New Report! Reflexive Coppers

April 16, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

Today we release a new report detailing our attempts to apply Steer behaviour change principles to police work – Reflexive Coppers: Adaptive Challenges in Policing. 

Journalists seem to think the report is worth knowing about. It was picked up by the press association and has been written up in several national papers, including The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Daily Mail (with typically trenchant comments below the main article). Earlier this morning (zzzz…) I was speaking on The Today Programme (where Evan Davis asked me to ‘keep it practical’ and ‘try to avoid too many big concepts’ before we went live) followed by Nick Ferrari (who was very friendly before and after, but asked the pertinent question on air: how much did this (taxpayer-funded) report cost?) on LBC Radio, and I just heard I’ll be on Five Live at lunchtime.

So what’s all the fuss about? I am beginning to understand three things about media coverage of think tank reports:

1) Timing is everything. The quality of writing, insight, evidence, sample size, policy recommendations, design, title and so forth are considerably less important than timing the release of the report so that it coincides with topical issues and questions that the media are already exploring but haven’t yet exhausted (in your control) and so that it doesn’t coincide with a massive unforeseeable news story(alas, not in your control; with previous reports I have twice received cancellation calls from the Today programme around midnight the night before because something bigger has happened that they need to cover instead- in one case a major breakthrough in cancer research, in another an interview scoop with a disgruntled army general).

2) The press release matters.  Questions asked by the press tend to be fairly direct: What is this? Why does it matter? What happens now? Your answers to those questions have to be clear and concise, but they don’t have to be particularly compelling- you are looking for a nod of recognition rather than a euraka moment of insight or a hug of solidarity. Moreover, many news outlets are covering so much content that there is little time for a detailed analysis. News stories tend to quote directly from the press release, and on radio the questions you are asked tend to arise from it, rather than the the much longer report that few people would have read, or, let’s face it, ever will read.

3)You need an injunction. Press seem to like it when a report says “Do X” or “Don’t do Y” and the issue then becomes- well, will they do/not it? And the ‘they’  in question is usually some sort of authority – teachers, parents, governments, police….

Press seem to like it when a report says “Do X” or “Don’t do Y” and the issue then becomes- well, will they do/not it? 

So almost all the coverage today will be about one tiny piece of the report: our suggestion that police officers should take twenty minutes a week to reflect on the tensions and dilemmas in their role, viewed through the lenses of brains and behaviour that we shared with them.

And that now is the story, even though it was added right at the end of the report, when we were thinking about the ‘so what?’ question and the obvious operational and funding constraints that might work against scaling up our suggestion in a more ambitious way. The hope, of course, is that all this coverage leads at least some people to take a closer look at were such a suggestion might come from.

The Research

The research was conceived by my predecessor Dr Matt Grist as a practical follow-up to our work with the general public in Steer. Our qualitative feedback from the 24 members of the public who took part in this research was that learning about their brains and behaviour, and discussing its role and relevance in their lives was not only of interest, but also lead to them thinking and acting differently, at least in the short-run. Eventually we hoped to get a more empirically robust measure of the approach, but first  we wanted to do another pilot test of the approach with a target group with a clearer set of operational challenges, and decided to focus on the police service.

Our initial advert seeking participants attracted a huge response of about a hundred officers and support staff so there is clearly a huge appetite for this kind of approach

Our initial advert seeking participants (posted on the intranet of the Metropolitan Police, with the assistance of their research division) attracted a huge response of about a hundred officers- so there is clearly a huge appetite for this kind of approach- although this number reduced to below twenty once dates were fixed. The five principles we discussed with the participants were:

1. Use your habitat to shape your habits. 

How does the working environment shape your automatic behaviour?

2. Trust your gut, but remember to pay attention.

Your intuition, based on professional experience, is powerful, but how can you remain vigilant in situations where something genuinely new is happening?

3. Take your time, literally.

There are three main decision speeds – automatic, reflective and ‘mulling’ – which do you use most and why?

4. Be influenced by others, but know your own voice.

You need others to help you think, but how can you guard against groupthink?

5. Don’t let consistency get in the way of learning.

The desire to reduce cognitive dissonance often prevents us from understanding what really happened – how can we avoid this?

To find out more about these ideas, why they were selected, how police responded to them, and more, please take time to read the report and let me know what you think.

I am grateful to colleagues Gaia Marcus, Benedict Dellot, Janet Hawken and others for helping to deliver the research, Steve Broome for helping to design it and second author Dr Emma Lindley for restructuring and rewriting large parts of the penultimate draft of the report, making it, I believe, a much more user-friendly document.


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