Cops' deadly identity problem: How police officers' military uniforms affect their mental state

New scientific research suggests the effect of militarized dress on cops is more profound than imagined. Here's why

Published September 12, 2014 3:55PM (EDT)

                           (Reuters/Steve Nesius)
(Reuters/Steve Nesius)

In the weeks since Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, protesters have faced down a police force so militarized that it has made international headlines. Images coming out of Ferguson show police stationed atop military-style vehicles with assault rifles aimed at civilians. Journalists have been arrested while doing their job. Police have used tear gas, rubber bullets, wooden bullets, flash bombs, sound bombs and smoke bombs on unarmed civilians.

We entrust police offices with enormous power. Accordingly, we expect them to show more restraint, patience and care than other citizens. The images coming out of Ferguson depict failure on each front.

Part of the problem may be the way the police are dressed. As the saying goes, “the clothes make the man.” In Ferguson, the men who work as police dress like soldiers. Dressing police in camouflage is certainly ridiculous (John Oliver recently quipped, “If they want to blend in with their surroundings, they should be dressed like a dollar store”), but recent psychological research now indicates that the effect of militarized dress may be much more insidious.

There are at least two ways in which the clothes people wear can affect how they act. The first is the symbolism that the wearer associates with the clothing. The second is the extent to which the clothing masks the person’s identity. Both potentially help us to understand the behavior of police in Ferguson, and the behavior of police at protests more generally.

When a person wears clothing that carries some symbolic meaning, the clothing “primes” people to act consistently with the way the person is dressed. For example, a recent experiment (pdf here) conducted at Northwestern University by Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky gave all participants lab coats to wear at the beginning of the study. They then told participants that the coats were either artists’ coats or doctors’ coats. Because doctors need to focus attention on patients, and observe them closely in order to successfully provide a diagnosis and treatment, Adam and Galinsky hypothesized that those who believed they were wearing a doctor’s coat would pay closer attention, and therefore perform better on a visual search task. To test this, they gave participants four pairs of pictures to examine. Each pair had four slight differences between them, which participants were asked to identify. Consistent with the hypothesis, participants wearing the “doctor’s coat” noticed 20 percent more differences between the pictures than those who were wearing the “artist’s coat.”

The implication of this research is that when clothing has symbolic meaning – such as a uniform that is worn only by a certain profession – it prepares the mind for the pursuit of goals that are consistent with the symbolic meaning of the clothing. It does this by summoning psychological resources and activating psychological processes that are required to achieve those goals. In the case of the participants dressed as doctors, it provided them with greater attentional resources, which they used to find differences between pairs of pictures. In the case of police officers dressed as soldiers, the effect may not be so beneficial.

When we dress our police officers in camouflage before deploying them to a peaceful protest, the result will be police who think more like soldiers. This likely includes heightening their perception of physical threats, and increasing the likelihood that they react to those threats with violence. Simply put, dressing police up like soldiers potentially changes how they see a situation, changing protesters into enemy combatants, rather than what they are: civilians exercising their democratic rights.

Another aspect of the clothes police officers wear that may affect their behavior is the extent to which the clothing conceals or leaves visible the police officer’s identity. The riot gear worn by police conceals their identity; helmets hide hair color and the shape of the head; visors or goggles conceal the eyes; gas masks conceal the mouth; and body armor hides the shape of the torso. This clothing is likely to give officers a perception of anonymity – a feeling that their actions cannot be connected with their identity. Interestingly, recent theorizing (pdf here) by researchers at the University of Toronto and Northwestern University suggests that these perceptions of anonymity may exacerbate the effects of dressing our police up like soldiers.

Anonymity reduces the extent to which people are concerned with what psychologists call “social desirability.”  Social desirability is the urge we all have to behave in ways that make other people think positively of us. When people can’t connect our behavior with our identity, the urge to behave in a way that is socially desirable melts away (a phenomenon that anyone who has read YouTube comments has likely witnessed). This in turn changes how our behaviors are affected by our environment.

In all situations we are affected by our environment. Things happen in the world outside of our bodies and we react to them. In situations where we can be easily identified by the people around us, we still react to our environment, but only after weighing how our behavior will affect those people, and how it might change what those people think about us. However, in the absence of social desirability concerns, that sober second thought is absent, and the environment more directly affects our behavior. In other words, in situations where we experience anonymity, we react more impulsively to our environment.

Previous studies have shown that anonymity frequently leads to selfishness and aggression. Something as subtle as dim lighting or wearing sunglasses can increase perceptions of anonymity, and this has been shown to increase selfish behavior. In one study (pdf here) participants took a math test, for which they were paid money for every correct answer. They then marked their own papers. Those in a dimly lit room gave themselves higher grades, and therefore claimed more payment, than those in a well-lit room. In another study reported in the same article, participants were given a pair of glasses to wear and then all were asked to divide $6 between themselves and another person; they could keep all of it, give it all away or choose any other division. Importantly, the glasses that participants were wearing were not all the same. Half of the participants wore clear glasses; the other half wore tinted glasses. Those who were wearing the tinted glasses felt more anonymous, and that caused them to act more selfishly. Compared to the people wearing the clear glasses, those wearing tinted glasses kept 40 percent more of the money for themselves.

Although these effects have been tested mostly in laboratories, the theories can easily be applied to help us understand how police will behave at a civilian protest. When police wear soldiers’ clothing, and hold soldiers’ weapons, it primes them to think and act like soldiers. Furthermore, clothing that conceals their identity – such as the helmets, gas masks, goggles, body armor and riot shields that are now standard-issue for officers at peaceful protests – will increase the likelihood that officers react aggressively to the situation. As a result of the fact that they are also dressed like soldiers, they are more likely to interpret the situation as hostile and will more readily identify violence as the best solution.

Events over the past month may allow for cautious optimism. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that 50 body cameras were donated to the Ferguson Police Department. These cameras record continuously and provide a visual and audio record of what happens during an officer’s shift. Although these are valuable tools for holding officers to account, their psychological value may be even greater. The knowledge that the public can literally look over their shoulder should reduce an officer’s perceptions of anonymity. This might be a small step toward mitigating some of the consequences of militarization described above. But on the other hand, would this constant surveillance be necessary if we weren’t dressing our officers for war?

We should be equipping our police officers to succeed at their jobs. From what we know about how clothing affects how we think and act, the uniforms and equipment given to police in Ferguson has instead made them more likely to react to their situation with brutality. Unfortunately, the Ferguson protesters can attest that the police have been behaving in a way that is consistent with these theories. If we believe that peaceful protest is the backbone of democracy, then we should not be dressing our officers in a way that makes them see citizens as enemy combatants. By applying our understanding of the psychology involved in policing, we can equip our officers to facilitate, rather than escalate, the democratic process.

By Geordie McRuer

MORE FROM Geordie McRuer