An on-duty police officer is on a routine patrol when she locks eyes with a driver. Instantly, she knows that the car is suspicious. She makes a U-turn to follow the car, and the driver speeds up. Soon, a police supervisor comes over the radio, telling her to stop the pursuit for reasons of community safety. Several minutes later, though, a dispatcher airs a lookout for a vehicle with a similar description that's just been used in an armed robbery.
It's only later that the officer can articulate some of the cues that led to her intuition: The driver was paying too much attention to her, and the driver's window was down on a cold day.
This real-life scenario was one of many mentioned when more than 50 police officers, psychologists and law enforcement officials gathered at a June 22-23 workshop at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., to discuss the nature and influence of intuition in law enforcement. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the FBI's behavioral science unit and APA organized the workshop to develop a research agenda to guide future funding in this area.
"Policing is an information business, and we usually think of that information in a more concrete way," said NIJ director Sarah Hart. "But all of us know that sometimes a great part of this information is based on gut feeling....Today, we want to figure out how to look at gut feeling scientifically."
Workshop participants worked in small groups to consider many questions, including: Does intuition really exist? If so, what is it? Where and when does it occur? Is it learned or innate? How can we study it? What research has been done already?
Most of the attendees agreed that intuition exists in some form, but no consensus emerged as to what that form might be.
"It's very rare in science that in the beginning of a research field there's any agreement on definitions," said forensic psychologist Andrew Silke, PhD, a meeting attendee from the Home Office Crime and Policing Group in the United Kingdom.
Some psychologists suggested that intuition could be recast as "complex pattern recognition" that happens outside of conscious awareness. Attendees also discussed "bad" intuitions that might be based on implicit racial or ethnic stereotypes that can lead to racial profiling.
At the end of the workshop, the organizers left with a list of research questions, some of which include: Do individual officers vary in their intuitive abilities? If so, why and how? To what extent can officers' intuitive abilities be improved? How consistent and reliable are officers' intuitive abilities?
The organizers said that they hope the questions stimulate research in the law-enforcement and psychology communities.