Feeling Focused? Think Again


Feeling Focused? Think again.

After reading Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan, I was amazed that I was still alive. Hallinan gives insight into how we think, perceive and make decisions.

One of the early chapters entitled We Look But Don’t See explains why we can’t find a beer in the fridge staring us in the face if our spouse moved it to make room for something else. This is particularly relevant to law enforcers, but not because we’re looking for a beer. He says humans see what they expect to see and if the beer is usually kept on a certain shelf but is moved to make room for groceries, it becomes invisible. Might this be related to missing a weapon in a search?

The issue is not peculiar to us. He says that when people spend time looking for things rarely seen much is missed. For example the incidence rate that radiologists find tumors on mammograms is .03%. Since 99.7% of their effort nets nothing, it makes the .03% much harder to see. In a review at Mayo Clinic of chest X-rays from lung cancer patients they found visible tumors in 90% of previously examined X-rays. Several studies suggest they miss about 30% of actual tumors.

TSA screeners find about one gun per million passengers. A test from 2002 when 9/11 was still fresh on American minds revealed they miss about one in four guns. A 2006 test showed that screeners at Chicago’s O’Hare and L.A.’s international airports missed 75% of bomb materials.

Santa Monica

Before thinking bad things about the TSA screeners, know that most of us probably wouldn’t do much better given Hallinan’s explanations. This just ain’t good enough for government work.

What do cops look for on patrol? We should be looking for behavior indicating that something is out of the ordinary.

feeling focused
This is slightly out of the ordinary. (Photo courtesy Chris Coulter)

At best, that is difficult. My knowledge of human nature, and experience tells me we do not often look for behavior out of the ordinary, particularly on nice sunny days.

In my classes embarrassed laughs from salty cops verify my suspicions. Many of us men are looking for skirts, the skimpier the better, and allow our imagination, the madman in our brains, to take over; no surprise here, is there?

Most of us are easily distracted. An attractive woman, standing in a doorway next to a man with a sawed-off shotgun in his hand next to his leg is likely to render the shotgun invisible, because that is not what we are focused on seeing and imagining.

I suspect female officers have different distracters as they seek rare behavior; nevertheless, they too are distracted.

feeling focused
(Source: weknowmemes)

If these issues weren’t enough, increasingly I see officials talking or texting on cell phones. Here is an article titled, Driving while Texting Six Times More Dangerous than Driving while DrunkPeople say they’re good at multi-tasking; baloney! And the hubris that accompanies power wielded by government officials exacerbates the problem in law enforcement.

The human brain, for all its marvels, can focus only on one thing at a time. Switching to another takes time and effort. Hallinan blows away the multi-tasking myth in his book.

What have you trained your brain to focus on? Just askin’.


Thomas Cline, MBA, MAP, 50-years in law enforcement is past president of the International Association of Ethics Trainers, LETT board member, a writer/trainer at the Chicago PD, and a consultant. He’s authored Cop Tales! (Never Spit in a Man’s Face…Unless His Mustache is on Fire) and Psych Firefight – L E Job Satisfaction in a hostile environment. For information on training and workshops Email: [email protected]  

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