Vigilance Fatigue in Policing
A Critical Threat to Public Safety and Officer Well-Being
By Meredith Krause, Ph.D.
“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance and a willingness to act in its defense.”
George P. Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of State
In the decade since 9/11, terrorism has entered the information age to challenge the work of first responders, police managers, and decision makers. The attacks raised fundamental questions about America’s safety and resulted in a renewed focus on domestic security. In turn it fostered an emphasis on proactive and preventive, rather than reactive, strategies to combat terrorist threats.
The absence of a subsequent major attack on U.S. soil over the past decade has contributed to a renewed sense of security. However, the emergence of competing crises, like the global economic crisis and domestic recession, has brought about a re-examination of the sustainability, credibility, and utility of many post-9/11 security strategies. While this effort has attempted to balance security needs with the limitations posed by budgets, legal requirements, public support, and threats to U.S. interests, it has overlooked a critical risk to effective threat analysis and management. This phenomenon is described best as “vigilance fatigue,” or the failure to accurately perceive, identify, or analyze bona fide threats due to 1) prolonged exposure to ambiguous, unspecified, and ubiquitous threat information; 2) information overload; 3) overwhelming pressure to maintain exceptional, error-free performance; and 4) faulty strategies for structuring informed decision making under conditions of uncertainty and stress.1
Defining the Concept
Vigilance fatigue threatens persons and organizations tasked with processing large amounts of data, identifying risks or irregularities, and responding to perceived threats. A comprehensive review of medical, law enforcement, and business literature reveals only passing acknowledgements of this concept. The few existing references associate vigilance fatigue with errors in decision making due to physical fatigue or “change blindness,” described as a failure to recognize data changes because of continual scanning by eye.2 While the concept of vigilance fatigue proves worthy of further development, its complexity and relevance to policing, intelligence, and military operations have yet to be explored.
A full definition of vigilance fatigue must consider an array of closely associated skills, abilities, and behaviors, all of which contribute to a capacity for sustained vigilance in dynamic environments. This recognizes the ways in which attention, situational awareness, and decision-making processes affect the concept’s functionality. These attentional resources include capacity for selective attention and alternating attention, often limited by working memory abilities and the presence of distractions. A model of sustained vigilance (Figure 1) also points to the ways in which cognitive biases and reliance upon heuristics may degrade vigilance and jeopardize accurate threat detection and assessment, especially when someone faces excessive or questionable information.3
Dr. Krause is a consulting and clinical psychologist with a psychology firm in Stafford, Virginia.
Describing and Understanding Vigilance Fatigue
A range of factors contribute to a person’s immunity to vigilance fatigue. These include the issues or aspects unique to the individual engaged in monitoring, the context in which this undertaking occurs, and the nature of the task itself. Based on a review of research in the areas of cognitive psychology, social psychology and group dynamics, decision making and risk assessment, signal detection theory, and human ergonomics, Figure 2 summarizes the factors that may foster vigilance fatigue.
The range of factors included in Figure 2 illustrates the complex interaction between a person’s cognitive style, emotional functioning, physical status, professional expertise, and coping skills. Basic physical requirements, such as rest and alertness, emerge as the core foundation on which more nuanced factors meet. Cognitive style, decision making approaches, and subject matter experience interact with person/job variables, like engagement and satisfaction, to provide an ideal level of vigilance. Research has demonstrated the adverse impact of fatigue on alertness and threat detection, memory function, cognitive capacity and accuracy of individuals and teams, reaction times, and occupational performance and safety.4
These adverse impacts are most apparent during the first two to three days of sleep deprivation. This finding has clear implications for law enforcement personnel assigned to rotating shift work.5 While research has confirmed the detrimental nature that sleeplessness and fatigue pose to vigilance, other researchers have emphasized the role of cognitive underarousal (boredom) or overarousal (overload) in contributing to lapses in attention and performance.6 Additional research has pointed to monotony as contributing to impaired vigilance, independent of the effects of fatigue and time on a task.7
Extended task duration can worsen the effects of monotony on vigilance fatigue. It reduces attention, vigilance, and accuracy while simultaneously increasing perceived workload, subjective stress, and task disengagement.8 Other research has confirmed the role of chronic and acute stress, including professional burnout, in disrupting perception (e.g., tunnel vision), reducing reaction time, impairing memory, and degrading logical reasoning.9
Alternative explanations for degraded vigilance have focused on the role of cognitive heuristics in leading to faulty conclusions, especially in the face of the overwhelming amounts of data, conflicting information, or novel data characteristic of police investigations and intelligence analysis.10 This impact may be complicated further by individuals’ tolerance for risk and decision-making error, as well as their desire to avoid the criticism, scrutiny, guilt, or embarrassment associated with faulty judgment.11 Together with complacency, professional entrenchment, and isolation from dissenting opinions, these dynamics may lead to selective attention to data, overinflated confidence in its quality, and flawed decision making based on it.12
While sizeable research has underscored the negative impact of stress on vigilance, an emerging body of analysis has pointed to the power of resilience factors in improving the effects of stress.13 These factors include adaptive personality traits, positive attitudes and beliefs, and social connections. Additionally, they may be enhanced by strategies designed to optimize performance, such as promoting physical comfort and giving access to collaboration and competing hypotheses.
