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'The adrenaline made me stronger' Police officers often see own actions through neurobiological glasses

20 January 2023

Sociologist Laura Keesman investigated the extent to which police officers attribute their actions to neurobiological processes, such as their brain, nervous system or hormones. Her research shows that officers often view their actions through a neurobiological lens and that this is how they learn to look during their training. 'This can cause agents to think they have less control over for instance their bodies'.

Laura Keesman
Laura Keesman

It is a trend: increasingly, people see themselves through neurobiological glasses. They attribute their behaviour or emotions to substances such as adrenaline, hormones, cortisone or to other processes in the body. A development with two sides, research shows. Because even though such a lens can help you understand yourself better, there is a risk that it also makes you feel less responsible for your own actions. Sociologist Laura Keesman worked alongside the police between 2017 and 2021 − an organisation where responsibility for one's own actions is eminently important − and observed this trend there as well.

Adrenaline

Her research − which was recently published in the scientific journal Body & Society − shows that police officers use neurobiological terms, such as adrenaline, to describe their own behaviour, bodily sensations, and experiences. Keesman: 'I saw that officers apply these narratives in two ways: they think that the processes in their bodies help and support their actions ('I get stronger and can run faster because of adrenaline') and they use it as an explanation for their own actions and actions of others ('I started shaking because of adrenaline'). According to Keesman, these neurobiological glasses can make agents think they have less control over for instance their bodies.

Training

It is not surprising that agents look at their actions in such a way. Keesman: 'Neurobiological terms are used during training. Trainers explain to officers that when they encounter difficult situations, they will experience stress and thus adrenaline. During shooting exercises, carrying out an arrest with resistance, entering a building, dealing with aggressive groups of people or any situation that may involve danger and fear, trainers emphasize the relationship between stress reactions and hormonal processes. Thus, neurobiological terms become part of police language and of how officers think and speak about their own actions and the actions of others'.

More attention

Based on her research, Keesman concludes that more attention needs to be paid to this issue. 'This is particularly important when it comes to violent situations. Police violence has caused huge controversies and public concern worldwide in recent years. The way officers talk about their behaviour and experiences helps us understand how they themselves explain and experience violence'.

Last modified:20 January 2023 1.24 p.m.
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