that starts a cognitive bias that can result in officers’ overreliance on their own bias during their decision-making processes.[6] If officers receive calls that primes their expectations of a situation (e.g., a call about a man with a gun), the officers are going to see cues in the environment that confirm these preexisting beliefs, even if they may not be accurate (e.g., the man had a pipe in his hand and not a gun).

[1] Ron Martinelli, “Murder-or-Stress-Induced-Hypervigilance,” Porac Law Enforcement News, December 2010, 36,

[2] Irving L. Janis and Leon Mann, Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment (New York: Free Press, 1977), 51.

[3] Irving L. Janis and Leon Mann, “Coping with Decisional Conflict: An Analysis of How Stress Affects Decision-Making Suggests Interventions to Improve the Process,” American Scientist 64, no. 6 (November–December 1976): 658,

[4] Eduardo Salas, Michael A. Rosen, and Deborah DiazGranados, “Expertise-Based Intuition and Decision Making in Organizations,” Journal of Management 36, no. 4 (July 2010): 944, https://doi.

[5] Salas, Rosen, and DiazGranados, 944.

[6] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 119.

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