Contextual and Environmental Determinants
The center column of Figure 2 outlines contextual and environment-specific factors that can determine vigilance fatigue. These factors require a focused and informed approach that provides for both the basic and complex needs of personnel engaged in sustained monitoring, analysis, and decision-making tasks. The provision of tools, systems, and strategies for personnel can enable them better to process and present information, reduce cognitive and information overload, and structure informed decision making.14 Examples of decision-support systems include mathematical modeling and algorithmic solutions, visualization models and tools, data-mining programs and data-fusion approaches, software programs based on cognitive-systems engineering approaches, and hardware solutions, such as voice analysis, thermal imaging, closed-circuit surveillance, and automated security screening, designed to assist with threat detection.15 These supports, together with ongoing training and standardized procedures for information collection and analysis, are instrumental to the effective functioning of personnel.
Decision-support systems and procedural guidance also benefit from initiatives concerning policy and leadership. These initiatives aim to clarify expectations regarding risk and error tolerance, strategies for managing fallout from vigilance failures, and plans for promoting individual engagement and accountability. Effective staffing practices, such as limiting overtime work requirements and thoughtfully administrating the shiftwork schedule, may promote individual engagement and commitment. Another promising factor exists in supporting integrated work environments that promote collaborative, cohesive, and mutually supportive approaches to sustained vigilance.
The final class of threats to sustained vigilance resides in the nature of tasks and the quality and quantity of involved data. Information overload becomes a critical contributor to vigilance fatigue by creating data and cognitive clutter, fostering workload bottlenecks, and impacting an individual’s ability to detect significance in data.16 Overload-related issues are complicated further in cases where the data is novel, ambiguous, complex, or conflicting. These circumstances undermine the utility of tried-and-true cognitive schema, expert systems, heuristics, and synthesis strategies and reduce decision-making certainty and confidence.17 Poor data quality further erodes confident and accurate analysis and synthesis, as does increased time pressure and task complexity.18 The presence of emotionally charged information also may preclude logical or systematic analysis.
Vigilance fatigue becomes particularly troublesome when individuals must face data-specific challenges in pursuit of rare or low-base-rate phenomena or outcomes, such as large-scale terrorist attacks. The challenges associated with identification of these phenomena have been addressed at length by forensic psychologists, clinicians, and researchers interested in the prediction of violence, practice of probabilistic risk assessment, and value of actuarial supports to decision making under uncertainty.19 These professionals have conceded that rare outcomes are inherently more difficult to predict accurately due to prevailing laws of probability.
Data-and task-specific challenges may be mitigated in cases where individuals are guided by a mature tradecraft. To facilitate clear communication, these tradecrafts must be characterized by reliable methods of information collection and analysis, validated standards of practice, and an established and standardized lexicon.20 While established tradecrafts must remain nimble enough to respond to emerging threats and trends, they are invaluable in fostering consistency in training and effective professionalism.
Policy and Practice
Vigilance fatigue affects individual functioning and safety in a law enforcement setting, but it also may be impacted significantly by policies and practices implemented at the organizational level. It is a dynamic and ubiquitous threat that warrants consistent monitoring by individuals and their colleagues, supervisors, and agency leaders. This monitoring must move beyond a focus on individual performance reviews and organizational climate surveys to a holistic and recurring consideration of the interplay between individual, environmental, task-specific, and organizational factors. Consideration may take the form of a structured agency assessment informed by a continual quality improvement approach or a more informal but focused assessment of individual and organizational proneness to vigilance fatigue.
This ongoing monitoring and assessment practice requires a high level of transparent communication up and down the chain of command. It also depends upon a shared commitment to identifying and tackling factors that may degrade vigilance fatigue and put police personnel and the general public at risk. Management commitment to such an effort depends on implicit and explicit endorsement of proactive selection, training, assignment and reassignment, and promotion policies. All of these may facilitate the hiring of qualified candidates with the basic skills and aptitudes required. In turn, this leads to the development and retention of a knowledgeable workforce capable of recognizing and mitigating vigilance fatigue and the assignment of personnel to activities optimally suited to their vigilance capacity. These initiatives, together with a focus on a work environment that maximizes vigilance through policy, practice, and physical design, may serve to inoculate against vigilance fatigue’s effects.
The training initiatives informed by research findings and technological advancements can help organizations discover new theoretical and practical perspectives for understanding and managing vigilance fatigue. Basic training designed to introduce the concept will provide the foundation to develop more advanced learning to address the particular needs of the training audience. The U.S. Army Center for Enhanced Performance has incorporated such specialized training into its Performance Enhancement Education Model, which attempts to optimize performance under stress by honing attention control, goal setting, energy management, and visualization skills while boosting overall confidence and fostering resilience.21
The focus on attention control and energy management skills has direct application to vigilance fatigue. It presents psychological concepts in a way that meets the needs of personnel and minimizes resistance due to perceived stigma or cultural dogma regarding acceptance of psychological services. Successful and effective training on this concept will sensitize not only police officers and their agencies but also security and intelligence organizations to the threat posed by vigilance fatigue. They will be given new frameworks for understanding, identifying, and challenging the cognitive, behavioral, and organizational dynamics that fuel failures in vigilance and decision making.
Given a large amount of incoming data and the limitations of human cognition and decision making, advancing technologies hold considerable promise for combating vigilance fatigue. Research and experience suggest that decision-support tools designed to improve information processing, highlight patterns and irregularities, and apply different areas of knowledge may be critical in boosting vigilance and enhancing responses to bona fide threats. Decision-support tools successfully have guided police responses to domestic violence calls, child abuse and neglect cases, and violence risk predictions and may prove promising in other arenas.22
In the realm of surveillance and security operations, facial and feature recognition software, augmented displays (which facilitate recognition by overlaying data to highlight patterns and deviations), visual analytics (that present relationships, such as social network analysis), and cue filtering technologies (which remove visual or auditory distractions to ease target recognition) warrant continued development and deployment to minimize the physical and mental burdens associated with tasks requiring sustained vigilance. To temper expectations regarding the application of these technological developments, it is critical to emphasize the impossibility of a single “magic bullet” solution. Instead, complex responses that blend technological advancements and human judgment must be accepted, in turn, encouraging movement away from comfortable but ineffective approaches to managing complex decision making under conditions of risk and uncertainty.
Vigilance fatigue warrants comprehensive consideration by agencies and individuals engaged in sustained surveillance, threat detection, risk assessment, and decision making under uncertainty. While it poses a constant but unseen risk to threat detection and mitigation, it is a product of known factors at the individual and organizational levels. These factors, often contextual or task-specific in nature, can be mitigated by applying personnel selection and development strategies, operational and technological supports, organizational development and leadership strategies, and training initiatives designed to assess points of vulnerability and avoid potentially catastrophic lapses in intelligence, security, and law enforcement efforts.23 Confronting the problem of vigilance fatigue in this manner may encourage individuals and organizations to move beyond the status quo and consider proactive countermeasures designed to bolster vigilance in their tasks.
Dr. Krause welcomes readers’ questions and comments at MSKrausePhD@gmail.com.
“[Vigilance fatigue] poses a constant but unseen risk to threat detection and mitigation.…”